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On an ordinary Thursday night, I kissed my husband goodnight and went to bed happily married like I had a thousand other nights. I had no idea life was about to change forever as I lay down with thoughts only of all I needed to get done the next day. 

Sometime in the dark early morning, I woke to my husband’s labored breathing. Despite my best efforts and those of the team at the ER, within the space of two hours, I became a widow and single mom to seven.

Life as I knew it imploded and would never be again. How in the world was I going to raise tween and teen boys without their dad? What about my 6-year-old son, who played like all the other neighborhood kids during the day, but cried himself to sleep on his dad’s pillow every night? What about my 4-year-old, who had virtually no memories of her dad? And what about my 17-year-old daddy’s girl, about to start her senior year with its milestones and weighty decisions?   

Our life hadn’t been perfect. We’d had marriage struggles and financial issues and parenting challenges.

But that imperfect life was the life I wanted and the life I’d choose again if I could. 

The first few days after Dan’s death, I moved through a fog as family and friends filled our home and I made arrangements for a funeral I could barely wrap my mind around. But after the memorial service, when the house quieted and the rest of the world went back to normal, I was left wondering if I’d ever smile again. 

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Many mornings, I woke, and for one split second, life felt blissfully normal before the reality of loss crashed in, cloaking my heart with dark sadness and my thoughts with deep despair.

“You’ll probably never feel real joy again,” a friend had offered. She’d walked her own unexpected grief and said she never again felt deep pain but also never felt ecstatic joy. 

I listened politely but inside I rebelled. I don’t want to coast through the rest of my life on indifference! Yes, this grief hurt like crazy, but I didn’t want to avoid it at the cost of ever feeling warm happiness bubble up again.

And so began a fight.

Most days, it was a fight against hard emotions that screamed life would always feel like this. Along with brutal emotions was fear that paralyzed me.

My future felt like a bleak, black hole I couldn’t begin to imagine. While everyone around me seemed to be checking off their bucket list, I couldn’t fathom making new plans or dreaming new dreams. Why bother when those I’d held had been crushed? I couldn’t imagine what my future held, and I didn’t want it. Everything I wanted had been buried with my husband. 

Some days it was a fight against the enemy. I could sense him squeezing his foot into our little family trying to finish off the devastation we felt. He mocked that I had stepped out in faith to trust God with our family size and now my kids didn’t have a father to see them raised. He whispered discouragement that I’d be able to raise our children or manage our home or take steps I needed to move forward.

I always knew grief was a letting go, but I learned grief is also a fight.

It’s a daily battle to let go of the life you planned and to find the good in the life that is. 

It’s a battle to move past the constant comparison of what life should have looked like and to find new rhythm in the life God has given.

But we can’t just skip to the good stuff. Grief takes one hard step at a time. Trying to fast forward through grief will only make it come back on its terms later. 

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But as we process each hard emotion, as we tackle each hard new thing, as we release the life we wanted and fight for the good in the life that is, grief softens and lessens.

One morning, I realized instead of waking with the heavy dread I’d grown used to, I woke excited about the day. I found myself mentally sketching a new bucket list. And slowly, slowly, I began dreaming new dreams. When spring break came around, I pushed through my fear and drove my kids across the country to see the Grand Canyon like my husband and I had always wanted to.

Life still isn’t perfect (there’s always that!), and we will forever miss my husband. But the daily fight to not go numb and choose joy in the life God has given me has paid off. I have found my smile again. 

Lisa Appelo

Lisa Appelo is an author and speaker inspiring women to cultivate faith in life’s storms. Her new book, Life Can Be Good Again: Putting Your World Back Together After It All Falls Apart, addresses the raw pain of loss with Biblical hope that God can reshape what has shattered. A former litigating attorney, Lisa is passionate about rich Bible teaching. She launched a local widows ministry in Jacksonville, Florida and founded a team of writers at hopeingrief.com. Lisa’s days are filled with parenting, ministry, speaking and long walks to justify lots of dark chocolate. Connect with Lisa at LisaAppelo.com and on IG @LisaAppelo.

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