Ashlee Birk was living a simple life as the mother of five children and wife to a successful lawyer. One cold night in March 2011, her worst nightmare came true when she found out that not only had her husband been having an affair with a married woman, but he had been murdered by the woman’s husband. Grief-ridden, angry, and hurt, Ashlee learned how to pick up the pieces and put her life back together again.
How did you meet your late husband, Emmett?
We met in 2003 through a mutual friend who worked with me at the gym at Utah State University. We hung out every day and got engaged a few months later and got married a few months after that. It was really fast; I was barely 21 years old when we got married.
Tell me about those first few years of marriage and family life.
The first few years of our marriage were awesome. I felt like we were a great team. We were both in school so it was a constant balancing act, but it never felt like work. What we had was great. We had twins right after we got married–they threw us into parenting but we loved it. I couldn’t picture my life any differently; it was about as perfect as I’d imagined as a kid. I felt like we were best friends. Everything I did, I did for him, and I felt like everything he did, he did for me.
How was your relationship later on in your marriage?
A few years before he passed, Emmett was accepted into the law program at Gonzaga University. By then, we had three children so we moved our family from Logan, Utah to a suburb of Spokane, Washington, about an hour away from Emmett’s law school. During those years he had to be gone a lot, which made me feel disconnected from him, but I always anticipated that after he graduated things would get better. Those few years of school were really hard for our family; I felt like I was parenting alone. But I was willing to do it. After graduation, we moved to Meridian, Idaho, and I felt like something changed. He became this great attorney but forgot about the best parts of our life. He was all about making money. It was always for the good of our family, but we were just waiting around for him to be part of it. I was happy, though; I enjoyed being a mom and was willing to do anything for my husband. Looking back now, I see that there was distance between us, but I didn’t feel the distance very powerfully until about a month before he died. At that time, it was almost like he was another person: he was mean and angry and you could tell he was hiding something, but there was no clue as to what, why, or how. I think he was finally being tormented by his bad choices and it was making him push away all the good things in his life. I learned later that he had been having affairs with various women throughout his time at Gonzaga, and then for about a year with one particular woman before he died.
What were the events leading up to Emmett’s death?
Emmett had a paralegal, who believed in him and showed up on his doorstep one day and wanted to start a criminal law firm. I think he just ate out of the palm of her hand and was like, okay, here we go! I didn’t know at the time but I learned after his death that they began an intimate relationship about the same time they started their business. The paralegal’s husband, Rob, was onto all of it. I was pregnant and then I was dealing with a brand-new baby, so I didn’t know what was going on. Rob did his research and found out about his wife and Emmett’s affair. On March 11, 2011, he decided to take a gun and confront Emmett. The fight ended with Rob putting a bullet in Emmett’s head and shooting him in the heart. That night, I was alone with the kids and I remember praying really hard for Emmett to wake up. I prayed that he would see me and the kids and feel of our love. But he never woke up again. It was the night that my greatest fears came true. I found out that not only was he gone, but that he had been unfaithful to me for a long time. The fact that he was gone was really hard to deal with, but feeling that I wasn’t enough for him has been my biggest battle. It was a really hard reality to face. At that time we had been married for seven years and had five children.
I can only imagine the grief and heartache. How did you deal with everything at first?
The week following his death, I was stuck on anger. I was so embarrassed–the one thing I thought I had was this perfect marriage. I was so angry. I wanted his clothes out of our house. I was like, “I don’t want to see him anymore, I don’t want to see his stuff, I hate him!” That week was actually one of the easiest out of the weeks that followed because I was just surviving on anger. But then grief set in, and until I felt grief in my own life, I had no idea how overwhelming it is. Although my husband had done all this bad stuff, he was still mine–he was still my husband and a father that we still needed. I was mad at him because of his lies, but then the despair would hit, and it was almost unbearable. The weeks after his death were pretty much a conglomerate of bipolar emotions that I had no control over.
What was your healing process that first year?
