The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Speed Bumps


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I’ve moved my office from the dining room of my friends’ vacant home to the patio, which backs onto a 9-hole golf course. It’s in a grove of pines and there are song birds here to provide a sweet melody behind the staccato, syncopated rhythm of my keys. The place is too gorgeous and the afternoon too perfect to work indoors.

As I was traveling here yesterday, I did some reading. At the airport I was previewing a new book written by a friend of mine, to be published in the spring. On the plane, I finished Grief Undone, by Elizabeth W.D. Groves. This was the first of many books on grief that I was given after Donna died, but the last one I completed. The only reason I can give is that I got tired of reading books about this troubling subject and even got too busy to grieve properly myself. As I finished reading this godly woman’s story–her husband died of cancer in February, 2007–I realized several things.

First, the reason I appreciated this book so much is that the author’s experience, even the nature of her family and work, so closely paralleled my own. With all due respect to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the many authors and practitioners who have followed her, I don’t believe grief can be easily quantified. While there may be common elements in everyone’s experience (the most obvious being the loss itself,) grief is visceral, spiritual, social, mental, emotional–and, above all, intensely personal. It is not clinical. Some of the books I read were more helpful than others. Richard Baxter and C.S. Lewis touched me  profoundly, unexpectedly. David Knapp’s I Didn’t Know What to Say: Being a Better Friend to Those Who Experience Loss offered a wealth of practical help, even though its primary audience is not the grief-stricken themselves. But Groves’ book was comforting and encouraging in countless ways. I’ll share some passages from it later.

The second thing I realized is that I am not anywhere near the end of this path of grief. During these past months I have pushed myself physically, socially, personally, and professionally, and I’m not sure if that was always wise. In the last couple of weeks, especially, I’ve experienced bouts of extreme melancholy, tears, and stabbing pains in my soul. Just about anything can set them off, and as much as I try to recover my wits and move on, when I’m alone I still struggle. I think it’s a matter of pacing. Perhaps I have tried to grieve the way I walk–always as fast as I can.

reservoir-park-damIn the third place, I realized when I got here that God wants to use this short respite to allow me to grieve some more. I have a pile of work to keep me busy–mostly writing projects, and principally, my book manuscript. But something Elizabeth Groves said in her book hit the mark. She had recounted several divinely-tailored blessings her family experienced during her husband’s long illness and just before his death. One was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him and his sons to attend a professional football game together. It was a barn-burner, won in the final seconds by their beloved hometown Philadelphia Eagles. They had been given tickets for seats on the 30-yard line behind the Eagles’ bench, and her husband even had a small wall right in front of him on which to rest his foot (this had been a concern when they had received the tickets, as he had blood clots in his leg.) The experience was perfect in every possible respect, and her sons will never forget it. Elizabeth wrote:

“The Lord may not care about who wins a football game, but he does love his children and he delights to pour out that love in personalized, intimate, generous, overflowing ways. He does it all the time, for all of us. But I don’t often notice. I go around living as if things ‘just happen’ or ‘just work out,’ rather than realizing that they come to me directly from God’s loving hand…Throughout the year Al was dying and beyond, we were loved beyond all imagination, not only by God directly–through his Holy Spirit and his Word–but by his people. What we received was vastly beyond anything we deserved and was deeply humbling. It’s the kind of thing that is so overwhelming, so gracious, so unmerited, so far beyond measure, that it makes you just bow your head in grateful silence. There are no words that are an adequate response to such love.” (pp. 108. 158)

That resonated with me, and I realized that this very trip is just such a gift: the generosity of precious friends who also loved and miss my wife; the beauty and charm of this region; the welcoming solitude of a beautiful home; the ridiculously cheap airfare and the offer of another friend’s extra car for two weeks; eager and competent people to “mind the store” and look after my house while I’m gone. And I may even get to see some of my children and grandchildren in the bargain! This didn’t “just work out.” Last year, just two months before Donna’s diagnosis, our family took a two-week road trip to Nova Scotia together. Then, we viewed it as a trip-of-a-lifetime. Now, we see it as a precious gift of God to His unsuspecting children.

Thank you, Father.

One thing that hit me when I was reading is the fact that Donna and I never really got the chance to say an official goodbye, “alone together,” before she lapsed into a medically-induced coma three days before her death. In some ways, her homegoing couldn’t have been more of a blessing: she slipped quietly into the arms of Jesus surrounded by the four people she loved most in the world, in the familiar comfort of her own home. Donna and I had talked often about heaven and my desire to join her there soon. We told each other many times a day that we loved each other (through the years of our marriage, we tried never to let a day go by in which we didn’t say, “I love you” at least once) and we had no “outstanding balances” of sins or personal grievances between each other. For that I am immensely grateful. But I so wish I could have given her a proper send-off to glory, with a long kiss on her lips and a gentle embrace of her fragile, ravaged body and a final, “Thank you for the years of exquisite joy you have given me. I love you more than you’ll ever know, and I’ll see you soon.” Even as I type this, tears are streaming down my face.

Finally, I realized the value of the Body of Christ. I have had to go through this process without the benefit of a local church to support me. I am surrounded by people I love and who love me back, and I know I can call on them whenever I wish. We spend time together and they have been a huge help to me. I treasure them beyond words. Some are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that spiritual kinship has the power to uplift and sustain that people who don’t know the Lord cannot fathom or even imagine. Technology has helped to bridge this gap somewhat–the 800+ people in our private Facebook group and many personal friends who have prayed and shared passages of Scripture and words of comfort and encouragement have been a huge blessing. But God designed a local church to be a family, a body, a building–with each of its parts connected to, supporting, and being supported by the others. I’m so thankful for my brethren in our TAPESTRY FELLOWSHIP and also for those all over the world who have been siblings, vital organs, and bricks for me.

So I go on now, facing these two weeks with a fresh perspective and thankful that my gracious heavenly Father has bestowed on me such a lavish gift. My time here is like a speed bump–a warning that I may be traveling too fast and a way to slow me down lest I bottom out.

I want to share three more passages from Elizabeth Groves’ book:

“Theologians talk about ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification.’ Justification is about Jesus paying the price for our sins by his death on the cross: the innocent voluntarily dying in place of the guilty. Sanctification is about the Holy Spirit gradually transforming us to be more like Jesus. Unlike the makeover shows on TV, however, this process takes a lifetime and will not be finished until we get to heaven. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is both incredibly patient and fully committed to the ultimate transformation, because the change is often v-e-r-y slow.” (pp. 92-93)

“The benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection were real and brought genuine relief and blessing. The gospel doesn’t necessarily alter the circumstances of suffering in our lives. Suffering is real and painful, and it may continue to be painful for a long, long time. The gospel didn’t change the fact that my children were still without their dad. Al was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t erase the pain and grief of that for my kids. But the gospel does set our suffering in the context of a bigger reality–that Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin and death, and already his victory is turning back its effects. One day sin and death will be entirely eradicated, and as his people we long for that day, but even now we experience a foretaste of it. Even now that reality brings hope in so many ways.”            (p. 162)

“Finally, knowing God as our Father–a loving, merciful, generous, faithful, kind Father–made a difference every single day…knowing that Jesus had defeated death and opened the way to heaven for his people took the sting out of death and undid our grief. I ache for people who face death–their own or a loved one’s–without the companionship of God or the hope of heaven. Thankfully, God’s family is not exclusive; the Father is delighted to welcome people into it.” (p. 207)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Steadfast Love


Hesed.

“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!”

The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sickness


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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 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.

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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


Donna

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.