Samantha Gustafson writes a story of hope

DOVER — In the days, weeks and months following her husband Brett’s death, Samantha Gustafson embraced Jeremiah 29:11 and held on for dear life.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Two years later, she continues to lean on a rock-solid faith and an “amazing” family as she rides the roller coaster of her life minus the man she once described as “Prince Charming in Wrangler jeans.”

“I have been surviving for two years,” Ms. Gustafson said Wednesday. “It’s one roller coaster after the next. Sometimes, I think that for every two steps you take forward, you fall four steps back.”

But when she looks back to the despair of Dec. 23, 2013, and compares it to where she now stands, she sees the progress.

“I’ve reached a point where I can go to the grocery store by myself. I can make dinner by myself now,” she said.

Samantha Gustafson found writing therapeutic in the months after losing her husband. For the first six months she paced the house while Brett’s dog, Rascal, slept under his clothes in the closet. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Samantha Gustafson found writing therapeutic in the months after losing her husband. For the first six months she paced the house while Brett’s dog, Rascal, slept under his clothes in the closet. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Most of all, Ms. Gustafson sees the hand of God not only crafting his plans for her, but also nudging her to make a difference in others’ lives.

That desire to make a difference led her to write “The Prayer of a Single Mom,” released Dec. 7, just days before the two-year anniversary of Brett’s death from an aggressive form of melanoma.

“Our story can help somebody else,” she said.

Young love

High school sweethearts at Lake Forest, Brett Gustafson and Samantha Hollingsworth married in 2008. He raised chickens for Perdue Farms; she taught third grade at Lake Forest South Elementary. Add into the mix two sons — Ty born in 2009 and Luke in 2011 — and a Boston terrier named Rascal, and the Gustafsons seemed well on their way to a dream life of growing old together.

Then came the lump. It was just a tiny thing. Almost like a small white mole.

Brett noticed it after a vacation to Walt Disney World in January 2013, and thought little of it.

Until it grew bigger.

Pressure from his wife — she called it nagging — pushed Brett to the family doctor and then a surgeon, who removed the lump that June and delivered devastating news: The biopsy showed Stage IV melanoma. The cancer already had spread through his body to other organs in addition to his skin.

Brett Gustafson died two days before Christmas. He was 28 years old.

The next chapter

“I have the most amazing family,” said Ms. Gustafson, now 29. “Whenever I sit here and I’m tired, I thank God every day for them.

“Tragedy will either pull you apart or you bring together,” she said.

“It definitely brought us together.”

Surrounded by Brett’s family, she rattled off how grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles help with the boys, seeming to know when she’s feeling low or when the children need a break from her.

Brett Gustafson poses with sons Ty, right, and Luke, on the family farm in Harrington. Mr. Gustafson died in December 2013 of melanoma. (Submitted)

Brett Gustafson poses with sons Ty, right, and Luke, on the family farm in Harrington. Mr. Gustafson died in December 2013 of melanoma. (Submitted)

On a recent day Ty and Luke were off to spend a few days with paternal grandmother Nanette Zimmerman. Multiple goodbye kisses and long hugs were followed by a rush to the back door.

Adventure awaited at Ms. Zimmerman’s Dover home. So did the playmates: miniature horses, rabbits and goats.

“They have a battery-operated four-wheeler,” Ms. Zimmerman said, and always have a blast.

“They love to come to Grammy’s.”

Ms. Gustafson later searched for the right word when asked how her sons are doing.

“OK,” she said. “They ask about Daddy every day.

“It’s hard. Very, very hard,” she said. “I think people have this time limit on when you should be OK.”

That’s not the case she said. The oldest, now 6, is beginning to understand his father isn’t coming home. At 4, the younger one is entering the stage of comprehension.

“But they are doing as well as can be expected,” she added.

Ms. Gustafson is also.

“I’m still in survival mode but ready to come out of it.”

She described herself as being in transition but on the verge of emerging to face whatever plan awaits.

“I feel like God is making me stronger every day,” she said. “I feel the healing.”

Returning to the classroom this past February has helped. After Brett’s death, she stepped into the role of chicken farmer. She found comfort there, working where he had worked.

“I love farming, love to take care of the chickens,” Ms. Gustafson said, but she missed her true calling.

“Teaching is part of my soul.”

She prayed. A lot. And waited for direction.

