The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sickness


Most people don’t like to be sick.

Oh, there are those for whom “How are you?” is a question, not a greeting–a question to be answered in gruesome detail (regardless of how close to mealtime it may be,) the response buttressed with medical statistics, lists of practitioners and drugs, and perhaps the occasional offhand reference to this morning’s obituaries. We all know people for whom a clean bill of health would be cause for profound distress and precipitate a desperate quest for a second opinion.

But that’s not what this post is about.

When Donna was diagnosed with stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer in October 2015, we didn’t seek a second opinion. We assumed–and rightly so–that this disease would be difficult for a medical expert to mistake for something else. And although we prayed early on for a miracle and accepted the recommendation of chemotherapy to slow the monster’s advance, we both knew this is what would be recorded as Donna’s “cause of death.”  It was only a question of when.

I have enjoyed robust health all my life–something for which I have thanked God often. We have traveled to many places and eaten many strange things, from iguana eggs to lamb’s heads to guinea pigs, and in some unscrubbed environments. I don’t recall ever getting sick from something I ate, unless I ate too much of it. (Once, in Ecuador, our hosts asked us if we liked our chicken rare or well done. We opted for well done.)  The last time I had the flu was over 30 years ago.

There’s a downside to good health: it can make one less than sympathetic with those who don’t enjoy it. This has been true of me, though I am ashamed to confess it. I have no patience with the kind of people I described in my opening paragraph–people I view as caricatures of the truly needy. But when my darling was told she had cancer, we both had to embrace the truth.

For me, this meant not only that I would lose my wife, but also that I would be her primary caregiver during that arduous journey. I felt intense sadness for my impending loss, but I also felt unprepared for my new role. I did not know the pain my wife’s illness would cause in her body. I did not understand the emotions of a person whose earthly life is soon to end. And I did not know how to adequately meet her needs.

My ignorance was irrelevant.10320528_10152769789874515_1791706950900169756_n

Our souls groaned within us. Many times during Donna’s illness we reminded each other that we had vowed before God and several hundred friends “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.” When I said those words in 1977, meaning them sincerely, I had no idea that I would be awakened at night by my wife’s cries of pain. That I would see her abdomen distend grotesquely with fluid as she slowly starved to death. That I would watch the final feeble rising of her chest in a time when we were enjoying life immensely. That I would bid “so long” to a mere husk of the woman who just four months before had been beautiful, vivacious, mischievous, energetic, and a delight and inspiration to everyone who knew her.

But I knew that if I was to embrace God’s sovereignty, I also had to embrace Donna’s sickness. We embraced it together. Donna’s sunny disposition and indomitable spirit sometimes made it hard to remember that she was dying. Up until she lapsed into a drug-induced coma three days before her homegoing, she was laughing and cracking jokes. One night, as we were arranging ourselves on the double recliner where we slept together for her last few weeks, I rubbed against the PICC line in her arm (the catheter used for administering drugs) and she said, “Careful, buddy–don’t pull that out, or they’ll think you knocked me off.” I’ll never forget it. Just days before meeting her Saviour, with the weight of her impending death heavy upon her frail shoulders, she could still face her situation with the confidence and humour that endeared her to us.

Donna’s illness gave me a reason to serve her in ways I had never had to before. I did all the household tasks, except when our children came and pretty much took over the place so I could spend as much time with their mom as possible. I prepared her ubiquitous high-calorie smoothies and filled her water bottle. I woke her up twice a night for her morphine. I went to the pharmacy for her drugs and the other assorted items she needed. I prearranged all of her medications for the following day and night in a caddie I had labeled for that purpose. I gave her injections. I recorded all of her doses, meals, and medical events in the binder our daughter-in-law had designed for us. I arranged the cartons of equipment and supplies before the daily nurse’s visits. I helped her in and out of her chair and took her to the washroom. I read to her and played the music she requested. And as much as I hated the reason for doing all these things, each task gave me immense joy because I was able to serve the precious woman I loved and the Saviour Who allowed me to love her, enabled her to love me, and loved us both with a steadfast love neither of us could begin to comprehend.

I cannot accept the ideas that faithful believers will never get sick or that Jesus’ death  provides physical healing. I believe these convictions are based on faulty hermeneutics, and have been proven false countless times as godly, faithful saints of God have been struck with disease and have, in some cases, lived for decades with chronic pain before going to meet their Saviour.

