‘I married him at 21. There were red flags. After 11 years of marriage, we began couple’s counseling. The next day, he fell from a ladder at work. I knew he was going to die.’: Young widow gets second chance at love, ‘There is always reason to find hope’

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Life Growing Up

“I always felt ‘too much.’ My mom couldn’t raise me. I never met my father (still haven’t). My parents were teen drug addicts and had three kids together by the time my mom was 19 and he was 24. My dad was sent to prison, where he spent most of my childhood, and I was only ever told stories about him. Some I’m sure are true. Others may be distorted by the personal trauma of the teller.

Courtesy of Julie Graham

My younger sister Kadie and I were sent to live with our great grandmother, ‘Granny.’ At first, this was wonderful. It felt safe, like we had a family. But because she thought the situation was temporary, she eventually grew tired of us. She was likely just tired, being in her mid-sixties when we came to live with them (and caring for her handicapped husband as well). After our Papa died, Granny turned decidedly cold. She often told us we were going to ‘turn out just like our mom’ and threatened to ‘get rid of us’ whenever we acted up. Or like children. After a few months of trying to care for us on her own, she asked her daughter to move in to help with us. With our great aunt, also came her son, our second cousin.

Courtesy of Julie Graham
Courtesy of Julie Graham

At first, this was an improvement. Again, it felt like we had a family. I remember a season of Friday night pizza, Sunday beach days, and even some exposure to church (a neighbor brought us). But as our cousin (four years my senior) got older, he started to abuse us—verbally, physically, and tried to sexually (he was never successful, thankfully). It was his-way-or-else at home. He stole money from Granny, his mom, and as soon as I started to earn any, me too. As I got older, I tried to fight back against his bullying and abusive advances, driven by a strong desire for justice. It only upset him more, and caused Granny to dislike me. She scolded me for ‘making him upset,’ always finding fault in my actions and reminding me I could be ‘sent back’ if I didn’t get it together.

I was a good girl. I tried to get good grades, steer clear of bad habits (never drinking, smoking, doing drugs, or having sex), wanting desperately to earn Granny’s approval and avoid the life that got my mom in trouble and ultimately led to the life I lived. It was never enough. I was never enough. I had continued attending church because my best friend from school and his family were there and took a liking to me. They provided the support I so craved. After my cousin was caught stealing from a woman at church, everyone else in the family stopped attending and I would go alone. Granny mocked me for trying to ‘be so good,’ yet thankfully she still let me go. I walked the aisle at youth camp one summer in my early teen years, where I chose to follow God, trusting He could take care of me, even though I didn’t have a mom or dad to love me. Looking back I can see how God was always there, protecting and loving me even when I felt lost, alone, and afraid. He faithfully provided others in my life to love me and for this I will always be grateful.

Courtesy of Julie Graham

I started working at a very young age and becoming independent early on. Granny received support from the state to care for us, but it was never enough, so babysitting and an office job at age 15 helped me become self-sufficient. I always hoped Granny would become proud of what I had accomplished despite our challenges. I used to think, ‘It could be worse, I could be with my mom,’ as I only heard of her a few times before high school and the first couple times we met she was still using and unstable. She just cried over her shame from not being able to raise us. I was about 14 the third time I was allowed to ‘meet’ my mom and she was just crying and apologizing. I stopped her. ‘Mom, it’s okay. I’m fine. I’m stronger because of it. Can we get past this and have a relationship?’ She dried her tears and tried. We continued to get to know each other over the next few years and now we have a real, true friendship. I am so proud of her.

I moved out of Granny’s house a week before my high school graduation. We had gotten into another big fight about my cousin’s actions and she chose his side, again. I couldn’t take it anymore. I moved in with a youth leader from my church where I lived until I started college. Granny didn’t attend my graduation. She never told me she was proud of me. She made it clear I was the thorn in her side.

A few years later, I tried to reconcile my relationship with her, but dementia had already started to take her completely away. I thanked her for sacrificing her golden years to care for me. I told her I was grateful she took me in, providing a safer home than I would have experienced otherwise. I apologized for any inconveniences I had caused her. I told her I loved her. She nodded along, commenting something like, ‘That’s fine.’ I was heartbroken. It felt like proof that my entire life she couldn’t ‘see me,’ but it was also freeing. To know it wasn’t me, after all. It was always her. I forgave her that day. I knew she wasn’t trying to hurt me, she was just hurt herself.

Finding Comfort In My Relationships

One side effect of not being raised by parents was a deep need to feel loved. This led me to find acceptance I didn’t get at home in the arms of a boyfriend. I had my first one in middle school, followed by a series of others, and a long-term relationship in high school. I ended up dating my first husband (Paul) the summer after my freshman year of college. When I met Paul, I blew him off because I had just had a long string of casual, insignificant dating flings and I had told myself I would take a break from dating. I could sense I was looking for my identity in a relationship, but I didn’t know why or how to stop, so trying to give up boys for a time was my best effort. But Paul was persistent.

