Forty-four Months and Twenty-two Days
October 29, 2004—Jeff and I each had a profile on Yahoo! Personals designed to drive others away. We both stated up front that we were Born Again Believers and were only looking for the same. After looking at his profile for six weeks, I took the bold first step to e-mail him. He responded and our courtship began. God’s timing was perfect. Had I e-mailed any sooner, he would not have been able to see it and respond in any timely manner. Jeff was an arborist who went to hurricane sites to rescue people’s homes from trees that had fallen on them. When he was out of town, he had no time for e-mails. His emergency work kept him busy 18+ hours per day.
November 16, 2004—We talked on the phone for the first time. I heard his voice! Up to this point we had only e-mailed. Jeff and I talked about our spiritual foundation first. Once we were each certain that the other met our specifications in this area, we proceeded to discuss values and areas of importance for each of us. These conversations were continued in both e-mails and phone calls.
November 19, 2004—Our first date! We were both so nervous. At five o’clock that morning I wrote the prophetic letter to Jeff. I sealed it in an envelope and gave it to friends (who joined us on this first date) to hold until after we were married. In that letter, I told Jeff about how he would propose to me in the most romantic way, how we would be married and how much we would love each other. We both knew that we were going to be married. Our e-mail conversations and phone calls had provided our foundation in Christ and our compatibility in important areas. Our hearts were already knit together before we ever saw each other. It was just a matter of time until that day.
December 21, 2004—Engaged! Jeff took me to Chicago and we went on a horse-drawn carriage ride where he knelt down and proposed to me. It had been a dream of my heart to ride in one of those---but only with a man I truly loved. Nobody ever knew this. Only the Lord could have prompted Jeff to propose there.
December 28, 2004—With a Justice of the Peace, we were married in a quiet, intimate ceremony at Jeff’s apartment. For many reasons, it just would not work to try to find a time for family members to all be able to gather. Once we knew we wanted to be married, we wanted our new life to start now. It was a dream come true for both of us!
May, 2005—Jeff had worked as an arborist all of his life. In two other locations, he had owned his own business. Jeff was a master at trimming trees, doing ornamental trimming, and removing any size tree. There was nothing he would not conquer! He was also a master mechanic, creating, rebuilding, and maintaining his equipment. Since moving to the Chicago area from the East Coast, Jeff had worked for other tree companies. When I saw what he did and how he was a great salesman, crew boss, and made a lot of money for a company that did not have a track record of great sales and work production, I asked Jeff why he was making money for someone else and why he did not have his own company instead. He told me he had done that twice and wondered if I knew what I was really suggesting!!??
So, we put an ad in a mailer and started our tree company—JMG Tree Service—named for our initials (Jeff and Marcia Gring). In December of 2005, we incorporated as JMG Tree Company. Jeff ran the operations and I ran the administrative business. We were a great team! God knew we would be!
July, 2005—Honeymoon in Chicago. We spent three days downtown enjoying cruises, plays, dinners, but mostly just enjoying each other. This honeymoon had been delayed because at the time we were married we had to completely rearrange Jeff’s apartment to make it work well for a newly married couple and Jeff’s two teen-age children. We had to have everything settled before school started again after the Christmas break so the children were not in chaos. So our honeymoon waited until we could take a little time away.
During our marriage, we were able to bless many people—especially our children. Our business allowed us to help meet needs of each of them in ways that neither of us alone could ever have done. Our families were blessed by our marriage and our parents were extremely happy that God had brought us together.
The Lord knows the moment of our conception and the moment of our death from this earth/birth into Heaven. He knew we did not have time to waste and prompted us through our whirlwind courtship and marriage.
We hosted a Thanksgiving week-end for all of our family. We traveled to Thanksgiving festivities twice. Christmases were a combination of hosting and traveling.
When Jeff went on sales calls, I went with him just so we had more time to chatter together. We never ran out of things to talk about. A customer had nicknamed Jeff “Picasso with a Chainsaw” so we made use of that in our ads. People loved it—they would call and ask for ‘Picasso’ to come trim their trees.
