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 teenager, she bought it–regardless of the cost. When she needed to be picked up at university, her father sent his big 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 child. 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.

mopWhen 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 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 woman 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: cheese hiding in a nest of shredded phyllo that is baked and then drowned in 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 either “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, an expensive shower chair, food–that would make Donna more comfortable and her care more efficient. She had cared for a cancer patient 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. They sent us gift cards. Our new teammates, who arrived in Ottawa just two weeks after Donna’s initial diagnosis, offered to do absolutely anything we needed–despite having four children to care for and a huge list of immigration-related tasks to complete. Friends 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 life’s greatest physical pleasures, in her mind, was a long foot massage.)

One of our overseas colleagues left her daughter and newborn grandson to come and visit Donna for several days. While she was in our home, she asked me if there was anything I could think of that would make Donna more comfortable. I had no idea, so she made a suggestion: a double recliner with electric controls that would make it easier for her to adjust her posture and get in and out of the chair, and would enable me to sleep sitting next to her rather than across the room on the sofa. Co-workers in the organization with which we work collected enough money to purchase a beautiful La-Z-Boy loveseat. During the final weeks of her life–until her last three days–she only left that chair to go to the washroom.

Another friend drove eight hours from New Hampshire with a young friend of hers, a girl we’d never met. The girl came along just to meet my wife and to play the piano and sing hymns for her.

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 townhouse, 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, and went to the pharmacy. They 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 her care. 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.” I still can’t believe all they did for me, with wisdom, maturity, and precision amid the emotional turmoil of their mother’s impending death. They even did all of the legwork for the funeral arrangements, and sought the counsel of close friends who provided a wealth of practical information regarding how to go about burying a loved one without having to take out a second mortgage.

A man I know asked me how the funeral home handled payment for their services. I told him they required 25% down and the rest on the day of the burial. He responded by saying he wanted to pay the balance.

“Do you have any idea how much money that is?” I asked.

“Yes, I do. That’s exactly why I want to pay for it.” I was gobsmacked.

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. Near 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 she died–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 could 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. I’m a more private person than my wife was, and I am uncomfortable with people in my space when I’m not. I have grown accustomed to doing things a certain way, and change can frustrate me.

Both before and after my wife died, I had to acknowledge that without the help of my family and  friends, I would have drowned in a flood of concerns with which I was unfamiliar. Pride is what makes it hard for me to accept the service of others. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. But if I love to serve other people, and believe that God would have me to serve lavishly and selflessly, then I should allow others to serve me that way, as well. God holds them no less responsible to love, to serve, and to give than He holds me.

My wife’s critical illness, my loss, my grief, and my inexperience with my new reality all represent opportunities to allow others to serve me the way I hope I will serve them. God has given some the gift–and  all the responsibility–of serving those who think they don’t need to be served, but really do.

So, I’ve had to embrace service. From others. To me.

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