My Husband Died Suddenly in the Wilderness

Written by on July 15, 2022

One early morning on our family vacation, my husband, Rob, left our campsite for a long hike in the backcountry of Mount Rainier National Park. He and his hiking partner set out on the trail excited and energized for the path ahead. Both loved hiking and knew how to do it well.

Being in the outdoors was Rob’s favorite way to recreate and connect with God. But his cold and lifeless body returned to the trailhead late that afternoon, airlifted by a helicopter out of the wilderness. That day, marked on the calendar as a highlight of our family trip, became the most sorrowful of our lives.

In a moment, my world changed forever. I am still dumbfounded at the swiftness of death’s destructive work. Rob’s passing ushered me into a harsh and lonely landscape of loss. His sudden, tragic passing erased my plans for the future and set my feet at the trailhead of a new, unwanted path.

For the rest of my days, I will walk with grief. I will travel down a trail nobody wants to take.

I never knew deep grief until I lost Rob. I had suffered other losses but none that broke me so profoundly, none that rearranged the entire order of my life. I will admit, from the very beginning, I have been a reluctant traveler on this new path of sorrow.

Left with four children to raise alone, there is not a moment I do not long for the life I lived before. Rob and I enjoyed 17 imperfectly wonderful years of marriage. Our life together was deeply satisfying. We shared the same passions and dreams. He loved me with all his heart, and I adored him.

As Sorrow and Suffering have beckoned me forward on this grief journey, like Much-Afraid in Hannah Hurnard’s classic book Hinds’ Feet on High Places, I have cried out to Jesus, “I can’t go with them. … I can’t! I can’t! O my Lord Shepherd, why do you do this to me? How can I travel in their company? It is more than I can bear.”

And yet, here I am. I have survived the moment I thought would be the death of me too. I have come to embrace grief as my companion, even if every day I long for her departure. I live in the valley of the shadow of Rob’s death, and yet I also choose to lift my eyes beyond this daily darkness toward horizons that promise flourishing. I have vowed to myself, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done” (Ps. 118:17).

When I consider the things Rob left behind when he died, the list grows long. Rob left friends, colleagues, and a job in which he found purpose. He left parents and siblings and an extended family who loved him very much. He left our children and me alone to forge a path forward without him.

Rob’s tragic death ended his life in its prime and brought death to our family in its blossoming years. Never again would our sons enjoy Dad as coach for Little League. Never again would his voice rise in a hearty cheer above the crowd at a 4-H competition or dance recital. Our dreams of retirement and empty nesting would never come to be.

When I returned home from his memorial services that summer, from a road trip that had ended in grief, I discovered a little bar of Irish Spring soap on the shelf in my shower. We’d left it behind when we packed for the road. It was too small to be worth bringing along. Rob never returned to use it again. Even his soap he’d left behind.

These losses do not tell the whole story, however, for Rob also left behind a legacy of words. As a journalist and author, Rob made his career in writing. He wrote about business and faith, humanitarian aid and finance. And in what has become an unexpected, exquisite gift, he also wrote about dying.

Early in our marriage, Rob wrote a book called The Art of Dying. His journalistic curiosity and deep faith led him to work in a funeral home. He joined a hospice organization and became a volunteer, visiting with terminally ill patients on the weekends.

In the course of writing the book, Rob discovered that for the last 200 years, death had shifted out of public view. In recent years, most people have died behind closed doors in nursing homes or hospitals. Few families, communities, and churches have attended well to dying people. Few people have prepared for death—their own or those they loved.

For most, until they experienced the death of a close friend or family member, on-screen deaths in movies and video games—broken down into pixels and distanced by the ability to hit the off button—were the only ones they knew.

As Rob worked shifts at the funeral home, he saw similarly poor preparation in those who grieved. Because death was pushed into the shadows, grief was too. Nobody knew what to do, so few people did anything at all. Employers asked bereaved workers to return quickly to their jobs, and communities and churches continued their programs and services as usual.

Rob saw hurting people regularly encouraged to pull themselves together and move on. He saw dying and grieving people struggle in a culture that simply didn’t understand.

His writing about death profoundly shaped our early marriage. I edited The Art of Dying, and over many nights throughout the years, Rob and I talked about dying. Even though we were young, we discussed our end-of-life choices; we outlined our desires and knew each other’s wishes. We compiled our end-of-life documents and bought life insurance. We were committed to being a death-literate couple.

Knowing this, many people have asked me if I was prepared for Rob’s death. I always tell them yes and no. Even though his death came as a surprise, I knew what he wanted. So when he died, I simply executed his wishes to the best of my ability.

Yes, I was prepared. And yet, nothing can prepare you for the agonizing loss of a loved one.

By way of analogy, you can read a biography of Rachmaninoff and listen to hours of his symphony recordings. You can sit in scholarly seminars and engage in discussions of his works. You can know everything there is to know about his music. But as you sit before the piano, your fingers lightly settled on the keys, you find you cannot play a single note of his Piano Concerto No. 2. Not even a bar.

Even with all your knowledge, your brain, heart, and fingers do not know the score

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