Mary Potter Kenyon begins her journey in her latest book, Refined by Fire – A Journey of Grief and Grace, by painting a picture of domestic bliss between herself and David, her husband of nearly 34 years, during an exchange at their kitchen table. The image is one that might easily be embraced, even longed for as love and affection between the two is so evident. Three weeks after their blissful exchange David was gone. Mary shares her healing journey after losing her mother, her husband and her five year old grandson within a three year period. And instead of coming through it scorned and angry, she has discovered a grace she had not known.
“I knew I was becoming a different person after my husband’s death. I could feel myself changing,” says Mary. “Grief was kind of a spiritual journey for me. There are Bible verses about being refined. You can become broken or broken open. My whole world became bigger. I turned to other people. It was as if my heart was opening wider and wider. I wanted to help others. I’m hoping my book will show people just starting out on their journey, that there’s hope and light in darkness.”
Since David’s death in 2012 Mary has learned to reach out to others, she hugs people, and uses the words, “I love you” often. She thinks these things have changed her so that she is no longer broken but broken open in her grief. She used to hate Tuesdays because that was the day he died. She became sick of herself and wondered what to do about it. She decided to reach out to someone every Tuesday morning. She decided to pray and discern whose day she could make a little brighter with a letter, or a card. She found that reaching out to others on Tuesdays brought her outside of herself and she started looking forward to Tuesdays rather than hating them. She still does this practice.
“Somehow through grieving the loss of my husband I learned to reach out to other people. Previously I never would have hugged a stranger and reached out to them. But it’s the new me.”
David became like that after his bout with cancer in 2006. He became broken open. “He left a legacy of love,” says Mary.
Before his cancer they had been bogged down by the trials and tribulations of a busy life like so many couples. Between jobs, home, and eight children, the passion and excitement of their marriage had waned. But through his cancer they had a new spark in their marriage. For their last 5½ years they enjoyed new life together. Mary and David met in 1978 when he was in college and she was a waitress. She remembers spilling coffee on him and on their first date she followed it up by spilling tea, but he saw something in her and he stuck it out. They married in 1979.
“I love how much he loved me,” says Mary. “I always wanted to be adored and he adored me. That’s the truth. It was nice to meet someone who thought so much of me. During his cancer it was me adoring him. I was scared I was going to lose this person I loved so much.”
When David died she literally looked for the handbook for widows, a handbook for handling grief. She couldn’t find one and hopes that Refined by Fire might serve others in that way.
Mary looked at other people’s books looking for some little nugget of hope. She read voraciously looking for answers in some way, and read fiction as well as non-fiction, desperately grasping for a lifeline, especially that first year. Her favorites included Reflections of a Grieving Spouse by H. Norman Wright which she describes as a workbook that helps you feel normal again, understanding that people grieve differently. In Madeleine L’Engle’s, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, Mary cried as she read and found a strong connection with the author, whose relationship with her husband was similar to hers and David’s, and more importantly she kept on living. She also had to do speeches as Mary does in her workshops and talks, that David had so strongly encouraged. And in A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, she found an appreciation in his little book of journal entries. “I identified with this because I was journaling too. There was raw emotion, and maybe we need to read raw emotion to realize our own raw emotions are normal.” Mary included her own journal entries in her book, so the reader can see what she was going through and perhaps not feel so alone in their grief.
“When we see that someone survived something and got through it, we find hope that we can do it too. We may not want to read details about how it happened, but somehow it helped me to see other men and women lost someone important in their life and they survived. I wanted my book to be that, but also the idea that there are little pieces of light even in those first days, that lead to the big light. I hoped they might develop a relationship with God in that process.”
So in putting her book together she looked into the writings of others who had been in her shoes. She looked into the science of grief to try to understand why people grieve so differently, to know that our bodies and minds are built to withstand this suffering. And she sought to understand why some people are able to move on while others stay put. Lastly she looked to the Bible for guidance. She offers quotes from some of her favorite writers to show how other people handle grief. All along her journey she found hope in people, events, reading, and journaling.
Mary had been a writer but was not someone who journaled. She had three empty journal books with photos of her and David together and one had the Robert Browning quote, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” After he died she picked that one up and just started writing. She realized they were not going to grow old together. In that first entry Mary wrote four pages about what she was thankful for. She considered the last 5½ years with David “bonus years” because she could have lost him earlier to cancer. She was thankful for so much even as she grieved. She sat at her kitchen table every day as six sisters paraded in and out to check on her while her daughters brought food. She started a second journal and as she looks back on her words, she can see how her grief changed, as it got easier. One can’t help but wonder if the act of putting words to paper releases the grief in some way.
Life insurance gave her permission to grieve for 18 months before she had to get a job. Prior to that she wrote a column and gave talks to various groups. She became the director of the Winthrop Public Library and has found library patrons crossing her path who are also grieving. They come to her and she spends time with them sometimes just listening.
“My job allows me to minister to people who have lost someone, right there in my workplace. My open heart has enabled me to do that. We can help each other. I always thought I was faithful. Prayer was always, ‘help, please, thank you.’ I went to church, but I wasn’t so good at listening. I didn’t know what it was to really listen. One day I was working on a book and I couldn’t write. Nothing was coming. I wasn’t used to being still and listening. Now it is easier. I’ve learned to wait and listen. Our relationship with God is like our relationship with our spouse, we have to learn to listen and then we’ll be guided in our life.”
For many, many years she never had female friends. Aside from her sisters, she had only one friend/pen pal that she met 28 years ago, often sending hand written letters three or four times a week. Her friend is Mary Jedlicka Humston and together they have written a book about their friendship titled, Mary & Me. After David died Mary came once a month to take her friend out for lunch and ask questions that no one else would ask. Like, “do you miss sex?” They guess there are about 9,000 letters between them. Mary & Me was published by Familius Publishing in fall 2015.
Since she has opened her heart to new life, Mary has loads of new friends and she admits, she never knew what she was missing. In 2006 David was diagnosed with cancer and survived. In 2010, Mary’s mom was diagnosed with cancer and died two and half months later. A month after that, Mary’s grandson, five year old Jacob was diagnosed with cancer and in 2011 was found cancer free. But in March 2012 it returned. The news was devastating. Then David had a heart attack and was hospitalized for nine days before returning home. On their way home from a follow up doctor’s appointment, David asked, “Why would God allow cancer in a little boy? If I could go, and he could stay, I’d go in an instant.” The next morning, Mary found David unresponsive in his recliner. Sometime during the night, his heart had stopped. Mary’s heart, now broken open, has been refined by fire and she has found grace in her grief.
Mary Potter Kenyon is the author of Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings and the Stories Behind America’s Obsession, Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage and Refined by Fire published October, 2014 by Familius publishing. She has been published in Poets & Writers Magazine, and has had five essays included in Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. She also offers workshops and talks on topics such as being a cancer caregiver, creativity, and finding hope and healing in the darkness of loss. She lives with four of her eight children in Iowa. Visit www.MaryPotterKenyon.com.