The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Service

The sight both shocked and moved me.

A beautiful young woman was in my kitchen, on her hands and knees. As her body rocked rhythmically back and forth, she blew tendrils of dark hair away from her face as, with both hands gripping a towel, she scrubbed the floor. She grew up in a wealthy and privileged Middle Eastern home where the floors were cleaned by a housekeeper. When she wanted something as a girl, she bought it–regardless of the cost. When she needed to be picked up at university, her father sent his Mercedes and a driver.

Yet, here she was–scouring my kitchen floor. Just before she cleaned the toilets.

This girl and her husband had come to Canada as refugees, and Donna and I met them when she was five months pregnant with their first daughter. They quickly became part of our growing international family, and we grew to love them as our own children. We were in the delivery room with them when their precious little girl came into the world. We were often in their home, and they in ours. Even so, to see her on all fours with a rag in her hands is an image I won’t soon forget. And shouldn’t.

When Donna was first diagnosed with a pancreatic tumour, messages of hope and encouragement came to us from all over the planet. Throughout our life together,  we had developed an extensive network of friends and colleagues, and they immediately came alongside to help us to endure the anguish of a critical illness and its possible consequences. As Aaron and Hur did for Moses, they “held up [our] hands,” which soon grew weary from anxiety, sleeplessness, and exertion. One of our international “daughters,” a young Muslim from Saudi Arabia, made us a whole stack of delicious, ready-to-heat-and-serve dinners. Two stacks, actually–one for Donna without any seasoning, and one for me with all the seasonings she knows I love. She even made a couple of dozen servings of kunafa, one of our all-time favourite Middle eastern desserts: melted cheese hiding in a nest of shredded phyllo that is practically drowned in simple syrup. All of these dishes were pre-cooked and neatly packaged in disposable aluminum pans, each lid inscribed with the list of the ingredients inside and wither “Dad” or “Mom” written at the top. When she brought this wonderful gift, we were dumbstruck.

The day after my wife was told her cancer was at Stage 4, I had to leave for a week in Los Angeles. God arranged the circumstances so that a dear friend of ours from the Boston area arrived to stay with Donna while I was gone. Her arrival was providential. She sat on the couch or on the edge of Donna’s bed for hours. They laughed, cried, sang, read the Scriptures, and prayed together. Our guest went on a shopping spree and purchased all kinds of things–lavender bath salts, and expensive shower chair, food–that would make Donna more comfortable and her care more efficient. She had cared for cancer patients before, and she even brought a large quantity of supplements and high-protein smoothies so Donna would be sure to get the nutrition she needed.

People brought meals. They offered to drive us places, clean our house, run errands, and do our shopping. She brought or sent gifts they thought would bring a measure of cheer to our home. Someone gave Donna what can only be described as a Jacuzzi for her feet. (One of the greatest physical pleasures there was, in her mind, was a long foot massage.)

Our greatest blessing through the entire ordeal was our children. They all came together with their tribes–there were 16 of us living in our small town home, with gusts of up to 21 when our parents and siblings visited–and then all three came by themselves just before Donna died. They cooked, cleaned, went to the pharmacy, organized Donna’s medical records by making a binder that accommodated virtually every scrap of information her case demanded: her ever-changing medication schedule; events like vomiting, loss of appetite, or severe pain; when and what she ate; if and when she moved her bowels; and contact information for absolutely every person involved in any way with Donna’s care– and even some who weren’t. We took this binder with us whenever we went to see a doctor or took Donna into the emergency room, and the medical staff was amazed at the detail and organization. The men helped me with practical matters around the house. They brought all kinds of things for the children to do while they were here, and even though the house was jammed with people and all their stuff, the time was as delightful as such a time could ever be. Later, when the end was in sight and the children came back so they could be with us when their mother went to glory, they told me, “Dad, just make a list of things that need to be done, and we’ll do them. Don’t worry about anything–you need to spend all the time you can with Mom, and we’re here to make that happen.” They did all of the legwork for the funeral arrangements, and sought the counsel of very close friends (a local couple whom the Lord brought into our lives the first day we arrived in Ottawa) who provided a wealth of practical information regarding how to go about burying a loved one without having to take out a second mortgage.

