Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Trusting God in Widowhood, with Debbie Cota

Dannah Gresh: After Debbie’s husband passed away, she craved sympathy from others, but she knows God is writing her story, and He has more for her.

Debbie Cota: I could not go anywhere that I didn’t want everyone to know my story. “I’m a widow. I’m a widow. I’m a widow. Feel sorry for me.” That is initially how I would respond, but I really do want to focus on how I can support others.

Leslie Basham: It’s Friday, October 18. You’re listening to the Revive Our Hearts podcast with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, along with Dannah Gresh.

Dannah: It’s not hard to trust God when life is going easy, when life is all butterflies and daisies and sunny skies—insert your favorite cliché right here. But we all know that our Divine Scriptwriter often has other plot twists in mind for us. And that’s something that you and your husband Robert wrote about in your book You Can Trust God to Write Your Story. Isn’t that right, Nancy?

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: It is, Dannah. The book is all about how we can embrace the mysteries of God’s providence. In fact, the eighteenth-century hymn writer, William Cowper, said it this way:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace.
Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Dannah: Oh, wow. Those are poignant words, and that’s what we have to learn to trust. Right, Nancy?

Nancy: Yes. The sovereign Lord of the universe knows what He’s doing, and He really will work out all things for the good of His children.

Dannah: That’s certainly something that today’s guest on Revive Our Hearts has lived out in her life, and you had the opportunity to talk to her about her story.

Nancy: Yes. Some months ago we were recording some Revive Our Hearts teaching programs, and I looked out in the audience and saw Debbie there, and I knew she had just been through a difficult journey. I asked if she would be willing to come up and share some of her story with us.

Dannah: Let’s listen to your conversation with Debbie Cota.

Nancy: So I want you to meet my sweet friend, Debbie Cota. Debbie, we go back a long ways.

Debbie: Yes we do.

Nancy: Close to the beginning of Revive Our Hearts. Is that accurate?

Debbie: That is accurate. I went from listening to Elisabeth Elliot to listening to Nancy DeMoss.

Nancy: We’ve known each other long enough to go through some different seasons. But I got to meet you and Jack and then your daughter Jenny early on. Jack would come sometimes with you to a different event we were having, or if I was in the Chicago area or what. I had the chance to meet him and to meet you many times.

We began to get news about Jack’s health deteriorating. So tell us a little bit about just your relationship with Jack, your family, and then when he first began to have the heart issues. Can you tell us just a little bit about that journey?

Debbie: Yes.

Jack and I were married for thirty-nine years. We have one daughter. And in 2003, he suffered two heart attacks a week apart, and, ultimately, a quadruple bypass. He was a salesman of high tech, high stress jobs, but continued to try to work after that and was able to work for some time. But then he developed an auto-immune disease, which was very debilitating.

My husband had some balance issues, particularly as part of his auto-immune disease, so he would fall often. He would break things. He had various health issues as a result of the issues that he was having.

We just always tried to focus on, “How can we be grateful?”

“Well, I’m grateful you fell in the backyard and laid there for three hours on a day that was warm and nice.”

“We’re grateful for a puppy that brought you a ball right to your face in case you wanted to play while you were lying there.”

He continued to try to bring humor and to encourage me in the midst of having to go back to work because he couldn’t work any longer to provide insurance for him. And he used humor to encourage him after he was used to this people-oriented, out-in-the-world kind of life to then be in home so much.

We just had a lot of fun in the process of trying to cope with broken bones and wound care and other issues that we needed to have as just a course of our everyday existence. And it just became normalcy for us in just how God used that to bless us and encourage us in the midst of circumstances that were challenging.

Nancy: Were there times during that process when you found your faith, or Jack’s, wavering and really questioning what God was doing or struggling with it? And, if not, what helped you keep your eyes fixed on Him through that hard time?

