Tom Pisello 0:11
My guest today he’s the author of the book better with every breath, the journey from loss to living again, his name, James Thorburn. He’s a pastor at journey church in Independence, Kansas with a BS in ministry from Bethany Bible College in Scotts Valley, California, and a Master of ministry degree in leadership from the graduate school at Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Oklahoma.
His first book, Taking off my Comfortable Clothes told the story of his joining a monastic community for four years to live and learn the monk’s life. Although I do want to talk to you about that a little bit, we’re here to talk about mainly another one of your life’s journeys, with the latest book about the loss of your wife, Barbara, your wife of 26 years who you lost in 2020.
Our talk today is about Jim’s journey of faith and healing in the aftermath of that loss. So welcome, Jim.
First I want to learn about how your love story began with Barbara. How did you all meet?
James Thornber 1:36
You had mentioned I went to a monastery in Northwest Arkansas. It was founded by the singer songwriter John Michael Talbot. And I felt God leading me there. He had asked me to remain single for a while. I understood his direction there and I ended up leaving Southern California to go to this monastery.
Well, John was friends with the local Assemblies of God pastor, and his wife sang on some of John’s albums, and I started to attend that church because my credentials at that time was with the Assemblies of God.
Barbara, who would eventually become my wife, was already there. She was from Southern California and we grew up about 70 miles from each other. And we met in a town of 3,000 in Berryville, Arkansas. She got there via Florida, and she had already been married. But she moved there with her two boys after her divorce, and we met in church. So after I got out of the monastery, we started to hang out. And there you go, it led to 26 and a half years of marriage.
Wow. And you built a beautiful life together. Tell us a little bit about that.
Well, we stayed in Berryville, Arkansas, her youngest son still lived in the home and we didn’t want to take him out of high school. So we hung out for a while. But I realized that a future in ministry wasn’t going to happen in that small town.
So we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and got involved in a number of churches there. They were thinking about starting a Bible college, and I wanted to do some work there and teach but that didn’t happen. So we wanted to come closer to the kids. We ended up moving to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which put us two and a half hours or so from the kids. We eventually ended up in Independence, Kansas where she passed, and where I’m at now. And I’ve been here over 13 years.
And similar to many of our widower brothers, you unfortunately lost Barbara to COVID. And that was just a couple of short years ago in 2020.
Yes we both got COVID. Actually, she came home with it first, and felt like she wasn’t feeling well. And we went in to both get tested. She had it and I didn’t initially, but then I tested positive about five days later.
So we do what COVID couples do. We hung out in the house. We did some work outside. It was August, September, at this time, and we took walks, and put together puzzles and played Scrabble. And we were clear. We were out of the woods, so to speak and better.
But she started to feel bad again. She actually had a very intense urinary tract infection and started to get a fever. And here were some clots that hit her leg and her heart. We went to the emergency room, and they found out that some damage had been done to her heart. Her blood had gone septic from the urinary tract infection and they got her down to Tulsa Oklahoma for surgery to remove the clots, but she didn’t survive the surgery.
I’m so sorry, Jim. And it happened so quickly, which didn’t give you much time to prepare.
It happened amazingly fast. I know your wife lingered for a long time with cancer. Barbara woke up in the morning, and she went to the bathroom and said, boy, my feet don’t sense that the tile is cold, her right foot. She said “something’s wrong. We need to go to the emergency room”. And that’s how fast it happened. They got her to Tulsa and an ambulance. And then they started a surgery around 2:30 In the afternoon, and she passed away about 6:30 that night. So yeah, amazingly fast. But I’m grateful that she passed away while under anesthesia. She didn’t sense it. You know, I’m grateful that it didn’t linger.
Were you able to be with her during those last moments?
No, with COVID it was September 2020, and the whole hospital was locked down. The waiting rooms were locked down. I couldn’t go and be with her.
I spent five hours in the parking garage in my Toyota. texting her. We talked for the last time on the phone. And that was my time to sit and think about life. Think about God. Think about life without her as a real possibility. And where it was gonna take me.
And I know so many other brothers who lost their wives to COVID. Same thing. They just weren’t able to be there in those final moments. I am so sorry for that.