We were astonished at the care we received from our provincial medical plan–not only medical, but also logistical and even emotional. The home care nurses were compassionate and, for the most part, highly competent. People delivered pharmaceuticals to the house as late as 11 PM if we needed them. Our pharmacist called the provincial office on one occasion to plead our case because she thought we had been improperly charged for a case of food replacement drinks. At the end, a doctor would come every day if required. One even stood at our door for some time, with tears in her eyes, speaking with our children. Because of the excellent care, Donna was able to stay at home until the end–seeing the things that were familiar to her, listening to her favourite music, being read to, and enjoying privacy and quiet when she needed it. She slipped into the arms of her Saviour surrounded by her husband and three children.

I’m a fixer. So was my wife. I’m also a do-it-yourselfer, something that sometimes made Donna roll her eyes and sigh. (Once, I decided to start making my own tofu. Enough said.) I don’t like other people doing for me what I can do for myself, especially if I feel obligated to pay them or if I think I can do it better.

The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sense and Sentiment


24 September would have been our 39th wedding anniversary.

I returned the night before from a week-long canoe trip in Algonquin Park, and I’d planned to continue “going dark” until today so I could spend our anniversary uninterrupted, alone with my memories.

(I’m getting ahead of myself with this post–I have a half dozen or so other other pieces on grieving to write before I’m through. But this one is fresh in my mind, so I’m going with it.)

Last week I went to a local florist and ordered a big bunch of white daisies for the occasion–daisies were Donna’s favourite flowers and the ones she carried in her wedding bouquet. My intention was to visit her grave yesterday and put them in the bronze vase that slides up out of the marker and then slides back down so the caretakers can mow. I thought our anniversary would certainly be an appropriate day to visit the cemetery.

On the way home from Algonquin, I rethought the whole thing. I could almost hear my wife asking, “Rob, why would you want to go there and mourn my death, when you can stay home and remember the wonderful life we shared? Nobody’s even going to see those flowers if you put them there (this was her practical side speaking), so why don’t you take them home and enjoy them yourself?”

10320528_10152769789874515_1791706950900169756_nAnd that’s exactly what I did–the sensible thing, the thing I know Donna would have encouraged me to do if she could. Wasting perfectly good flowers on a cemetery was not her style. Nor was mourning death when one could celebrate life.

I was dreading this anniversary–the first one without my darling. 24 September was perhaps the most important day of the year for us. Most years we went away for a three-day romantic tryst at a boutique hotel or B&B in a place we’d never visited before. In 2014, we took a road trip through Quebec’s Eastern Townships. It was one of the best times we ever had together–talking, laughing, singing, reminiscing, planning, eating, taking in the spectacular scenery, and delighting in one another without the distractions of home and work and other people.

Last year was a different story. Donna was not well, though we didn’t yet know why. We had a nice day together in downtown Ottawa and found a special café that has since become my favourite. But our usually festive and romantic mood was overshadowed by  pain. My “Firecracker” was fizzling.

On my drive home from Algonquin Park the other night, I stopped in the village of Barry’s Bay for supper. I bought the schnitzel special, and the three dessert choices included were pecan pie, bread pudding, and something called, “Hot Love.” Anyone who knew Donna knows exactly which of those she would have ordered, and can imagine the witty comment that would have accompanied the order. As I sat and ate my bread pudding (I’m not a fan of vanilla ice cream, even when it’s oozing hot fruity goo of some kind) I pictured her in my mind, smiling flirtatiously at me as she slid that first spoonful into her mouth. I yearned for her then. I yearn for her now.

I didn’t visit Donna’s grave yesterday, and I don’t know when I will–maybe at the first anniversary of her death, unless it’s -44º C again. I struggled in my mind with the compulsion to honour her memory by going to the cemetery, but then common sense–one of Donna’s greatest qualities, and a treasured legacy to me–took over. A clear biblical theology makes visiting the graves of redeemed loved ones unnecessary and perhaps even unhealthy, as it forces one to look backward instead of forward–to mourn rather than to anticipate; to recall the unspeakable anguish of sharing pain and witnessing death rather than to revel in the certainty of resurrection and eternal life in the unimaginable glory of heaven.

Absolutely nobody would have benefited from such a visit. She wouldn’t have–rejoicing with the Lover of her soul, she is beyond caring about what I do or about anything that goes on in this broken world. I know I wouldn’t have–just thinking about that grave brings tears to my eyes as I type. Going there would have conjured up the horrible images that I’ve been trying to get out of my mind for over seven months. I would much rather remember Donna as the beautiful, energetic, vivacious, passionate, delightful woman I loved for over forty years.