Debbie: Oh, I would like to say we were always totally right with that. No, there were times when we both just kind of went, “What else? What else can happen? Lord, please help us through this and bring us back to You as we are struggling to understand why this type of thing is happening to us.”

But Jack was very good because he spent a lot of his stay home alone in the Word. I’d come home from work, tired and discouraged in kind of a challenging job. He would just really try to keep me back on track to what was the most important thing and how we need to keep focused and trusting in God through this.

Nancy: I know there were other people through your church and other relationships, even this Chicago Praying Friends group that came around you during a lot of these seasons. I’m sure they didn’t know everything, but when they did know there were things going on, you had some strong support.

Debbie: Our church family was key to helping us. And then Jenny got married and moved away. And really, my church family was key, particularly since Jack passed. And even though he was ill, his death was a total surprise to me. I did not expect it at all, and it really set me back as I tried to cope with that loss because I was just used to his company and him being with me. We just enjoyed each other’s company very much.

But the church has been great. In fact, this opportunity of being a widow, has opened up all sorts of ways to minister that I never dreamed of before. There’s a widow right behind me in the backyard, the house behind me. The woman across the street lost her husband in August last year. I’ve become good friends with her. There are two widows down the street.

All of a sudden I have a whole opportunity to minister to widows right on my block, let alone others that are around that I would never have had if my focus had continued to be a caregiver for my husband. Opportunities in the church. Opportunities with young mothers to come alongside them with their kids has been really sweet.

Just today, who should come and sit right next to me because someone needed the seats two together behind her but the young woman, Heather, who lost her dad one week ago? She’s thirty-five, and my daughter is thirty-two. I just had an opportunity to encourage her as she lost her dad very unexpectedly and how difficult that was for her being two-and-a-half hours away as our daughter was three-and-a-half hours away when my husband passed. And just to be able to encourage her today.

Who knows how the Lord is going to give me an opportunity to speak with her mother, who is not a believer, in the weeks ahead? I’m just really excited that God has opened that door and that opportunity to minister to her in a way that I would never have considered or had the life experience to be able to understand that paralysis that comes when you first lose your right arm, your spouse. I encouraged her to understand her mom and just herself. It takes some time to work through that grief process, and yet be grateful.

I have to keep focusing on the thirty-nine years I had, and that I know that Jack is seeing God face to face, pain free, with a perfect body and the celebration in heaven as he’s there.

Nancy: Yes.

He had been sick for . . . when were the first heart attacks? What year?

Debbie: 2003. So about fifteen years.

Nancy: You said you were surprised by his death. Did you just think this was going to be a lot more years of physical challenges and issues?

Debbie: I did. He got infusions every month, and he was better then. He coped with his disease very well. It wasn’t his heart that killed him. We thought it would be. We learned five days before he died that it was his liver that just couldn’t handle the medication and the disease that he had. It was very quick.

Nancy: So you had five days notice?

Debbie: Yes.

Nancy: And did the doctor at that point tell you that this was going to be fast?

Debbie: Well, his cardiologist indicated to me that it was going to be difficult, but I’d already made appointments with a liver specialist to get a liver transplant. I’d already started the process for taking care with this new health challenge. It was just a turn in the road, and we would go forward and pursue whatever it took to deal with that.

But Jack was ready. He was really tired of all the issues that he was dealing with.

Nancy: So this was not a script that, if you had been writing your own story, you wouldn’t have had the heart attacks, the diseases, the loss of a husband at a fairly young age. The script wouldn’t have looked this way, the story wouldn’t have looked this way. So what makes you able to say, “Lord, I trust You to write Your story and to write our story, even though it’s different than the one that we would have written”?

Debbie: It took me some time to get to that point where I just really was ready to trust the Lord that He had a better path for me than the one that I expected to have for my life.

Nancy: What did that process look like for you? Because I think that’s not unusual. I think it often does take some time, some processing. And people may feel guilty, “If I don’t just all of a sudden say, ‘Lord, I trust You in this,’ then maybe there’s something wrong with me.” But there was a process that you walked through. What did that look like for you?