I think I lost my cool more than once. Especially with one of the doctors. I said, Listen, this is my wife. We sleep together. If you can get dressed up and go see a stranger, I can get dressed up and see my wife. And he finally relented. He said after surgery, we will make sure you come in and see her, but it didn’t happen.
Now your book, Better with Every Breath, you started writing that right away. Am I right about that? Right after the loss?
She passed away on a Saturday, I went to church on Sunday. And then Sunday afternoon, I went to be with the kids in Northwest Arkansas. They’re about three and a half hours from me.
And it was up to me to do the service. There was nobody else in the family. I didn’t want anybody else to do it. So I did her memorial service. And I started writing for that, the memorial. And then about 40 days after she had passed a friend of mine asked me to write another book. And I said, I think I want to write about Barbara. So my book, Better with Every Breath started on the 40th day after Barbera’s death. And since the memorial was already written, I included a lot of that.
And I finished it 19 days later. So all it took after that was editing and having publishers do the magic they use to come out with a nice book. It’s not long, it’s short. And I looked at it when I first got it and I went “this is really small”. And then I thought, “somebody that’s experienced the death of a spouse or a parent or a child, they don’t need 300 pages to slog through”. And so it turned out to be the right thing. It was my story. And I hope it continues to bring as it has brought, you know, people comfort, and in a direction they can take their life.
Yeah. And Jim, first of all, a couple of parallels. The eulogy is the start of my book, as well as the story that I told at her celebration of life.
However, my book is coming out to be a little bit on the long side, it might be that 300 pages or more you spoke about! Better with Every Breath might be a better option for you if you want a shorter read.
You mentioned you know right after you lost Barbara that you went to church and you remained within your faith that whole time. I know a lot of widower brothers, they really struggle. Rejoicing in the Lord isn’t exactly what they feel like doing.
They’re angry and upset. A lot of times they’re angry with God or angry with the lot in life that I now have? What do you say to those brothers that are angry with God over the loss?
Well, as you’ve read my book, you can tell that my story is really for people that have a deep seated Faith. I don’t have much to say to people who don’t have faith in God.
I would remind them of a couple of things. 1) Life stopped being fair, when Adam and Eve ate a fruit salad lunch in the Garden of Eden. 2) Everybody passes away. And that 3) God is still sovereign.
If God was good before Barbara passed away, God was good on the day she passed away. And he’s been good ever since. And so when I keep the long history of humanity in perspective, that I’m not the first one to lose a wife, I’m not unique. It helps me to remember that God lost a loved one too. And he called him Son.
So we’re all in this together, and we can support one another. The pain is huge. I write that the pain is deep, because the love is deep, and it’s not a describable pain, in words to anybody that’s not experienced it. But I would encourage people to remember just how good God is, and that he’s working towards our best in every area of our life, and he doesn’t go away even in our darkest moments.
Now, I know that you and I had a conversation about some of the things that people say. People say the darnedest things sometimes to grieving widows and widowers. Tell us about some of these, and your advice on what to say to someone who’s experienced a recent loss?
Well, it starts off pretty fast. I was in church about 13 hours or so after Barbara passed. And some of the things people would say is, “How are you?” And I would think, “I haven’t any idea how I am”. You know? And so there were always two responses. There was my initial response. And then there was my edited response. So pause on that, on your initial response.
I learned that anybody was trying to bring me comfort wasn’t trying to hurt me? They just didn’t know what to say. So “How are you?”, response “As well as can be expected? I appreciate you asking”. The other one was, “Let me know if I can do anything for you”. My thought was “I don’t have any idea what I need yet”. And I would just say “Thank you”. After a couple of months, when people said “Let me know if I do anything for you”, I would respond. Yes, you can help me out, as I need help paying off my mortgage. Of course, I would straight face that. And then they would look at me like, are you serious, and then they would grin and I would grin. And this let us both know that I’m not destroyed. And there’s still a sense of humor in that. I’m healing. So that was one of my comebacks.
Another, “I’m praying for you”. Now my mind was going, “I haven’t the foggiest idea how that’s going to help right now”. But my mouth was saying, “Thank you”. I have a feeling that some of those prayers gave me the energy to sit down 40 days later, and start typing in my study and be able to tell that story through a lot of tears. But I’m grateful I was able to tell it with the clarity that I had.
