How I found strength and wisdom to survive loss and do it well:
“I don’t know how you do it. You have lost two wives and you seem to be doing so well,” came the familiar statements. Following Judith’s death many people made similar comments to me. Some remarks came as simple observations while other people were genuinely seeking answers.
In this chapter I will be taking the liberty to lay out the thinking process and worldview I have developed in the course of my life and freely explain how that all affected my grieving process. My family background, personal experiences, logic, religious beliefs and the message of the Bible all come into play to determine how I approached and responded to tragedy. It has been my observation that most people default to these things when they hurt.
My earnest prayer is that the truths laid out will be a help to you as you face your own losses, and as you help those who come across your path who are hurting from loss.
It was a blessing from God and huge privilege to be born into a strong family who had a deep belief in God based on His Word, the Bible. I didn’t do anything special to be born where I was. However, the mindset, beliefs and teachings of my family and church were fundamental in establishing my worldview of life and death. The family heritage I acquired held to an established belief in the God of the Bible that went back several generations on both sides of my family. I not only heard the message of the Bible from my parents but from my grandparents and aunts and uncles as well.
So, if family and the geographical location in which one is born are vital in how one processes grief, why is it that not everyone who has these benefits processes grief well? Because included in the mix are the personal choices of each individual. Simply being exposed to a belief system, whether through family or by culture, is only the beginning. Your personal choices and convictions are what activate those teachings and messages.
The core truth of the Bible that my mom taught me revolved around God creating man to have a close relationship with Him. As the Creator of the universe, God chose to only have this personal relationship with mankind. Since God represents and is everything just and good, a relationship with Him had to revolve around what He is like. The first man created, Adam, broke that bond by doing something contrary to God. He disobeyed a command, consequently breaking the created relationship between God and mankind. Since He is everything just and good, God set forth a plan to fix the broken relationship. He promised this plan and then executed it by sending Jesus, His Son, to live a perfect life among men and women and then die, making the restoration of that relationship with God the Father possible. He decided it would be a gift to be received by faith. Anyone who rejected God’s plan through Jesus would spend eternity after they died separated from God.
My mom showed me places in the Bible that clearly explained this. Thankfully, she also made it clear that I was required to make a choice about God’s gift through Jesus for myself. She pointed out that my core relationship with God wasn’t broken just because I was a bad boy once in a while, but that I needed to respond to God’s message because I was born needing it. She read to me from the Bible, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation…” (Romans 5.18). Adam’s “offense” was passed on to every human born thereafter, making a personal response by each individual a requirement. Not believing in God’s plan for restoration seals the judgment. “He who believes in Him [Jesus] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3.18).
As a child, I enjoyed Christmas as much as any other kid. We were humble economically and I remember times when there was only a single gift for each of us. However, Mom and my church teamed up to help me see a bigger picture. Christmas was the celebration of the coming of Jesus to earth in order to accomplish God’s plan to restore mankind to a right relationship with Him. I enjoyed hearing the stories of Jesus’ life in my Sunday school classes at church. They explained that the purpose for Jesus becoming a man was for Him to die for the wrongs things performed by all mankind. “… that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen of Cephas, then by the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15.3-5). We can know that God, in turn, accepted the work of Jesus’ death as payment for all our violations of God’s nature because He raised Him from the dead. “… God … promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, … and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1.1-4).
MY FIRST RESPONSE
My mom read the Bible to my brother and me every night she could before we went to bed. When I was seven years old, she told us one night that the Billy Graham Crusade was on TV and that if we were good while she read the Bible we could stay up a little longer and listen to the music part. Well, I wasn’t so good and was sent to bed. While my brother watched the music, I was in bed alone, thinking. Mom came in and found me crying. “I don’t want to go to hell when I die,” I blurted out through my tears. Mom reviewed again that all I needed to do was believe on Jesus for myself and God would restore my relationship with Him and that Jesus’ death and resurrection would pay for all my wrongs against Him. I did that. I knew from that time on that upon my physical death, I would spend all of eternity in the presence of God the Father. I would go to heaven.
The problem with the evil in my heart had been resolved before God, to be sure. It didn’t mean that I didn’t still blow it from time to time. Mom knew that for sure! However, she was faithful to continue to expand my knowledge about evil in the world we live in. She told me the story about Satan and how he rebelled against God. He was then confined to earth and now takes his vengeance out against God on mankind. He uses evil to resist God and God’s people. Teachers at church taught me that because I was one of God’s children, Satan would target me for harm and evil intentions. However, I don’t have to be defeated by him but be aware that sometimes when bad things happen it may be coming from him. I can win over his intentions with Jesus. “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (I John 4.4). “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4.7,8).
