(Originally published on my old website on July 15, 2019.)
She even looked like my mom.
Blonde hair. Tanned skin. The kind of beauty for which she didn’t have to try — but she did anyway, because fashion is fun, and why not wear red lipstick if you’ve got the smile to show it off?
Like my mother, Tiffany Wendt was an absolute knockout, both in body and in spirit. And like my mother, she was called home too soon.
On a Sunday night in mid-July, Tiffany passed from this earth into eternity after a battle with cancer that began in late 2016. Surrounded by family, worship music filling the air, she couldn’t speak — couldn’t move — but summoned the strength of the Holy Spirit to lift her hands one last time.
Tiffany entered heaven praising her Savior.
She was one of my husband’s six cousins. Her husband, Jeff, married us; their son Finn was our ring bearer. Together, Tiff and Jeff — founders and pastors of Canvas Church in Northfield, Minnesota — led our premarital counseling. Troy and I would drive from Sioux Falls to sit on their porch or deck, eating cookies and talking about the joys and realities of marriage. We agreed we wanted a relationship like theirs.
Tiffany leaves behind five children, ranging in age from fourteen to four: Jack, Noah, Finn, Sally, and Bo.
My mom left behind four. I was twelve — the same age, the same curly hair and sweet, silly spirit, as Noah.
Since Tiffany’s passing, I’ve been hit by dozens of memories of the days after my mother died. The weeping of family. The dressing up for the funeral. The clinging to Dad while, somewhere behind us, people I didn’t know sang through their tears.
Yet the aftermath of Tiffany’s death has been different. Tiffany was different.
I credit Tiffany with my initiation into the Klongerbo family.
Shortly after we got engaged, Troy brought me to his family reunion near Fargo, where an impromptu talent show was hosted the very first evening. Not one to claim the spotlight — but also not one to cower when called on — I accepted Tiffany’s invitation to cook something up with a few other women.
What followed was a barely practiced “synchronized swimming routine,” in which the six of us scurried and dove and flopped around in front of the small crowd, Tiffany barking directions at us to “Follow along!” It was hilarious and humiliating and exactly what I needed to feel at ease among these people whom I hardly knew, but who would soon become my family.
Tiffany had a knack for making people feel like family.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Hundreds of tributes have flooded her Facebook page. At her celebration of life ceremony, 1,700 people joined — high heels and all — to honor her legacy. Thousands more have watched the two-hour service online, including many who had never heard her name before last week.
Around eighty people welcomed Jesus Christ into their hearts during her memorial.
The day we learned she had passed, Troy and I walked from our downtown offices to Falls Park, eyes heavy, legs a bit numb. He challenged God. “Doesn’t he know how dumb this makes him look?” he asked. “He could have saved her. How many more lives could have been changed if she had lived to tell the story?”
Through his grief, Troy’s faith never wavered. Yet he was asking the same questions I — and most others who have endured loss — have asked of God. Though my mom died suddenly, with no time to pray for a miracle, her death didn’t “make sense.” No death does.
I don’t know why it went the way it did. I don’t know why the miracle of Tiffany’s healing — or her healed body — happened in heaven. But here’s the reality. If I allowed them to, these questions would haunt me for the rest of my life, causing me to not only have lost my wife, but also my faith. . . .
Maybe even today you’re wondering, “How on earth do I move forward with God?” . . . Well, I want to give you the same advice I gave Jack on Monday morning, twelve hours after Mom had passed, when he told me he was struggling with God.
I said, “Jack, I am too. And that’s okay.”
It’s okay if you’re struggling. It’s okay if you’re angry at him. He’s big enough to take it.
I said, “Pour out your frustration to him. But in the process, please — please — do not let your heart become hard towards him.”
In too many moments like this, when crisis hits and we try to rack our human brain to understand, saying, “God, why would you do this?” we end up pushing God away, rather than pressing in. And if there’s ever a moment to press into God, it is right now. . . .
Because even though hard things happen in life, it doesn’t mean that God is not good.
Eighty people came to Christ at Tiffany’s memorial.
In the fifteen years since my mom passed away, I’ve heard countless accounts of the mark she made on others. Julie Schock wasn’t a pastor, but she was a wife, mother, teacher, friend. I’m one of many, many people whose lives are forever changed because of the captivatingly beautiful spirit of my mother and, now, Tiffany Wendt.
You hear about funerals that are more celebratory than somber. But I’d never been to one until Tiffany’s.
There was color. Laughter. Joy, even.
Because Tiffany had, as pastor IV Marsh declared during the service, “a no-matter-what faith.”
I couldn’t help but compare her memorial service to my mother’s. She died on Christmas Eve in 2003, and the days afterward were cold and dark. Everyone wore black. Family hugged; acquaintances knelt to say they were sorry. My mother’s face haunted me everywhere. For days, I skirted around the spot in the kitchen where my sister found her.
If I forgot about Mom for even a minute, I felt guilty.
No one taught me this solemnity. I figure there were many factors at play: the winter season, the unexpectedness of her death, my own introversion. It seems that funerals are becoming less dismal, too, as people realize how their loved ones would have actually wanted them to remember their lives.
