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.

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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.

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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.

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Black Silk Boxers and Psalm 23


As long as I live, I’ll associate Psalm 23 with black silk boxer shorts. A specific pair, in fact.

“OK, that’s kinda weird,” you’re saying. “I’m not sure I’ve ever made that connection.”

Back in the mid-90’s, I flew from Nova Scotia to Argentina. My suitcase did not.

I should have known this would not be a normal trip when I had to flag down the postman on the way to the airport to see if he had my tickets on the truck.  He did not, so I had to be re-ticketed in every airport between Yarmouth  and Buenos Aires.

Take-offs were delayed for me, and passengers killed me with their looks as I entered the planes. I was whipped through Dulles airport at breakneck speed on one of those souped-up golf carts by a driver with a maniacal laugh who was enjoying himself way too much.

When I finally landed in B.A. and realized that my bag had been re-routed, I was not an especially happy camper. I notified my wife/pit bull, who began making calls on my behalf while I talked with the airline personnel in Argentina (who, I might add, worked heroically to try to locate my luggage for me.)

Nada.

One of my wife’s calls was to an airline Customer Service employee in Boston. Donna didn’t have the tag number for my bag–only a description. It was a new, rolling crew-style bag in black rip-stop nylon–just like twelve million other bags.

“Can you think of anything he might have in the bag, Ma’am? Anything distinctive?” the helpful Customer Service employee asked.

“Well, yes,” my wife replied. “There’s a pair of black silk boxer shorts with red chili peppers all over them.”

That’s the boxers part of the story.

The morning after my arrival in Buenos Aires,  when I swung my feet over the side of the bed, I noticed a plaque on the wall of my room that said,

El Señor es mi pastor. Nada me faltará.

The fist verse of Psalm 23.

There I was, eight thousand kilometres  from home with nothing but my shaving kit and the clothes I came in. My visit quickly morphed into a special episode of What Not to Wear. A fit-and-and-proud-of it guy with a 32″ waist, I ended up wearing a colleague’s 36″ Bermuda shorts held up with a 40″ belt that went around me precisely one and a half times. The slightly tattered tongue of the belt was tucked into the back loop of the shorts, which were cinched up tight and made me look like one of those saplings at a garden centre with a burlap sack wrapped around its roots. The first duty of the missionary wife I stayed with was to help her new Area Director buy underwear! Not exactly how I wanted to present myself to the missionary team I would end up serving for the next 17 years.

You know what? It was a fabulous trip, and I hardly gave a thought to how ridiculous I looked in borrowed clothes. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

That’s the Psalm 23 part of the story.

I once asked a very wealthy colleague, who had just returned from a trip to some remote  villages on the north coast of Honduras, what he had learned while he was there. Without hesitation he replied, “I learned just how little a person needs to be happy.”

My bag finally arrived back at my house in Canada one month and two days after I lost it. After they lost it. The official at the airline’s lost luggage distribution centre in Houston told me with a loud guffaw that it had been to the four corners of the earth. I didn’t laugh quite as hard as he did, having just spent $50 faxing claims to two airlines that very morning. I was glad to have my suitcase back, but I’d already grown accustomed to life without the stuff inside–even the boxers, which had been a Christmas gift from my bride.

I used to have a plaque on my office door that’ Id received from the Friends of Israel. It read, “If I have everything but Christ, I have nothing. If I have nothing but Christ, I have everything.”

That pretty much sums it up.