Widow Fulfills Late Husband's Dream of Ministry

After Kate Braestrup tragically lost her husband, she decided to pursue his dream of becoming a minister. Braestrup is now one of the first chaplains to serve Maine's warden service. The reverend explains how her own pain has enabled her to help others.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Barbershop guys talk politics and, what else, sports. Plus, your comments from the week in BackTalk. That's all just ahead.

But first, if you've ever lost someone you love, you know what it means to start over - sleepless nights, lots of tears. Friends and family can help you cope, but some find that faith sustains them. And for some that faith transforms that loss into something they might never have imagined.

That's what happened to Kate Braestrup. After her husband, James Drew Griffith, died in a car accident while working as a Maine State trooper, she took up his dream of becoming a minister and a law enforcement chaplain. Reverend Kate Braestrup is with us as part of our weekly Faith Matters conversation, and she joins us now from member station WMEA in Portland, Maine.

Welcome.

Reverend KATE BRAESTRUP (Author, "Here If You Need Me: A True Story"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I know that your life has taken a whole other direction, but I do want to say I'm so sorry for your loss.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Thank you.

MARTIN: Tell me about your husband Drew.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Oh gosh, let's see. He was the funniest, most eccentric, worst tempered, at the same time sweetest person, and the human being I know who changed the most, who grew the most, of anyone I've ever seen in the 11 years or 12 years or so that I knew him. And he was, you know, he was a hottie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Let's hope so. Four kids, I would hope. I mean, my goodness.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah, right. That's right. That's right. There was a reason for that, you know, other than just our poor planning but…

MARTIN: And I take it that you had no thoughts of becoming a minister before your husband died, or it isn't clear to me that you would not have. I mean, I love how you described yourself as religious, although not particularly spiritual.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah.

MARTIN: But can you walk me through how it is that you decided to take up his dream?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: I think, actually, the useful thing about being married is you get to live one whole other life vicariously. So when I was a little girl, I did, in fact, want to be a police officer. And being married to Drew was an opportunity to get to, in a certain sense, live in law enforcement.

When he started being interested in becoming a minister, I think that a lot of his impetus came out of the suffering that he saw as a police officer that he could address in one way as a police officer but not in another way. And being a minister would have allowed him to touch on the other parts of the healing and the connection.

MARTIN: Well, some people, I think, might find it interesting that a state trooper wanted to become a minister. I don't know.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: I think it's because, well, they, yeah, they do. They also found it interesting that a state trooper wrote poetry and that a state trooper worked very hard on the various gay rights initiatives that were rolling around.

MARTIN: But you have - but you talked about that in the book, you wrote about that in the book, the way in which his work as a law enforcement…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah.

MARTIN: …officer connected to his desire to offer spiritual care to people. Can you just talk a little bit about that…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yes.

MARTIN: …for people who aren't familiar with that life?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: I think most people don't actually realize that all law enforcement officers begin, at least, begin their jobs wanting very much to help. And they experience it very often as a calling. I mean, they may not feel it necessarily as a calling from God, but they feel it very strongly as a calling to help and to serve. And they may get cynical and burned out later on, and angry. But even then, that anger and the cynicism is really, you know, it's what happens when kind of high expectations and ideals keep banging up against a reality that hurts. So, you know, I think Drew actually was unusual in how willing he was to kind of take his impulse and run with it.

But, in fact, there were at least two police officers at seminary with me. One was a retired Portland police officer and the other was a retired Maryland state trooper. So it's not actually that rare. So I think, in some sense, through Drew, I was experiencing that same sense of calling. Then, after he died, there was this element of this shared sense of service that simply wasn't being covered. I mean, the kids and I were at home, and for a long time we didn't do a whole lot. And it started to feel as though there was this aspect of me that wasn't being expressed.

MARTIN: But how did that happen? I mean, this was his long-term plan. His plan was to go to seminary after he retired as a trooper. And then it was months after his death and he - this shocking death, just out of nowhere, and leaving you a widow with four children. I mean, so was it like that lightning bolt that hit, you know, Paul on the road to Damascus, and you woke up one morning and it's like, oh, you know what, I need to go to seminary?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: That's right.