“It was the craziest thing,” she said. “I was driving home from town. I had on my chicken house clothes.”

She heard God tell her, “Turn around.”

When you hear God like that you don’t ignore him, she said, so she did as commanded and drove to the Lake Forest South office.

“Wearing my chicken house clothes!”

She chuckled over the memory.

“I asked them ‘What have you got for me?’ ”

It turned out the school had a long-term substitute position about to open. Her return to teaching took an unexpected turn, however. Her former principal, now with Caesar Rodney School District, recruited her for a full-time position teaching fourth grade at W. Reily Brown in Dover.

Brett’s father and stepmother, Steve and Tina Gustafson, are managing the chicken farm. That too fell into place at the right time.

‘A turning point’

And then there’s the book.

“There were some really lonely nights,” Ms. Gustafson said, describing life post-Brett. “For the first six months I didn’t sleep. I walked the house. I paced the halls. I cleaned the house.”

She relied on what she called “Band-aids.” Traveling, meeting new people, staying busy, learning independence.

Samantha Gustafson says “The Prayer of a Single Mom” is for anybody hurting and she hopes people look beyond the title. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Samantha Gustafson says “The Prayer of a Single Mom” is for anybody hurting and she hopes people look beyond the title. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

“Then, God talked to me one night and told me to write my story.

She poured out her life story over three nights. She wrote about things nearly forgotten, about her husband, about life, and, yes, about death.

“It was therapeutic,” Ms. Gustafson said. “It was a turning point.

“I needed to make room for God, by letting everything else go.”

She sent 20 pages to a publisher, who expressed interest but wanted more. Ms. Gustafson realized by more he meant sensationalism.

“I wasn’t going to do that. So I left it.”

She concluded it all had been an exercise to help her in the grieving process.

God stepped in again. One day she was writing Bible study notes in a journal given to her.
A flood of words poured out.

She found herself writing down what would become nine chapter headings.

“I had no idea what I would write,” she said. “I would pray and write. All the words in the book go to God.”

Not just for women

Despite the title, “The Prayer of a Single Mom” isn’t just for moms or even parents.

Rather, Ms. Gustafson said it speaks to anyone struggling with loss, sickness, struggles, to anyone hurting.

On the surface it may be targeted toward women because it talks a lot about feelings women have, she said, like worry, fear, hopelessness.

“But men have the same feelings,” she said.

And what is the prayer of this single mom?

“It is to be the best person that I possibly can be, built in God,” Ms. Gustafson said. “To continue to get better. I want to continue to grow.”

The book also is Ms. Gustafson’s testimony about her faith in God, and a tribute to Brett and the impact his life and death had on others.

A finger pushed back a threatening tear.

“Brett deserved that.”

Brett’s mom hasn’t read the book. “It’s too hard,” Ms. Zimmerman said Thursday.

Especially at Christmas.

“I read the first couple of pages and couldn’t go any further.”

Ms. Gustafson found a website that works like a Christian publishing database, she said. She posted information on her book and prepared to wait after being told it usually took six months to a year to get notice.

“I had offers from two publishers within a week and a half,” she said.

She went with Advantage Books, based in Longwood, Florida, and the book has been picked up by amazon.com.

Ms. Gustafson has contacted Barnes and Noble with hopes of selling copies in the chain’s Christiana and Salisbury, Maryland, stores.

“I have had so much feedback,” she said. “People have responded favorably, from a 60-year-old man to a 20-year-old girl.”

The response humbles Ms Gustafson.

“It gives me that peace,” she said. “I’m seeing what you are doing here, God,” using tragedy to help others.

She’s already had a couple of thrills associated with the book.

A friend who lives in New York City spotted five copies, all sold, in a Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue.

“It’s being sold in France and Italy and Australia and on eBay!” Ms. Gustafson said, with a note of wonder in her voice.

“That’s super cool. I’m just Samantha Gustafson from Harrington, Delaware.”

But neither fame nor money appeals.

Rather her hope is that through hers and Brett’s story people will connect with the God who has carried her through the last two years.

“You are not alone. Period.”

She paused.

“Everybody is looking for hope. We all need hope,” she said.

“Who doesn’t want to hear a story of hope?”

Editor’s Note: To read Ashley Dawson’s March 2014 story on how Brett Gustafson’s death impacted his family and the community, visit here.

For information on the book and donations in Brett Gustafon’s memory, visit here.

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