And who knows — perhaps I’m misremembering.
But what I pray is that Tiffany’s children, like my siblings and I, never forget how loved and protected they were during this time, particularly by their father. Especially given the words those kids shared, and the words their father shared with them, I believe they won’t.
Troy has been tender with me this past week as I’ve sorted through the layers of these two deaths. He asked if I would say anything to the children at the service. I didn’t, ultimately, as they were busy with their friends and Chick-fil-A, and I’ll be darned if I stole any ounce of fun just so someone they barely know could say her peace.
But if I had, it would have been something like this: You will be okay.
Jack, you will be kind and mature and insightful beyond your years. At that family reunion, when you must have been ten, you grabbed my suitcase and declared, “Ladies shouldn’t carry things.” If I didn’t know then that you’d one day make a world-class husband and father, I certainly do now.
Sally, you will be the belle of the ball. As if you weren’t already your daddy’s princess, you’ll now have him (and everyone else) wrapped around your finger. You’ll learn some girly things from your aunts and figure out others on your own, and that will make you strong. You’ll be mostly like your mom, and she would love all the ways you’re not, too. Embrace them.
All of you, you will find your way. It won’t always be easy, but if you stay close with your family — if you have fun with them, if you tell them how you’re feeling, if you keep sharing stories of your mom (even the imperfect ones) — you’ll get through this.
And life will be good.
Watching the Wendt kids chase each other around the church, blonde hair flying, I felt the peace that comes with knowing how the story ends. They will be okay. They will grow to touch the lives of others with their stories, their inexplicable wisdom and strength.
But that got me thinking. Am I touching the lives of others? Am I honoring the life of my mother, the work that the Lord has done through her and through the rest of us, now that the wounds are no longer fresh?
While I never really forget that my mom is gone, the world does. And that makes it easy to slip into a pattern of normalcy, to simply “move on.”
I believe, ultimately, this is by design. God doesn’t want us to dwell in sorrow.
“How long did Jesus weep?” Troy wondered that afternoon at Falls Park. I’d guess not long. He had a purpose to fulfill.
So what is my purpose? What is yours?
Shortly before she died, deep in the valley of her sickness, Tiffany’s husband Jeff was attempting to help her with something. “You’re doing great, babe,” he encouraged. “You’re so brave.”
Surely in pain, but never one to show it, Tiffany responded simply, her last words on earth: “It is my honor.”
Her honor. Her honor to die with dignity. To deny herself, take up her cross, and follow him.
The weeks and months “after Mom,” as we called it, were red-eyes rough.
We slept in the same room — all five of us — for months. Our schoolwork suffered. We shut down and acted out. We argued and cried and pretended and escaped and, when Nancy entered the picture, became surly and exclusive, even while knowing she — and Dad — didn’t deserve such behavior. Dad was full of his own issues, too, some of which I’m probably still unaware.
But little by little, we climbed the hill. We tripped over our dragging feet (“Pick up your heels!” I can still hear Mom say) — and, palms scraped, we hoisted ourselves back up. We helped each other. We leaned into the Lord. Dad taught us to notice things, like cardinals in the snow and promises in the Word. As we got older, we learned to remind each other of who she was — how proud she’d be watching Lauren’s senior dance solo, what she’d say if she tripped over yet another video game controller (some sort of expletive, we’d laugh). How overjoyed she’d feel to see each one of us — Dad included — go on to marry a godly spouse.
In the wake of my mother’s death, my dad asked one question of a friend who had also lost his wife, the only person he wanted to hear from in that moment: “Am I going to be okay?”
“Yes, Paul,” replied the friend. “You will be okay.”
Resurfacing these memories hasn’t exactly been pleasant. But it’s been so good.
One of the greatest encouragements to me, the hope I cling to, is that Tiffany’s husband and children will be forged through this fire. I know my family is stronger because of the tragedy that bonded us together.
“Some of my very favorite people lost a parent at an early age,” someone told my father shortly after my mom passed. That has always stuck with me, a talisman to grasp when I feel the emptiness of not having her.
Without realizing it, as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to consider my mother’s death as a gift I didn’t want — a lens through which I see the world differently. I have to be careful not to treat myself as “special” because of it, but there is a certain pride I feel when I look to my side and see my dad witnessing to another widower, or my brothers wearing their hearts on their sleeves, or my sister looking after her child and students with a care that often brings her to tears (bless her heart). Troy jokes that the Schocks are an emotional bunch, and we are, naturally, but I doubt we’d be so passionate if we haven’t been bred with a keen sense of what is at stake in this life.
This is why I have such hope for the Wendts. They already are a family of astounding faith. Can you imagine how powerful their testimonies will be now? How many others might come to Jesus because their belief was tested, affirmed, strengthened, and shared?
I can’t wait to see it.
I don’t have an answer for why women like Tiffany and my mom are taken from us so soon. I wish I did. And I don’t have a road map to climbing the mountain of that grief. I wish I had.
But I do know that the Wendts will be okay. I know because I lived it, am still living it, and I know because God promised.