Unexpected Peace – Kim’s Story
Some people have their whole life mapped out in front of them with goals and vision statements and five-year plans, but I am not one of those people. I grew up in a home that was defined by change, turmoil and instability. From as early as I can remember, my only real dream was to have what looked like a ‘normal’ life and keep the peace.
My parent’s relationship was always tumultuous and, by the time I was three months old, they were separated. My father left, taking my oldest brother with him. I didn’t see my father again until I was 19. My mother partnered again when I was two years old. Her new partner, John, was a decent man but had little interest in being a father to me or my older half-brother, Kevin. I craved his approval and affection but it was elusive.
Much of my teenage years were spent working hard to keep the peace at home. My brother, Kevin, was in and out of trouble regularly and this put incredible strain on our family. I took on the role of peacemaker and conflict negotiator. John and my mother separated when I was 16 and, at times, I felt like I was the only adult in the house.
I didn’t allow myself to express the emotions that swirled around inside me. I pushed them down and did my best to keep a lid on them.
The departure of John and the absence of my biological father meant that I had no reliable or constant male figure in my life. That all changed the day I met Steve Stylianou. I was 17, Steve was 22. There were no thunderbolts or lightning when we met but he exuded a quiet strength that captured my heart. Our courtship had its ups and downs but I can still remember the moment when I looked at him and realised, ‘you are nothing like what I thought I wanted but you are everything I need.’ We married when I was 22 and, by 24, we had our first child, a girl named Krystle. Steve and I were over the moon. We were blessed again by the arrival of our two sons, Mark and then Grant. I finally had the life that I had craved growing up. Steve was a man of great integrity, uncomplicated emotions and unwaveringly committed. He loved our family and me fiercely.
I relished being a wife and mother and delighted in the everyday responsibilities of these roles. I also enjoyed the growing friendships that I developed with other mothers in our neighbourhood. It was through my relationship with my next-door neighbour, Gill, that I attended my first church service. A mutual friend was going through a difficult time, so Gill and I accompanied her to Gill’s church.
I honestly thought that I was there to support my friend but, mid-way through the service, the presence of God impacted me in such a tangible way that it was undeniable.
I felt God. I made a decision to follow him that day and became a Christian. I began attending Bible study with some of my neighbours and going to church.
From time to time, Steve would come to a church event, particularly if our children were involved, but church and God did not appear to be important to him. I prayed for him and was hopeful that he would discover God, like I had, but I didn’t know when or how it would happen. I certainly didn’t anticipate that it would be at a Christian concert.
I had purchased tickets to a Don Francisco concert at a local church. This was not the sort of event that Steve would normally attend. The music was not his style and he was not a fan of crowds of people. However, he was determined that I, as his wife, would not be accompanied by anyone else and so, at the last minute, decided to come with me. The venue was packed. At the conclusion of his performance of Christian songs, Don Francisco gave a message encouraging people to not ‘sit on the fence’ with regards to the invitation that Christ had extended to all.
No one was more surprised than me when my quiet, unassuming, rugby league playing, builder husband walked down the front to give his life to Christ. In a room of close to a thousand people, Steve was the only one who stepped out.
He later told me that when he realised that no one else was there with him, he was amazed. “I expected to see multitudes,” he said. I was overwhelmed. Steve had always been his own man, a man of integrity and deep conviction. The opinion or applause of others meant little to him. He had come to God in his own way and in his own time.
Steve’s decision to become a Christian changed our family forever. The basic circumstances of our life remained the same but we were now anchored by something far deeper than our affection for each other. It took a while for me to adjust to having Steve take on the role of spiritual leader in our home. I will confess that God allowed me to learn some tough lessons about trust and honour during this season. Wounds and hurts from my earlier years manifested themselves from time to time but Steve and I were committed to walking in partnership with God and each other. It wasn’t always an easy journey but we were on it together.
By the summer of 2011, Steve and I were enjoying the freedom of a new season in the life of our family. Our three children were now young adults and, although two of them still lived at home, I was expectant about the opportunity we had to spend more time together as a couple. On the evening of 31 January 2011, I came home from afternoon shift at my job at an aged care facility. I knew that Steve would already be in bed, so I quietly slid in next to him and snuggled up against his back. What followed will remain with me forever.
My strong, fit, gentle, amazing husband suffered a massive heart attack, right in front of me. After what were unquestionably the most traumatic and intense few hours of my life, we received the news that Steve was dead. He was 56 years old.
The days that followed Steve’s death unfolded in a blur. Family and friends from all over the state and beyond came to visit. Steve was greatly loved and respected by many and it felt like the house was never empty. I found myself defaulting to the coping mechanisms of my childhood years. I did my best to comfort and care for others in their grief, fuelled by adrenaline and countless cups of tea. I was numb but simultaneously terrified of what may happen if I let myself truly feel the depth of the pain gnawing inside me.
I spent the next 12 months slowly processing what had happened. People and things that were so familiar surrounded me but, at the same time, everything had changed. It felt like all the pieces of my life had been flung up into the air and now I had to try and catch them, as they fell back to earth. Family, friends, faith, job, money, future; where and when would they land. So, I took one day at a time. Every night spent alone in our bed was heartbreaking but each day, as morning came, God graced me with what I needed to survive it.
I did not lack for company. My family and friends were so attentive and faithful but I was lonely. Not so much in the big moments and events but in the unremarkable, everyday experiences. I missed knowing that Steve was downstairs in his workshop or out the back, tending to his veggies. I missed the companionable silence we had shared, as I washed up after dinner and he read the paper. One of the hardest things was learning how to navigate ordinary social events, solo. Occasions that would have previously brought me great joy now required every ounce of resolve and courage that I could muster. I had lost ‘my person’; my person to walk in with, my person to go home with and the one person who knew my signals and gestures and codes that communicated, ‘lets get out of here’. I missed my husband and I wanted him back.
Sadly, loss and grief are not ‘one off’ experiences. Only a few years after Steve’s death, I was forced to face the unexpected and sudden death of my father and then, six months later, my mother. Experience does not make loss any easier to bear but it does make you more self-aware.
The journey of grief and loss is not walked in a straight line.
Sometimes it feels like a never-ending circle, at others it feels like a full stop that eventually evolves into a comma. There are twists and turns, peaks and valleys and days of emptiness that feel infinite. The anchoring relationships of the first 50+ years of my life, my parents and my spouse, have all gone and I have been forced to discover who I am in this new and unfamiliar space. But God is leading me back to dreams and hopes that I first had as a little girl. Without the safety net of my husband, I am compelled to consider a future that is frightening, exciting and uniquely defined.
With each step I take, I am slowly starting to find myself again. My relationship with God has taken on a depth and intimacy that I didn’t realize was possible. Even during my lowest moments, when I have said to God, ‘you are not enough’, He has remained with me. I have learned that He doesn’t remove the pain, but He does redeem it. Rather than denying or rejecting the discomfort of grief, I now let it linger, for it is there that I have experienced the presence and peace of God that truly comforts and restores.