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When my husband died while serving as bishop, I learned that all of my emotions are gifts from God

by | May 14, 2021

My husband not only served faithfully and powerfully in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he quite literally gave his life while doing so. He was serving as the bishop of our ward in Ohio when he passed away. He loved the youth and was always anxious to be with them. When the young men planned a camping and rappelling trip, he gladly volunteered to help.

Taking the young men rappelling was one of his favorite activities because he strongly believed that the youth needed to learn that they can do hard things. They can do things that are frightening. They are strong enough to face their fears, whether it be going over the side of a cliff or going to a job interview. He wanted them to know that facing hard things is worth it and will bring joy to one’s life.

So, one Saturday morning, my husband got up early, kissed me goodbye, and left to do something that he believed in and loved doing. I was happy to let him go because I was secure in his love for me and our family. I wanted him to use his great talent for connection to help the boys and to serve. Little did I know that I would not see him alive again. He died in an accident and never made it home to us. 

It does give me some peace to know that he died doing something he really loved, serving people he really loved. This may not be the way that my husband intended to teach the lesson about doing hard things, but I know that he believed and still believes we can do harder things than going over the side of a cliff. We can do what it takes to emotionally recover from a painful experience. And if we can do that, we will be able to do amazing things in life.

My Journey

Being a widow at a young age was never something I had planned for in my life. When we were first married my husband seemed to believe that he was immortal. If I worried for his safety, he would tell me, “It’s not my time, I know the Lord has things for me to do, so I’m not going to die.” 

When someone dies it is not usually comforting when others say, “It must have been their time to die,” or “They are needed on the other side.” Luckily, I don’t think anybody actually said that to me after my husband’s death as I am not sure how we can possibly know that it was his time. However, after his death, I did have comfort from the Lord that my husband is able to carry on the good work he was doing on earth even in the afterlife. I have had many reassurances that my husband is still looking after me and our children and that it will be OK even when it feels like nothing is OK. 

The Role of Anger

Working through the tough emotions that come with grieving the loss of a loved one, especially a spouse, is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult, to say the least. Even with all the assurances we have that we will be together for eternity, living in this life in the here and now is challenging on many levels.

One of the hard emotions that I have had to face is anger. I am generally not an angry person. However, through the grieving process, I have had to come to terms with some anger and hurt. I have been taught—as I have sought guidance from the Spirit—that these feelings are not bad or evil, but actually gifts from God.

Growing up in the Church, somewhere along the way I learned and believed the myth that all anger was sinful. As I’ve grieved, I have realized that I have a lot of anger about things that I have not previously let myself acknowledge because I was trying to be good and not sin.

I have done some studying about anger and what the scriptures actually say about it, and I have since learned that the feeling of anger itself is not necessarily a sin. Anger can very easily lead to sin, however, which is why it has been viewed as dangerous and sinful.

The Savior’s Example

Sometimes anger shows up in our hearts because of our pride. Pride is a sin, as it is pitting our will against God’s will and it is harmful. Various translations of Ephesians 4:26 teach “be angry and sin not” (King James Version), “in your anger, do not sin” (New International Version), or “don’t sin by letting your anger control you” (New Living Translation). These scriptures tell us that anger can lead to sins such as pride or doing harm to others, but anger is not the sin. 

In the Bible, we know that Jesus felt anger. On a Sabbath day, Jesus went to the synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. The others in the synagogue looked to Jesus to see what he would do. In Mark 3:5 it says, “And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.” He used the energy or passion that came from his anger to heal the man and then it says, “He withdrew himself with His disciples to the sea” (Mark 3:7).

When I think of what the Savior did with His feelings of anger, I think of His meekness. I once heard meekness described as strength or power under control. I also love what Elder Ulisses Soares stated:

Meekness is the quality of those who are “Godfearing, righteous, humble, teachable, and patient under suffering.”

. . .

Meekness is vital for us to become more Christlike. Without it we won’t be able to develop other important virtues. Being meek does not mean weakness, but it does mean behaving with goodness and kindness, showing strength, serenity, healthy self-worth, and self-control.

Meekness was one of the most abundant attributes in the Savior’s life. He Himself taught His disciples, “Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).

From that, I learn that even if the Savior feels anger, He is strong enough and is able to perfectly control and use that energy for God’s glory and power.

► You may also like: What 1 of Christ's questions taught S. Michael Wilcox after his wife's passing

Wrestling with Feelings

But even with the Savior’s example as a guide, how can we learn what to do with our angry feelings?

Those who have studied emotions know that anger is often a secondary emotion. This means there are other emotions underlying the anger, or at least that anger comes in conjunction with other emotions such as fear and hurt. In my personal story, one of the things that I have had to face is feelings of anger and hurt toward the Church. When somebody dies in a car accident it is easy to understand the feelings of anger from that event toward whoever was driving the cars. When my husband died serving in the church it was hard for me to acknowledge that I was angry that his service in the Church took away my whole world.

