Joy Comes in the Mourning

Ken Totushek grieved his wife's passing differently—and what he did not only changed him, but the lives of others.

Depending on the month, you might find Ken Totushek strumming his guitar in a restaurant in Japan, singing on the steps of a Bedouin hospital in Jordan, performing at a guitar convention in upstate New York, or hosting a small concert in his living room.

But before his calendar began to resemble a world-class musician’s, Totushek, a welder by trade, worked as the CEO of his father-in-law’s manufacturing company. Music was a hobby then. But when Jennifer, his wife of 29 years, died of cancer, his unique method of grieving led him to pursue his passion. Now nearing 60, Totushek has changed from widower to newlywed, from businessman to missionary, and from amateur songwriter to professional musician.

The transition hasn’t come easily. His wife’s five-and-a-half-year battle with lung cancer was agonizing. “It was a hard, hard time,” he said. “The joy the Bible talks about—it’s not like it wasn’t there, but it was repressed. It was hard to sing at times, but music always ministered to my soul and to hers.”

After Jennifer’s death in late 2009, Totushek organized a series of house concerts in her honor. Twenty or 30 people would gather in his living room, and close friends would provide coffee and treats. “For a couple of hours I would play songs that had meant a lot to my wife and me. If people wanted to share a thought about Jen, they could do that, or just sit and listen to music,” he said.

“The truth of the gospel doesn’t change, but the methodology does. The bottom line is, it’s a lifestyle: Our lives have to match our words.”

For friends and family, the performances were helpful in finding freedom from grief. “Those times were encouraging and strengthening, and God used them to be very healing for myself and others who were close to her,” he said. That’s when Totushek realized his music wasn’t something to keep to himself. From then on, he was determined to use his guitar as a tool for God’s kingdom work.

The soundstage is a suitable pulpit for Totushek, a soft- spoken type who tried on a few religions before finding Jesus after high school. “There are different ways to present the gospel,” he said. “The truth doesn’t change, but the methodology does. The bottom line is, it’s a lifestyle: Our lives have to match our words.” So he brings the good news—and a guitar—wherever he goes, a practice that has earned him the nickname “musical missionary.”

Totushek travels to Asia and the Middle East twice a year with a ministry that utilizes lay people to encourage and counsel missionaries in the field. When stateside, he often books the Sunday morning slot at guitar conventions to play hymns and leads a songwriting workshop in his hometown to disciple other musicians.

“I find that in any culture I visit, there is a deep spiritual desire,” he said. And his guitar and vocals let him evangelize in a way that resonates with his audience, despite frequent language barriers. In 2013, the songwriter even received the “Building Bridges With Music” award at the Kansai Music Conference in Osaka, Japan, for his work connecting cultures through song.

Much of Totushek’s appeal comes from his vulnerable lyrics, words that seem to be plucked from the pages of his journal. He calls them “freedom songs” because they’re about finding liberation from hardship through faith in God. In a piece called “People in the World,” he sings, “With life comes troubles, most unplanned in oh so many ways. / Some seem to last forever, some go on just for days. / In those times what we need most we often cannot see, / an offer of forgiveness and a life that’s been set free.”

While few of his songs speak about religion directly, his live shows incorporate a storytelling component where he shares narratives from his own faith journey. Totushek’s recent concert series is titled “Simply Five Words.” In his monologue, he recalls a crucial moment in his first wife’s battle with cancer when the couple visited Bend, Oregon. While sightseeing in a mountain village called Sunriver, they came across a bench overlooking a beautiful vista. On the bench was a brass plaque, the kind usually dedicated to the memory of a deceased person. This one simply read, “Consider what God has done,” from Ecclesiastes 7:13 (NIV).

“When facing terminal illness, you have two options: You can choose to be bitter or you can ask, ‘What is God doing here?’ In our case, we pursued God.”

The scripture goes on to say, “Who can straighten what [God] has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other,” (vv. 13-14 NIV). The couple spent the rest of the afternoon at that spot. “We sat there and laughed and cried and prayed and considered, knowing that God was in control,” he said.

“When facing terminal illness, you have two options,” he explained. “You can choose to be bitter like Job’s wife, who said, ‘Curse God and die,’ or you can ask, ‘What is God doing here?’ In our case, we pursued God.”

Totushek might not fully understand why God called Jennifer home early, and the pain of losing her may never entirely vanish. But he is quick to point out how God is restoring joy to the things he loves most—music, family, and ministry.

One year after Totushek’s wife died, another woman, named Kathy, entered his life. She was two years ahead of him in her grief journey. She had also lost a spouse to lung cancer and was able to comfort Totushek and his four children in a way few others could. He found her to be encouraging, accepting, and fiercely devoted to her own kids.

United by the loss of their spouses and by their desire to serve God as missionaries, the two were married. “Life is short. At any moment, it can be gone. Kathy and I both had that experience,” he said. “We wanted to make the most of our time here.”

Although their collective eight children are grown and living on the East Coast, blending their families has been a challenge. “It was initially very hard for my kids—understandably so,” he said. “It’s been five years, and there’s healing taking place. We trust God, attend counseling, and have a willingness to draw close as a family.”

The first time the newlyweds traveled to Jordan together, it became clear that they wanted to do ministry full-time. Totushek was still working for the manufacturing business and drafted a plan to accelerate his departure from the company. He waited for the right time to speak with the leadership about his future resignation, but it never came.

“In fact, the leadership had made their own decision that they didn’t need me around anymore,” he said. “But because it was termination without cause, they had to honor the remaining three years of my contract.” Totushek calls this being “one-upped by God.” Not only was his exit expedited, but he also received compensation.

The layoff was a reminder that his identity didn’t depend on his job or his spouse, both of which can be lost in an instant, but on who he was in Christ. Reaffirming the source of his identity is something Totushek practices daily, spending a large portion of his morning reading Scripture, worshipping, and writing songs in his basement studio. The Rhode Island home he and Kathy purchased together is the couple’s base camp. In the afternoon, they plan travel, work on ministry projects, and take long, conversation-filled walks. “We have a lot of catching up to do,” he said of his young marriage.

“Dealing with terminal illness taught us to focus on the moment. You learn that you can’t spend a lot of time worrying about tomorrow, because every day is unpredictable,” he said. “Jesus talks about that. Focus on the day, He says. Every day has enough problems of its own. Why worry about tomorrow?

This is a lesson he wants to master, bundling each day’s struggles and placing them in Jesus’ care. “Christians are not guaranteed or promised that we aren’t going to have the difficulties the rest of the world faces,” he said. “But if we trust in God, He promises to be our hope, our strength, and our guide.”

In that hope, Totushek is free. If the sun should rise tomorrow, bringing with it good times and bad, you'll find him pressing on, guitar in hand, considering and singing about all that God has done.


Related Topics:  Death

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13 Consider the work of God, For who is able to straighten what He has bent?

14 In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider-- God has made the one as well as the other So that man will not discover anything that will be after him.

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