He asked for my number and called me a week later. I told him I wasn’t interested in a relationship, but sure, we could go on a date. I felt bad for him because it was obvious he had liked me for a while and he seemed like a nice guy. He was a Christian, worked hard, and had a good family. He even put me on the phone with his mom during our first call! I didn’t know how to say no, so I gave him a chance.

After our first date I told him we could be friends, so we continued to hang out. I knew he was already in love with me, and I knew I was stringing him along, but I didn’t know how to be alone. I told him I loved him a couple months in. I wasn’t sure if I did, but I knew he did, and was likely waiting to hear it. Now, I can see this was codependency. But, then, it just felt like a way to ensure I would receive love, to ensure I wouldn’t be alone. To get someone to stay.

I dated Paul for about 2.5 years before we got engaged. There were great moments in our relationship. But even in our dating, I knew there were true red flags. He suffered from significant anxiety and was way less committed to his faith than I was. When I started college, I began to really grow in my Christian faith, thanks to the new church I was connected into. At first, that was common between Paul and me, but as I grew more and started leading in ministry, he became almost intimidated by it. I should’ve seen this as a red flag for future problems, but I thought it would automatically go away after we married. Surely, since we could have sex and spend more time together! Boy, was I wrong.

Courtesy of Julie Graham

I even broke up with him for a time about 2 years in, and he really took it to heart. He began meeting with a local pastor and seemed to make a turn for the better. Despite some inner turmoil, we got married when I was 21. On the second day of our honeymoon, he became so anxious about being away from work, he made me go to the front desk of our resort to ask how much it would cost to go home. When I told them we couldn’t get any of the money we had paid refunded if we left, he curtly responded, ‘I guess we will stay.’ I spent the rest of our trip trying to make him enjoy the time together. I felt stuck, fearful, and alone again.

Courtesy of Julie Graham

Getting Married

During our 11 years of marriage, he suffered from workaholism and later alcoholism due to his growing anxiety and depression. I ended up working for our church for the first 8 years of our marriage, which was great for my mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It was a safe family for me. I was passionate about my work and the people there loved me well. But it was also a division between us, as he often deflected his (and our) issues onto me having to work ‘all weekend long.’

Once we were married and living together, I realized how bad his mental issues were, so I encouraged him to get help through counseling, medicine, or growing in his faith. He chose the medication (which I’m grateful he did), but he always struggled with shame over taking it. For years I begged him to get more help, hoping it would help him, and us, and allow us to move toward starting a family. A few times he would try connecting more with God. He talked to our pastor and I even had our church leaders do a form of ‘intervention,’ begging him to get well, but none of it stuck for more than a few months.

We did have a good year patch, during which we decided to try for a baby. We got pregnant right away and had Lincoln 10 months later. Paul was so happy, yet scared about the pressure of raising a young man. I think he feared he’d turn out just like him. Sometimes, so did I. But I also knew God could redeem anything, He had always been there for me. Lincoln’s first year of life was a great time for our family. Paul loved being a dad and I adjusted into motherhood. I had begun working for a women’s magazine, which gave more flexibility and catered even more to my strengths. Through the highs and lows of our marriage, I learned the best tool I had was to pray for him. It even led me to start a live video series on Facebook, called #prayingforyourhusbanddaily. I would get thousands of views on those videos and women I’d never met would faithfully tune in. It was a silver lining from my difficult marriage I’m still thankful for.

Courtesy of Julie Graham
Courtesy of Julie Graham

So, things were good, until they weren’t. Paul lost a big client, and then a close friend to cancer. He spiraled quickly downward. I begged him to get help, but he refused. With my son nearing 3 years old and starting to understand more and more, I felt the strong need to protect him and ensure we would break the chains of addiction and poor mental health as a family, not continue them. With much prayer and trepidation, I decided to separate from him for a time, seeking the rebuilding of our marriage while we individually sought counseling and healing. At first, he was incredibly angry, but within a week he submitted to the fact it was necessary. He showed true signs of humility and a desire to change. I was hopeful. So was he.

Losing My Husband

Then, tragically and unexpectedly, the day after our first couple’s counseling session, he fell from a ladder at work. He suffered a massive brain injury that took his life. He died four days later. When I got the call that he had an accident I had an immediate knowing: he was going to die. And I also had a sense of peace for him. He wasn’t going to suffer anymore. He wasn’t going to call me 5 days a week saying, ‘This is the worst day of my life.’ He wouldn’t need alcohol to numb the pain. He would be free, at home in Heaven, watching over us without anxiety, depression, or a gnawing attempt for perfectionism. He would be whole.

