‘Gift of New Life’: Bride Shares Baby News After Husband’s Tragic Death
Three-day marriage of Franciscan University graduates witnesses beautiful blessing of a baby after groom’s death.
“Nathaniel was the greatest gift Our Lord could have given me. I told him that when he was alive. Now, there’s an added extra blessing.”
Mariana (Mari) Kuhlman reflected on her husband as she sat between her in-laws, Heather and Gordon Kuhlman, in their Oldsmar, Florida, home to share their poignant story with the Register on a video call.
There was a natural easiness between them and, despite their deep, deep loss, a gentle joy and unwavering faith in God.
It was Nathaniel (Nate) Kuhlman — Gordon and Heather’s only child — who brought them together as a family. He and Mariana met at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, in October 2021 and were married on Oct. 28, 2023. Tragically, on the first morning of their honeymoon on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Nate, 23, died in a water-skiing accident, a mere three days after their wedding.
Their last-minute splurge for a video captured their fairy-tale wedding day, and the newlyweds could never have imagined how brief their earthly marriage would be. However, the fruits of their brief sacramental union echo through eternity: Mariana, 22, is joyfully expecting their baby. Her due date is July 17.
“Happy birthday, my angel,” Mariana wrote on Instagram Jan. 14. “Clearly, God had a plan bigger than anything we could have ever imagined. He answered our prayers, and prayers of those around the world, just in a different way than we had expected, but still the GIFT OF LIFE, the miracle we are so overjoyed to finally share with you all.”
The couple planned to begin their new life together in Florida. Now, instead, Mariana, who works in marketing, lives with her in-laws: Heather, a middle-school teacher, and Gordon, a financial controller.
“Having the gift of Mari living with us allows me to see things differently, see things more sweetly,” Gordon explained. “[When Nathaniel died] it felt like part of the loss was the chance to be a grandfather was gone too. That has been restored.”
“Because my son loved her, that’s how I gained this beautiful daughter,” Heather added. “I’m so grateful for that love: to be able to have a daughter I never had.”
“Their hearts break for me as their son’s wife,” Mariana said, “and my heart breaks for them losing their only son. As much as they need me, I need them.”
Regarding the baby, she added, “It’s going as perfect as it can be.”
She counts among her blessings the opportunity “to raise the baby where Nathaniel was raised.”
A Budding Romance
There was a spark between Nathaniel, then a college senior, and Mariana, a junior, at their first meeting at Franciscan University, in October 2021, that came about due to fall-break planning.
Sitting outside on campus on a beautiful October afternoon, Mari’s friend Ashley Morisey mentioned that a group of friends were going to Florida for fall break and invited Mariana to come, saying, “All the girls are staying at my house and the guys at Nate’s house. Do you know Nate?”
Mari did not. Providentially, right then, he came walking by. Morisey made the introductions and mentioned she had just invited Mari to Florida. “Yeah, you should totally come,” he said, then excused himself, as he was on his way to Mass.
Later, as Mariana told to the Register, Nate revealed to her, “I took one look at you and thought, ‘Yeah, she’s pretty; she should come to Florida.’” Later that day, they ended up playing intramural volleyball on the same team and then got together again that evening for a movie with friends.
Thereafter, conversation and friendship came easily; maybe too easily. “He made it clear he was chasing after the Lord’s heart and didn’t want to move forward too quickly,” Mariana recounted.
Then came their third official date at a park, to which Nathaniel brought canvases and paints. Instead of painting, however, they talked at length.
“We’d better start painting before it gets dark,” Mariana finally said. But Nathaniel revealed he had already painted his picture.
He turned the canvas around to reveal an image of a flying bison from the Netflix series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Amazed at how well done it was, Mariana stared at it a moment before the words Nathaniel had painted sunk in: “Will you be my girlfriend?”
To his relief — he was a bit worried by the long pause — she said, “Yes.”
Engagement and Wedding
At Franciscan, Nate was a member of the Disciples of the Word household, a brotherhood supporting fellow young men, all aiming to grow in faith, love and knowledge of the word of God. Mariana belonged to the Daughters of Zion. “Our greatest desire is to obey God’s will to proclaim His truth to the captives and bring His freedom,” the household’s website states.
So, when Mariana’s mother, Ginna Garcia, suggested that her daughter invite Nathaniel for their family’s annual weekend getaway to Las Vegas just before Christmas, it was the idea of hiking in Mount Zion National Park — despite being 155 miles away — that convinced him it was a good idea.
