On July 8, 2009, my wife Laurie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Almost three long years later, she died on April 4, 2012. Soon my two sons and I will have our first Christmas without Mom. Although it hasn’t been easy, I am filled with hope.

Like lots of other people I know, Laurie and I had a wonderful but imperfect marriage. And despite the dings and dents in our relationship, I loved her dearly. I often told her how much she meant to me … how she made me be a better person. Part of what I gained from loving her as my wife for those 14-plus years has helped me fill a hole in my heart with God’s strength, courage, and grace.

Entering our first winter of loss

I am grateful that God gave Laurie to me for a season. This fall I was reminded of that as I passed a stunning maple tree at the top of the hill overlooking my house. Every October God blesses me when the afternoon sunlight shines through those golden leaves. But then the inevitable always happens:  A cold front moves in, the wind blows, and the rains pound down, leaving bare branches and only memories of those October afternoons.

Now I’m left with only memories of Laurie.  Her death has left a deep void in our family. The boys and I are finding that we need to be intentional about filling that empty space with God. You see, a vacuum can fill up with lots of stuff if you let it. It can fill with depression, anger, frustration, or fear. It can fill with addiction to any number of things. It can fill with loneliness or a relationship with the next person who comes along.

But repeatedly, God calls us to wait on Him. He tells us when we are weak and laboring under heavy burdens to turn them over to Him. Paul told the Philippians that he knew what it was to live with plenty and with nothing, but that he could do anything with Christ who gave him strength (Philippians 4:12-13).

The gap in my family

Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Our family didn’t fully appreciate the abundance we enjoyed until we had to live without the love, joy, and beauty that my wife brought.

As a husband, I didn’t fully appreciate how she completed me as a person. As a parent, I now struggle to balance being both the “bad guy” of discipline but also the “good guy” of understanding, comfort, and sympathy. I often reflect on how Laurie loved our sons, taught them, reined them in, and then let them go.

Laurie defined our parenting mission that I carry on today: “to raise excellent, godly men.” She started traditions for us, like praying together with the boys each morning while waiting for the bus.  Or saying, “YCDA!” (you can do anything) as they ran off.  They would always reply, “Yes, I can, with God’s help!”

She introduced me to Christian radio and FamilyLife Today® and podcasts, where I constantly hear the right inspiration at just the right moment. We challenged each other continuously to think about our faith. And she challenged me in such a way that I studied and prayed more.

Spring will come

As Christmas approaches in the shadow of our loss, it’s easy to focus on sadness, depression, and frustration. Some might even shake their fist at God and ask why a person who gave so much had to be taken so soon. But I always try to remember to say, “Thank you, Lord,” and to celebrate the blessing of Laurie. I thank God for the difference she made in my life, especially how she drew me closer to Him.

Only Christ’s unending love will help the boys and me make it through our first Christmas without Laurie, through our winter of loss, and then into springtime filled with hope.