My instruction about evil continued. Because of Satan’s rebellion against God and the disobedience of Adam to God’s commands, evil has a strong influence on the earth and the world as we know it. This evil curse affects all of God’s creation, including mankind. The negative things caused by evil include such things as weeds in my garden, weather that is destructive, immorality, murders, mistreatment of people, bad intentions and responses to one another, and disease. Until the day Jesus returns and corrects all of that, we can expect evil to continue. Evil, therefore, can happen to us simply because we are humans living in this world at this time. Bad things can happen to good people for no fault of their own.
My seven-year-old mind had a lot of questions about what it is really like to live one’s life and have a personal relationship with God. This is where my family and church friends came in again. I watched how they did it. The two people closest to me who demonstrated evidences of having a personal relationship with Jesus were my mom and her mother, my grandmother. Regardless of any character or personality flaws in them that I may have observed over the years as I grew up, those ladies proved to me that it was possible for Jesus to be a personal friend. When they talked about Jesus, I could tell He was not an abstract concept or a theory of religion. He was a real person to whom they talked and listened often.
My mom’s connection to God was consistent. She would go to Him during times of hurt, such as when my dad died or we had severe financial difficulties. She would sing to Him when she was happy in good times. Her example showed me that I could do that too. And I did.
My high school years were times of change for our family. Mom remarried and three more sisters were added to our family. The family blending process was not always an easy one for me, being the oldest child. We also moved, I went through puberty, and attended a high school in another town. I chose to remain consistent in following the Biblical mindset of God as the sovereign of the universe and Lord of my life through all these changes. Church was a core part of my life. I enjoyed hearing teaching from the Bible, singing songs and hymns about God, following Him, and looking forward to being with Him in heaven someday.
The summer between my junior and senior year presented me with another life-changing choice. I had been offered a scholarship to a leading agricultural university in Iowa. I knew I needed to pray about it, so after church one evening I stopped at a pasture near our farm buildings where I prayed often. God spoke back to me saying, “Follow Me.” He indicated that I was to prepare to officially be in a position to do things that would promote His message in the world. I said, “Yes.” The following week I received a catalog in the mail from a Bible college in Kansas City, Missouri. I chose to turn down the scholarship and applied to the Bible college instead. I knew that my life was being directed personally by God and I trusted Him.
My choices were made based on my friendship with Christ. I believed what He said in the Bible. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15.13-15).
My years studying at the Bible college were very formidable. As I increased in knowing what the Bible says and what it means, I developed a desire to know my Friend better. Trusting Jesus more and walking by faith became major personal goals. I aspired to the definition of faith in God that the Apostle Paul spoke about. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (Romans 1.8).
Soon, I began to realize that to “walk by faith” included more than just major choices. It involved how I went about my day-to-day living. Simple statements began having a deep impact on my approach to daily living. A quote of unknown origin I have never forgotten is, “If you were arrested for being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Jesus said, “And why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6.46)
Based on my personal relationship with Jesus, faith and faithfulness became daily goals in my life. Though much of my daily life was laid out for me — class and work schedules, job responsibilities, class requirements and sleeping — I began to realize that I chose much of how I lived my life. I chose my responses to situations, my attitude towards people and circumstances; I chose how I spent my money, what social functions I attended and how well I used my discretionary time during waking hours. I began to see that my proper or improper response to errors and mistakes I made was based on whether I was responding out of faith in God or my selfish desires. Even though my learning curve seemed huge, I willingly climbed it towards a closer relationship with God.
LIFE GOES ON
Following my college years, life progressed somewhat “normally” (whatever that is). I got married, received a job assignment, had children, developed friendships, increased in responsibility both at work and home, and so on. My wife, Ruth, and I were on a “normal” course in life, building a career and raising a family of four. We practiced the lessons learned in trusting God and living in close relationship with Him in all areas of our life as best we could. We trusted Him in our finances, parenting, free time, friendships, job roles and church attendance. He was always faithful. We took to heart, “… whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10.31).
My reference to life being “normal” includes ups and downs in life that happen to all of us. It includes mistakes by each of us in our family. Disappointments that come financially, professionally and socially are all integral to our human experience.