Everything about my life has changed since my husband died. Living life without a partner is more difficult than I could have imagined. Because it was difficult for me to recognize that what I was feeling was anger and hurt, I found myself stuck in negative feelings about going to church despite all the good that was being done for me by members of my ward. I am honestly still working to understand these feelings, what to do with them and how to use that energy or passion for good.

It hasn’t been until I have been able to slow down, pay attention to, and let the Spirit guide me through the difficult emotions that I have been able to sort through them—and feel like I have a choice in how I react. I have needed moments of quiet solitude to be taught by God. It is interesting because as I sit and let myself feel the anger, the pain, and the fear without judging myself for having these emotions, they seem to dissipate. And in their place, I am left with promptings about what the Lord would like me to do.

As I wrestle with difficult emotions, a quote from Joseph Smith in Lectures on Faith keeps popping into my head. He stated, “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things.” Reading these words is humbling. They remind me of three principles that have helped me in healing.

1. Turn Toward God

No matter what I am feeling or thinking, if I want to build a relationship with God, I need to make a habit of turning toward Him. This takes a lot of humility and putting aside any pride I might have.

I have learned that some of my anger is because being separated from my husband is painful, but some of my anger comes from pride that my will to have my husband back with me is not God’s will. I have to learn to trust that God is at the helm and that He loves me.

I believe that God can take my anger, pain, and fear—that He wants to take it all. He wants me to use the healing balm of the Atonement to transform those feelings into a passion that will lead to His good and glory. Staying connected to God through humbly trusting Him, no matter how dire the circumstances, helps me. The pain may not always be taken away but feeling that connection to God is vital to the healing and transformation process.

2. Work to Understand Joy

Several years ago, I was asked to speak at a stake women’s conference on the topic of finding joy in every season. As I prepared and gave that talk, I learned some interesting things about joy. Joy is not something that just shows up on my doorstep. It is something that I need to work to find in my life.

The Guide to the Scriptures describes joy as, “a condition of great happiness that results from righteous living.” Elder David A. Bednar further explains that “our gospel perspective helps us to understand that joy is more than a fleeting feeling or emotion; rather it is a spiritual gift and a state of being and becoming.”

Another thing I learned about joy is that it can be found in any season of life we are in—winter, spring, summer, and fall. Sometimes we feel like joy only can be felt and found when we are producing good fruit or feeling positive emotions. However, joy is also present and can often be found during or after difficult experiences or emotions. Jesus Christ was the example of this. We sing, “Once He suffered grief and pain; Now He comes on earth to reign. Once he groaned in blood and tears; Now in glory He appears. Once forsaken, left alone, Now exalted to a throne.” (Hymn 196 “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth”) It appears that not only was Christ able to find joy no matter what circumstance He found Himself in, He may have actually had to endure and work His way through the difficult circumstances and feelings, in order to find the joy of victory, glory, and exaltation.

President Russell M. Nelson shared, “Joy is powerful and focusing on joy brings God’s power into our lives. As in all things, Jesus Christ is our ultimate exemplar, ‘who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross’ (Hebrews 12:2). Think of that! In order for Him to endure the most excruciating experience ever endured on earth, our Savior focused on joy!”

In my life, as I remember these principles of joy, I am able to find the strength to work through all the difficult emotions of grief. This leads me to a place of greater faith and hope as I trust God’s plan.

3. Foster Faith and Hope

When I focus on my faith in my Savior and His ability to heal my anger, I am more likely to act and do things that will help me to heal and find peace. In the past three years, every time I am feeling stuck or that things are not going well, I have noticed that my faith is usually wavering. As I refocus on God’s love and His plan for my life and do the one next thing I feel He is calling me to do, my mood and my life improve exponentially.

Through the difficult experience of losing my husband, every time I am tempted to think “why me” I have turned that question into “why not me?” I’m not the first person to be asked to walk a difficult path and I won’t be the last. When I foster faith in the Lord’s plan for my life and embrace hope that if I keep doing the things that He asks of me, life will turn out OK, I find peace, and many blessings come into my life.

I still struggle and sometimes have an almost physical negative reaction when I am asked to serve in the Church. When this happens, I try to remember to turn toward God, foster faith and hope, and remember that joy can be found in helping others. I usually do what is asked if I feel the Spirit prompting me to take the assignment, but it is not always easy.

I have faith and hope as I continue to apply the principles the Lord has taught about being meek and having the self-control to use my difficult emotions for His good and glory that I will find peace and healing. I will be able to see these difficult emotions as gifts from Him that help shape me into the person that He wants me to be. I want to face these hard emotions because as the Savior and my husband so passionately believed and taught—I can do hard things. 

Lead image: Shutterstock  |  Family photo: Courtesy Joleene Watabe

Joleene Watabe currently works as a clinical mental health counselor. She was born and raised in Southern California and recently moved to Utah. Prior to that she lived in Japan for four years and then in Ohio for 20 years. She was married for 26 years before her husband passed away in an accident in 2017. She has four beautiful children and one son-in-law that continue to bring her joy. Joleene enjoys reading, writing, and sharing her passion for developing good mental health habits. She is continuing to rebuild her life since her husband’s passing by spending more time with her family, exploring the outdoors, and going to the beach whenever possible.

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