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Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows

Those who know Ella Wall Prichard, former Lariat editor, philanthropist, Baylor Regent and much more, are not surprised that Ella has written a beautifully composed, elegantly presented and sometimes preternaturally insightful book. They instead wonder why this is only her first.

The origins of Reclaiming Joy, as sometimes happens, lie in tragedy. In the days, then years, that followed the death of her beloved Lev in April 2009, her soulmate for 46 years, Ella was faced with what the bereaved have always endured – how to survive, then succeed, and then, ultimately, reclaim joy.

It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t easy. But what Ella has done has transform the process into a journey with definite goals, a journey fueled by patience, common sense, honesty and a bracing dose of scriptural insight.

What separates Reclaiming Joy from any similar books is that it is aimed not just at the eight million widows in American life, but also their children, their siblings, their friends, and their churches. No death impacts only the partner who has been left behind. The ripples and recovery extend far and wide in both time and space.

Reclaiming Joy is divided into 27 sections under four sub-headings: “Love Overcomes Fear,” “Unity Strengthens Relationships,” “Maturity Brings Wisdom,” and “Peace Leads to Joy.” For instance, under “Love Overcomes Fear” heading are the chapters Grace, Gratitude, Insight, Courage, Expectations, Joy, and Unity. Each chapter has multiple parts as well, including a passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

What I marvel at is that these divisions are organic, naturally flowing pulses rather than some kind of mechanical device. The examples from Ella’s own widowhood are universal, sometimes frightening; when they are redemptive, that redemption only comes with time, patience and, sometimes, ingenuity. Overcoming the grief and shock of such a loss is, frankly, difficult. But all of us – all of us – will experience it. Ella doesn’t preach. But she speaks from experience, some of it hard-won. She also experienced a rich and interesting life and her carefully chosen, sometimes brutally honest anecdotes are honed and burnished to a rich glow.

Reclaiming Joy is also adroitly sprinkled with quotes and excerpts from a wide variety of writers, commentators, experts and survivors, a testament to her own voracious (and on-going) reading on the subjects of loss, peace, faith, courage, persistence, and (occasionally) transcendence.

There is much to learn here in this strongly written narrative. Not every friend is a friend after a loss like this. Not every person in your financial world has your best interests after a loss like this. Even family and clergy make the occasional misstep. This is all so new for so many of us. I was appalled to read that some of the things I’ve said – trying to be helpful – to someone who has lost a loved one, things that are precisely the wrong thing to say.

The fascinating thing is that Reclaiming Joy is not a dark book; it is not a depressing read. Ella is a fighter. In the beginning, she writes, “Nothing prepared me for widowhood.” Through the course of the experience there are dark days, to be sure. People betray you. And if you don’t take of yourself, even your body betrays you. Some lessons hurt more than others. But she endures and, eventually, she thrives. The pain of Lev’s loss is still there, but it is not the sum total of her being. By the end, she writes, “We find meaning and purpose in living. Ultimately, that is where we find joy.”

Ella processed her grief through her faith, through love and support, through staying productively busy, through travel, through mastering the financial side of the family’s complex businesses (she read Barron’s Finance & Invest Handbook, all 1,220 pages, looking up every unfamiliar word), and through forcing herself to accept the invitations of friends and loved ones when all she really wanted to do was pull up the covers and stay in bed.

In the end, she processed that grief by writing about it, and providing an extraordinarily helpful chronicle, a faith-driven pathway to manage that grief and – ultimately – reclaim joy in her life.

(Disclaimer: I saw early manuscripts of Reclaiming Joy, which is why I was delighted to be asked to write a review of it. And yes, I did cry a few times upon re-reading some of the passages. But it was a good cry.)

Robert is professor of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University. He is the author of 25 books and is the founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor.

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