We did not have a perfect marriage. Having been divorced, we had a blended family. So, while we were working on building our new marriage, we were also struggling with parenting. But we did enjoy an intimate, wonderful marriage.
Jeff knew I had dreamed of a time when I could have a home with Yorkies. In April of 2006, we brought Tigger home. Jeff had not particularly wanted a small dog, but Tigger wiggled his way into Jeff’s heart in a moment! Tigger was 22 weeks old. In July, we added Tinkerbelle to our puppy family. Another dream come true.
September 5, 2007—I fell and broke my ankle.
September 22, 2007—While recovering, Tigger got out of the house. When he tried to return to our yard, his collar got caught on the chain-link fence. He was 22 months old. Our beloved little Tigger was gone. Jeff and I cried together, grieved together, and laid our baby to rest.
December, 2007—Having attended each of our churches and visited others, we finally decided to join Harvest Bible Chapel (Jeff’s church home) and committed to joining a Small Group. This was a God-led decision. We did join a wonderful Small Group and started getting to know our fellow group members and our leaders (all wonderful new friends). At that same time, Harvest offered a Marriage Small Group for eight weeks and we strengthened our marriage through that experience. Our leaders in that Small Group have also been wonderful friends.
January 4, 2008—Toby joined our family. Jeff did not want Tinkerbelle to be alone and had said that he wanted to get another Yorkie as soon as we felt ready.
May 7, 2008—Another dream come true! Jeff arranged financing and bought me a grand piano. Having been a pianist since I was seven, he knew this had been a dream of my life. I had been teaching piano in a piano shop when we met. The owners of that shop were closing the doors and reducing prices to move pianos out. Jeff’s reasoning was, “What if the thing I most loved were taken away from me….how would I feel?” So, though the timing was not right financially, he moved forward to be my hero/provider in yet another significant way.
3 ½ years into a new business, we had many debts. However, we were on track to have all debts paid in full by August of 2009.
August 30, 2008—After celebrating my father’s birthday, Jeff and I left to pick up a motor he had purchased on eBay (a 3 or 4 time a year occurrence). We were traveling to New York and visited family over the week-end.
September 1, 2008—We visited Salmon River Falls with family and enjoyed a day of rest and relaxation before heading home late that evening. This was the setting for the last picture taken of me and Jeff and our puppies.
September 19, 2008—Friday, another day of visiting the job site, taking Starbuck’s ice tea to my Jeff. I felt driven to pack and leave for my daughter’s earlier than I had originally planned. So, I did pack up the puppies and get in the car. The traffic was unusually heavy so I did not try to pick up phone calls. I figured everything could wait until I had arrived safely at my destination—a little over two hours away. I did stop and meet my dad for a quick dinner along the route and proceeded to my daughter’s. We had set aside this week-end to send out engagement/save-the-date announcements for her wedding. Everything was ready. We were going to have a great time together. Her fiancé was visiting and they were out to dinner with friends, so I would have a little quiet time there upon arrival.
I unpacked and checked voice mail messages. It was unusual to have so many missed calls and only one voice mail. My sister-in-law had left a message that simply said to please call her right away—it was important. When I called, she asked me where I was and I told her I was at my daughter’s and alone until she and her fiancé returned from dinner with friends. Then, my sister-in-law proceeded to tell me that there had been an accident at work and that Jeff had died. A crane that he had taken great pride in, blew apart and fell on him, killing him instantly. It was unthinkable! He was the master. He took dominion over his world. He was healthy---being an expert in herbs and vitamins. He was strong and indestructible—so he had all of us believing.
First thought: This can’t be true—it isn’t possible!
Second/simultaneous thought: I must be ready for this because God never sends anything He has not already prepared me for!
For the next hour I stayed on the phone with my sister-in-law while calling other family members on another phone. My father was the first to arrive, then my son and his girlfriend, then, finally, my daughter and her fiancé. We were all in shock and great disbelief.