But telling Lincoln wasn’t easy. Oh, how he loved his daddy. Everyone said he ‘wouldn’t understand me,’ and being only 3.5, he’d not remember his dad as he got older. All of this was untrue. When I told him his daddy had gotten a big boo-boo and went to heaven, he immediately wailed and sobbed. After a few moments of rocking him and praying over him, he stopped and sweetly asked if we could pray for a new daddy for him. I was dumbfounded, but also encouraged. He knew the only way we would survive any of this was with God’s help. And God had never let me down. So, right there in our shared room of the condo we were renting for the duration of our anticipated 3-month separation, we began praying for a new daddy.

I was a widowed, working, single-mom for about a year before I started dating. I had kissed a few frogs, had some dating snafu’s that were incredibly entertaining to my friends, but I was ready to find true love. Linc and I continued to pray regularly for a new daddy. He talked daily of Paul, but we also trusted God to bring someone to be ‘our person.’

Finding My Soulmate

After about 18 months of online dating, I met Donny on Match.com. His profile was brief, but sounded a lot like mine… ‘I love Jesus. If you don’t, it won’t work.’ It was a line we both said in our own way. We began chatting in the app, then via text, and 3 days later I accidentally Face-Timed him (fresh out of the shower, no makeup, and basically wearing pajamas). I panicked when I realized I had initiated the call and almost hung up, but I felt God whisper, ‘See if he answers, he will have to see you this way eventually’… so I did.

The moment I saw his face, I knew he was my person. It sounds cheesy, but there was an immediate connection, a sense of calm and mutual attraction. We both cancelled other dates we had planned for the weekend and two days later met for our first date. We both just knew. He kissed me as he put me into the truck and it felt like home. We sat on the same side of the booth that night, talking, laughing, kissing and dreaming, like we’d been together forever. Only a few days later, we both said, ‘I love you.’

Courtesy of Julie Graham

Two weeks later it was Father’s Day Sunday, and I introduced him to Lincoln. It felt soon, but also perfect. He came over to convert Lincoln’s bunk bed to the top bunk, something he’d been asking me to have done. They hit it off instantly. D was always very intentional with Lincoln. I told him on our first date, anyone who dated me would have to be ready to step in as Lincoln’s dad. Not as a stepdad, but become his father. He will always remember his first dad, but being only 5 then, I knew he would need someone who would raise him and love him as his own. D completely agreed, and knew meeting Lincoln was a big deal and always kept this perspective in his interactions. He had never been married, and always longed to have a family. Oh, what a thing God did.

Courtesy of Julie Graham

Within a few months of dating, we were confident we would eventually marry. We spent time as a couple and as a trio often. Lincoln began asking me if D was going to be his dad. I told him what I knew…God would make it clear, we both trusted Him to make it happen if and when the time was right, and he could trust the grownups in his life, but ultimately we could trust God more.

For our one-year dating anniversary, we took Lincoln and joined another close friend of ours and their kids at a local resort that’s always been special to me. D had teased me for my love of the place, but agreed to go because it was around Lincoln’s birthday and a good way to celebrate our anniversary. We had been talking about getting married and going to look for rings in another month or so when he would have the money to buy one. I couldn’t wait.

Much to my surprise, on our stay-cation, he proposed to me after pulling Lincoln aside first to ask him if he could be his new daddy. I was shocked and so, so happy. Once he put the ring on my finger, we turned to find a dozen of my best friends screaming from a balcony room above, and another couple dozen coming around the corner to celebrate our family becoming official. It was perfect. As Lincoln said, ‘Best day ever.’

Courtesy of Julie Graham

Living Happily Ever After

We planned our wedding in just 3 months, during the pandemic! We couldn’t wait to become a family, to live under one roof and start our life together. From our engagement to the aisle, Linc kept counting down the days until he got his new daddy. D loves me in the way I always longed for. He sees me. He cares for, cherishes, protects and honors me. His love for me is a tangible example of the faithful love God has always shown me.

We wed in front of our closest friends, in a beautiful ceremony with personal vows and so much joy. Sometimes I still can’t believe I now have a growing relationship with my mom and sisters, a loving step-dad, a spunky son, and a doting husband.

Courtesy of Julie Graham

If there’s anything you learn from reading my story, it’s no matter what you’ve been through, there is always reason to find hope. God isn’t done writing your story, and He weaves the difficult moments into future joy you can’t anticipate in the moment, but if you keep faith, He can use you for His glory.”

Courtesy of Julie Graham

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Julie Graham of Florida. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Facebook, and The Grit and Grace Project. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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