After tragic loss, Erica Carlton finds a path to healing deep grief by helping others.
Erica followed the ambulance to the hospital early one February morning, her eyes focused on the vehicle’s flashing lights and closed back doors. She imagined the paramedics inside, working over her husband. Cody had passed out, his skin cold and pale. The doctors hadn’t been able to get his pain under control after his surgery nearly a week ago. Something was very wrong.
She’d had a bad feeling about this surgery from the beginning. Even the night before he’d gone in, she’d told him, “I don’t want you to do it. You could get an infection and die.” But he’d tried all the alternatives and they hadn’t worked.
Erica whipped into a parking spot near the emergency room. Cody had gotten an infection after the surgery and been in the hospital for several days with pneumonia. But with the pandemic ignoring people’s hopes for a better year and marching straight into 2021, the hospital had switched Cody to oral antibiotics and sent him home the previous evening.
By the time Erica entered the hospital, the doctors were running tests on Cody. It wasn’t long before she received a strange call saying, “The doctor’s ready for you.”
A nurse led Erica to a small room where a doctor waited. Were they going to tell her Cody had been put on a ventilator or something? The doctor’s expression was somber. “There’s no easy way to say it. Mr. Carlton has died.”
Erica stood unmoving. It wasn’t possible. EMS had arrived with Cody at 8:45 a.m. It was only a little after 9:00. She began to shake, her body accepting the truth while her mind kept echoing the doctor’s words.
Why didn’t I go in and pray for him when I could’ve?
“What happened?” she asked, as if understanding the answer could somehow help it to not be true.
Cody had died from an abdominal cavity infection, peritonitis. He was 50 years old. When his heart stopped, Erica felt in many ways, like hers did, too. For the first few weeks after losing him, she moved through the house still in shock, noting the presence of friends and family, but not remembering much about the funeral or what people said to her. The days blurred together.
As February turned into March, and March into April, the house emptied, except for her son, Andrew. She knew it worried him to so often return from work to find her still on the couch. But nothing about life was the same.
The house was too quiet.
Cooking for one seemed a waste. She wasn’t hungry anyway.
When she got out of bed, she tried not to look at the other side, the sheets smooth and untouched.
At the grocery store, she had to stop herself from reaching for Cody’s favorite foods.
For months, she couldn’t stand to work in the home office they’d shared upstairs.
She had to mark their 18th wedding anniversary without him, and celebrate the birthdays of their 5 children, blended into one family.
She learned to accept the help of friends and family, and that the hands fixing things around the house were no longer Cody’s.
She went out at odd times to avoid running into people she knew. She couldn’t take their sad eyes.
But still, there were strands of hope woven in.
The morning after Cody died, Erica was desperate to feel his presence. She went to Cody’s “prayer closet.” Between the walls lined with their clothes, Cody had jammed a small desk. On it was a lamp, books, and a corkboard tacked with photos and prayers on Post-it notes. Leafing through his prayer journal, she paused, seeing he’d written out Isaiah 41:10.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
The verse nearly doubled her over even as it brought so much comfort that she wrote it on her own prayer board that hung outside their bedroom. Spotting the study book Cody had been doing with his small group, she decided to read the book of Hebrews, too.
“I chose to be grateful and focus on the gloriousness of heaven. Cody’s better off than I am, in heaven! That outweighs my sorrow here.”Erica Carlton
She wasn’t looking for answers, but asking for peace—for God to take away her fear for the future. She was scared, and yet she wasn’t. One of the worst things had already happened. All she could do was turn to God. There was no managing on her own.
Reading the Bible for hours a day, Erica gained a whole new understanding. Never had she felt so close to God. “It softened the grief,” she said. “I chose to be grateful and focus on the gloriousness of heaven. Cody’s better off than I am, in heaven! That outweighs my sorrow here.”
Erica also chose not to isolate. She found reasons to get out of her pajamas, to walk the dog, get back into her job in software sales, serve at church, and accept friends’ invitations. “It made such a difference that people would just reach out. Nothing fancy. Just ‘I’m thinking of you today. You’re on my mind.’ The key for me was knowing I wasn’t alone.”
Her first Sunday back at Seacoast Church, she sat where she and Cody always did. When the worship music started and she felt him beside her, she let the tears come, knowing she was in a safe place.
“I made a conscious choice to try to heal, to find the good,” she said. “I asked God to use me, and show me some small bit of joy every day to help me make it through.” She welcomed the stories people told her about how Cody had impacted their lives, stories from guys who’d gone on the men’s hike and to movie nights, stories from his small groups, the trolley team, and from all the other places Cody had served at Seacoast.
“Anyone who knew Cody,” Erica said, “probably knows how much the hike meant to him. To honor him, I now go to see the men off to the hike, wearing one of Cody’s hike shirts and his hat. I just walk around, praying for them all.” When the West Ashley Campus hike team asked her to speak at an event, it was outside of her comfort zone, but God gave her the words. “I know,” she said, “Cody’s proud of me for it.”
“I made a conscious choice to try to heal, to find the good,” she said. “I asked God to use me, and show me some small bit of joy every day to help me make it through.”Erica Carlton
In the fall of 2021, Erica did her first Sisterhood hike. “I left a lot of my grief on that mountain. I told God I couldn’t carry it anymore.” For a time, she’d hardly been able to see anything but the pain, but she was noticing again, the hurting of others. A friend whose husband was dying was shocked when Erica reached out, knowing the pain had to still be so fresh. But their growing friendship became a source of strength for Erica.
They both understood what it was like to be okay one day, and not the next. They understood the guilt that came with having an okay day—as if it meant you were forgetting the person you had lost. “But I knew,” Erica said, “Cody would not want me to feel guilty. He would want me to live. You wonder if what you’re feeling is normal. Hearing someone else going through the same thing validates those feelings. My friend and I had each other, but we found that resources for widows were missing. The loss of a spouse affects everything.”
Erica joined Warrior Widows Life, a private Facebook group to find resources, widow meet-ups, and to share thoughts and experiences. She attended a conference for widows and realized she needed more of this community.
“I’ve been praying about doing a widows ministry locally,” Erica said. “I still have grief of my own, but it’s cathartic to help others, to be with people who understand. I’m happy to talk to anyone going through this, and to let them know that eventually the waves just crash a little less. Cody always said I was strong. I never felt strong. But now I do.”
Erica now leads a local chapter of Never Alone Widows. For more information, visit seacoast.org/sisterhood.
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