The first year I was on autopilot. I was a zombie. I went through the motions of life, but I didn’t let myself feel a lot of the time. If I let myself feel, it was so overwhelming that I wouldn’t want to get up in the morning. I think the second year was harder, because the trial occurred during the second year and we had to deal with the facts and the reality that this was never going to go away. I was a mess. I struggled with depression and anxiety; any time I would go somewhere I was scared something would happen to us. My kids had a constant fear of the unknown. Fear defined our family. Everything was so unknown, especially with the trial. We didn’t know what to expect.
How did you deal with your own grief while still dealing with the daily responsibility of raising kids and helping them with their emotions?
I was so overwhelmed. My mom stayed for about a month, but after she left it was just me and the kids, and that was so scary and so hard. So I hired my cousin to come live with us and be a nanny for the summer. Basically, I paid her to hang out with us so I wouldn’t have to be alone. I met my husband, Shawn, who I’m married to now, at the end of the summer when my cousin was still there. We got married a little while after that. There was someone there to help me all the time.
Amidst all this pain, you got remarried. Wow! How was your first year of marriage?
I don’t think we had any clue what we were getting into. We both felt really strongly about it; I just had faith that we were doing the right thing. But some days were so hard. He had one child and I had five, but I couldn’t even handle myself, let alone create this blended family. There were other days when he was the one who got me through hard times. During the trial he didn’t come with me; we hardly talked the whole month of the trial. But I was able to come home and not say a word and feel safe. Rob got out of jail for nine months prior to the trail, which was really scary for me, so having Shawn in our home and knowing that if Rob showed up at our door I wouldn’t be alone was a great relief. I think Heavenly Father had a great plan. Each day there was a reason why I was supposed to be married to Shawn. Even though I wasn’t prepared and I wasn’t a great wife for a long time, Heavenly Father blessed me with him.
You said Rob got out of jail?
Yes. There was a judge who was visiting for the day when one of Rob’s court dates came up. The judge offered him a bond of a million dollars and his parents ended up paying it, and he got out of jail for nine months, starting a couple of weeks after he killed Emmett. I was by myself; it was just pure panic and chaos. We didn’t know what his agenda was, who he was, really anything about him, and he was just walking around the street two neighborhoods away.
Have you had contact with the other family? If so, was that an important step for you?
About six months after everything happened, I ran into the woman Emmett was having an affair with. I didn’t say a word to her. I told myself, “She doesn’t care about you, so just walk away.” I was at Rob‘s trial every day. His mom and sister were also there. The day we were waiting for the verdict to be announced, we were all having lunch at a cafe that had just opened up at the bottom of the courthouse. I went over to fill up my drink and I swung around and his sister was there. I hadn’t said anything to his family throughout the trial, but I got this overwhelming feeling that I should say something to her. I told her, “I don’t know if we’re supposed to talk to each other, but I just want your family to know that I know you’re hurting too. I’m really sorry that all this happened and sorry for what you’re going through.” She started crying, and we just cried together. It was a really good experience for me to step into their shoes. He was their brother and their son and they still loved him.
What was the verdict that day?
Rob got second-degree murder and 30 years in jail. He’ll have the option of parole the year that Tytus, my youngest, gets out of high school, but that will depend on his behavior.
How did your faith evolve?
I’ve always had faith, I’ve always known that Heavenly Father answers my prayers, I’ve always seen His hand in my life. But it wasn’t until I went through this total low point where all I had left with was Him that I realized how much He cared and was there for me. I’ve always known about the Atonement and known that the Atonement is there for me when I make a mistake. Whenever someone would wrong me, I knew I needed to forgive them. But as I have gone through this tragedy, in which three people wronged me on so many levels, my faith has helped me understand the Atonement on a much deeper level. The Atonement is there even if you’re just struggling with the fact that the story you’re living is different from the one you had planned. The Atonement is also there to help you forgive and feel compassion for a man who made a really bad choice. I think that’s been my greatest blessing, to understand the Atonement and the power that it can have on those hard days when it feels like your faith has been flat in the dirt for weeks and someone is just dragging you. If you pray for help, Heavenly Father will send you a little light, and He will send you the right person to say the right thing.
