Couple merge families after losing spouses
ZEELAND, Mich. — The wedding portrait hanging over Jessica and Ryan Ronne’s mantel says it all. The bride and groom gaze adoringly at each other on the steps of a white clapboard country church.
It’s an iconic wedding-day moment — except for seven children clustered around them, making faces, crying, staring into space and generally not posing for the camera.
“It sums up our life pretty well,” Ryan told The Grand Rapids Press with a laugh. “I think God put us together, but sometimes, we wonder why.”
Jokes aside, the Ronnes are clear about why they came together. Although both know the grief of losing a spouse to brain cancer, they also share the excitement of moving ahead with a new marriage and an expanded family.
Jessica Ronne writes about her thoughts on family life, love, grief, faith and other topics in her blog, Jess + The Mess. In the two years since that wedding day portrait was shot, the Ronnes have blended her four kids and his three into a busy household balancing chaos with organization. They now have a family of seven children: Caleb, 10; Tate, 9; Lucas, 8; Mya, 8; Mabel, 6; Joshua, 3; and Jada, 3.
In their Zeeland home, they talked and played with their kids as they told how their family came to be.
It’s a far different life than they could have imagined in August of 2010, when both struggled to cope with the death of a spouse. The deaths occurred just four days apart, but Jessica and Ryan lived hundreds of miles away from each other and had never met.
Jessica and Ryan Ronne and their kids had their picture taken at their official church wedding day on May 28, 2011. The couple had legally married in a courthouse ceremony in April, before combining their two households into one. They held the church wedding so the children could take part.
As Jessica’s late husband, Jason Crisman, battled terminal brain cancer for three years, she chronicled their journey on a CarePages blog. A personal trainer and former professional tennis player, Crisman went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments with a strong-willed determination that he would beat the glioblastoma in his brain.
When he died on Aug. 24, 2010, it was an understatement to say Jessica had her hands full. A 33-year-old teacher, she suddenly was a single parent to four children, including an 11-month-old baby and a 6-year-old son who was born with hydrocephalus and has special needs. At one point, she wrote on her blog that she hoped God had a plan for herself and her children — Caleb, Lucas, Mabel and Joshua. As much as she grieved for her husband, she wanted to remarry someday.
“I guess I’m one of those people who really needs somebody to walk along beside me,” she said. “God knew that. And Ryan needed a wife, too.”
A blog reader from Tennessee suggested Jessica contact a man in Oklahoma who was dealing with similar difficult circumstances, but seemed to be struggling more. She thought Jessica could help him.
On Nov. 1, 2010, Jessica found Ryan Ronne’s blog online and sent a note of encouragement. She sympathized with Ryan, but she felt no initial attraction reading his blog — which had been set up when Ryan and his family went to Albania as missionaries.
“That missionary aspect freaked me out a bit,” Jessica said with a smile. “You think — really, really good. And holy.”
“And boring,” Ryan said.
“I didn’t want boring,” Jessica said.
Her note arrived at a turning point for Ryan. It was just three months after his wife, Kaci, died at the age of 30 of an astrocytoma brain tumor. Her disease had progressed rapidly — her death on Aug. 28, 2010, came four months after diagnosis.
Ryan had three children, Tate, 7, Mya, 5, and Jada, 8 months. He had great support from his wife’s family and from the community, but he didn’t know how he would manage.
“I was dark and depressed at that time and not doing well,” he said.
One October night, Tate asked his dad if they would ever get a new mom. Ryan was stunned. Remarrying was the last thing on his mind. Later that night, he thought about Tate’s question and wondered if God had laid that thought on Tate’s heart.
“I basically prayed, ‘Just prepare my heart to be open to pursue that, if it is a possibility,’” Ryan said. “I think that was the first time I realized life had to go on.”
The next day, he saw Jessica’s note. He felt no romantic spark at that moment. But he replied.
