Grief: Holding On and Letting Go
Life is a continual process of letting go. It seems that an important element of growth is learning how to let go gracefully. As babies, we are not very good at letting go. Before we can say the word “mine!” we have mastered the concept. We only relinquish something under loud protest.
Some wise one once advised me to hold loosely to things in this world. They are fleeting, and never really belong to me anyway. Some things are harder to let loose than others. Among those are the loved ones in our lives.
On February 1, 2005, my wife of almost 15 years died after a lengthy fight with brain cancer. The cancer was a part of our entire life together – Mary had her first brain tumor surgery about three years before we met. When we got married, she expected to live only another year or two. So, despite my natural facility for denial, the specter of its return lurked in the shadows. She had an emergency brain surgery in March, 1999, and a follow-up surgery in September, 2000.
Before I go any further, there are some things I would like to say to those of you in the midst of grieving. Nothing I say here is meant to in anyway minimize or trivialize your grief. Each grief experience is unique; we all come to it through different life experiences. Even subsequent losses in one person’s life can result in very different grief processes. The things I share are unique to my experience, and so there is no need to measure your process by mine. However, they are shared in the hope that something I have learned in the process may help you in your process.
For those of you not grieving at this time, I have this to say. Get ready. Unless you live a very short life, you will likely experience the loss of a loved one some time in the future. Looking back, I see that God graciously prepared me for this process, and that preparation spared me a lot of pain. My hope is that something from my experience will help God prepare you for the grief you will some day face, and that you will look for God’s preparation and accept it before the time comes.
Though my story started long before, I will pick it up in late June of 2004. That day I was “speaking” with God, reflecting on the peaceful nature of my life at that time. The family was doing well, finances were sufficient, and my job was great. It hadn’t often been that way. I remembered a sermon speaking of the times of refreshing God grants us between the storms of life, and thought, “There’s a storm coming, isn’t there?”
It wasn’t a fatalistic resignation, rather a recognition that we live in a broken world that is far short of heaven. I was thankful for the time of refreshing, but I understood its purpose was to prepare me for the next storm. In surrender, I told God that it was alright. I didn’t need to know what the storm would be, when it would come or how long it would last. Just as long as He would be with me in the storm, I would somehow get through.
Sometime later I saw the picture that came into my mind that day. It was a painting of Jesus standing in the front of a boat with the storm raging around Him. I pictured myself standing next to Him, holding onto His hand. I knew that He was not going to go under, and as long as I held onto Him, neither would I. I knew He could calm the storm, as recorded in Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25, but I also understood that sometimes He lets us go through the storm, and brings us through safely like he did with Paul and his companions in Acts 27.
As I pondered the possible storm scenarios, I never considered that Mary’s cancer would return. I figured it would be something to do with my job or finances, like it had been so many times before, but I didn’t fret about it long. It was enough to know He would be there, whatever, and whenever. The past storms had convinced me that even if everyone else abandoned me, Christ never would.
Much of that confidence came through a previous trial that involved a year-long separation from Mary and our new child. It was during that separation that Mary had her emergency brain surgery after her mother found her unconscious on the kitchen floor. That year was possibly the most difficult time in my life, and I found myself continually going back to three songs I had heard on our Christian radio station.
Though I remember the lyrics of one song, I have never been able to find out who the artist is. I have enquired on Christian lyrics web sites, and have even asked people from the station that played it a couple of years earlier, and nobody seems to remember it. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I was the only one who ever heard it! The lyrics, as I remember them, follow:
God is God, and I am not.
I comprehend as far as blind eyes see.
Life, untold, will naturally unfold.
Faith includes the triumph and the tragedy.
Why ask, “Why” – the meaning’s too high.
It is enough for me to simply say,
God is God, and I am not.
The simplicity of these lyrics under-states their profundity. God is God, and even if He chose to answer my questions, I would likely never fully understand the answers. It is sufficient to know He is God and He is in control.
In mid-July of 2004, Mary started having headaches. That and other symptoms convinced her that the tumor was growing again. That was confirmed at the end of the month when an MRI showed that not only had it grown, it was now inoperable. It had graduated to a high-grade glio-blastoma multiforma (GBM), a very aggressive brain tumor that is virtually always fatal.
So … this was to be the storm! As soon as I acknowledged that, a peace flooded my heart, reminding me of my conversation with God the previous month. He would be faithful and get us through the storm, if he didn’t calm it. I marvel at how that single act of surrender to His peace carried me through the next six months, and beyond.
Mary’s only hope of surviving a GBM (besides a miracle) was to undergo aggressive chemo-therapy, and even that hope was slim. She had already had the maximum radiation dose after her third surgery. Anything they did would likely leave her more impaired than she already was. She made the decision not to pursue treatment, but to enroll in a hospice program. She was at peace with God, and was weary of the partial blindness, hearing problems, cognitive difficulties and other issues she had struggled with for the last several years. Her only regret was that she would not be around to raise her daughter, the joy of her life.
Mary’s first prayer after getting the news was that this would help pull together our Adult Bible Fellowship. It was truly marvelous how God answered that prayer. They, and other believers covered us with love and grace. We saw the body of Christ being the Body of Christ, and it was a marvelous experience. The non-believers around us got to see what the church is really all about, and it changed lives
Casas Church Pastor Jerry Wilkinson gave me some wise counsel early in the process. He told me that I needed to begin my grieving process immediately, so I would be far enough along to help our daughter when the time came. Following that advice allowed me to let go gradually, so that the final goodbye was not as traumatic as it might have been. In fact, a week or two before she died, I was able to tell Mary that it was alright, she could let go any time she wanted, we would be OK.
