A black dress — on loan from a fellow Army wife — would have to do for the funeral. The majority of clothes don’t fit at 38 weeks of pregnancy. The baby would be induced to allow the mother to travel by plane to the funeral at West Point. And the baby would be there, too.
Jennifer Harting lost her husband on April 29, 2005. Army Capt. Ralph “Jay” Harting III was serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated during a traffic inspection outside of Baghdad. His last day as the Echo Troop commander was supposed to be May 6. He was supposed to be home for the birth of his son, his third child. He was 28.
A widow with a newborn is an inconsolable sight.
“His old Army buddies, grown men, were crying and falling on me,” Jennifer says about the funeral service. “I had to hold them up and tell them that it was going to be OK and share God’s grace. That was just my first real participation in His amazing grace.”
The women at the funeral, many of them military wives, were also crying. But their grief was mixed with the haunting possibility that this tragedy could happen to them.
“They were crying because the mere picture of me was a reminder of all that they could lose. They were crying for me, but also crying at the prospect that their cross was still there.”
Although today, Jennifer can reference the power of grace through redemptive suffering, it would be many years after her husband’s death before she would rediscover her Catholic faith and begin to understand the role of grace throughout her tragedy, for herself and others.
The stay-over at the hospital after giving birth was one of the toughest nights. Everyone had gone home. A constant churning in her stomach that wouldn’t ease now seemed even more noticeable. It was Sunday; Jay had died on Friday.
Jennifer’s mother and Jay’s parents had been with her all day, giving their support and sharing in the grief. A long line of family, friends and acquaintances had come in to offer their congratulations for the new baby and their condolences for the loss.
“The term ‘bittersweet’ couldn’t have applied more,” Jennifer said. “I was still in shock and disbelief.”
At the time, Jennifer’s concept of God was abstract. The name of Jesus was alien to her; it brought back negative memories of her biological father, who was absent her entire life, but who would also routinely send birthday cards with Bible-thumping messages. Given the circumstances, she found herself questioning the power of prayer itself.
“I had prayed very fervently for Jay’s safety every night, and those prayers weren’t answered,” she said.
Still, Jennifer had no choice but to trust that God would provide for her still-young family, including children Adeline, two, Ralph IV, one, and newborn Warren.
“Though I felt very alone in the world, in the spiritual world, I felt Jay’s presence,” Jennifer said. “I felt God there. I never felt this sense of anger and bitterness that was going to turn me into a horrible monster. God’s grace was really pouring out in abundant ways.”
The experience could be summed up in a single word: surrender. However, at the time, Jennifer admits she didn’t see such surrender as part of a personal relationship with Jesus.
“I just thought, ‘Okay, God, if this is your will, we’ll embrace this,’” Jennifer said.
Part of embracing it meant not fighting back — a difficult battle in itself.
“If you fight it, that’s when the bitterness comes in and you aren’t able to help other people,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t want my children to have this dark cloud hanging over their life.”
Nostalgic for a childlike faith
Her first step as a single mom was to move her family to Michigan to be closer to Jay’s family. She wanted to rebuild her life around people who would act as role models for her children.
“I didn’t have a father in my life or extended family. I just wanted my kids to be instilled with good values,” she explained. “I was determined to make lemonade out of lemons.”
A few months after the funeral, Jennifer was running the Army Ten-Miler, a race to benefit soldiers, in Washington, D.C., with her sister-in-law, Sarah Harting. She completed the 10-mile run to make her husband proud, but also because exercise was a form of therapy during the grieving process. Next, she tried triathlons, and, realizing a new passion for the sport, became an athlete, training hard, downing energy packets and crossing one finish line after another.
While she wasn’t quite ready to hand the baton to God, the Holy Spirit was quietly at work.
At a widows support group, Jennifer met Sherry Mayer, an expectant mother and widow whose story hit a little too close to home. Jennifer initially prayed she and Mayer would be in different breakout sessions — but looking back, she’s glad that petition wasn’t granted.
“We became fast friends in our grief,” Jennifer said. “We grieved together and began rebuilding our lives.”
Mayer, a Catholic, lived her faith openly, which caught Jennifer’s attention.
At the time, Jennifer was attending a Presbyterian church. She had been baptized Catholic, but never practiced beyond receiving her first Communion and participating in Mass with her mother on Christmas and Easter.
Jay had always wanted his kids to attend a Christian school, so when their eldest daughter, Adeline, was ready to begin kindergarten, Jennifer chose Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington.
It wasn’t until Adeline came home one day talking about the Hail Mary and the Our Father that a shower of grace flooded Jennifer’s heart.
“I just had this wave of nostalgia take over me, and here I had been through such darkness in my life,” Jennifer said. “These prayers and her innocence reminded me of the innocence and the beauty that came with my childhood.”