MARTIN: It's like…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah, the forsythia bush outside the window caught fire and this voice came from within. No…

MARTIN: I was hoping it was a lobster roll who spoke to you.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was hoping it was that, but I guess not.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: That would be good. That would be good. No, I didn't - luckily, I did not hear voices, or I probably I would have gone to a completely different institution. But when he died, it took a little while but there came this point when I thought, well, the seminary is there, I have this strong urge to serve and I have now had an experience of loss. And not just loss, but loss that was immediately and completely embraced and surrounded by the presence of so many people who were willing to be so loving and so supportive. I mean, we were literally fed for two months.

MARTIN: But you come from, as you mentioned, I think you mentioned earlier, as you write about in the book, you come from a nonreligious or at least a minimally religious family. Did they think you were a little…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Right.

MARTIN: …nutty when you…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: They still do.

MARTIN: …picked your head out and say…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: …I want to go to seminary? They still do?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Oh yeah, they still do. Oh yeah, definitely.

MARTIN: Even though you look so foxy in your collar?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. BRAESTRUP: I don't think my family thinks I look foxy in my collar. Well, I know…

MARTIN: Well, how did you explain…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: …whether the warden thinks I do.

MARTIN: Well, how did you explain it to them? Or did you even bother? You just said, this is what I'm going to do, this is what I'm going to do.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Well, I've always been the black sheep of my family. So I guess I still am. I mean, I'm the relative that they try not to talk about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah, I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. BRAESTRUP: They thought I was nuts, but that wasn't a new thing. And I don't know, I can't say that. My father was quite pleased that I was going back to school. So he was okay with it. Mom was nervous. I mean, I think they were willing to cut me some slack because I'd been widowed. You tend to cut bereaved people some slack. And they figured probably that I would come out of it eventually and choose something sensible.

MARTIN: You know, actually, you're pretty funny about that in the book. You talk about the whole bereaved widow thing and…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: The plucky widow.

MARTIN: Plucky widow…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah.

MARTIN: …and how that, you know, the whole plucky widow. I can't - why are being sort of, I don't know, kind of hard on yourself a little bit?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Well, there's probably two reasons. One is I tend to be somewhat irreverent about my reverendness. And the other is that I think that sometimes the only way you can talk about something that's hard is to be funny. That's a human way to talk about hard things. And when you try to use other language for it, I find it just becomes a conversation that shuts down.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking to Reverend Kate Braestrup about her new book, "Here If You Need Me." It's a memoir about her journey to seminary and to her new life as a chaplain.

Speaking of talking about hard things, you talk a lot on the book about the times that you found yourself counseling people when they're at their most vulnerable, their most raw, times when you have to tell people that a loved one has died. And I just wonder, do you find yourself ever revisiting your own pain, your own most terrible hour?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: I find myself recognizing a lot. I think the advantage for me in having been widowed suddenly and violently, I don't mean in the sense of, you know, criminally violent, I just mean, you know, suddenly and in an accident that essentially destroys the body very fast. The - I think the advantage of that is that I know what I'm looking at when I see someone as they're being notified. And I am actually less unnerved by it than someone else. It doesn't bother me that people will for instance sink down to the floor, because that's what we do.

Unless we have some reason to believe that some other loved one of ours may be in danger, in which case we stay standing and we keep working until we're sure everybody's safe, especially mothers do that. The usual reaction to being told that someone you love is dead is that you go down to the floor and - or to the lowest possible point. And to me, that's okay. I go down to the floor with them and we stay on the floor and it's a very safe place to be. You can't fall off, you know, and you can stay down there until you're ready to kind of rise again.

And what is always incredibly moving to me is how quickly people come back, how quickly they are able to kind of gather themselves together. And we're talking, you know, within 10 or 20 minutes, a brand-new widow will begin asking sensible questions like where is his body? When can I see his body? It does…

MARTIN: I thought it was lovely how some of the people, even though they suspected that their loved one was dead, wanted you to offer the remains some grace, some…

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yup.

MARTIN: …acknowledgement. I thought that was very lovely how one widow you write about, her husband was probably, you know, he - I don't think I'm ruining anything for people to find out that he'd gone out fishing and his - what do you call that?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: A snowmobile.

MARTIN: Snowmobile. Sorry, I'm from New York. Come on, I'm not from here.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: That's okay.

MARTIN: We don't have any there, at least not that (unintelligible).

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Not in the city.