Cancer is not what is usually considered normal. I have heard it said that “anyone can trust God when things are going good.” But do we really trust Him when it doesn’t seem like we need Him that much?
We had no clue to what depths the downward spiral would lead us when Ruth announced that she had found a lump and should make an appointment with an oncologist. The following weeks and months were full of challenges, hurts, disappointments and even low-level mourning.
The lump was an aggressive form of cancer. Treatments included surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and constant testing.
Yet, our hope continued to be secure, based on our relationship with God. Though we desired the security of pain-free life, we trusted Him more. Believing that pain was a part of human experience and that we were not exempt from it helped us overcome the bouts of “why me?” and unfounded feelings of “being punished.”
Our friend Jesus never left us during our down times. We knew that because He said so. “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13.5,6).
It was true that going through a crisis like cancer was a new thing for us. We had never experienced such a hard thing before. However, trusting Jesus in our lives was nothing new and so we kept doing that. We simply needed to learn how to go through this hard thing. Our pain and tears were always met with the comfort of our personal relationship with Jesus Himself.
Trusting God during our hard times did not keep us from sometimes struggling with our questions.
One afternoon following severe chemotherapy treatments, Ruth was on the phone with her mother. Ruth asked the “Why me?” question to her mom. Louise’s response was classic. “Well, Ruthie, why not you? Up to now your life has been pretty simple and pain free. Why do you think you should be exempt from hard situations and others not?” This, of course, agreed with what Jesus Himself said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16.33).
Ruth was a nurse. She had seen many, many people in the hospitals she worked in going through all kinds of physical pain and sufferings. She knew that her mom was right about many other people experiencing physical crisis, of all ages and walks of life. It is all a part of living in this world that has so much influence from evil. Pain and suffering does seem to be a normal part of human experience. Each of us somehow hopes it won’t happen to us.
I had never seen anyone die before. Watching Ruth take her last breath was shocking. All I could think about was that she actually died! She was gone. My heart immediately began to hurt in ways I had never experienced before. Grief encompassed me, suffocating me.
My first response to God was again based on my relationship with Him up to that time. I called out to Him as a friend for help with my hurt. I did not lash out at Him as a distant tyrant in the sky who “did this to me.” He had helped me learn how to handle so many things in my life so far, I knew He would help me with this grief. And He did.
I would go to the Bible for words of assurance and comfort in times of hurt. Over the years, since I received so many encouraging messages from God’s Word, I knew I could count on my Friend to have words of comfort and purpose as well. I was not disappointed. “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 tribulations, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1.3,4).
Ruth’s cancer and death were not a result of her sin, but a “normal” result of living in a world that is affected by the influence of sin. Just because we had a relationship with God on a spiritual level did not exempt us from the regular operation of nature and genetics. God simply has promised to help us through experiences in life. We trusted Him for a bigger picture.
We remembered the account in the Bible where Jesus was asked who had sinned, causing a man to be blind from birth. He replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9.3). Jesus went on to heal that man that day.
Ruth’s death was not a defeat. She actually won. You see, she had the privilege of going to heaven into the very presence of God without the hassle of living here in a world influenced by evil for the next forty or so years. Even though I was left with the hole in my soul grieving, I had the privilege of seeing God use my loss to show others how He comforts in uncommon ways. A bigger purpose was realized. Many people have been helped in their journey through life in this evil world because of our story.
I remember one such example of this. A local pastor stopped me in a public elevator. He said, “I hope you didn’t mind me using you as an illustration in my sermon on Sunday.” I looked surprised but indicated that I was sure it was okay. He went on to explain. “I read your recent letter about your wife’s illness. I liked your perspective. My point to the congregation was to show how a follower of Jesus should handle pain and suffering based on a relationship with Christ. You have shown us how it’s done.” I was humbled.
Judith and I shared the same Biblical worldview. During our courtship time we spent hours reviewing our common experiences of going through the process of suffering and the death of our spouses. We both had learned how to deal with pain and death from God’s Word and our personal relationship with Jesus. We were on the same page.
Having a common worldview and relationship with Jesus was paramount in the development of our unity in dealing with the challenges of life we faced together in the twenty years that followed. Blending and finishing raising eight teenagers did indeed have challenges. Many times we had no place to turn to other than each other and God when times got tough.
Judith’s physical concerns during the last five years of her life left many questions in our minds, but none of them shook our trust in God’s leading and care. God had been so consistent in giving inner peace and direction to us in so many areas over the years, that we had no reason to question Him now. We were faithful to walk in the truth we came across whether it had to do with nutrition or spiritual dependency on God.