One of the things that wasn’t included in the book was something somebody said afterwards, which was, “She’s in a better place now”. And that’s when I edited a lot of the four letter words we’re not supposed to say as pastors. And I thought to myself, no, the better place for her is next to me, holding my hand in bed, talking to me across the dinner table, being with me in the car as we go shopping and all these things going through my mind. And I would say “Yes, she is and I look forward to being with her again”.
As we know, when you lose a spouse, there are no words. There’s no words to describe it. There’s no words to say to help somebody. What I offer now because I understand what somebody’s gone through is, I would say, “I understand” and then I would say “there are no words” that’s what I offer.
I choose to believe people want the best for me. And it’s a tough place to be in when faced with a widow, widower or someone experiencing loss. How do you comfort someone whose wife or husband has died or they’ve lost a child, there just aren’t any words. But we do the best we can in the community to love them and to support them.
It’s awkward for them as well. They often don’t know what they want to help. They want to give you care, right, but they don’t know how to say it. Just give grace, give grace back. Give grace to yourself and give grace to others that they don’t know exactly what to say either.
Some other good ones that I’ve heard. “It’ll get easier over time”.Did you hear that one?
Yeah, I heard that one. Quite a few times. And indeed, it does. For me it’s two years and and four months. It does get easier, but it doesn’t mean anything two days after, when they’re not here. And their smell is still in the house. And you’re staring at their toothbrush and their dirty clothes in the laundry?
I have a cousin, a dear cousin that lost her husband to cancer. And someone came up to her and meant certainly well, but basically said, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll find someone better”. And I almost fell off my chair.
People can say the darnedest things. They can without thinking, you know? Maybe we will? I don’t know. I don’t even know how you know. I have come to the age. I’m 61 now, and all my favorite females are married. I was thinking that the other day, I was like, Okay, I’m not looking for anybody and I don’t know anybody I’d be interested in right now. I still wear the ring. I can’t I can’t take it off yet.
We’ve got another brother in our group who, the same as you, he wears his ring. And he says the exact same thing, Jim. So that’s not that’s unusual at all. I think that you’ll know when it is time. And time will be right for you.
A very long time friend of mine lost her husband in Southern California. And she kept on her ring. And her statement was “I’m single, but I’m not available”. My ring takes me off the market for anybody that doesn’t know me. And I don’t talk like I’m single. I don’t talk like I’m available.
Another pastor in town says “you do not present yourself as available”. Someone met me a couple of times recently and never saw Barbara. and at a dinner meeting said, “So when are we going to meet your wife” and everybody kind of, you know, inhaled? And I smiled and I said “she passed away about two years ago”. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know”. And later that night, I thought, “isn’t that good that I don’t present myself in public as a grieving widow”.
You know, I’ve seen a lot of people who years and years and years later, they’re still putting grieving posts on Facebook and they’re still shutting themselves in their house when he anniversary comes around. And I chose to rejoicing and choosing joy. “Thank you, Lord for the time we had together”, and I’m not going to, to give up. I say often to my church, “if you’re still breathing, God’s not finished with you yet”.
I spent the night in the hotel after she passed away, and I called family and friends. I was up till midnight. And I said to the Lord, I said, “you know, I’m done. I’m good. I’ve lived a good life. You want to take me home tonight? I’m fine with it really? Really:. And I woke up the next morning and I was disappointed. I was disappointed that I was in the hotel. And I saw it and I said okay, Lord, but he gave me the answer. He gave me that. He wasn’t done. And I’m glad to still contribute to others in all areas of my life, my church, other grieving widows and widowers, this podcast. What an honor. It’s my first ever podcast.
Well, I’m glad I’m you’re first. So 40 days after, you were able to gather your thoughts, I’m trying to think of where I was 40 days after and preparing for the celebration of life and trying to get that together and just survive. Just trying to get through and get by. To get my girls back to a normal school schedule. To get my business back in order, and many of us are still in survival mode. What do you think are some of the attributes that got you to the point that you could be so introspective and retrospective and thoughtful, so mindful about what you were putting down on paper?
There were two things, two keys, I think that kept me going well, and healthiest can be through the loss of a spouse.
One was gratitude. Thank you, Lord, that we had a good life. Thank you for trusting me with your daughter right up to the very last day. You trusted me with her to treat her right. Thank you for the example we were for others. So gratitude was a big part of it.
