April 17, 2015

‘A Love So Strong’: A year after her husband’s tragic death, Jennifer Trapuzzano leans on faith and unexpected friendship

Jennifer Trapuzzano snuggles with her daughter Cecilia in the bedroom where Cecilia sleeps in a crib beneath a crucifix and a photo of her parents. Cecilia was born on April 25, 2014—24 days after her father Nathan Trapuzzano was shot and killed during a robbery as he took a walk through their Indianapolis neighborhood. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Jennifer Trapuzzano snuggles with her daughter Cecilia in the bedroom where Cecilia sleeps in a crib beneath a crucifix and a photo of her parents. Cecilia was born on April 25, 2014—24 days after her father Nathan Trapuzzano was shot and killed during a robbery as he took a walk through their Indianapolis neighborhood. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

For a long time, she had dreaded the first anniversary of the death of the love of her life.

On the day before that anniversary, all the heartbreak overwhelmed Jennifer Trapuzzano once again as she thought of her husband Nathan.

Just a year before—on March 31, 2014—the couple had been looking forward to their first wedding anniversary, the birth of their first child, and Nathan’s 25th birthday.

Then, a day later, Nathan was shot and killed during a robbery as he took a morning walk through their Indianapolis neighborhood.

So much of the past year has been a heart-wrenching blur of thoughts and emotions for Jennifer—thoughts and emotions she has occasionally shared in her blog called, “A Love So Strong.” On March 31, 2015, those emotions poured from her again as she wrote another entry that included this thought:

I can still feel him. I can see him when I close my eyes, feel his love and warmth. It doesn’t feel possible that he has been gone for one year. That in less than 24 hours I will no longer be able to say “last year Nate and I were doing this together…”

I have a voicemail from him on March 31st last year. I have listened to it over and over and over again. His voice sounds so familiar still, like it was yesterday. I miss him. I miss everything about him. In so many ways, it feels like he has only been gone for 10 seconds. And yet it feels like 100 years.

Shortly after those words appeared online, Jennifer received a text message of support from a woman who knows that same pain, a woman who has become one of her closest friends.

“I sent Jennifer a text telling her I was praying for her and offering up my heartache for her,” says Cristina Buerkle, who is also a young Catholic widow. “I wanted to let her know that she wasn’t in that pain alone, that we are in this together.” (Related: Fundraisers to benefit foundation that supports children who have lost a parent)

Touches of hope and humanity

As Jennifer’s recent blog entry shows, the loss of Nathan still haunts her heart and her soul.

At the same time, the past year for her has been marked by touches of help, humanity and hope—and even small steps toward healing.

The 26-year-old member of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis has known the help and the humanity of her friends, her family and the Catholic community.

She feels hope and a living connection to Nathan every time she holds and looks into the eyes of her daughter Cecilia, who will celebrate her first birthday on April 25.

She continues to strive toward the promise of a future as she works to earn a master’s degree to become a physician’s assistant—a goal she is scheduled to complete in November, a goal that will help her fulfill her longtime dream of helping people in need.

Then there are the small steps she has made toward healing emotionally, including her unexpected, close friendship with Cristina Buerkle and the support group they have started for young Catholic widows.

A heartbreaking connection

In truth, the friendship between Jennifer and Cristina started from a shared heartbreak that both of them desperately wish they could have been spared.

They both knew the joy of finding the right person to marry.

They both felt blessed in being married to someone who shared their deep Catholic faith.

They both knew the excitement of becoming pregnant with their first child during the first year of their marriage, and sharing that anticipation with their husbands.

They also both experienced the tremendous shock and devastation of having their husband’s lives—and all those blessings—end suddenly before their first wedding anniversary.

Just 27, James Buerkle died unexpectedly of an enlarged heart condition on Nov. 22, 2013, just five months after he and Cristina were married. He passed away in his sleep, next to Cristina.

So Cristina was struggling with her own grief and heartache when a friend told her about the details of Nathan’s death, and suggested that Cristina should reach out to Jennifer.

Two weeks later, Cristina did. In mid-April of 2014, she sat down in her Florida home and wrapped a special gift that she sent to a young widow in Indiana that she had never met.

‘We are in this together’

Cristina’s present to Jennifer was modeled after a gift she had made for her son—after James had died and she was still pregnant with their son, who would be named James Paul and be called “JP.”

