Craig Strickland's widow is reflecting on her heartbreaking year in a pair of essays posted to her personal blog on the eve of Valentine's Day

January marked a year since Helen Strickland endured the unthinkable trauma of finding her husband, country rock singer Craig Strickland, dead on the shores of a rural Oklahoma lake following a duck hunting accident with his friend, Chase Morland. She paid tribute to her late partner on the anniversary of his death with a touching message shared to Instagram, and now she’s reflecting on the heartbreaking experience in a pair of essays posted to her personal blog on the eve of Valentine’s Day. Titled “From Newly Wed to Widow: The Search for Craig,” Strickland opens up about the ordeal in agonizing detail, from her last conversation with her husband to the moment she knew he was never coming home.

Though concerned when Craig was first reported missing on Dec. 27, 2015, she admits that she was optimistic as she packed to join the search at Kaw Lake in Oklahoma’s Kay County—taking great care to select the perfect outfit for the happy reunion she hoped would be. “I got up 4 a.m. and put on a full face of makeup and super girly ski outfit,” she writes. “So that when we found Craig stranded on a random island on the lake (so happy to see me, of course), he would look at me with doe-like eyes and say, ‘Wow! My wife is so hot.’ No joke. That was really my thought process as I packed for the trip. As I got ready that morning, I felt so sure that I would see my husband in wonderful spirits that evening.”

Her hope began to fade during the two-hour car ride, when Craig’s father received a call on his cell phone: Authorities had discovered a capsized boat that matched the description of the one used by Craig and Chase. “I felt (and heard) my heart give one massive beat that seemed to push all the blood in my veins through my entire body in a single throb.”

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Later that day, as the family sat in a freezing police station rendered powerless by a heavy snowstorm, their spirits were flagged by news that Craig’s dog, Sam, had been found alive. “I don’t think in Sam’s entire life that he had ever received as much love and attention as he got that day from our family, or as we would receive in the weeks following from random strangers.” While the sign of life was comforting, it only confirmed that the overturned boat was indeed Craig’s—and that something was dreadfully wrong.

Chase was found the following day, with Strickland called as a “second opinion” to identify the body. “At this point I was still numb and for some reason, unable to show emotion,” she remembers. “Which, looking back, is probably why the officers turned to me as the chaos [erupted] without us. So I quietly agreed, stepped forward and sadly identified the face of Craig’s sweet friend.”

After a week of tireless searching surrounded by friends and loved ones, Strickland would receive the news she’d been dreading. According to the police report, Craig’s body was found “in a thick tree and brush area approximately 75 feet off the shoreline,” just off of Bear Creek Cove. “Craig was found today. He is safe with his Father in Heaven,” Strickland tweeted at the time. “Thank you Lord for leading us to him today. I will praise you, Amen.”

Strickland would find solace in her faith, and even a degree of understanding in the hours and days to come. “Never once did I get angry at God for my circumstances,” she writes in her essay. “But there were times that I just didn’t want it to be real; and therefore, would ask Him if this didn’t have to be part of my life’s story. But it was there on that lookout point that I realized what I was experiencing was bigger than me. In all actuality, it wasn’t even about me at all. It was about God, and God using Craig’s testimony to impact lives of more people than I could have ever imagined. It was about providing a sense of strength and hope for people also going through tragic circumstances and needing to be reminded of God’s love for them.”

Her ability to find meaning in the despair is a testament to her spirit, but acceptance came later in the grieving process. The night before Craig’s funeral service, a sleepless Strickland recalls turning to an old friend for guidance.

“There in that dark hotel room next to my childhood best friend, who knew every secret about me, I felt the feelings I had tried so hard to ignore starting to spill out of my lips. I’ll never forget looking at the faint outline of her face and saying with child-like honesty, ‘Holly…I don’t want this to be my life. I miss him. I miss cuddling with him. I miss kissing him. I don’t want him to be gone.’ It was like I thought that by saying the words, maybe she could change what was going to happen the next day. Thinking on that moment still makes me choke up because it was so real. So raw. It was the first time I had allowed myself to admit it. I had finally ripped the band-aid off and let the wound bleed.”

Yet wounds heal, and for Strickland those solitary moments are when the healing truly began. “It is in those dreadfully quiet, tear-filled moments, when we’re alone in our bed that God is closest. He’s waiting for you to look to Him before anyone else, because he is wanting to be the one to heal the painful places of our hearts with His love (the only remedy for a broken heart).”

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Once the memorials were over, and the assembled friends and family had all gone home, Strickland embarked on the path to her new life without her husband.

“In the months to come I will admit that I had days when I felt totally lost. My heart would yearn for someone that wasn’t there, and nothing I could do would change that. But on the days when I felt like the loneliness I felt might consume me, I’d stop and check where I’m focusing my perspective…because I’ve found that if I’m allowing my ‘aloneness’ to dictate my feelings, then most likely my focus is inward on my own selfish wants and desires, instead of being focused upward on my relationship with God.”