Over the next six months, we watched as Mary gradually deteriorated. The Hospice nurses and social workers told me ahead of time what to expect at various stages, so I was able to anticipate what her and our needs would be. Mary’s sister, a hospice nurse, came down early in the process and did a lot to help us get ready for the task ahead. That was an immeasurable blessing.
One nurse told me something that at first might seem insensitive, but actually helped my daughter and me cope with the process. She said that brain tumor patients will often begin to do and say some very funny things, and that we needed to treasure those funny memories and enjoy them. We still giggle over some of those memories, not disrespectfully, but because some of them really were funny. Being given the permission to do that lightened that time considerably. It also allowed us to enter in to some of those times with her. How much of it was the tumor, and how much was the painkillers, we may never know, but most of the time, she was happy, once she let go of the need to be in control.
There were some rocky times, but even those were not overwhelming. So many fellow believers had gathered around us, that it lightened the load considerably. Never underestimate the value of “just being there” for someone in the midst of it.
I was fortunate to work with people who were understanding and stepped in to cover the duties I was unable to during that time. They took up a collection when they first found out, and sent the three of us to California to be with Mary’s family for a week. My employer has a “compassionate transfer of leave” program that allows people to donate a portion of their vacation time to cover sick leave for someone who has used up all of theirs. Though I ran out of vacation and sick leave two thirds of the way through, I did not miss a single paycheck. Our benefits program covered virtually all of the expenses, so I was not burdened financially during that time.
I spent the last couple of months of Mary’s illness scanning pictures of her into the computer during my spare time. This was wonderful therapy, and helped me compose a brochure and video slide show for the memorial service. Being able to prepare this memorial to her life was very healing when the time came, and allowed me to celebrate her life and our life together. It also helps Christina and me when we get to missing Mary. We can put the slide show on the computer and allow the pictures to refresh her memory as we listen to some of her favorite music and songs that remind us of her.
I recommend you do this for any loved one, because it is a great way to celebrate them right now, and will prove a wonderful comfort should you ever lose them
We had also discussed ahead of time, the music we wanted for the memorial service. The last part of Chris Rice’s “Untitled Hymn” struck us both as so appropriate. That song still affects Christina and me deeply whenever we hear it.
And with your final heartbeat,
Kiss the world goodbye.
Then go in peace.
And laugh on glory’s side
And fly to Jesus.
Fly to Jesus.
Fly to Jesus, and live!
It was almost two weeks from the day Mary died to the memorial service. That allowed family to come without such short notice. I cannot overstate the healing value of actively planning and preparing parts of the memorial service. It provided a sense of closure I would not have felt otherwise. It gave me a chance to honor her and put together a “chronicle” of her life. It was some time later, looking at a picture of us taken on our engagement day, that I realized the memorial service was on the 15th anniversary of our engagement. Somehow, that seemed “right.”
When it came time for that final “letting go”, it was almost a relief, not in the sense of being relived of a burden, but being relieved of responsibility for her. It was a year or so later at the funeral of a co-worker’s wife that I heard someone articulate what I felt. The pastor preaching the funeral had lost his wife to cancer four years earlier, and he told my friend that he would probably feel a sense of relief, that he was no longer responsible for his wife’s welfare, and safety, and that was alright.
That was exactly what I had felt concerning Mary. Not that the responsibility had been an overwhelming burden, but I no longer had to worry about her. It was like the relief one feels upon completing some difficult assignment, or upon delivery of some precious cargo to its rightful owner. She was safe. There was nothing the enemy could do to touch her now. She was happier than she had ever been in this life. All of her infirmities were healed. There was nothing for her to worry about there. And she had finally seen the face of the one who had shed His blood and poured out His own life to save her. All of her fears and doubts and worries were over – she was where she was created to be.
This relief filled me with a sense of joy and peace. Sure we would miss her. But it would be just for a while. For her it would not even be that. She was already experiencing that re-union in the timelessness of eternity. Letting go of Mary was not like losing her. I know into whose hands I had released her, and know that He is able to hold her securely, and keep her safe, much safer than I could.
… I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. (2 Tim. 1:1)
It’s been three and a half years since Mary left, and much has happened during that time. The daughter she bore continues to be the joy of my life, and keeps me from totally reverting to bachelor-style housekeeping. I often wonder what God has in store for Christina. If, as Oswald Chambers says, “God only uses those greatly, whom He has hurt deeply,” He must have big plans for her. Mary laid a wonderful foundation of faith in her heart that continues to bear fruit today. She has a deep love for God, and a sensitivity of Spirit beyond her years. I look forward to seeing God’s plan for her life unfold.
During grief, we often become more aware of the possibility of losing other loved ones. Those thoughts crossed my mind as well, concerning Christina – how would I handle it if something happened to her? I thought of that a lot in the first year, but came to the same conclusion. She was not really mine to hold anyway. She is a gift from God, and He loves her even more than I do. And he is a far more capable parent than I. So I decided that I could trust Him to take care of her. If He took her home early, she would miss out on a lot of sorrow and struggle, and be re-united with her mother even sooner – she would be alright, and so would I. In the meantime, I can enjoy her and thank God for the gift. That made it a lot easier to let her go on a school trip to China this past summer.
While my grief experience has been blanketed with peace and joy, I know that is not the norm. I know many others suffer deeply through grief, and I don’t fully understand why I haven’t. But I am grateful, none-the-less, for God’s grace and mercy towards me. My heart goes out to all of you in the midst of grief, and I pray you will find the comfort you so desperately seek in Him who is the God of all comfort.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)