The other one was talking to people. I was fortunate to be put in touch with a lady who lost her husband a few years before Barbara passed. And she kind of was the first person I talked to. And she called me and we talked for two hours on the phone. I think I cried for an hour and a half.
Yeah, so those two things really helped keep me sane.
I had a good community in my church. When I showed up that Sunday morning, after I sent out a you know, a text, everybody. They were just in tears. They loved her so well. And I needed them and they needed me. And so in that community, I couldn’t isolate myself.
I still needed to go to work. So are you going to take some time off and I’m thinking “why wander around the house”. So I was grateful that I was and I still am a vocational pastor, that I can go to my job at a lumberyard. And I was also grateful that I had to concentrate and put my efforts into bringing a sermon every Sunday. And so knowing my responsibilities and taking my responsibilities seriously helped me keep going and not just get into depression, not find myself in a bottle, nor isolate myself from the rest of people. My relationship with God, it’s been going on since I was 12. So I was, I guess you would say, trained enough, mature enough and responsible enough to keep doing the right thing. And to be able to concentrate on that.
And then having a fellow widow or widower to talk to, I think that is also incredibly helpful. Those who have found that brother or Wister to talk with. To know that things can be all right, because usually they’re further along in the journey than you are.
For the first three years, I didn’t talk to anybody about this, until another widower in town. Friends said, you know, Joey just lost his wife, he needs help. And I went to talk to him. And all of a sudden, first of all “in service” was very helpful for me. So knowing that I could be from my experience helpful to somebody. But also I got as much out of it, talking with him as I think he did with me.
Yeah. A neighbor friend down the street, she brought me some dinner after I got home from the kids house the first time and so it wasn’t even a week after Barbara passed, and she said, Would you like to talk to somebody? And I’m a guy. So my initial response is “I’m good”. And then it’s like, the God in the back of my mind is going say yes, ding-dong, you’re going to need this.
And that’s what I did. I said, Yeah, I think it would and she said, Would you like to talk to Julia Valentine? So yeah, I think that would be good. So I needed other people to tell me that what I was going through was okay. That bursting into tears at the site of her toothbrush was normal. Her birthday hit me hard, but Mother’s Day was just awful. The first Mother’s day knowing that I would have to go through a year of firsts. First Thanksgiving without her first Christmas. She’s not handing out presents. That first Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthday, anniversary, get through those years first.
I would be okay, and it would just hit me sometimes out of the blue, walking past a picture. You know, seeing her wedding ring on top of the dress. The little things. And my friend would say, It’s okay.
I want to buy flowers the first spring, because we love to do flowers around the house. And I went to the nursery, and I started to look at shrubs, and I was really excited. Then I start to look at the flowers, and I look at the plants. And I barely made it to my truck before I just broke down. And I bought a few things for the church and called it good. And I called a friend, I said I couldn’t do it. And they’re like, Okay, so maybe next year, it’s okay. And I’m like, Really, I don’t have to live in this exact same routine all the time. And they’re like, No, you don’t.
And about two weeks later, my neighbor across the street says, oh, boy, I really miss seeing all the flowers and plants you guys did a nice job on. So I turned up my courage and went to the nursery. And I bought flowers and my neighbor was happy and I was happy. And I sent pictures to my friends and they’re proud for you. So a little bit at a time.
Definitely something that a lot struggle with Jim. And I think that as you said, It’s normal, it will happen. There were those moments where you’ve got to express. And then,, I think one of the ways out of it, I like to think of it in terms of the 4 Ts:
Transition – Getting to a point where you have to get a hold of yourself.
Think – Think about why you got triggered.
Thank – Gratitude, about the moment that you were able to share because usually it’s about a missing moment or something else and, you know, give gratitude for the beauty that you had and the beauty that is still in your life.
Transcendence – And then finally, I think a really important one that I’d love for you to talk a little bit about is the concept of transcendence. Talk about that a little bit, and why we really need our faith to be able to ultimately heal, and that that healing comes from transcendence.
When my bishop came to my church service, the very next day actually happened to have a Sunday off after I called him and said Barbara had passed away. He told my church that because of our faith, we mourn at a death but we mourn with hope.