So I stayed home. After doing the laundry at 6 AM and restocking my refrigerator a few hours later, I stopped at the florist’s and picked up the daisies. I brought them home and put them in a vase. They’re beautiful, and they fill my heart with warmth and make me smile as I remember how many times I picked wild ones for my lover when she was here. They always delighted her.










I spent several hours in the afternoon looking through the things she had put in my grandfather’s big black steamer trunk that sits at the foot of our bed–memorabilia from her childhood, her school years, and from our life together. There’s a lot more in the basement, but I think I’ll wait to go through that with my kids.

I had never seen some of the items before, but the rest precipitated a flood of memories. She had saved many cards and letters. Some are intimate and passionate, and they brought back a deep sense of longing. Some are hilarious (especially the birthday and Mother’s Day cards from our kids) and made me laugh out loud. Some are poignant and gut-wrenching, as the scores of cards she kept after her leukemia diagnosis in 2000. As I sat with my back against the black chest and relived so much of my life with this one-of-a-kind woman, touching photos and clippings and some of the personal items I kept, I thanked God through my tears for the years He gave us. I am truly a blessed man.

20160924_181240When Donna and I weren’t able to get away on our anniversary, we would often stay home and cook a special meal together. That’s what I did last night. To mark the occasion, I prepared something I know she would have enjoyed: freshly-baked rustic bread dipped in good olive oil; cedar-planked salmon with maple and mustard glaze; polenta with shrimp, cheese, and fresh oregano; and vegetables tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and roasted on the grill with the salmon. I washed it all down with Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider, the delicious beverage we enjoyed on our wedding night at the Sheraton Hotel in Valley Forge, PA, and followed it all up with dates stuffed with bleu cheese and baked until the cheese oozed onto the plate. (We got this 20160924_191702idea from a cider salesman in the Eastern Townships in 2014.) Even though Donna wasn’t here, I imagined us working together, listening to the opera as we did every Saturday, talking non-stop except for frequent breaks to kiss and flirt. I have to admit I stopped to weep a few times, but I enjoyed a day full of precious memories.

Since DJ wasn’t with me, I forewent the candlelight on which she always insisted when we ate “alone together.” And I cleaned up the kitchen and did the dishes before I went to bed.

Had she been here, we would have left them until morning.




The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Suggestions

Did you ever notice that when you get sick, everyone you know becomes a doctor?

“You need to drink lemon water every morning. And make sure it’s warm.”

“Your body is too acidic.”

“I’m taking a supplement that really helps me with that.”

“You need to drink less coffee.”

“You need to drink more coffee.”

“My aunt had the same thing, and she was bed-ridden for the last nine years of her life.”

“Have you heard about pulling?”

“Chiropractors? Bah! What do they know?”

“I’d recommend carrot juice. Make sure you buy organic carrots, though.”

“I think you’re gluten-intolerant. You need to stop eating grains.”

“Man, that sounds bad. I’d see a specialist, if I were you. The sooner, the better. It sounds like you need an MRI, and probably surgery.


People mean well, and they want to help. So they jump into your circle of pain and speak from their own experience or that of people close to them. The process is the same with suggestions as it is with sympathy.

When we told our friends that Donna had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, their response was seismic–a tsunami of sympathy and concern. We were humbled and overwhelmed. People who loved us expressed themselves with heartfelt eloquence, and as Donna’s disease progressed, they assured us not only that they were praying for us daily, but also that they were weeping with us as they experienced vicariously the anguish of our impending separation.

Many offered suggestions–books on nutrition for chemotherapy patients; links to websites; anecdotes and advice related to the practical aspects of dealing with cancer. Some of these were helpful, and we were profoundly grateful for the love that prompted each of these gestures.

Indulge me as I rant for a minute. I know there will be medical people reading this, and I don’t want to offend you. I know practitioners who are not only exceedingly competent and well-trained, but also committed to their patients’ well-being and selfless in their devotion to them. The exception proves the rule. I am speaking in broad generalities, and my words are those of one who has experienced firsthand the sincere compassion, practiced competence, and astonishing accommodation of an enviable–albeit broken–medical care system. My observation about the medical industry in North America is that it is just that–an industry. Physicians treat symptoms. Most don’t promote wellness or practice preventative medicine, and few–by their own admission–know anything about nutrition. Despite loud crowing to the contrary, the industry seems to be searching not for cures, but for new treatments. There is a huge difference. (For instance, if a cure for cancer were found, the CEO of the American Cancer Society would have to look elsewhere for his million-bucks-a-year salary.) Sorry if I sound a little cynical. I am.

