Marriage Missions – “When Death Parts Us”
I wanted to share this article I wrote recently for Marriage Missions. www.marriagemissions.com
When Death “Parts” Us
“Till death do us part…” I repeated. Those words seemed to echo throughout the huge college chapel following my promise and then my bride’s commitment. The witnesses of our wedding stood by smiling. Our parents sat with proud looks on their faces. In all honestly, however, I only viewed those words as a symbol of commitment. I did not really think I would experience that part of those important words, let alone do it twice.
Ruth and I had never been happier than we were that delightful day in July. The few people who had gathered were the family and friends who could travel to the school for this important event. We purposely choose the campus chapel because it “required” both sides of the family to travel and did not favor one over the other with the convenience of not having to travel. We actually were so much in love and committed to each other that we didn’t care who else was there besides us.
Our relationship had developed deeply over the previous four years. We met at a large student missions conference our freshman year of college. The challenge came from developing our relationship over the miles. I was at a Bible school in Kansas City, Missouri while Ruth was in nursing school in Washington, DC. However, that challenge became a source of strength for our relationship.
The first three years of our getting acquainted happened through writing letters and occasional long distance phone calls. I say this strengthened our relationship because it forced both of us to express our hearts, feelings and beliefs on paper without the distraction of the physical area. I recall many times when I actually had to go to God’s Word to “find” something to write to her about. That was great for my growth both emotionally with her and spiritually with the Lord.
I really recommend the practice of writing love letters during the dating and engagement period. That way the huge benefit of doing that for your mate later comes easier because you have had practice. It was a glad day when Ruth said, “Yes” to me and moved to the same school I was attending for the year of our engagement before our wedding.
The proof of the depth of our relationship revealed itself in the following years of life. We were not only committed to each other but we understood each other. We did, indeed, marry our best friend. Part of that was true because we had worked so hard at our communication skills with each other during the “challenge” of writing to each other.
To keep our growth together on a “roll” we spent every one of our wedding anniversaries alone discussing the “state of our union.”
But the day came when I dreaded that event. It was the summer following Ruth’s cancer diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy and our loss of “normal.” Those events proved to be the biggest challenge to our relationship to date. Up to this point our love had been a mutual give and receive. Now Ruth was so drained physically and emotionally that she literally had nothing left to give —either to me, or our four young children. Thirty-three is a young age to be facing a life threatening disease.
As usual, I heeled in and took over all her household chores, protected her from the outside world and did my teaching and administration duties at the college as well. That went well for a few weeks, till I began to wear down emotionally and physically. Finally, for the first time, I sensed our relationship changing and it hurt me in that realization. Ruth was no longer able to contribute to our relationship as before. And, in brutal honesty, I found myself questioning my love for her …simply because things seemed to be one-sided for the first time.
Guilt was another factor added to my mourning the loss of normal life because I found myself acting on Ruth’s behalf out of duty and not out of emotion. I kept giving to her physically and emotionally even though she could not give back like before. I was in pain. Then God came to me through His Word.
I was preparing for my first experience teaching the book of I John at the school. I arrived at I John 4:10-11. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” God spoke to my spirit with, “See, I loved those who did not love back and I acted on their behalf. You are doing that for Ruth and it is OK!” I dropped to the floor sobbing.
During those difficult days, I remember thinking to myself that “if one more person asked me how my wife is doing with no obvious concern for me, someone is going to get slapped.” Finally, one close friend drove a long distance to come see me. When he arrived, I began giving him the usual update on Ruth and he stopped me. “I came to see how YOU are doing. I know Ruth is getting good care. What about you?” he replied. I wept.
Things began to look a bit brighter after that for both of us. Ruth recovered from the effects of treatments and my spirit found strength from God. However, I began dreading our anniversary in July. How will she take hearing me admit to her that I had doubted my love for her? Would she pull back and be depressed?
That dreaded day came, and sure enough, Ruth asked how I had been during the throes of the hardest days that winter. I hesitantly shared with her openly how I had struggled and God met me. She simply said, “I thought so. It’s OK.”
The following six years were years of hope and disappointment. We faced treatments and then recurrences, over and over.
Our last year had several highlights. We had the joy of going on a cruise with Chuck Swindoll as the keynote speaker. The most memorable, however, happened during our “state of our union” talk that next July. Following of special day on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan we sat talking. During a warm embrace, Ruth softly said, “I have never felt so at one with you.”
Three short months later, I watched her take her last breath. I didn’t know a human could hurt so much. Within days I became aware of this hole in my soul that seemed permanent.
The grieving process was really foreign to me. Although I had lost my dad to an accident at age eleven, I really had not hurt that bad before in my life. It was often stifling. Even so, I still had four children to care for and daily chores to do. Friends rallied around us with help and words of comfort.