Because we are looking forward to something that is above and beyond us and outside of us and eternal, that we’ve been invited into this relationship. Once, one person said that “I’m not planning my life to go to heaven, I’m preparing my life for eternity”, yes, eternity, but more for an introduction to this personality, to this God for an encounter with my Savior. And it lets me take the larger view of life that as I said earlier, it’s not all about me.
History has been going on for a long time before I showed up on the earth. And it’ll go on long after me. And so taking the longer view of God and His goodness, helps me to not keep it centered on “Oh, woe is me:, it’s not all about me.
The other thing that I had to remember that helped me is, I’m not the only one hurting here. Barbara’s sons were destroyed, you know, the grandparents, I’d go to each grandkid and hug them and comfort them and, and remember Barbara with them. And if it was just about me, I would have missed out on the people who still needed me to be present. You still had to take care of your girls. You know, you just couldn’t break down and hide. So remembering that God has set me up with a good community of believers here in Independence, I’ve got a wonderful friends and many in other states that have supported me and called me weekly.
But yeah, my view was always above and anytime. Anytime I just pause and put down my books and didn’t study my sermon and just sat and thought about God and His goodness, the tears would flow. I’ve never cried in anger and bitterness and resentment to God. It just never occurred to me that He was at fault and that He took away my wife. It never occurred to me, I just knew that this is a part of life. But that life is not over here. There is another life, there is an afterlife. And that’s where my hope goes. So I hope to share. That’s where my hope is. Not like I hope to hear, my hope is in that aspect of being reunited and seeing her and my parents and the other ones whose faith has brought them to such a place that you call transcendence. We know it as the presence of God.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our widower brothers, our growth warriors with today?
I think I’ve already mentioned this, but my advice: Stay grateful. Stay connected.
Stay grateful for how good you have it. I mean, I’m not the richest guy in the world. I’m not the smallest. I’m not the tallest. I’m not the most talented on a piano you see behind me, I know you play keyboard. But there’s so much I haven’t been through and been in a car accident. I’ve not lost a limb. I’ve not fought cancer. I, you know, I still see reasonably well. And a hearing aid has helped me to hear better. I’ve had a good life. I’ve been blessed. I’ve met great and amazing friends. I love what I do. I love talking to people in customer service. I love teaching the Word of God and never stopped being grateful. Barbara said I’m overly optimistic, with my glass half full, my glass flowing over. And I find that just a great way to live. It takes too much energy to be negative. It takes too much energy to be down in the mouth and always looking to be critical.
And the other thing is, stay connected. Find people that know you, that love you, that will walk with you. And then as you heal, make yourself available to others, the way somebody was available to you. And then in that availability and that service to others, you’ll find yourself feeling even better. And you’ll find more joy, as we give.
I agree if you can find someone to help, whether it be through the formal grief share, or just being available when someone calls or reaching out to, as I did. I got so much out of it. Just by being available, being transparent in my feelings. And that in that sharing becomes that mutual understanding and connectedness to that person. And then I think to the Spirit, and God as well.
I had a man facebook request me and we had a mutual friend. He lost his wife and my friend sent him my book. And he started to text me on Facebook Messenger. And he kind of said, well, I’m not doing real well, why now? And I said, Well, why don’t we talk calmly. And he? And he was really surprised that I said call me but then I had somebody else say to me Call me. And I was just returning the favor.
And so we talked for about an hour and I prayed with him. And a week later he said, Can we talk again? I said, sure. He said you need to know the rest of the story. Jim. He said I was sitting on my son’s older son’s bed. I went to visit him and his wife and grandkid. And I had a bottle of pills in my hand. And I was going to end it. I wanted to go to sleep. I was done. And I texted you for some reason. You said talk to me. He said after that talk, I put down the bottle of pills. He said Jim, you stopped me from committing suicide.
Wow. Jim, grateful for what you’ve done. Grateful that faith and the Word comes through you to help others please please continue to do that and serve. And the book is better with every breath. We’ve got it recommended in our recommended books section on the website grow through grief.org A Jim, thank you so much for being here, sharing your story, your love story with Barbara and also your stories of healing and growth through the process.
Thank you for the invitation. And the compliment. I’ve never seen two men talk about the loss of their wife’s until your podcast, and I really hope you touch more and more men. We don’t like to talk but we need to so I hope you just expand in all sorts of directions to talk to and encourage and support the men that needed the most. Thank you.