Mattie Jackson Selecman lost her husband on what started out as a beautiful day.
The day began on her famous father Alan Jackson's boat, as family and friends gathered to celebrate the Labor Day holiday under the warmth of the Florida sun. Mattie and Ben Selecman were also celebrating, as they basked in the bliss that comes in one's first year of marriage.
"We were still in the honeymoon phase of our life," Selecman, 31, tells PEOPLE about her late husband Ben, who she met while the two were attending the University of Tennessee. "Ben had one of the biggest personalities of anybody I've ever known. He was joyful and cheerful, and he was friends with everyone."
And it was that Ben that Mattie couldn't take her eyes off that fateful day, as he celebrated that late summer day back in 2018 … until the unthinkable happened.
Mattie Selecman/Facebook Mattie and Ben Selecman
"He just slipped," Mattie remembers of Ben's fall. "The dock was wet, which caused him to fall back and hit his head. It was a pretty long fall, but you know, it was one of those things where it's almost like watching somebody play high school football, where they shake it off. They're awake and they start to get back up and maybe they have a mild concussion or whatever."
But soon, it became obvious that this might be more than just a concussion. Two off-duty EMTs soon came over and suggested that Ben go to the ER. They did.
Caitlyn Floyd Mattie Jackson Selecman
"The neurosurgeons started to say, 'Hey, there's a chance we're going to have to do surgery because his brain is swelling and that's really where the danger lies,'" remembers Mattie, who at the time was enjoying some downtime after the closing of her Nashville restaurant Salt & Vine. "But at that point, he was awake. He was disoriented and in pain, but he was awake."
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum The Jackson family in 2017
However, from there, things turned far more dire. Surgeries ensued, along with an 11-day medically induced coma to try to control what was happening. But hope was not lost. Along with doctors and family members, the decision was made to start waking Ben up.
"I prepared myself for several years of physical therapy and the idea that we would have to go to a brain trauma clinic," Mattie recalls. "But at the time, we were thinking that waking him up was like the light at the end of the tunnel."
But then, within minutes, it wasn't. A blood clot had broken off in Ben's head, causing multiple strokes and severe brain damage.
"You can't ever imagine that high of a high and that low of a low within a three-minute window," she remembers. "And from there, it was less than 24 hours before his heart started to fail."
Thomas Nelson/W Publishing Group Mattie Jackson Selecman's Lemons on Friday
Ben Selecman died on Sept. 12, 2018.
And at 28 years of age, Mattie Jackson Selecman was now a widow.
"We prayed for Ben to be healed and whole and perfect," she says quietly. "And now he is. He's healed and he is whole, and he is perfect for eternity now, just not the way that we wanted."
For the past three years, Mattie has found herself in grief's never-ending roller coaster ride, permeated by the ups and downs and sudden spins that leave one grasping for direction. And it's this ride that she now documents in her new book Lemons on Friday, out Nov. 16 via Harper Collins.
"There were so many times when I had no idea how to process anything," remarks Mattie, who asked her parents — iconic country artist Alan Jackson and New York Times best-selling author Denise Jackson — to write the foreword of the revealing book.
"I had no idea how to even speak to some of my closest friends and family about how I was feeling. I thought if God could use all of my questions and all of my tears and all of the stuff that I was grappling with now that my life was falling apart to make someone else feel like they were not alone, then it was time for me to start writing."
So, she did.
"This is a story about how you go about honestly grieving something that is heartbreaking, that you know God could have stopped," says Mattie, who started the nonprofit NaSHEville, which helps orphans, human trafficking victims and widows, just two months before Ben's passing. "And for some reason, He didn't, and you have to grapple with that. It's also about the many question marks you might have in your future, when you find that so many of your plans have been undone. How do you process that honestly, but also not lose hope."
Courtesy Mattie Jackson Selecman Alan Jackson and Mattie Jackson Selecman
Because through it all, Mattie's strong faith never faltered.
"I don't believe God chose to inflict this pain on me," she says quietly. "I think the world is broken and it's sinful and bad things happen, and docks get wet, and people fall. That's the way that it is."
"My greatest hope is that people just see my story for what it is," she says. "This book is just a vehicle to show that you can hurt honestly with God, but there is a way to not let that hurt overcome you because of the hope of who He is."