On Dec. 19, 2022, Mariana, Nathaniel, her brother, Juan Diego Garcia, and their friend Hailey Rodriguez got up at 2:30 a.m. to arrive before sunrise and hike to a spot overlooking a canyon. Outside the car, they realized they were not dressed for the cold. Mariana suggested that Nathaniel let her brother use his gloves and he could use the socks he had stuffed in his jacket pocket as gloves. She went to pull one out, but Nathaniel quickly pushed her hand away. It was too late: She knew her heart’s prayer would soon be answered, as she had felt a ring box inside that sock.
Mariana played along, and her heart soared when Nathaniel got down on one knee and proposed overlooking a panoramic mountain view.
They married last October at St. Mary, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, presided over by Msgr. Joseph Pellegrino, whom Nathaniel had admired since boyhood.
“Their wedding was one of the holiest I’ve ever been to,” Heather said. “At one point [during the reception], the dance music stopped. They prayed over each other and did the household induction of the Daughters of Zion and sang their song a cappella. We felt we had entered heaven in that very moment.”
Gordon recalled, “There were beautiful girls’ voices and one deep voice — our son singing with them … the beauty of that. He knew the whole song. He was becoming their brother in that moment and got his ‘Son of Zion’ sweatshirt.”
“People were coming up to us, telling us they had never been to a wedding like this,” Mariana said. “It was so prayerful and fun, showing that you can have both.”
Honeymoon, Tragedy and New Life
That Sunday, when Nathaniel discovered he had forgotten his passport, Heather and Gordon brought it to him and joined the couple for Mass and lunch afterwards. It was “a blessing of the last Mass and unplanned two hours together,” Heather explained of the last time she would see her son alive.
The newlyweds arrived in St. Lucia that Monday evening and got up in the morning for breakfast and waterskiing — something they both loved. Nathaniel was especially good at it, having been on a water-ski team in high school. He went first and skied slalom with just one ski.
“I was watching him and saw that he had fallen and gotten up,” Mariana recalled. Then she drifted into conversation with someone, not seeing that he fell a second time. Suddenly, the boat sped her young husband — unconscious — to shore. An ambulance soon took Nathaniel and Mariana to the hospital, where the doctor overrode the protocol of trying to revive someone for 15 minutes. He worked for 60 minutes, but finally told Mariana, “He’s not coming back.” An autopsy identified drowning as the cause of death.
While in understandable shock, Mariana was in constant contact with her mother and Heather. Heather and Gordon and several other family members flew to the island. Heather texted friends to pray — begging God to restore Nathaniel’s life as he had done with Lazarus.
Their faith was strong, believing that God could even raise the dead, but their trust in him was equally as strong — God’s will be done.
Faith carried Mariana and his parents through. They clung to prayer, to Our Lady and to Jesus, trusting in God’s will, despite the horrific grief.
“I wasn’t angry at God, ever, throughout,” Mariana explained. “Nathaniel is now where he had always wanted to be. But I didn’t think it would be that soon, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand why in this life.”
Nate’s mom Heather admitted that years earlier she had been angry at God after a miscarriage, but she had surrendered to his will long ago, even when a second child was miscarried — and even now.
At her son’s funeral on Nov. 18 at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Church in Tarpon Springs, Florida, Heather spoke of victory and joy amid her grief in her eulogy: “There is no denying the pain or the tears. … They come at will, ready or not. But God also has been showing up in so many ways. We have felt his presence, blessings and graces through people like you … so I offer to the Lord all the energy and time spent to put it together so that you too would be able to experience the joy of the Lord … through my offering to the Lord.”
Gordon said the help of so many people gave them great comfort as they mourned. At least 20 people — family and friends — showed up at their house right away to comfort them and to help. “I was a mess,” he admitted. “I couldn’t figure anything out on my own.”
The family welcomes continued prayers, and a GoFundMe was set up by a friend to help with expenses.
Back in Florida, processing it all, Mariana asked if she could stay with Heather and Gordon, who readily accepted — happy to be together.
And, now, there is the miracle of a baby — Mari and Nate’s child and Heather and Gordon’s grandchild.
“When praying the Lazarus Prayer, it had crossed my mind, ‘What if God answers this in another way, that I’m pregnant,’” she recounted, adding that she took a pregnancy test on Thanksgiving Day.
“I was so overjoyed that God would give us this gift of new life,” she said. “I was wishing Nathaniel was here with me, but there is overwhelming joy. I could feel his joy. He already knew, but I was just finding out.”
The first ultrasound just before Christmas revealed a healthy, thriving baby. “That was beautiful in so many ways,” Mariana said. “It’s been the greatest gift of joy to have the season of new life.”