Can you share an example of when you felt a strong feeling of comfort?
Sure, I have so many! This is the first one that popped into my mind: One day, I was down at Emmett’s old office meeting with detectives. I remember being shut off from my emotions. I was like, “I’m not going to cry again! I’m not going to worry about the family pictures that I never found, I’m just going to get down to business and I’m not going to feel.” I purposefully went down to the office and went about my things, signed the papers and left. On the way home, I was like, “Okay, I’m still not feeling anything.” It was almost a feeling of panic, like, “I don’t feel at all!” I walked in my house and my kids were all around and I could not even feel their love; I could barely even feel their hugs and kisses. I still felt like a zombie. My baby was in bed and I could hear him being fussy on the monitor, so I ran up to his room and picked him up and he fell back to sleep on my shoulder. I still couldn’t feel his love but I just kept rocking him while he slept. Then, all of a sudden, the music that I had playing on his iPod turned and the next song was “Footprints in the Sand.” I remember almost feeling Heavenly Father pick me up and say, “You know what? I’m right here. You can’t feel me, but I’m right here.” I just bawled through the whole song. I sang the words to my baby and I felt like Heavenly Father was talking straight to me, like He was saying, “I’m not leaving you alone. This is hard, and this is not the life you wanted, but this is where you are and I’m still here with you.”
What a wonderful experience. I know faith doesn’t fix everything, but it sounds like it’s buoyed you up when you’ve needed it.
I think that’s definitely something I’ve learned about the Atonement: it doesn’t necessarily fix the pain that we feel, but it can somewhat take it away.
What advice do you have for women who are dealing with hard trials?
I would say, believe in yourself. Every trial enables us to discover our own strength. We can turn to Heavenly Father and we can turn to the gospel, but we can’t find out who we are through anyone else. No amount of makeup or clothes or kind words will change the way you view yourself. Even though we aren’t perfect, Heavenly Father sees our beauty and He sees our willingness to work hard. He sees everything that no one else does. I wish women who are going through hard times would see themselves as God sees them. If we could do that, we wouldn’t doubt ourselves or question our abilities or our worth.
How are you doing these days? Are you happy?
Today we’re still fighting some of the same struggles: fear and the temptation to not feel good about ourselves. I watch my kids and notice that sometimes they clam up when we’re in groups and they cling to me a bit. But I feel like every day we’re becoming more comfortable in our own skin and with our own story. We’re embracing the fact that the road we traveled to get here wasn’t smooth, but we’ve really come together because of that. Every day I feel a little stronger and a little more able to embrace my new normal.
How is being married again?
You know what? We work dang hard! We have our challenges just like every couple does, but I feel like we both know exactly what we want and we’re willing to fight through all the hard days, because the good days have been amazing. We both have been through a lot and we both know exactly where we want to be. We set a lot of goals, and I feel like I have a good teammate and partner to reach those with.
What’s your faith like today?
My faith is everything. I sometimes feel fear about the future and about myself creep into my heart, but my faith is stronger than it’s ever been. I know Heavenly Father believes in me and He gives me strength. Sometimes, when I go to help someone else who has turned to me to help them through their struggle, I feel Heavenly Father’s love even more. I’m able to stand a little taller and believe in myself a little more and forgive. I think my faith is on course to be where I want it to be someday.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I just want people to look for the good in every day. Look for the light of Christ in everyone you meet. Even those people who wrong us have good in them that Heavenly Father sees. And I think with His help we can see it too. It doesn’t mean we have to trust or let that person into our lives, but to be able to view them as Heavenly Father does is true empathy and the only way we can ultimately find the ability to forgive.
Amazing, thank you.
At A Glance
Location: Meridian, ID
Marital status: Widowed / Remarried
Children: Bailey(9), Bostyn (9), Jordyn (7), Teage (7), Kaleeya (5), Tytus (3)
Schools Attended: Lone Peak High School, Utah State University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”
On The Web: www.themomentswestand.com
Interview by Linda Yamamoto. Photos used with permission.
At A Glance