We packed up and drove to my home, arriving around 4:00 am.
The Lord had given me and Jeff forty-four months and twenty-two days together in marriage. Now it was over. How could I possibly live without my beloved Jeff?!
The First Year
September 20, 2008—We all went to the job site in the morning. It was unthinkable that this machine killed my husband—this nightmare had to end—I couldn’t comprehend it!
Late that afternoon, we went to the funeral home to make arrangements. It was a four-hour ordeal as every family member had to have a voice in every detail!! It was completely exhausting.
I spent days searching the house for Jeff’s Bible. He always had it on the kitchen table, reading it each morning. The night of the wake, I learned that my brother-in-law had taken it from my home as soon as he received the news of Jeff’s death. Even before I knew I was a widow, my home was invaded and his things started to be taken. [Later on, the day of the funeral, my mother-in-law returned that Bible to me.]
The day of the funeral, my step-son took apart artifacts from our office—making him forty-five minutes late for the funeral.
My world was crashing down around me faster than I could begin to deal with. What kind of people do these things?
I remember the wake and funeral vividly—the people who visited, the conversations. It was a wonderful celebration of my beloved Jeff.
Suddenly, it was all over and I was left to deal with the awful emptiness. Slowly I realized that I had not only lost the love of my life, but I had lost our business, my career, income, identity. Step-children and other relatives of Jeff’s vanished immediately out of my life.
October 10, 2008—Between the Funeral and moving, I travelled to California to support my younger daughter in her Senior Project—a play she had directed. I had tried numerous times to reserve tickets two months earlier, only to be unable to complete the transactions for unknown technical reasons. I was trying to make reservations for me and Jeff. After his death, I realized my efforts had been thwarted because the Lord knew Jeff would not be there with me. So I joined my other children and other family and friends in a week-end celebrating my daughter’s accomplishments. We visited Sea World. There, among thousands of people, I felt desperately alone and isolated. The tears would not be contained. They flowed freely. No words were needed—I was allowed the free expression of my pain. The week-end flew by and I returned home.
Since we rented I did not have to deal with a mortgage, but had to move from our home only one month after Jeff’s death. I had to part with many special things immediately. I rented a smaller home—expecting that some insurance would be covering funeral expenses, at least—and maybe provide a settlement for me to live on for awhile. In the end, all of the insurances we had paid thousands of dollars for in premiums every month failed. Absolutely nothing covered this loss. Jeff had no life insurance as his job was high-risk and his hobby was also high-risk. He loved rock-climbing! So there would be nothing for me to pay debts, resolve business issues, personal finances, or provide any type of financial support for me. I was devastated. How could God answer my prayers for a wonderful, loving, Godly husband, and then take him away without providing for me?
Those friends we had made in Small Groups rallied and came to pack up my house and move me. For seven days I had at least one person at my home packing. Then, on moving day, 35+ people, including members of the high school youth group, came to help. They had me moved with furniture all in place and the truck returned within 3 hours!! Truly, they lifted my burden from me.
I was left to deal with dissolving the business. Since we rented yard space and a shop, I had to get equipment out quickly—to stop paying rent and insurance on those places. The Lord sent a man to help with this project. We had purchased older trucks and equipment because Jeff could maintain everything. So there was no resale value. Everything went for scrap value or less. But it did get liquidated in some fashion.
Through church I had been in contact with a financial planner who helped lay out a plan to pay off all of the debt. That plan depended on either selling the business or selling the equipment for profit. Neither one of those things happened.
In order to survive, I needed to learn about this new life experience. I read books, talked to other widows, searched for the answer to heal me quickly. I was sure that if I could get the information, I could get through this thing and reduce the pain. But everywhere I looked, the experiences I heard of or read about were those of widows who were left with financial security. There was nothing about surviving all of the losses I was facing. Certainly I am not the first and I won’t be the last in this land of devastation. There must be some example I can follow. But I have found no written account of anything remotely close to what I am left to deal with. (Maybe I am God’s pioneer to blaze the trail and leave the record of how to walk through this with Him?) Time will tell.
