By Tom Holmes
LaNell Mahler Koenig was attending a grief support group meeting in Wilmer, Minn., in 2009, a short time after her husband of nearly 47 years had died, when she heard a speaker say, "Look beyond what you're going through now. Don't automatically say 'no' if the possibility of getting remarried comes up."
"I will never get married again," was her immediate response. "I don't want to go through all of the name changes and insurance and all of that stuff." What's more, she had just watched her husband, Jim, finally lose his 13-year battle with cancer — the endless visits to the oncologist, the surgeries, the hopes raised and then dashed. "The chemo," she recalled, "was killing him as well as the cancer."
Before bringing Marj, his wife of 49 years home for the last 12 days of her life, Oak Park resident Jerry Koenig taped a homemade sign to a wall in their dining room where he had hospice place Marj's hospital bed. The sign said, "Welcome home, my love."
Marj had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, a glioblastoma, a little less than a year before. Since she was serving on Loyola's Institutional Review Board at the time and thereby knew a great deal about the practice of medicine, she understood that her chances of living five years after the diagnosis were 1 percent. Immediately after the oncologist informed her of what she had, she said, "I will not beat this."
Less than a year after his wife's diagnosis, Jerry and his three adult children decided that Marj had gone through enough surgeries and treatments, and, with the help of a social worker from Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care, decided to bring her home from the hospital to die.
He said the toughest thing during those 12 days of hospice care was signing the Do Not Resuscitate form. He recalled that "even though we had made out power-of-attorney documents along with our will in 1992, signing that Do Not Resuscitate form was when it really hit me."
LaNell and Jerry had known each other since their college days in the 1960s. "All four of us graduated from Concordia," said Jerry. "Jim was a very good friend of mine in college. Every two years, 13 of us Concordia alumni guys would get together in one of our homes. Even though she was sick, Marj and I went to Jim's funeral and LaNell came to Marj's."
What moved the relationship between LaNell and Jerry to the next level was a phone call.
"A friend of ours had died," Jerry said. "I called LaNell because I wasn't sure that she had heard about it. That's when we started talking on the phone."
At first the conversations were like those at a support group. They would share how each was feeling — three or four times a week. The two had known and respected each other for a long time, so the trust needed for support was already there.
"We go back 50 years," Jerry explained. "It wasn't that we had to get acquainted or even reacquainted."
At the same time, Jerry and LaNell had progressed far enough in their own process of grieving that they were open to a relationship in which there was mutual support and caring. "During the heaviest grieving period," said LaNell, "you feel exhausted at the end of the day. You've done nothing, but you're walking around the house crying. You're frustrated and probably somewhat angry too. But then you start to say, 'Hey, I can't stay here forever.'You just say, 'I've got to get out and start doing some things. I've got to move on.'"
Jerry and LaNell both said 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."
"When you see your loved one lying there," Jerry said, "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."
Two tickets to the Chicago Symphony became the occasion to move the relationship a little deeper. Jerry had purchased the tickets while Marj was still alive. During one of their frequent phone conversations, Jerry invited LaNell to drive down from Minnesota and go to the concert with him.
"I said no," LaNell recalled. "I didn't want to drive from Willmar to Chicago in the winter."
But she also recognized other emotions, positive feelings that caused her to wonder if "no" was really the answer she had wanted to give her longtime friend. "When he told me about those tickets," she said, "inside of me I was saying, 'Is this really happening? What does he intend? Is this going to some other place than just a friendly conversation?'
"The interesting thing was that when we said good night and I hung up the phone, I walked around the house thinking that I had just rejected the best friend I could ever have and what have I done to that friend?"
LaNell recalled that when Jerry brought up the concert tickets in another phone conversation a couple weeks later, she felt "excited and giddy."
"Can I really do this?" she asked herself. "I haven't done this for 40-some years. But I think he has an interest in me and I think I have an interest in him." This time her answer was "yes."
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 40 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 relationship deepened quickly, and at the end of April they announced that they were engaged.
"One of the things that's different from when you first dated," said Jerry, "was that back then there were no children. Now there were six adult children, each with their own feelings. They had lost a mother or a father. That had to be taken into consideration as well.
"The way that I told my children was I took them out to dinner. When they heard our plans they were shocked and surprised but supportive. There were tears. There were hugs."
The wedding took place at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest on Aug. 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," Rev. Modahl 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."
Jerry and LaNell's former spouses are also very present in their home in Oak Park. "You'd be surprised how much we talk about our former spouses," said Jerry. There is one picture of Jim and one of Marj hanging in their home.
"I don't know how to explain it," said Jerry. "Maybe it's maturity and the fact that both of us really respected the other's partner."
"For me," LaNell added, "it also has to do with being an emotionally and mentally healthy person. I am comfortable in my own skin. I don't have to say I'm better than she was. It's a sense of respecting each other."
The couple said that sharing a 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.
"Once we knew Jim was dying," LaNell said, "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 the many he has officiated, Modahl 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."
The couple acknowledged that this particular path to recovery from the loss of a spouse is not one that every person can or should walk.
"I don't want to imply that we've got all the answers," LaNell said. "We don't want to make our story into a promise that if you meet the right person, then everything will be OK."
They emphasized how much reading religious literature had helped them progress through the grieving process. One book, Winter Grief, Summer Grace: Returning to Life after a Loved One Dies by James E. Miller, seemed to articulate the stage they share in life's journey.
"We were both married to our first spouses for 40-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."