When Donna died, I expected friends to send suggestions. I was not disappointed. Along with hundreds of cards and encouraging notes, I received a number of books on grieving. A few were good. Others were predictable and generic to the point of being glib. I ordered C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and read it with the same admiring fascination as I have his other works. He wrote from my spot in the circle of pain, as if standing in my shoes. He lost his wife to cancer, and found that writing about his own grief was more helpful than reading about other people’s. That’s where I am. Having said that, other books I have found helpful are, J.I. Packer’s A Grief Sanctified (his re-telling, with commentary, of English Puritan Richard Baxter’s loss of his beloved wife); I Didn’t Know What to Say, by David Knapp; and Grief Undone, by Elizabeth W.D. Groves (the book I’m reading now.) Lewis’ famous, The Problem of Pain is on my summer reading list.

Grieving, while it involves universal elements, is a profoundly personal matter. Right after my wife’s death, I contacted four men–three colleagues and a friend from Boston whom I have not seen in years–who I knew shared my space in the circle. One lost his wife to breast cancer when they were both in their twenties and had a toddler. The wife of my friend in Boston died of cancer some years ago. Another, also a young father, lost his wife suddenly and shockingly during a medical procedure–surgery, as I recall. The fourth man’s first wife also died of cancer, and Donna was instrumental in introducing him to his new bride–something that brought her great joy and satisfaction.

I asked these men to be an email support group for me, and they readily agreed. I knew I had to source my suggestions carefully, and used several criteria. I chose:

  1. Men. Women have a different outlook on life, and while as a married man I found that infuriatingly helpful, I felt I needed the perspective of my own gender this time.
  2. Christians. I wanted to hear from men who share my worldview, my love for the True God and His Word, my assurance of eternal life, and my confidence in my Heavenly Father to restore joy and purpose to my remaining days here despite my loss.
  3. Friends. I wanted men whom I knew and trusted, men who would be frank with me– not mincing words, making assumptions about my ability to cope, or glossing over important matters of which I might be unaware.

These men have helped me more than they will ever know. They have been transparent in articulating their own despair and confusion. They have been bold and candid in their exhortations to me. They have encouraged me and taught me. I am immensely grateful.

By nature, I don’t accept suggestions readily. I prefer to do my own analysis and seek my own solutions. That is not a good quality, but it is part of my fallen character. The shocking decline and death of my beloved companion of 40 years shook me to my core. I realized that to immigrate to the world of grief without the help of experienced travelers would be foolhardy. Even dangerous.

I’m grateful I didn’t try to slip across the border undetected.



On Dirt, Grass, and Human Stupidity


When we lived in Atlanta, a group of our Homeowners’ Association members rented an aerator one Saturday and went to town on our yards. As were were working, an Asian man–a newcomer to the USA–stopped by to watch for a few minutes.

“What are you doing?” he asked me in heavily accented English.

“We’re poking little holes in the ground so our grass will grow better,” I told him.

His mouth fell open in disbelief. “Why?” he asked.

“Sir,” I replied, “I have to tell you honestly I can’t give you a sensible answer.”

I still wouldn’t be able to.

I just spent a good bit of time and money trying to get grass to grow in my front yard. I’ll take another photo in two weeks to see it it looks any different. Here’s hopin’.

As I was tamping in the seed with my rake, I got to thinking about how ludicrous this job actually was. Talk about poor stewardship of the planet! In many other contexts, the tree would be gone, the front lawn would be a vegetable garden, and there would be a goat and a few chickens out back.

Think about it for a minute. We drive somewhere and actually buy dirt. Dirt! We spend a great deal of money and countless hours of our discretionary time growing a plant that is inedible. We spread toxic substances all over it (well, I don’t) to make it grow longer and thicker; then, we use expensive machines to cut it down so we can bag it and lug it to the curb on trash day.

And we’re an advanced culture.


The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sympathy

“I know how you feel. My dog died when I was eleven.”

I just read an excellent book by a man who has lost two wives, and included at the beginning of each chapter is a list of things to say or not to say to someone who is grieving. The opening sentence of this post might be on one of those lists. Can you guess which one?