MARTIN: But his snowmobile had gone under the ice - there's a soft spot in the ice. And the widow asked you that if you - when you see him, you know, please make the sign the cross on his forehead. And you said, well, I'm not Catholic. And she said, you know, he barely was.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: There's only one God.

MARTIN: It was just a lovely acknowledgement. But I wanted to ask you about this, because you also write in the book about some of the truly boneheaded things people say when someone dies. In fact, in your case, someone says that, you know, when you talk to a fellow seminary student about your, you know, decision to go to seminary, and she said, well, in this kind of sparkly voice, well, it's all part of God's plan. I mean, come on. And you correctly, in my view, I think you very sharply point out to. Well, you know, I don't think God's plans really require someone to leave a child, you know, four children without a father. I don't think his need for ministers is so great that, you know, that he would do that.

But does that ever make you think, you know, maybe Marx is right, religion really is the opiate of the masses, because it sure leads them to say things that make you think they're high.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Yeah, except that I probably live in a glass house on that one, so I probably shouldn't be throwing any stones. Actually, what I find is if it's the opiate of the people, it's not a very - it's not an adequate one. We don't have language that makes it okay that someone's child is dead. We don't have that language, and there's something almost liberating about that. I mean, when I teach death notification to the game wardens, they say, you know what, there is no language, there's nothing you can say that's going to make it okay that this person's child is dead, or wife is dead, or husband is dead. So you can let go of that. You're not going to make it better. You're not going to make it fine. You're not going to make this person not grieve and not be in terrible pain. All of that is going to happen and your job is to convey the information.

What they do with that spiritually, what they do with that information, for some people the phrase, this is part of God's plan, or it's God's will, it makes sense to them. It somehow conveys a kind of truth that works for them. And it really does. It comforts them and it makes sense. It wouldn't have made sense to me either at that time or to this day, but I'm not in the position of correcting someone, a newly bereaved will who will say, well, he's in a better place or he's, you know, God needed him and took him away. Whether that will still make sense to her in a week or something, I don't know. It very well might.

My job in that case is to be with her and to affirm her strength and her resources only if she doesn't have any, only if she sort of floundering around. And this will happen. I mean, it will happen with very committed Christians. That all of a sudden they just kind of - it just really doesn't work and they'll yell at me. You know, how could this be God's plan? How could God have done this to me? And that's the place that I get into a conversation with them.

MARTIN: Reverend, how do you deal with the question of why? Why terrible things happen to people?

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Well, it happens actually with the Maine's Warden Service that they respond primarily, not exclusively, but primarily to accidents. So there may be accidents that are aggravated by other factors, but frequently aggravated by excessive speed on whatever vehicle people on or by alcohol or drugs. I mean, that's very common.

But they don't begin from a place of evil or deliberate malice. So, fortunately, or maybe unfortunately for my spiritual growth, I don't actually have to deal with it in real time very often. Why would cruel people do this horrible thing to somebody? Why would parents hurt their child this way? Which are questions that State troopers have to ask themselves.

So I'm usually dealing with accidents. And when it comes to accidents, my answers are usually based on essentially science - biology and its physics. There's - a human body can only take so much force thrown at it at once. And if you exceed that limit, the body will not survive.

So when I'm answering the question, in a sense, where is God in that? God is not holding someone underwater until the lungs fill, God is not smashing boats into each other, or cars into trees, or snowmobiles into trees. God is always present in the form of love, always. So when a warden asks me, you know, where was God in this? I can always answer that one very easily. I can say we know God was there because you were there. There was kindness and compassion in the form of this one game warden who showed up to try to make it better than it was.

And more often there's lots of evidence. I can look around and say, okay, we had, you know, lots of game wardens, lots of citizens showing up to help, volunteer firefighters showing up to help, the people who owned the house that was across from where the accident happened, you know, opened their house for us so that we had a bathroom, we had access to satellite for the Internet. I can keep going, but, to me, that is where God is located. That is where the holy comes in.

MARTIN: Reverend Kate Braestrup is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. Her new book is called "Here If You Need Me." She joined us from member station WMEA in Portland, Maine.

Reverend, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Rev. BRAESTRUP: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we've just spoke with law enforcement chaplain Kate Braestrup about the events that changed her life. And now, we'd like to hear from you. We'd like to know about an experience that changed your life: a trip to another country, an incredible teacher who went above and beyond in the classroom, or a world event that sparked involvement in a greater cause.

To express your views about this or any other of our programs, please go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522.

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