One of our most treasured passages of Scripture since Donna’s first cancer diagnosis in 2000 has been Romans 8. Paul’s words are especially poignant when one is staring death in the face:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (ROM 8.18)

The Apostle goes on to explain that groaning–the desperate, anguished cry of the soul–is common to humanity. The universe itself groans in a mysterious way under the weight of sin’s horrific consequences:

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (ROM 8.22,23)

The encouraging thing is that God Himself groans with us.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (ROM 8.26)

Even when I struggle to articulate the turmoil inside, when I can’t classify or quantify the wave of emotion crashing over me, even when I don’t want to pray because my soul is dumbstruck with shock or disbelief (all very real experiences for me now) the Spirit who occupies my pitiful heart presents my case before the throne of God in a manner so profound and impassioned that it defies verbal expression.

Paul ends this astonishing chapter with the truth that enables the believer to embrace something as horrible as pancreatic cancer and face its inevitable outcome with confidence:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all [the groaning] creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (ROM 8.35, 37-39)

Who am I to argue with that?



The Evolution of Perspective

Today was a good day. I accomplished a lot, filled my house–even the garage–with good music, and succeeded in doing something I’d never done before.

My wife was a superb manager of our home. She was a frugal, canny shopper who didn’t drive all over town looking for bargains, but still fed us very well for very little. She did it without me most of the time–she said that when I went along, it took longer and we spent more. I was delighted with this arrangement.

Household tasks of the domestic persuasion–shopping, washing dishes, laundry, and housecleaning–have been things I have eschewed at every opportunity. I have always despised them–as much as for their monotony and repetitiveness as for anything else–and am eternally grateful that God gave me a wife who viewed home management not as a duty, but as a calling. Like motherhood.

Donna was a trained bookkeeper, and early in our marriage I realized that managing our finances because I thought it was the husband’s job was a foolish pursuit. She knew the drill. “Reconciling” the chequebook was a great way to describe what had to be done when my numbers began to misbehave.

My view of these tasks is changing. I almost choke as I type this, because I never thought I would see myself say such a thing. But an evolution is taking place in my life, now that I am alone. An evolution of perspective.

The first phase was disdain. Actually, that isn’t a strong enough word. Profound and unmitigated loathing. There–that says it. I’d rather have had my teeth drilled than wash the dishes. Folding laundry in a way that satisfied everyone in the family confounded me. And those fitted sheets were invented by a singularly demented soul, perhaps the devil himself. I am not a shopper. I am a consumer. I decide what I need, find out where it is, make sure I can afford it, buy it, and leave. No muss, no fuss. I love the internet.

In those times when I did help Donna with her housework, there was a grim satisfaction just in finishing something I found unpleasant. Checking stuff off the Honey-Do list induced, on occasion, a little too much silent glee.

When my wife became ill, I saw these tasks in a new light. Now, they were things I could do for her that she could no longer do herself. They were a way to serve her, and in that they brought a measure of joy. Before, I could often serve her best by staying out of her way. She was a domestic machine. A Zamboni. But when she was ill, mindless duties like washing dishes and folding socks became welcome distractions from her pain and my sorrow.

Now that she is no longer here, and I realize I have no choice but to do these things for myself, I often think about how she would do them. I am grateful for all she taught me. (My mother tried to teach me these things, too, but I wasn’t listening.) I have discovered that I’m not helpless–there isn’t anything I have to do here that I don’t know how to do. Today I shopped, cooked, did the laundry, and re-packaged my meat and fish (purchases of which I was quite proud, thank you very much) into smaller portions and marked them appropriately before freezing them. Just as Donna would have done. I even made granola. When I go to bed, the dish drainer will be empty, and all the laundry will be folded and put away. I take pleasure in the fact that I think she would be pleased with my performance. And maybe a little astonished.

My perspective has reached a new level. It’s not pleasure–I can think of many other ways to spend my time that would afford a lot more pleasure–but it is the absence of displeasure.

And I think that’s about as much as I can hope for.

The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sovereignty

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I can already see this series of posts is going to be difficult to write. Excruciating, maybe. But I need to write it–if not for you, for me.