Debbie: There was a period of time when I was almost paralyzed. I just could not even think straight what to do.

Nancy: This was after Jack was gone?

Debbie: After Jack was gone, when I just really had a struggle even getting into God’s Word because I was just so distraught with what happened. I spent a period of time—and if you know me, this is not like me—doing nothing, just almost staring into space. I just couldn’t do anything.

There’s a time after the funeral when all of sudden you’re just alone and by yourself. And now, “What do I do?” I tried making lists like I used to so I would focus on the lists, and I wouldn’t.

But it didn’t take long before my training, my trusting, my gratitude, my knowledge of who God is and how that is the only answer and the only way I was going to find peace and comfort.

My daughter was a big help. She’s a young mom, and she was struggling as well, but we had regular phone calls. “Okay, Mom. Come on, come here and visit,” or “What do you need to do today?” Every day she would say, “What are you doing today?” Which kind of got me, “Oh, I need to do something.”

It got me going to get back on track to look beyond myself and get back into the Word and Bible study that I needed to do.

Nancy: What you had spent, probably decades practicing, kicked in. It was useful during those decades, but then when the story changed, those were the foundation to help you to ground your heart and your thinking and get you moving into a new season.

Debbie: Exactly. And, again, many people came alongside and called me and encouraged me and texted me and really helped me to get back on track.

Nancy: And that’s the family, the Body of Christ. We need each other. And as we think about trusting God to write our story, we realize that our stories are intertwined. Jenny lost her dad, and people at your church lost a friend that Jack was. He was a part of their lives in a huge way. And so there were a lot of people who were grieving who were missing Jack, all in different ways, none of them just like Debbie, and none just like his daughter, but they came together to encourage each other, to lift each other up, to help each other think biblically. But in ways it sounds like that they were not just lecturing or saying, “Get on track here,” but were encouraging and compassionate.

Debbie: Exactly.

Nancy: And what are the practices—I know you’ve referred to this—but as you look back over years of walking with the Lord, what are the truths, the practices that stood you in good stead when you came to this new season of widowhood?

Debbie: The Word would come to my mind, what verses that I’d memorized. I work with kids in AWANA, those basic verses that you need to know and be grounded in to be able to go forward. If you’re not going to read them, they need to come right to your memory. “Be anxious for nothing.” Trying to remember the truth that was grounded in my heart really made a difference.

Nancy: So AWANA’s really for grownups, right?

Debbie: Yes, ma’am!

Nancy: We just think that kids are learning all those verses—and they are—and as they become adults, those seeds that have been planted in their hearts are going to be huge. But to think about the workers and the parents who are working on those verses with them, that’s getting God’s Word in your heart while you’re working with those little ones.

So God has put in your life over the years, and there will be more now, there are more now, people who are on a difficult journey. You’re loving them; you’re available to them. What are some of the ways you find most helpful to minister to people who are on a difficult journey that could be hard to trust God with? Out of the overflow of your life, what do you find yourself saying to them or doing for them? How do you find yourself encouraging them in a difficult journey?

Debbie: It often helps to be able to just come aside, come alongside and be a part of their lives. I’ve got some young moms that I just make a practice of . . . We set a day that I just come over for a few hours and just be with their children so that they can do other things. I have conversations with them about what’s happening in my life, what’s happening in theirs, just offer words of encouragement to them. I really, really love to do that.

I’ve also been doing some substitute teaching. You remember I was more of an administrator most of my career, but I’ve had an opportunity to support teachers in a way that I couldn’t support them during my life. And getting out and being in the classroom with kids has really helped my psyche, to be able to give to them. That gets me out of myself.