One of the first things I had to work through was an underlying idea that grieving was a negative or it was a weakness. I quickly learned that in much of the mourning I had no control, let alone my actually causing it because of some sort of weakness within me. That was freeing to see. Some of my attention from myself was diverted to helping others deal with her death. I had the kids, her parents, many close friends and church folks going through various levels of grieving our loss around me.
The next blow in the grieving process came at about three weeks. I began to realize that people were pulling away from me. I felt like I was just getting into the grieving process while everyone else was “getting on” with their lives without her. Loneliness began to creep into my being in a way I had never experienced before. Many admitted to me later that they didn’t know what to say, so they responded by pulling back.
Losing a spouse has a lot of aspects to it that are not understood by many. Indeed, there is the death and physical loss of that person leaving a void in your life. Also, I began really missing intimacy in communication. I had no one to tell even small things to that Ruth would appreciate hearing. My biggest loss, however, was the loss of the relationship. It seemed that in addition to grief due to the death of a friend, I had lost the close relationship we had. Love songs were next to impossible for me to listen to.
A few close friends have asked me how it was sexually to lose my wife. At the risk of being misunderstood, I will say a bit about that. I have bounced this off other people who have lost a spouse and not all have had this experience but many did.
One month after Ruth’s funeral I began to “burn” sexually. I struggled in my mind and body sexually. This lasted about three weeks. I drove through it with prayer, activity, cold showers and long walks. I certainly was too ashamed to talk to anyone about this. So I endured till it faded. One thing that confused me was that I never sensed any guilt or conviction by the Holy Spirit for my struggles. I simply took note and went on.
It was my privilege to find a mentor from a leader from another school who had gone through the same loss of his wife while in leadership. His counsel wisely encouraged me to embrace my grief and experience it fully to ensure wholeness later. I did that. However, the silence of my friends still haunted me. So, I sought out other people who had lost a spouse to talk with. I needed to talk through my whole experience to gain perspective and relief. Nothing would have helped me more than someone asking me, “Would you tell me how Ruth died?”
The sixth month after Ruth’s death held me hostage to my penned up pain. I had to talk to someone. That is when I called others who had lost a mate and asked if I could come talk. I needed several two-hour talks instead of occasional five-minute “How are you doing?” conversations. God was good in providing five godly people over the next two months, who understood.
Working through the aspects of grief brought a new wholeness to me. I began to not feel like everyone was looking at me because I was alone. I began to sense stability in my emotions. The private sobbing sessions were fewer and fewer. Still, I felt really bad some days about the “broken” relationship with Ruth.
Late that Spring the “guilt” within me swelled out of control. I had to do something. So, I got in my van and drove to the graveyard where Ruth was buried. I looked to heaven and said. “Jesus, I can’t talk to Ruth but YOU can. Would you tell her I’m sorry?” I dropped to my knees and sobbed uncontrollably. That became a line in the sand in the concluding of my mourning process.
Later that year, God brought along a godly widow lady to the school where I was who absolutely swept me off my feet. I mean, I don’t know what I thought about love at first sight before that but it happened to me for sure. I thought all those feelings had died. What a beautiful lady!
One of the challenges to this relationship that I should mention to you has to do with Judith’s four boys and my four children. Yes, that makes eight! We had many long talks at first about the wisdom of blending eight kids who were all in their teens. Our conclusion was that it would probably be the best time to marry, before they were all out of the house. It would be much harder, if not impossible to blend them as well, if some were living on their own. So, we followed our hearts and the hand of God and went for it.
The next year Judith and I found ourselves in a large church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with six sons on one side and two daughters and Judith’s sister on the other. Again, the room echoed our vows, “Till death do us part.”
These words had much deeper meaning to both of us. We had both experienced this hard truth to the fullest. However, even with that, we viewed the reality of it happening again as being a lifetime away.
Falling in love again with God’s blessing was fun. There, I said it. A lot of the unknowns about life and love had been answered for both of us. All we needed to do was plug each other into the equation and walk with God. Of course, we had to establish a new identity. Our new identity was a new “US.” It was not like our parents’ relationship. It was not like Judith and Gordon’s relationship. It was not like mine and Ruth’s relationship. It was a unique, new relationship that required learning and growing together. So, we did that.
Now, the process of blending eight teenagers became twice the task either of us had imagined. I had the advantage of coming from a family of eight kids, so that helped me some. A point about the blend: Most of the problems that came up with the children were issues that probably would have happened regardless if we got together, or not. Yes, the volume was an issue. When you bring two families together they bring their baggage along. That means twice as many problems.
The joys and challenges we experienced in our successful blending of families from two different countries and cultures will have to be addressed at a different time. I need to fast forward 16 years from Judith and my wedding.
Difficult days can either make you bitter or better. Judith and I clung to each other and chose the latter. Growth and mistakes of our kids only drove us to the Lord and to each other. We learned early on to talk about everything, no matter how hard the subject. We reviewed the development of each of our kids every three to six months. That way we both had similar expectations for each one. We were on the same page even when the kids chose otherwise.