“Growing up, it was just me and my mom and my grandma and grandpa,” Jennifer continued. “Even though we were holiday Catholics, those few times that I would go had a great impact on my memory. Some people have a memory of their mom’s apple pie; my memories were of these prayers.”
Remembering Mayer’s Catholicism, Jennifer turned to her new friend for advice on rediscovering the faith of her childhood. Mayer was eager to be her RCIA sponsor, and toward the end of 2007, Jennifer was confirmed at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in downtown Detroit.
Unleashing the Gospel
The grieving process took a different turn once Jennifer returned to the Catholic faith.
“I began learning about redemptive suffering — all these ways of embracing the cross and leaning in on the cross — all these different ways of looking at grief,” Jennifer said. “It was very educational and eye opening.”
Her prayer life also became stronger, although she says she still has to remind herself that prayer “is not just about wants and desires.”
Her mother, Barbara Nazworth, also noticed a change in her daughter.
“Before, when I would look at Jenny, you could see a shadow of grief,” Nazworth said. “You could see that and you knew that she was in pain. That slowly started going away. You started to see the darkness become light and [she began] reaching out to other people.”
Four years after her husband’s death, Jennifer was emotionally ready to begin thinking about another relationship, and on Oct. 9, 2010, she married Brian Buckley, a former seminarian whom she had met at her parish.
“The kids really took a liking to him right away, and the rest is history,” Jennifer said.
Over the next six years, the family welcomed five more children, bringing the total to eight: Adeline, 16, Ralph, 15, Warren, 13, Elizabeth, seven, Ava, five, Natalie, four, Brian Jr., three, and Charlotte, two.
After a brief time living in Virginia, where Brian served with the U.S. Marine Corps, the family returned to Michigan, where Jennifer rekindled a love for interior design. Soon, she started a blog and opened an online home goods store with faith-inspired merchandise, appropriately named Grace and Grit Design Co.
On Dec. 5, 2018, Jennifer launched a brick and mortar store by the same name, nestled next to a tea shop in a trendy district of downtown Plymouth.She credits Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, with the inspiration to reach out in faith to others.
“The archbishop spoke about how we need to reawaken our community by our life, by our testimony, by our witnesses,” said Jennifer, who attends Mass each Sunday with her family at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth. “Women are saying: I have too many dreams, goals and aspirations that I want to achieve — children will limit me from achieving those dreams. And yet, here I am taking care of eight kids. I’m not saying it’s easy, but there’s not a limit to what God’s gifts can do, if you are open.”
Among the store’s artwork can be found inspiring messages of the saints, including a quote from St. Joan of Arc: “I am not afraid. I was born for this.” Another, from St. Catherine of Siena, proclaims, “Nothing great was ever achieved without much enduring.”
Such testimonies hold personal meaning for Jennifer, but they also resonate with her customers, many of whom pop into the shop because of its noticeably creative flair — and leave with religious art tucked under their arm.
A witness to Christ’s mercy
Jennifer’s customers aren’t the only ones who have benefitted from her witness. Her mother also returned to the Catholic faith, thanks to her daughter’s gentle nudge to make a good confession. Decades earlier, Nazworth had confessed being an unwed mother — an experience that didn’t go well.
“(The priest) made me feel bad and dirty,” Nazworth said. “I walked away from the Catholic Church, but in my heart, I was always wanting to go back.”
At Jennifer’s encouragement, she was willing to try again.
“I was scared after what happened. It took four or five months for me to go into the confessional, but I finally went in, and I was shaking like a leaf,” Nazworth said.
This time, though, the experience was positive. She calls the priest who heard her confession “the greatest priest on the face of the earth.” He told her not to let one bad experience keep her from her faith, and she agreed.
“I should have gone back and found another priest to confess to, but I never did,” Nazworth said.
Nazworth is grateful for her daughter’s gentle guidance, which was all it took “to restore that which was in my heart,” she said.
“I grieved over having turned my back on the Church for all those years,” Nazworth said. “I say to my grandchildren, ‘Please don’t do what I did because you’ll regret all those years you lost.’”
Jennifer’s conversion and witness also brought her lifelong friend, Andie Urquizu, back to the faith. Urquizu was one of the first people Jennifer called after Jay’s death, it was through witnessing the suffering and redemption of her good friend that Urquizu saw the true power of Christ, just like Jennifer’s mother did.
“I was able to tell my own mother [a practicing Catholic] before she died that I was a fully practicing and engaged Catholic — and that Jenny was, too,” Nazworth said.
“It’s hard to watch your daughter suffer,” she continued. “In her pain, she wanted to make some beauty. So, she persevered. There was a watch that Jay had bought her once, and he had the word ‘perseverance’ inscribed in it because that was the quality he loved about her.”
One person’s hope in Christ can have a ripple effect, Nazworth said. And her daughter is proof that God’s love is contagious.
“And that’s what Jenny is doing,” Nazworth said. “Maybe Jenny’s enthusiasm and the beauty of her store can set another heart on fire.”