Nancy: And you have, Lord only knows how long you have, but as you look to the future, a lot of widows have fears about . . . I’ve even seen women who were married to men of great means and who’ve been well provided for financially who still struggle with fear about the future, fear of not being provided for, fear of being alone. And I think it’s not just widows, but I think women, as we think about getting older, there are a lot of fears that can haunt us, can pull us down. As you think about the future, you’re not doing it with Jack now, how do you counsel your heart when it comes to thoughts about what could be hard in the future?

Debbie: Well, again, I have a wonderful family—my daughter and her husband and two grandchildren. My son-in-law is in medical school. He’ll be interviewing for residency next year. And at that point, they’ve invited me to come to the same place where they are so I can better support my daughter with her kids in the process of her husband being gone so very much. So I’m being given an opportunity to minister to my very family.

And not being a shy person, I know that there will be opportunities with people that I meet wherever I live, the church that I go to, to really support and encourage whomever God brings into my circle.

Nancy: And I love that you’re saying, in effect, “This isn’t really about me. This is about what God wants to do in me and through me.” And I’m sure there are probably some days where you’d rather it be more about you. I think we all have those days. But you’re disciplining your heart to do what you know will bless you and others in the long run and will honor the Lord.

And I think this is a matter of training your heart. It’s not something we do naturally. Naturally we want everybody to come around us and make us feel better or minister to us or bless us. And God does send people to us, and Debbie has experienced that.

But I’ve heard you say so many things that indicate that you’re letting God use you to bless others, whether it’s the widow across the backyard or your daughter or grandkids. So that’s going to be a blessing to you, but it’s also going to be a gift to them. And having little grandkids is sweet, but being real close a lot of the time will have some hard things to go with that.

Debbie: Exactly. We’ve already started to set boundaries.

Nancy: But you’re willing to step into that.

Debbie: I’m willing to do that because I know that there will be opportunities. And I don’t want you to think that this was an easy transition from all about me. I mean, at first I could not go anywhere that I didn’t want everyone to know my story. “I’m a widow. I’m a widow. I’m a widow. Feel sorry for me.” That is initially how I would respond. But even though I wear my husband’s ring around my neck and an anchor for the sure anchor of God with me as a reminder I really do want to focus on how I can support others without overwhelming my own family in that support.

Nancy: Does anyone have a question that you’d like to ask Debbie?

Carolyn: I’m Carolyn. I would like to know what advice you would give for us, what we should not do, what we should not say.

Nancy: When you’re talking with a new widow or somebody who’s just had a major loss?

Carolyn: Yes.

Debbie: I think you need to be careful not to push anyone to be where they aren’t yet in terms of . . . People have said, “Okay, so now that Jack’s gone, what are you going to do? You can have so many opportunities to do things. Are you going to travel? Are you. . .” You need to give people time to just be.

It’s just really hard once that week is gone, and the funeral’s over, to just be alone. So just text. Just say, “Can you come for a meal?” I’ve had so many people invite me for meals, which is a real blessing. But that’s kind of waning.

And think to include that widow in couple groups that you’ve been in before. Just because you have everyone be a couple, I still am friends with people, and I still like to go and do things. I would love to be included in that. So that type of thing is really good.

And just sometimes going and saying nothing, just saying, “I’m just going to come over. Let’s just visit a little or sit on your front porch for a little bit.” It doesn’t have to be a conversation always about what’s happened to me. I would love to talk about this rainy weather we’ve had forever or something that’s happening in the city or how God is working in your life. I don’t want it to be all focused on me. I’d love to be able to just have what was a normal conversation before this happened.

Nancy: It’s friendship, a gift of friendship. Good. Thank you, Carolyn.

Anybody else have a question you’d like to ask Debbie while you have a wise heart here.

Woman: Every chance I get I’ve been asking older women this question, so I’m going to ask you: What advice do you have for someone that’s in my season of life? Twenty-something, single, trusting God about the future.

Debbie: Reach out to us. 

Nancy: Reach out to us—you mean to the older women?