Well-meaning people can say stupid things. While the loss of a pet can be traumatic and painful–it was for our family when Ebony, our beloved Labrador Retriever, was hit by a car in front of our house–it does not compare with watching one’s dearest friend and lover starve painfully to death before one’s eyes. Believe me–I know.

Sympathy. The noun comes from a Greek compound word meaning, “feeling together.” That’s what people are seeking to do when they offer us messages intended to communicate a degree of understanding of our situation when we grieve or encounter difficulty. They are seeking to include themselves in our circle of pain so we will know they care about us and want to help us bear our suffering on some level. That “circle of pain” is actually a series of concentric circles, with the smallest being composed of those people who have  experienced exactly what we are experiencing.

It is the nature of sympathy to seek to be in the smallest circle possible. For this reason, some people who mean well speak poorly. They try to imagine a personal experience as close as possible to our own, and then present it as a ticket of admission to our circle. My wife and I had fifteen years to learn how this works, starting when she was diagnosed with leukemia in April, 2000. As soon as the “C” word is mentioned, people start rummaging around for their tickets.


I have had to learn to accept all of these tickets, no matter how wrinkled, tattered, or illegible. Even if they were tickets to a different show. If one has never lost someone close, seeking to encourage one who has is like a first visit to a foreign culture–one is likely to commit a faux pas.

When we told our friends that Donna had cancer again, the sympathy came like a flood. It was heartfelt, and people went to a lot of trouble to articulate their feelings and their support.  They started to send us money and even gift cards, assuming Donna’s sickness would impose unexpected financial strain on us. They mailed cards and Bible verses. They emailed us. They assured us of their prayers. They posted greeting-card-like photos and poems on our Facebook pages. Some of them came to visit, traveling thousands of kilometers at their own expense to weep and pray with us and help with practical needs. They did everything they could to communicate their feeling-with-ness. Throughout the process, I don’t recall anyone saying something that wasn’t appropriate. My hundreds of feeling-with-ers  continue to be a huge encouragement months after Donna’s arrival in glory. Many have never lost a spouse, so their tickets are in the upper bleachers. But they cheer with gusto, and offer kind words and helpful counsel from their own experience with God’s “marvelous, infinite, matchless grace.”

Oddly, the Greek verb, sumpatheo, “to feel with,” does not appear in the New Testament. Another word, parakaleo, “to call alongside,” “to comfort,” “to encourage,” is the verb that comes to mind when I think of the sympathy my wife and I were called to embrace during our ordeal, and which I embrace now.

All three Persons of the Trinity are said to be paracletes, or comforters. Jesus told His disciples in John 14 that because He was leaving them, and He would ask the Father to send them “another Helper, to be with [them] forever.” (JOH 14.16) This implies, of course, that Jesus was Himself a Helper (parakletos,) and the word is used of Him in 1 JOH 2.1 to describe His advocacy for the sinning believer before the throne of God. As Paul mentions in 2 COR 7.8, the Father “comforts the downhearted.”It is in God’s nature to be a comforter.

The quintessential passage related to comfort is 2 COR 1.3-5:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

As the God of all comfort, He can comfort us in all our affliction. Why? So we can “comfort those who are in any affliction.” This goes beyond “feeling with,” beyond that series of shrinking of circles. It allows us to prescribe and apply the balm of God’s own comfort– wherever it hurts, and in whichever of those circles of pain we find ourselves. Sympathy falls short in that we cannot feel with people whose experience we do not share. Comfort transcends human experience because it comes from a God whose very nature is comfort, Who understands every human emotion and experience, and whose comfort is applicable to every kind of anguish we encounter.

And He desires that we be fellow-practitioners–His interns, if you will–in the healing of the soul.


The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Scripture

We were in the Ottawa General Hospital waiting for the oncologist to arrive for our first scheduled consultation.

We were scared. We were about to talk with a man we’d never met about a treatment we’d never experienced for a disease we’d already encountered. We were in this together–cancer is not a private affliction–and we didn’t know exactly what to expect.

We had to wait for 25 minutes in a small, spare, empty room. We were grateful for both the privacy and the time. We talked and held hands and wept a little, but we spent most of the time reading the Scriptures together. I have the Bible on my phone, so I scrolled through psalm after psalm–some that Donna requested, some that I chose, and others at random. Just before the doctor arrived, we talked about the phenomenon of Scripture, about how remarkable it is that one can receive such comfort from black marks on a white page. The  Word of God was having its effect on our hearts in a precious and unforgettable way. We were embracing Scripture; even more importantly, Scripture was embracing us.