“There’s a kids’ board book version of Heaven is for Real,” Cristina says. “I was just 12 weeks pregnant when James passed away, and I just want JP to get to know his dad as much as possible. I’m sure James is in heaven, and I printed pictures of my husband and pasted them throughout the book. I read the book to JP at night.”

She made a similar version of the book for Cecilia, using baby shower photos of Nathan and Jennifer from their Facebook page. Jennifer was touched when she received the book in the mail.

“She included a message, telling me her story and that we were in this together,” Jennifer recalls. “It touched me. I had other people reach out to me, and I appreciated that, but with Cristina, it was even deeper from the beginning because of our Catholic faith, and being able to talk about things, and because there were so many similarities between us.

“There aren’t that many newlyweds who are pregnant who lose their husbands, and who are also deep in their Catholic faith. I think we both gave each other the inspiration we needed. I was newer to widowhood than she was, but I also had my baby before she did. When she was getting ready to deliver her son, I was able to tell her, ‘You will get through this. I’ve gotten through this.’ ”

Jennifer also came to visit her new friend for the first time during a difficult period in Cristina’s life.

‘She’s my sister now’

“She came to visit in November which was a hard time for me, with James’ birthday and the first anniversary of his death,” says Cristina, a member of St. Luke Parish in Palm Springs, Fla. “By then, we had gotten to know each other through e-mails back and forth.

“It was good to meet each other and hug each other. We stayed up late one night talking about things that were on our hearts. We talked about James and Nate, our marriages, our struggles and what we’ve been missing. We talked about how we don’t want to grieve forever. We want our children to see us happy and strong and faithful.”

During that visit, Jennifer arranged for a surprise for Cristina. She contacted a Florida photographer to do a sunrise photo shoot with the two of them and their children. When photographer Melissa Ashley learned their stories, she did the photo session free of charge.

“It was just fun to smile and laugh and take pictures,” Cristina recalls. “Later in the evening, we had a little bit of a happy hour.”

The two friends met again in Florida in March, this time during an emotionally difficult period for Jennifer. When she turned 26 on March 17, it was her first birthday since Nathan’s death. She missed having him by her side. There was also the approaching anniversary that she dreaded.

“Cristina was there on my birthday so that was nice,” Jennifer says. “Our friendship has been a stronger gift than I first realized. When I first met her, I knew we had this connection, but I didn’t know how important it would be. She’s my sister now. Our lives are so interwoven. She’s one of the few people who can really understand what I’m going through.”

Jennifer takes a deep breath and adds, “There are times when I just feel like I’m going crazy. I can call her up and tell her what’s going on, and she’ll say, ‘I’m going through the exact same thing’ or ‘I’ve been there.’ And I don’t feel so crazy anymore.

“When you lose your spouse, you lose a part of yourself. I’m learning how to live in this new life, but half of me is gone. So finding someone else who has an equal understanding, and sharing that grief, it’s just helpful.”

That understanding led Jennifer and Cristina to form a Facebook page called the St. Paula’s Young Catholic Widow Group, in honor of the patron saint of widows.

“There are 15 of us,” says Cristina, during a phone conversation from her home in Florida. “It’s nice to have that sisterhood with women who have been in our shoes and have our faith in common.”

Jennifer notes, “Because we felt that need between each other, we knew that after your husband dies, you can pray for them and also ask them for their prayers. That’s just a different, special relationship that we as Catholics believe in.

“It’s nice to have other women who believe in that perspective, who are using their faith rather than turning away from it—like I had found in a lot of secular groups. I needed someone to support me. My faith was my rock, but I was also shaken. So it’s nice to have people around me who could demonstrate that it could still be a rock.”

The bond between a dad and a daughter

As Jennifer talks, she sits at a table in the home of her parents, Ann and Karl Swihart. Behind her, on the wall, is a sign that was given to her by her mother’s family, a sign that notes, “Because someone we love is in heaven, there’s a little bit of heaven in our home.”

On Jennifer’s lap, Cecilia smiles, squirms and laughs as she eats a snack. Holding their daughter, Jennifer naturally thinks of Nathan—her connections to him, and his connections to the child who has his eyes and his temperament.

“She looks like Nate, which helps. She has her own mind. She’s a stubborn girl. She’s free-spirited. She gets that from Nate, too,” she says with a laugh. “He was stubborn. He didn’t change his mind easily. He was humble, too.”