December 12, 2008—my father had a heart attack and was hospitalized until after Christmas. So I traveled many times to be with him.
January, 2009—I contacted the financial planner and asked what I could do since the equipment did not bring money to pay off the debts. He informed me that I had no choice but to file bankruptcy. [I had prayed and asked God to eliminate this great burden from my shoulders.] I cried for two days before being able to accept this sentence. Then gathered referrals, phoned lawyers, and started the process.
February 19, 2009—Again, I had to move. I had no job, no income, no insurance settlement, no way to stay in my smaller rental home. This time, I had to part with more furniture, the majority of the rest of Jeff’s belongings, and my independence. I went home to live with my father and start the process of recovering—whatever that meant.
February 23, 2009—A new miracle! My grandson was born! In the midst of a chaotic life, new life appeared and brought great joy! I desperately wished Jeff could share in this special moment. But, even in the midst of my great grieving, I could not contain the joy of seeing this new life. I visited many times, babysat, helped the new parents, and thoroughly enjoyed being a grandma.
Then, in April, I packed up my puppies to go take care of my mother-in-law (Jeff’s mom) in Long Island for two months. She was legally blind and had suffered a couple of strokes two years earlier. Her husband was in the hospital and needed a great deal of care. She could not care for herself. So I went to take care of her and help transition her into an assisted living facility. I had anticipated sharing time with her, reminiscing about Jeff, enjoying shared experiences with her as she spent her last days in her own home. What I did not know was that she also suffered from dementia and insomnia. So my job was to care for her 24/7 with only the briefest breaks from respite caregivers a couple of times a week for three hours each time. Otherwise, I slept only an hour at a time—usually only 2 to 3 hours per night. It was obvious early on that this could not continue for two months and arrangements were made to move her into assisted living at the end of three weeks.
I returned home the middle of May completely exhausted. Two weeks later I was the mother-of-the-bride as my daughter was married.
The week after the wedding, I had to make final decisions about details of the bankruptcy—the discharge date was pending. Since I had no income, no promise of a job, I had to make the painful decision to include my piano in the bankruptcy. The movers took my piano away and the gaping hole in the living room shouted all of the losses to me!
All of the ‘business’ of losing my husband and all of the losses attached to his death had ended—or so I thought. Finally, real grieving set in and I could not think, function, eat. Either I slept a lot or I could not sleep. There was nothing solid in my world any more.
My brother-in-law had set a date for the family to gather at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia to spread my husband’s ashes. This was Jeff’s wish. He had loved to go rock climbing there. As the date approached, I became more panic-stricken. I simply did not have the strength to make another road trip alone—not to say good-by, yet another time to my beloved Jeff.
Two days prior to the set date, I woke up and realized I had to do this. I did not know how I was going to manage it. But, somehow, I needed to do this final ceremony. So, in God’s strength, I packed up and got on the road. The Lord gave me the strength and complete peace to travel alone.
August 8, 2009—Forty of us climbed up the steep trail to a look-out place. There, we sang, shared stories, and spread Jeff’s ashes. It was a beautiful day and a great tribute to Jeff.
I returned home. I felt strong and ready to look forward. That lasted a few days. Then, two weeks of utter inability to function. Total depression. Unstoppable tears. My world was more than shattered. I didn’t realize it until later, but, literally, I had just come through an 11-month funeral. And I was facing the one-year anniversary of Jeff’s death.
Toward the end of August I was hired at a Subway sandwich shop. Jeff and I frequently ate at Panera and he would say to me, “Aren’t you glad God gave you a husband to provide for you so you don’t have to work a job like this?” It was agony to think of going to such a job. But nothing else had opened up. And, frankly, I did not have the physical energy or mental clarity to deal with real job interviews and responsibilities. Grief had set in—after almost a year of being put off—and it was not going to be denied its process. So, I went to work—to get out of the house and think about something other than my situation and start the process of providing for myself at some level. The owners were parents of a former piano student and they were in my life at the time I married Jeff. So this was a safe place to work and heal. There was some level of support.