Some time later, the day we received the diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer, a dear friend came to stay with Donna while I was in Los Angeles for a training course. When I got back at the end of the week, she asked if she could write a post on our secret Facebook page. We agreed, and she asked our friends to send us, among other things,  verses of Scripture that they thought would encourage us. Very soon, we began to receive a steady stream of index cards, some of them hand-decorated, adorned with biblical texts.  After reading and discussing them, we would put them in a box on our dining room table. Often after a meal or before bed–especially in the final weeks of Donna’s life–we would each take a half dozen or so out of the box and read them to each other, talking about the friends who had sent them, perhaps reminiscing about times we had spent with them, and allowing the sweet refreshment of the Scriptures to wash over us. I still have that box filled with Scripture verses, and will use it for some time. These passages, many of them from the Psalms, continue to bring encouragement, comfort, and the strength to take the next steps on this new path.

When Donna was diagnosed with leukemia in 2000, she was put in a UNC study group that would have enabled her to receive a bone marrow transplant at no cost. The process would have been complicated and taxing, but the physicians were optimistic. It never happened. Neither of her brothers was a suitable donor, so she was put on massive doses of Interferon instead–3 million units daily, administered by self-injection. Her body responded well to this treatment, and within two years her cancer had gone into full remission. But these were the worst two years of our lives. (I have always said that Interferon is the best-named therapy there is. It interfered with absolutely everything. On the long list of possible side effects, the only one she did not experience was hives.) Though Donna was only in her late forties–and, under normal circumstances, an extremely gregarious and optimistic woman–her treatment transformed her overnight. She heard me tell many people that it was like living with an 80-year-old mental patient. It was physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining, and it affected me nearly as much as it did her. She got to the place in 2002 where she told her oncologist that if this was the way she had to live, she didn’t want to live at all.

Early on in this process, she left our bedroom in the middle of one night just to be alone. She didn’t want to disturb me, but she suffered from insomnia and was discouraged and anxious. I heard her weeping in the living room, and got up to join her. I brought my Bible and told her she needed a massive dose of psalmacilin. (I coined this word that night to describe the Scripture therapy that would become such a vital part of our lives in the days ahead, and we have used the term many times since when we have needed the Psalms’ powerful antidote to sorrow, fear, discouragement, injustice, or uncertainty.) I held my darling in my arms and read to her for a couple of hours from the Hebrew hymnal. It was a precious night, and we spoke of it often thereafter.


Above my kitchen sink there is a glass message board fastened to the bright yellow wall. On it is one of the last things my wife ever wrote–a verse from the Psalms that sustained her through many difficult times during the last fifteen years of her life. It sustains me now, and I have no plans to erase it any time soon–not only because I like to see something written in her elegant and familiar hand, but also because this simple truth speaks so eloquently to what I am facing in my own life.

By January of this year, Donna was very ill. After only her second chemotherapy session six weeks earlier, an abscess had appeared in her upper abdomen which resulted in a serious, painful infection that required the administration of a potent antibiotic and frequent draining by our visiting nurse. Since no chemotherapy was possible while she was fighting an infection, the tumor on her pancreas grew exponentially and the cancer spread to her liver. Donna’s appetite had disappeared–she was only able to get part of a smoothie down every day, and she was becoming increasingly emaciated. Sensing that her body was no longer able to tolerate chemotherapy even under the best of conditions (whatever they are,) her thoughts had turned to heaven. We had talked and prayed and wept together for days, and we were privately preparing ourselves for that phrase in our wedding vows that read, “…until death do us part.” Donna decided one night that she would not accept any more treatment. In the morning, she was afraid to tell me of her decision; but I had also been thinking that chemo would only postpone the inevitable–for only a short time, and in an unimaginable way. The choice between misery and glory was a surprisingly easy one to make. For her.

Together, we chose to refuse any further therapy except for pain and the management of her ascites. Tearfully, we told our children and parents of this decision, and as an extended family we began to  plan for Donna’s transition to her heavenly home. We went to the second consultation with her oncologist–just three days before the next round of chemo was to begin–prepared to tell him what we had decided. As we waited for him, Donna began to recite Psalm 23 to herself over and over in a halting voice. I joined her, and once again we wept and held hands and embraced with the passion and tenderness of 38 years together and the certainty of our impending separation. Yet, by the time the doctor arrived, we were dry-eyed and collected, and Donna was able to tell him in a steady, confident tone that she was ready to meet her Saviour and had chosen to forego medical intervention that would delay her.

