Latter-day Saint Life

How can Christ know how I feel as a widow? The life-changing insight I needed after my husband’s death

Jen with her husband Jordan during his cancer treatments.

I will never forget the moment I heard the words “terminal cancer.” I remember where I was sitting, what I was wearing, and the sound of the doctor’s voice. I was 36 years old at the time, and my sweet, faithful husband was only 34. He’d been sick for a couple of weeks, but it was just supposed to be an infection. Instead, he died from pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis so rare for his age that doctors said he was more likely to be struck by lightning.

I poured over the scriptures and words of the prophets in those early days of my husband’s passing, seeking comfort. Everything kept coming back to the Atonement and how it allowed the Savior to comfort and succor me.

But honestly, I struggled with this. Christ suffered one night in the garden and three days on the cross. I will suffer as a widow for perhaps 50 years. How can He know how that feels?

Further, how could Christ know this feeling of only being half a person, of having a fundamental part of you torn away with no way to fill the void?

Thankfully, my loving Heavenly Father patiently worked with me, taught me, and eventually provided the answer I needed. While studying Doctrine and Covenants 18:10 for Come, Follow Me in 2021, I read something that suggested putting our own names in place of “souls” to emphasize how much God and the Savior love each one of us individually. And then section 19 describes the Atonement in the Savior’s own words. It’s a beautiful section, but once again I found myself questioning how much the Atonement actually helps me right now; how it actually helps the Savior comfort me—and then the Spirit whispered the answer.

God saves people, not things.

Christ didn’t suffer the pain of losing a spouse. That wouldn’t work. If you lined up 10 people who’ve lost their spouse, all of us would be in a completely different place with different challenges, reactions, and sorrows. Each experience is totally unique. So suffering a “thing” won’t work. He suffered for a person, billions of them in fact. As Matthew 8:17 says, “Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.”

Jen and her family at Jordan's funeral.

At some point during that night in Gethsemane, He knew exactly what I was feeling along every step of this journey. One day out, one week out, one year out, 20 years out. Every feeling. Every sorrow. Every worry. He didn’t have to suffer for 50 years or become a widower Himself because it’s not the “thing” that matters. It’s me.

I can’t even describe how much this thought has changed the Atonement of Jesus Christ for me. His love and sacrifice are not generic. We often say things like, “He knows how it feels to lose a child” or “He knows how it feels to be sick.” That’s not really true. He knows how it feels for my best friend Kelsie Ann Kowallis to lose her child. He knows how it feels for my uncle Randy Shepherd to be sick. And He knows how it feels for Jen Rothlisberger to lose Jordan.

Jen and her children at the temple.

Elder Tad R. Callister has taught, “One of the blessings of the Atonement is that we can receive of the Savior’s succoring powers. His spirit heals; it refines; it comforts; it breathes new life into hopeless hearts. … He has the power to convert the ashes of mortality to the beauties of eternity.”

I am living proof that the Savior never leaves us alone to struggle up the hill. He is always right there, yoked to us as we make and keep our covenants. As covenant keepers, in our darkest moments, He can and will give us rest, peace, comfort, love, and strength, because of and through His Atonement.

Knowing this has seen me through so many hard moments, hard days, and hard decisions. Losing your spouse isn’t the kind of trial you “get over” or that has an expiration date, at least not in this life. So I’ve needed to rely on the Savior and His Atonement every day for the past three and a half years, with many more to come.

Recently, my kids’ elementary school hosted a “Donuts and Dudes” breakfast, which for us meant “Donuts and Dudes Plus One Mom.” I was honestly feeling pretty sorry for myself and my sweet kids as I watched them look around the room and see all their classmates with their dads. When my eight-year-old daughter turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I just miss daddy,” my grief mixed with hers, and I didn’t have the words to comfort her.

So instead I reached up to my Savior and simply said, “You have to take this one; I just can’t.”

The very next moment, my daughter took a bite of her donut and lost her tooth, turning our morning from sorrow and grief to laughter and happy anticipation of the tooth fairy coming. I recognized immediately that my Savior knew exactly what my little family needed at that moment and came to our rescue, as He has done so many times before and since.

A Rothlisberger family portrait from 2023.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by the burdens placed on my shoulders, I turn to Him and lay them at His feet. Because of what I’ve learned, I know that He can handle anything and everything that I can’t because He knows even better than me what those burdens are and how to conquer them. He experienced all of it.

So when I cry out to Him and say, “This one’s yours; I can’t do it,” He says, “I know, and I can.” And with Him, I get out of bed each morning, face another day, comfort and teach my children, and try to share His light wherever and whenever I can. I couldn’t do this without Him, and I’m so grateful that I know I don’t have to.

▶ You may also like: The miracle didn’t come: What one widow is learning living out the ‘but if not’ scenario

This story was edited by LDS Living intern, Ellie Smith.

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