Debbie: To the older women. Yes. I’m doing a book study with some younger women in our church. We just invited them. There’s another gal in my church who’s about in her sixties, is a young widow like I am. I like to think of myself as young, not too much older. And she and I invited a couple or three of them out to lunch. We had a great lunch. And then we started talking about a book club that one of them was going to start. Then she included us on the distribution list. So we’re going to do Pride and Prejudice.

I said, “Come to my house.” Jack was always good about having people over. That’s been hard for me since he passed. I need to start doing that again—opening my home and having people over. I want to do that again. And this will be a mixed group of seventeen or eighteen discussing Jane Austin’s book. It will be fun.

And start to be thinking of pursuing some of the older women. You might be surprised. There’s a young heart inside these bodies! And we are game to do things that we’ve always done, though we might want to do it earlier than 9 o’clock. But still, we could be, I think, really good friends despite that difference in ages.

Nancy: Yes. Sweet.

My mother was widowed at the age of forty when my dad, at age fifty-three, dropped dead of a heart attack. It was very sudden. He had not been sick. She had seven children, ages eight to twenty-one. It was a very different season that this happened to her than it did to Debbie, and your story would be different.

But now my mother is eighty, and so half her life she has been a widow. I’ve watched God use her in some remarkable ways. I’ve watched her go through some really hard times. I mean, forty years, a lot happens. She still misses my dad a lot. She lost a child, a twenty-two-year-old son, a number of years later. She’s had a lot of hard things in her life.

But Robert and I watch her today and say, “God has written a beautiful story in her life.” He’s used her in some remarkable ways that she never would have anticipated at the time when the Lord took my dad. It didn’t happen overnight seeing the ways God wanted to use her. And it has changed with different seasons.

So I’ve watched that with my widowed mother, and, Debbie, I just think, only the Lord knows what He has ahead for you. You have some sense of what that might look like in the near future. But He’s writing a story. He’s been writing the story, and He’s prepared you. He’s equipped you through a lot of the hard things to be a really faithful and useful servant of the Lord and of His people in the days to come.

I’m sad for you to have to do it alone, but I also know you’re not going to be doing it alone and that the life that you and Jack built together, the thirty-nine years you had together is not going away. And the people God’s put around you so far, and the other people He’s going to bring into your life, it’s going to be way different, but it is going to be very sweet and rich. I anticipate that.

You just turned that mic on. Did you want to say something else?

Debbie: I just wanted to say, “Thank you and that I am excited about what the Lord might have in store for me.”

Nancy: It doesn’t mean it’s all going to be easy for Debbie or anybody sitting in this room, but we know that, in the end, it will be good. The journey is one that takes us toward something that is very sweet.

Dannah: That’s the host of Revive Our Hearts, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, in conversation with Debbie Cota.

You may know that trusting God when you’ve lost your spouse is something that’s deeply painful. I hope you’ve been encouraged today. That topic is something that Nancy and her husband Robert write about in their new book, You Can Trust God to Write Your Story: Embracing the Mysteries of Providence.

We’ll send you a copy as our way of saying “thank you” for a gift to Revive Our Hearts in any amount. You can make that gift by visiting us at ReviveOurHearts.com, or call us at 1–800–569–5959.

And I think if listeners enjoyed today’s program, they would get a lot out of the extended series we aired last month based on the book You Can Trust God to Write Your Story. You can review those programs at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Maybe this weekend you could take some time and listen to those programs and then join us again on Monday as we delve into a new topic.

Nancy: Yes. I’ll be telling you about certain prayers that I have prayed over and over again over the years. I call them my personal petitions. And as we go through them, I hope they’ll become your personal petitions, too.

Dannah: Thanks so much for listening today. Have a wonderful weekend. And I trust you can worship the Lord with other believers in your hometown. I’m Dannah Gresh inviting you back on Monday for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you trust God with your story. The podcast is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.