To prepare for this first piece, I scrolled through our Facebook pages and saw posts, comments, and photos that brought back painful memories. As I’m writing, I’m listening to one of our favourite jazz pianist-vocalists sing the love songs Donna and I would often listen to on road trips or while we were eating supper “alone together”–our favourite state of being. The music, as pleasant as it is, no longer has any point. For me, it has lost its context because I have lost the one I loved.

In the last post, I mentioned that every theme in the series will involve a key word beginning with the letter, “s.” The first word is, “Sovereignty.”

The photo at the top of this page was taken on 31 July 2015. Our entire family had taken a two-week road trip to Nova Scotia, a once-in-a-lifetime holiday that had been planned for two years. We will never forget it. The people, the sea, the haunting beauty of the place, the food, the music, the childhood memories, the scents, the reunions after so many years, the countless hours of family fun and conversation–these were all gifts of God for which we will be forever grateful. “The Kiss” was photographed at Yarmouth Light, one of our family’s favourite places when our children were growing up just outside that charming seaside town.

So, what does this all have to do with sovereignty? This excerpt from an 8 October 2015 Facebook post will explain:

 Yesterday, only moments before we left to meet with the surgeon, I read an immensely encouraging email from [a close friend]. He cited this text:

“For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady, he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.” (PSA 112.6-8)

Little did [he] know how timely and appropriate his note was.

Dr. Weaver told us that all the tests indicated with 98% certainty that the mass on Donna’s pancreas is malignant. Further, Tuesday’s CT scan of the chest revealed a small spot on each lung. The tumour is inoperable, because it has attached itself to a main artery leading to the liver; therefore, the only viable treatment option, in Dr. Weaver’s opinion, is chemotherapy.

We drove home in shock, but then when we talked yesterday afternoon, we both said that we felt God had been strangely preparing our hearts for this news. We wept and prayed together, and experienced an overwhelming sense of the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” When we gaze through tears, we can’t discern details, but we can see the Light…

1. God is not scratching His head, wondering what to do next. This is part of His plan, and we’re all in. We know there are things He wants to do in us and through us to His eternal glory, and we want to be usable and willing vessels. We have not given up hope. In EXO 15.11, Moses asks, ““Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” We know that everything God does is a wonder, just because He does it…

2. Life will go on as normally as humanly possible. At the table last night (Donna cooked a wonderful chicken dinner for our guest,) after he’d spent some time processing our news, David said, “You know what? This is God’s plan, and we’re still going to fill this house with joy and laughter…”

3. We do not want to live lives of resignation, but of anticipation. We have no idea what God wants to accomplish through this, but we hope it’s something they will be talking about in heaven some day…

4. Cancer is not the enemy. The Enemy is the enemy, and he wants at best to distract us and at worst to devour us. Please pray with us that does not happen…”

Knowing exactly what was lurking in my wife’s body, our Father lovingly and graciously allowed us to have two weeks together as a family in a place that is not only stunningly beautiful, but that also held some of our happiest and most poignant family memories. While Donna was experiencing occasional abdominal comfort, we didn’t know why–and she was well enough to enjoy every moment of our time together.


On 3 November, I wrote this entry:

“The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” PSA 145.17

These words sprang off the page yesterday as I was preparing for my BTCP class on the attributes of God. I was sitting in our car in a parking lot–I wasn’t really in the mood for a coffee shop, believe it or not–while Donna was undergoing her second ERCP. The discussion of God’s goodness was poignant, given the news we received from the doctor yesterday afternoon.

Donna has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It has spread, but we don’t know to what extent. That will all become clear when she goes to the Regional Cancer Centre. They already have all her data, and we expect news about an appointment very soon–this week, we hope. The doctor told Donna, “You’re still young and healthy, so we’re still optimistic.” (She chuckled a bit when he said this and thought to herself, “Did he check my birth date?”) We savour every morsel of good news.

This is not the news we wanted to hear. But we know God is righteous, and good, and kind, and we rest in Him. We have no idea what God is doing or why, but we sense His presence with us and want to be used as His tools for whatever He wants to accomplish.