That day in the hospital when I told Judith she was going to die soon is etched in my memory. We held each other and sobbed deeply for a long time. We mourned her death together for several days. Our assurance of God’s leading, care and closeness did not eliminate our pain of impending loss. But it did provide a basis for how we faced the months ahead.
The weeks before Judith’s death provided many opportunities to talk to family and friends about her “home going” and how God factors in. Anyone talking to her during those weeks needed to be comfortable with the topic of life after death because she talked about it freely. Many people were helped with their viewpoint on Christians going to heaven and how to view that event by Judith’s conversations. I found a statement in Judith’s notes that reflected her attitude. “God can get just as much glory from a sick body as He can from a well one.”
Relief, instead of shock, crossed my mind at Judith’s death. She had suffered with a lot of pain at the end – and now her pain was over. But then an overwhelming grief hit me, producing uncontrollable sobbing. I hurt.
Prayer can play a huge part in the grieving process. Telling the bereaved that you are praying for them can be of great comfort. It was for me. My heart ached so bad at times that I found even praying difficult if not impossible. Comfort crept in as I remembered all the people who I knew were praying for me. God gave me added assurance that not only were these people praying for me, but they were praying on my behalf or literally in my place. This news increased my peace and freedom to embrace grief fully.
Following Ruth’s death I still had four kids at home to care for and I was still teaching at the college. My struggle with loneliness had to take a back seat many days, oftentimes showing up at night. However, after Judith’s memorial service I went home to an empty bed and an empty house. The phone stopped ringing because everyone knew she was gone. Visitors to the door dwindled to maybe a couple a week. I found myself wandering around the house only to find another empty room. The loneliness and silence was deafening. I had never experienced such aloneness before in my life.
Per my personal practice, I turned to God and His Word for some help and guidance. I begged God to show me how to cope with the stifling void.
His answer came to me from the Gospel of John in the Bible which I had also read following Ruth’s death. This record reveals points about the last weeks of Jesus’ time and teaching on earth before He went back to His Father in heaven. I began to see a pattern in the things He said to the Apostles. “Little children, I shall be with you a little longer” (13:33). “Where I am going you cannot follow Me now, but you shall follow Me afterward” (13:36). “I go to prepare a place for you” (14:2). “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you” (14:25). “But now I go away to Him who sent Me…” (16:5). Jesus was talking about His departure to heaven and leaving the disciples alone on earth. Everything He said in between these statements was instructions on how to deal with the loneliness.
LONELINESS INTO GODLINESS
I found a series of guidelines from Jesus Himself concerning things I could do to deal with and even take advantage of my loneliness. I noticed that Jesus did not instruct to simply sit around and “suck it up.” He proceeded with guidelines and commands that increased my relationship with God and literally helped me be more like Him.
His directives in the Gospel of John were basic but clear:
- Depend on one another (13:34)
- Stick with your core beliefs (14:1)
- Remember what you know about heaven (14:2)
- Don’t forget about My return (14:3)
- I am the Way to true life (14:4-6) Remember My words (14:10-12)
- You can have success (14:12)
- Pray (14:13-14)
- Obey My commands (14:15,21,23)
- The Holy Spirit will help you (14:16-18)
- Loneliness can help you (14:19,26)
- Embrace My peace (14:27)
- Give God glory (14:13; 16:14; 17:1,4)
- Keep close to Me (15:1-8)
Each of these items was significant to me. Some helped my thinking clear up. Others eased the torment of my emotions. I would need to write a chapter per item to explain all of them clearly. That will be left to be covered in another book and another time.
To illustrate, however, I will review number three: heaven. Jesus talked about it as if it was a real place He was going to and promised I could be there too someday. That reality reduced some of my fear of the unknown about where my loved ones were after death. It also gave me peace about my future since my death, someday, was as sure as their death. My mental worries about the “after-life” relaxed and my emotional concerns regarding my loved ones were soothed. Hence, my grief was processed more calmly.
To put my conclusion very bluntly, I know my worldview works because of my lifetime of experience based on God and His Word. It is with great confidence I can offer this information to you.
The fact that you have read all this till now indicates an interest on your part in the message I am communicating. I sincerely hope and pray that something I have said here can be a help to you. Also, if you do not currently have the right relationship with God I have referred to above, I would like to invite you to begin that now. “For God so loved the world [you] that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever [you] believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world though Him might be saved” (John 3:16,17).
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