My Continuing Journey
September 19, 2009—One year has passed. I remember one week after Jeff’s death, I said I had already survived a week longer than I thought would be possible. But this one year mark hit and, again, I found myself in disbelief at having survived so long a time without my beloved Jeff. I spent the day visiting the places we had lived and worked, and participated in Widow’s Ministry at Harvest Bible Chapel. Then I proceeded to travel to my daughter’s (as I had one year ago) to spent the night with her and her husband. It was a perfect day—filled with love and peace and wonderful memories.
A week later I was again ambushed by grief. By now I had a solid support system in place which included good friends, a grief therapist, and a grief support group. Slowly, I came to a place where I could work and mostly function. I still had days where all I could do was cry when I was home. But they weren’t as frequent or as intense.
From August to almost Thanksgiving I had to deal with another piece of Jeff’s ‘estate.’ This involved dealing with his brother and was extremely exhausting in every way. Finally, this last piece of ‘family business’ was over.
As my birthday approached in mid-November I experienced two weeks of sheer agony. The tears and pain were intense. All I could think was that I was another year older and still had no clue as to what to do with my life—career, how to support myself, how to move forward in any direction. I had spent sixteen years raising children in my first marriage followed by nine years of battling for custody and being limited to jobs that tolerated frequent absenteeism due to court dates and more. Then I married Jeff and thought that, finally, my life had settled down and we had our business. Everything was all set.
Never in my wildest imagination could I have foreseen this freak accident taking the life of my husband and leaving me bankrupt and alone. Would this nightmare ever be over?!
I kept crying out to God. I couldn’t believe He would let Jeff die without solid financial provision left for me! I doubted my own faith. I desperately wanted to go Home!
My birthday came and the Lord met me in my deepest need. He spoke to me through His message at church, though friends, through cards, e-messages, phone calls, and He brought His perfect peace back into my troubled heart. For the first time since Jeff’s death I once again experienced God’s Peace that passes all human reasoning. I was able to begin a new journal. And, best of all, I was able to read His Word again and understand what I read.
I don’t know what lies ahead. I only know my experience. I have read books, talked with many people, searched for the way through this. The only answer that makes any sense is that this world is broken—it is not how God created it and, because of that, I am living a life He did not create me for. Nevertheless, He will work out all things for His good and purpose. At the beginning I prayed that God would use my pain and that He would not let my pain or tears be wasted.
As I asked ‘why’ so many times, I believe the Lord gave me this thought: What if the reason Jeff and I were married so quickly and for so short a time was not about you, Marcia? What if I sent you to minister to Jeff in the last years of his life—to be my blessing to him so his ending days were better than his beginning? It was a sobering thought—that Jeff’s death was not about me, but that my addition to Jeff’s life was about God’s plan.
I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know Who holds my future. There will be more tears and pain, but there will also be God’s healing and strength. He is not finished with me yet.
Continually, the Lord tells me to be strong, fear not, be of good courage for He is with me and will never leave me nor forsake me. Today those words have taken deeper root in me. I know He will bring me through this as He has been faithful to bring me through so many other things in my life. He brings His track record to my remembrance and is, oh, so very patient with me as I learn again to trust Him for my provisions-in every area of my life.
God’s plan has not changed. He knows the moment of our conception and the moment of our death. We don’t know these times so they take us by surprise. But Jeff’s sudden (to me) death was completely expected by His Creator. So we grieve for our losses and worry about what will happen to us until our time comes. God’s plan simply continues and our best path for allowing Him to heal our grief is to remain steadfast in Him. I did not say this is the easiest path. He calls it the good fight of faith. It is a battle. But, remember, He has already won the victory and will lead us to walk in that victory with Him.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)