“I was thinking I needed a woman’s perspective on how to move forward to pursue romance someday,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was reaching out to my next wife.”
After one or two messages, the sparks were flying.
“A week later, he said, ‘I want to talk to you on the phone,’” Jessica recalled. “We got on the phone, and that was that. We talked on the phone six, seven, eight hours a day, and we just poured out our souls to each other.”
On Dec. 3, about a month after they first connected online, Jessica and Ryan met in Savannah, Ga. They wanted to meet “on neutral ground,” and they didn’t want to involve the children until they felt confident the relationship could move forward.
“I was scared out of my mind about meeting this guy,” Jessica said. “When we met, we just gave each other a big hug. It was just like we had always known each other.”
In January, Ryan proposed, and Jessica said “yes.”
They set a May wedding date and began the process of bringing the two families together. Ryan bought a large house in Zeeland, fixed it up, and moved his kids to West Michigan. Jessica and her kids left their Hudsonville home and joined them.
“I know it rubbed some people the wrong way that we didn’t wait a year,” Jessica said.
“It got to the point where we needed to do this for ourselves and our kids.”
The kids have taken part in grief counseling. But the Ronnes say the children have meshed without any big problems.
“They all kind of acted like brothers and sisters from the very beginning,” Jessica said. “They were so happy to have a family again. They all wanted a mom and dad so badly.”
To suddenly have seven children under one roof posed a few organizational challenges. Jessica, now a stay-at-home mom, drew on skills developed as a teacher and the oldest of 10 kids. They kept both families’ washers and dryers, and the machines are often busy. The laundry room has shelves holding nine bins for clothes and nine smaller bins for socks, each labeled with a name.
Every child has chores. A discipline chart in the kitchen establishes penalties for misbehavior. Separate cubbies near the back door provide space for each child’s shoes.
Ryan works remodeling, renting and flipping houses, but like Jessica, his schedule revolves around the kids’ needs.
For Caleb, 10, and Tate, 9, having a big family means lots of fun — as well as irritating moments with siblings.
The best part: “You have a lot of people to play with and stuff,” Caleb said.
Lucas, now 8, continues to make progress. When he was born, he was not expected to ever walk or talk. Last summer he started walking, and he has learned to say a few words, such as “more” and “all done.”
The youngest, Joshua and Jada, sometimes are mistaken for twins. They are now 3 years old, and are only 3 months apart in age.
“They couldn’t live without each other,” Jessica said. “They play and fight. They will never remember life without each other.”
Keeping in touch with extended family has been difficult in some ways. Between divorces and remarriages, the children have a total of 20 grandparents and great-grandparents. Trying to arrange visits at home or out of town with all the relatives is complicated. “But we are whittling away at it,” Ryan said.
Although a similar loss brought them together, Jessica and Ryan say that is not the only thing that keeps them together.
Both love to write. They have similar personalities: They would rather relax on a beach on vacation than head off for adventure.
“With the chaos we have here, we do not need adventure,” Ryan said. “Our life is an adventure.”
“We are both old souls,” Jessica said. “He’ll be a great old man someday. I’m a crocheter. I love antiques.”
That doesn’t mean it has always been easy. When they married, Ryan, 35, and Jessica, 36, were still grieving for their first spouses, but learned not to share all that grief with each other. It was too easy to stir up feelings of jealousy for the former spouses.
They became adept at communicating about problems.
“I used to be horrible at that,” Ryan said. “But we talk about stuff most people shouldn’t have to talk about. We face everything.”
Preserving memories of the former spouses, the birth parents of their children, is important to them, but so is creating a new family unit. They adopted each other’s children last summer.
“We have tried very hard to make it a marriage of the two of us,” Jessica said. “They (the former spouses) will always be a part of our family, but not part of our marriage.”
Two years into their new family life, the Ronnes said they have worked through most of the initial glitches.
“We are finally getting into the groove of our family,” Jessica said. “It’s like a well-oiled machine now.”