Honestly, I still have no idea why God chose to take my wife when and how He did. I may never know. The only one Who needs to know, knows. Job, perplexed that God would allow him to be so troubled–he lost his children, his possessions, his health, and the support of his wife–said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (JOB 1.21)

Job embraced the sovereignty of God. Embracing God’s sovereignty is not fatalism, which is common to many of the world’s religions. It is recognizing that the Potter has both the ability and the right to shape His clay however He desires, for His eternal purpose. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 9, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to it’s molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?'” (ROM 9.20)

Who am I, indeed?

After Job’s three acquaintances–I am less prone to call them friends than others may be–spend thirty-five chapters of the drama berating Him for his sin and his ignorance of God, Job has come to the end of his rope and is clearly annoyed with his self-appointed tribunal. Beginning in Chapter 38, God says to Him, “Enough already. Have a seat, Job. Now I’m going to ask the questions.”

Two chapters into the Divine discourse, Job says, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (JOB 40.4,5)

God answers, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me, that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (JOB 40.8,9)

After two more chapters of listening to God’s hard questions, Job responds by acknowledging his submission to the sovereignty of God: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (JOB 42.2,32)

Looking back on it, I think my grieving began in the surgeon’s office when he told us Donna had pancreatic cancer. As much as we tried to convince ourselves over the next weeks that things would work out fine, God was preparing us for what was ahead.

My wife’s illness and death have driven home to me the lesson of a song our children used to listen to as they were gong to sleep at night. It’s the lesson of the first “s”:

“You are big, and I am small.”

The Essence of Grieving


To me, words are both tools and toys.

The title of this series of posts is wordplay. I don’t claim to know the essence of grieving–this is my first experience with anything like this, and my wife died only eight weeks ago tomorrow morning. But during this process, from the time of the diagnosis of stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer in October 2015 until this moment, I have had to embrace a number of things that can be described with words that begin with the letter, “S.”

Hence, “ess-ence.”

As I write this, I’m sitting in the beautiful double recliner where my darling spent the last three weeks of her life. It was an extravagantly generous gift from a group of our colleagues, and from the day it arrived in our home, she never left it until she was confined to the hospital bed that eventually replaced our dining room table. We would sleep here together every night, sitting close and holding hands until my phone alarm would ring at 2 AM, signaling her next dose of morphine.

I’m listening to music we listened to together, in the dark, as she was dying. The tears are pouring down my face as my chest heaves with sobs. At times I still can’t contain my anguish. My memories of her are both precious and intensely painful.  I want to remember her as the beautiful, vivacious, mischievous woman she was when I took this photograph–brimming with life and love. Instead, I fight to purge my memory of the dreadful images of her starved, cancer-ravaged body in the final days of her earthly life. She had aged thirty years in four months, and as I looked at her it was difficult to grasp that she was actually the  woman in the photo.

My love for God–and His love for me–tempers my pain with hope. My tears are not for my wife, who is rejoicing in the presence of the Saviour she served so joyfully and faithfully since the age of nine. Instead, they are for myself; for our children and grandchildren; for my parents, who loved her as their own daughter; and for her family–who are now my family. They are for the scores of precious people here in our city–people from all over the world–who came to know and love her as their Canadian mom. They are for two young women who expected her to be their mentor. As I sit here, it is comforting to know that the same One who is receiving her adoration is also feeling my sorrow. Jesus and I weep together.

A few weeks ago, I visited a friend in Virginia Beach, where our children live. Though our time together was brief, he encouraged me a great deal. My emotions were raw; I was exhausted and in shock. I felt disoriented. Lethargic. After he prayed with me, my brother exhorted me, quoting John Piper, “Rob, don’t waste your grief.” Until that moment, I had never thought of grief in this way. Grief is a stewardship. A resource. A legacy. God designed it so:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in our afflictions, 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.” 2 COR 1.3,4

Some of my friends have given me books about grieving, which I am reading as time allows. One of the things the textbooks say is that there is no textbook case. Everyone grieves differently. Grief is not fabricated on an assembly line; it is handcrafted by the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” to fit an individual’s circumstances and make him or her uniquely suited to comfort others.

My experience will not be yours exactly. It can’t be–I am not you. But my prayer is that writing about my journey might accomplish two small things: first, that it may bring help and comfort if you are grieving the loss of someone you loved; or, second, that it may give you a useful glimpse into the heart of someone who has.




Why does it take cancer to give such depth of meaning to the phrases, “I’m sorry,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” and, “I love you?”

