By Tom Holmes
Winter Grief, Summer Grace
I was able to interview LaNell Mahler Koenig and Jerry Koenig recently and thought their story about losing both of their spouses, going through a period of grieving and then being opened to getting married was a kind of death and resurrection story. Following are the portions of the story, which appeared in the April 4 issue of the Wednesday Journal, which relate specifically to how their religious views affect their journey from loss to a new beginning.
Jerry and LaNell added that their belief in the resurrection helped them let go of their former spouses. “I’m happy for Jim that he’s restored to good health and the same way for Marj,” LaNell said. “I can imagine a day when Marj and Jerry will be singing along with all the other saints.”
Jerry explained his readiness to reach out to LaNell this way. “When you see your loved one lying there in and out of reality, arms black and blue from injections, when death comes you can’t wish them back, because they’d come back like that. I was comforted by the fact that Marj was now restored.”
During the four day weekend, LaNell stayed with a friend in River Forest, and she and Jerry went to the concert at Symphony Hall, a movie and a Bach Cantata. On her way home to Willmar, LaNell called her sister-in-law in Madison and told her, “I just feel like I’m flying. I haven’t had these kinds of feelings for forty years. Are these feelings OK to have?”
Her sister-in-law’s response was, “Let it happen. Don’t fight it. Go for it.”
The wedding took place at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest on August 21, 2010. “We decided that the wedding would not be a highly celebrative occasion,” said Jerry, “because her first husband’s brothers and sisters and Marj’s brothers and sisters were invited. They all came. We recognized that everyone there was in a different place. We didn’t want their noses rubbed in something. We followed the regular Sunday morning service. All of our children were in the procession and participated in leading the service.”
LaNell and Jerry made it clear to everyone that it was OK to talk about the two people who, although they had died only a year before, were very present at the church that day. Rev. Bruce Modahl, Jerry’s pastor took that statement seriously. “In the sermon,” he said, “I mentioned their former spouses and the love they will always have for them. I talked about this present and good gift God had of one to the other for the years to come.”
The couple said that the sharing of a common religious faith helped enable their rapid recovery from loss, their acceptance of the presence of former spouses in each other’s memories and their ability to comfort each other even as they continue the grieving process. For example, LaNell said, “Once we knew Jim was dying, we did the things we had to do to make the transition. The strength came from God. It didn’t come from me.”
When asked how this wedding service differed from many at which he had officiated, Modahl didn’t mention the ages of the couple. Instead he said, “The biggest difference was that all in attendance were part of the faithful community. We all sang the hymns and the liturgy and we all came for the Lord’s Supper. It was a joyful service of worship of God first and foremost at which Jerry and LaNell spoke their vows to each other, and we made our promises to them.”
LaNell and Jerry emphasized how much reading religious literature had helped them progress through the grieving process. One title of one of the books they both read, Winter Grief, Summer Grace: Returning to Life after a Loved One Dies by James E. Miller, seems to articulate the stage in life’s journey in which they are both now involved.
“We were both married to our first spouses for forty some years,” said LaNell. “We can’t bring them back. The relationship Jerry and I have is a quiet, calm, stable love. The maturity comes through, and we will carry on.”
The couple acknowledged that the path to recovery from the loss of a spouse which they have been travelling is not one that every person can or should walk. “I don’t want to imply that we’ve got all the answers,” LaNell concluded. “We don’t want to make our story into a promise that if you meet the right person, then everything will be OK.”