Jennifer pulls Cecilia toward her as she adds, “She is what keeps me going. I don’t know, without her, if I would have had the motivation to finish school or just get out of bed in the morning, especially in the beginning. But to provide a future for her motivates me to get up every morning and get going. There are still days when I want to stay in bed, but she wakes up talking. And I just want to see her and see what she is doing. I don’t want to miss a moment of it.”

One moment that stands out to Jennifer occurred during a recent Sunday Mass when Cecilia repeatedly said, “Da Da.”

“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but I like to think she’s talking to her dad. I want her to know that he loves her and he’s watching over her. I want her to know just how good of a man he was. One of the things that upsets me the most is she’s not going to have that father role model that little girls need, that’s so important—and that role model of how a husband should treat his wife.

“Nate was a wonderful husband, and he would have been a wonderful dad, too. I want her to know those characteristics about him—and how important his faith was to him. I want her to grow up being just as faith-filled.”

Nathan’s faith has also helped Jennifer in the past year.

Prayers for help

“I didn’t even have the energy to pray in the beginning,” she says. “It was difficult. But I never doubted God. I feel like, if anything, it’s brought me closer because I know where Nate is. I know where he strived to go. And I don’t want to turn away from him.

“It almost makes my faith in Jesus stronger now. I never felt it was lacking before, but the emotions I get whenever I think of seeing Nate again in heaven are so real that I think I feel just 10 times better about meeting Jesus—and that’s not something I ever really felt. So it almost gives a more realistic view on that love that God has for us—and what that can mean. I’m still working on that.”

As she does, she calls upon Nathan to intercede for her. She admits that her reasons for those requests aren’t always faith-directed.

“Sometimes, I’m selfish and ask Nate to help Cecilia sleep through the night so I can get a good night’s sleep,” she says with a smile. “I feel like that’s his shift sometimes.”

She pauses before adding, “I actually have stories of people who have asked Nate to intercede for them as well. And they’ve seen results.

“A mom was struggling in labor, and it looked like they would have to do a C-section. She started asking saints for their prayers, and she also thought of Nate and asked if he could help her. It was the one last chance to get the baby out, and she was able to. After that, the nurses were calling him ‘miracle baby.’ She didn’t know why. The nurses told her he had two knots in his cord and almost didn’t survive. The mom said she thinks the prayers to Nate helped him survive.”

Jennifer shares another story, this one from a woman who has had several previous miscarriages.

“She said her husband had written a letter to Nate and asked him for his intercession to help them have a child. And she’s 20 weeks pregnant now.”

A reminder of faith and love

Easter Sunday of this year—April 5—marked the first anniversary of Nathan’s funeral. That connection made an impact on Jennifer.

“I think it’s kind of beautiful that the day we buried Nate last year is Easter Sunday this year,” she says. “In some ways, it’s like I’ve had my year to adjust to my new life and to grieve. It’s been a year of grief and sorrow. My goal for the second year is to take charge of my life and treat it like a new year.”

On the morning of March 31, the day before the first anniversary of Nathan’s death, Jennifer gave herself time to grieve. It was also a time that helped her take another step toward healing. Acknowledging how much she missed him, she filled part of the time by reading through the letters that Nathan had written her through the years.

In her blog entry from that day, Jennifer offered this thought about reading the letters: “How blessed I am that he should leave such a lasting memory of his love for me! It is not without coincidence that I opened the following letter first; for even after death he always knows the right thing to say.”

She then shared this letter—dated March 25, 2013—from Nathan:

Dear Jen,

This morning I found out that an old classmate of mine has died. I was never very close to him, but we did become friends in middle school when we were both into skateboarding and football.

As these kinds of things are wont to do, the news made me think of my own life and death. One of my biggest fears is not dying so much as it is leaving my loved ones uncertain, be it about my affections for them, things I may have said to or about them, or even the state of my own soul.

When I die, I want my friends and family—and you especially—to know that I left this world in God’s friendship and so await you in heaven for when your own time should come.

And as I thought about this, it struck me that the only way to pass on such assurance (to myself not least of all) is to love radically at every moment. For death does not pre-announce itself, not for most people at least. What a terrible thing it would be to die after an argument with you or after sinning against God! To die unreconciled is surely the worst thing that can happen to anyone.

I must continue drinking from the source of love Himself if I am to become a flowing spring to others. Please pray that God will teach me how to love like Him. I love you.

Love, Nate

After sharing Nathan’s letter, Jennifer finished her blog entry with a message that was part a reminder for herself, and part a reminder for everyone else who read it:

“Let us all remember to have faith and love like Nate.” †

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