Why does it take cancer to make our speech more gentle, so as not to crack the already fragile vessel of our emotions?

Why does it take cancer to get us to go to sleep holding hands, bodies entwined as they were in those first blissful newlywed nights?

Why does it take cancer to make us appreciate the huge contribution of our beloved ones to our lives and the lives of so many others?

Why does it take cancer to cause us to listen more carefully?

Why does it take cancer to impart the unparalleled joy of caring for another human being?

Why does it take cancer to show us the power of a tender human touch?

Why does it take cancer to unearth the treasure that is true friendship?

It shouldn’t.

Image from

19 Caught in the Act!


Imagine coming home, walking up the stairs, and finding your spouse in bed with someone else. It happens–all too often–and leads to deeply fractured relationships, divorces, and even crimes of passion.

James tells his readers, after having rebuked them for contentiousness and covetousness in JAM 4.1-3, that they have been “caught in the act”:

“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (JAM 4.4)

In our minds, adultery goes way beyond friendship. But James is pointing out what these Jewish readers have known all their lives. For centuries, the Old Testament Scriptures had been taught in the Temple and in the synagogues. Many times–and especially in the book of Hosea–God compares Israel with an adulterous woman who has scorned her devoted husband to consort with other lovers. This bold, clear analogy illustrated for the Jews–and it illustrates for us–the ease with which we can slip into spiritual adultery by pursuing worldly wisdom (JAM 3.13-18) and pleasures (JAM 4.1-3). Here, James gets at the very heart of his letter by making it clear that abandoning the truth of Scripture in favour of earthly values is adultery of the soul.

Notice that James says, “…whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Adultery is not rape. It’s consensual–a conscious decision to break one’s vows, abandon one’s spouse to lust or misguided affection, and commit an act of defiance against God. But God is immutable–His character doesn’t change and He doesn’t vacillate between one position and another. He is always our Friend–He is the “Friend of sinners”–and is always there waiting for us when we repent and seek his forgiveness for our sins. (1 JOH 1.9)

James tells us why our sin is such a serious matter to God:

“Or do you suppose it is to no avail that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? ” (JAM 4.5)

Jesus, as the Lover of our souls, as the Bridegroom of the Church, yearns for our affection, our devotion, our obedience. In fact, the love between married people is a mirror–albeit cracked and hazy and blemished–of God’s love for us. When we wander, like Hosea, He pursues us and longs for our return to His embrace.

With all we have in Him, it’s a wonder we would ever want to leave.

01 Opening Move

The opening moves of a chess game are extremely important. To play them well you must have the proper objectives in mind. Aimless, purposeless moves lead nowhere and moves made with faulty objectives lead to trouble.

wood_chess_game_1440x900_21019Thus spake Chess Master Irving Chernev in his little book, An Invitation to Chess (co-written with Kenneth Harkness, Simon & Schuster, 1945, p. 137)

The opening of a letter is equally important. “To Whom It May Concern” is only appropriate for some correspondence. Following a salutation with a comma or a colon–or a dash–will affect the reader’s first impression. “Dear John,” though written by the same person to the same person, sends a very different message from, “Hi, Darling!”

Here is how James opens his letter:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

There is little doubt among conservative scholars that the Epistle of James was written by “James the Just,” the principle adjudicator at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and the half brother of Jesus. I don’t doubt it, either–in fact, this series of posts is written under that assumption.

James doesn’t introduce himself beyond giving his name, so it is apparent that he is well known to his readers. Jesus had two disciples named James, as well. One of them, a member of the “Inner Three,” along with Peter and his own brother John, was executed by Herod early on in the history of the Church. (ACT 12.1-5) The other, James the son of Aphaeus, goes virtually without mention both in the gospels and in history.

Matthew records an incident in which Jesus’ siblings are named by the residents of Nazareth, who are astonished at His wisdom. James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, as well as “all his sisters,” are mentioned. (MAT 13.55) We can assume from this list that James was the oldest of Jesus’ brothers, Mary’s second son (but Joseph’s first.)

So, with the first word he pens, James gives us his perspective as one who grew up in the same house with Jesus. Immanuel, that name for Him given to Isaiah many centuries before, must have held special significance for James as he looked back on his childhood: “God with us.”