I have already written about the effect Psalm 103 had on our family, and this psalm was read at both of my wife’s memorial services. I asked a friend to read Psalm 23 at her  Ottawa service and to preface it simply by saying that this was one of the first passages of Scripture she had memorized as a child and that it had brought her immense comfort during times of intense pain and anxiety. Anyone who knows this psalm understands.

No one can explain the power of the Word of God to do what it does in the heart of the believer. The Bible is not mere “black marks on a white page.” It is as it describes itself, “living and active.” (HEB 4.12, ESV) Its effect can be profound, unexpected, and immediate. A sentence can change one’s perspective forever, and alter the course of one’s life.

In my grief, as in other times of intense anguish, I don’t need to explain Scripture. I need to embrace it.

The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Steadfast Love


“There may be no more significant Old Testament description of how God relates to His people than this Hebrew word hesed. I argue that the best translation of this term would be “loyal love.” God loves His people genuinely, immutably, loyally. Both the love and the loyalty are, of course, tightly bound together. That is, just as one cannot love capriciously so one cannot be loyal without love. God is for His people, and will never cease to be for them.” (R.C. Sproul, Jr.)

The English Standard Version consistently translates this Hebrew word, “steadfast love.” When believers are taught to love as God loves–taught to practice the agape love of the New Testament–the focus is often on the selflessness of God’s love. It is viewed not as an emotion, although it often elicits an emotional response, but as a commitment to the good of other. The Old Testament seems to emphasize not the selflessness of God’s love, but its steadfastness.

The human love proposition is: “If you love me, you’ll…”

This is the antithesis is of agape love, as it is a self-absorbed view that makes demands based on personal desire or perceived need. We assume that those who love us will go out of their way to do what we want. When they fail to do so, we not only assume they don’t love us, but we also cease loving them–if loving is what this duplicity can be called.

The Divine love proposition is: “Because I love you, I’ll…”

This is hesed. God is love, so His love never abates despite our misunderstanding, misgivings, or misbehaviour. There are times in life when the theological reality of God’s hesed  must eclipse any expectation of its experiential reality, and the diagnosis of a ravaging disease and the subsequent loss of one’s beloved partner in life is such a time. But then, God takes that theology and transforms it into song and sunshine in the most unexpected ways.

When we learned of Donna’s cancer, I decided to memorize Psalm 103 and asked my family to memorize it with me. It became a project of our fused spirits, and I believe we were all affected by the way this divine poem puts human life in perspective so frankly and artfully–I, profoundly so. David, God’s penman, describes our earthly pilgrimage like this:

“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” PSA 103.15,16

One day life is full of joy, love, laughter, purpose, and promise. Four months later, it is over. Just like that.

Despite his in-your-face portrayal of life’s shocking brevity, David tempers his observation with a recurring reminder of God’s steadfast love–His hesed. After his opening call to his own soul to bless the Lord, he mentions that one of the reasons to do so is that Jehovah “crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” (v. 4)

He reminds his soul that God showed Himself awesome and powerful to both Moses and to His people Israel, and then assures himself and the reader that “the LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (v. 8)

Our God “does not deal with us according to our sins, or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.”  (v. 11)

Immediately following this disconcerting comparison between our earthly life and the life of a flower, he reassures us: “But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…” (v. 17)

As I have meditated upon this psalm scores of times in the last seven months (I did so again this morning) I have seen the flash of these precious chunks of hesed–the many ways God demonstrates His steadfast love to His children. It is abundant, vast, and unending. As a dear friend and colleague just now reminded me on the phone, “Theological facts are not the things that fulfill us in our times of deepest need. They are the anchor that stabilizes us,” but God uses people and practical demonstrations of His love to teach us, enrich us, and uplift us.

Embracing sovereignty gave Donna and me the assurance that God knows what He’s doing. Embracing sickness allowed us to trust Him in the darkest hour of our lives and look forward to the day when all sickness will be a long-forgotten nightmare. Steadfast love is a crown for my soul now, reminding me I am a child of the King and His love for me is infinite–just as He is.

“Bless the LORD, O my soul!”