When Jerry and LaNell Koenig were married, they had known each other for 50 years. Their spouses both died in 2009. Less than a year later, their wedding took place at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest on August 21, 2010.
How did they reconcile the loss of their spouses with a new beginning for two old friends?
Jerry and LaNell 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.”
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.”
“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.”
This column first appeared on Tom Holmes’ Religion blog in 2010.