I know that one of the reasons for our long-term success in blending families revolved around the tightness of Judith and my relationship. The kids saw that we were solid and nothing they could say or do would divide us. At the end of each day, no matter how difficult the issues of the day, Judith and I were in each other’s arms.
Judith’s health began to be of concern. She seemed to lose energy early in the day. Our ministry had included a lot of travel. I began to see that she could no longer take as many trips as we had in previous years. The following five years involved chasing symptoms from doctor to doctor. All only dealt with the symptoms with none connecting them with a cause. We both knew something serious was wrong but were helpless as what to do since no diagnosis nailed down anything. We intentionally worked hard on her health, even though we did not know what we were fighting.
Once again we faced an issue together. This time we had no idea what we were facing.
While visiting family Judith suddenly had symptoms resembling a stroke. A brain MRI revealed a mass on her brain that, we were told, had to come out. During that surgery, the doctor called me in the waiting room. He said, “Mr. Knapp, I am sorry. I’m seldom surprised but much to my surprise, I found a very mean looking cancerous tumor in Judith that came from somewhere else.”
I immediately knew she was going to die. I sat down and sobbed uncontrollably for nearly an hour. That continued daily from that day in August till Christmas.
The next day a full-body scan exposed cancerous spots on her lungs and a large, stage four tumor on her pancreas. With that news Judith asked, “Does that mean I am going to die?” I teared up and nodded “yes” as I leaned over for a long sobbing embrace.
Judith and I talked about everything. This was no different. The next four days in the hospital were full of time spent mourning her death together. Few visitors were allowed in. It was our time to fully say goodbye and discuss the possible events of the coming months. As usual, we tackled even the hard questions. We talked through our tears about issues like helping the kids and grandkids through the mourning process, what a memorial service would look like, would she want to die at home with hospice, and her even insisting that I consider remarriage.
The pain and release of talking about her death with Judith was a new event for me. Ruth and I never did that. I guess it was because we were so young and clung to all hope for even a few more months together that we avoided actually looking at each other and admitting out loud that she was going to die.
Gradually we communicated with our eight children and their families that they needed to do whatever it takes to come see Mom/grandma soon before pain medication made it hard for her to be alert. Consequently, over the following six weeks each of our kids, their spouses and the twenty-five grandkids came one family at a time. Each had one to one personal time with Judith saying goodbye and expressing abiding love that only Judith could give.
It was the most heart-wrenching thing I have ever had to do for such a long time. I watched, monitored and participated in each one’s mourning. Some of the grandchildren wept the deepest in my arms.
We did have hospice come oversee Judith’s care. However, I cared for her myself at nights, till the last three or four weeks. Her sister and a daughter were able to come help me for those final days. This meant that her sister would sleep with Judith at night so I could get better rest. That seemed to work for a couple weeks.
However, about two weeks before she left us Marsha told me that she thought Judith was needing me more because she really was restless a night. So, I started “putting her to bed” after her physical needs were met. Everyone would leave and I’d kneel down beside her head. I talked to her, prayed with her and rubbed her arms. This worked well, as she began resting better after that.
About a week before she left for heaven, I was talking to her quietly at her bedside and a tear trickled down the side of her face. Through her medicated fog she whispered, “I’m sorry I have to die.” Now I was having tears running down my check. I assured her it was okay and that I would be fine. I gave her permission to go on without me and that I would be along soon.
Early Sunday morning late in October, Judith leaped into the arms of Jesus. She was free from the pain and curse of sin. My mourning dropped to the deepest level I had ever experienced. I felt like I was a “nobody” with her gone.
Several people since have asked me if it was easier or harder to mourn the loss of a spouse the second time. My response is that it was harder for me. I site two reasons for this conclusion. The first time the mourning process was new to me and each stage was a bit of a surprise. This time, I knew how much I would have to hurt before I could heal. That was hard.
My relationship with Ruth was “text book” in many ways. Our marriage had developed well from our youth to age 41. However, neither one of us had really experienced deep hurt. Judith and I entered our marriage having both experienced the deep pain of mourning well. This made it possible for us to love deeply. So, my emotional loss was deeper due to this rich level of love Judith and I enjoyed.
I was alone again. This time was different. The first time I had an empty bed but a house full of kids to keep caring for. This time, I came home to an empty bed and an empty house. The loneliness was deafening.
A few friends, in passing, offered, “Dave, if you ever want to talk, call me anytime. I mean it, anytime.” Well guess what. It didn’t happen. I knew they have lives and families. It would have been better if they had offered, “So, Dave, would it be better if I came by Saturday at 7 pm or Sunday?”
I knew from previous experience to expect my friends to begin to pull away after about three weeks. They did. However, it didn’t take me by surprise. I understood better this time. So, I did as before. I intentionally did things to allow the grieving process to happen instead of hiding or stuffing it. I would plan to go out in the evenings, even if it meant going to the mall and watching people go by while eating an ice cream cone or go to a movie…alone.
A common counsel often given to a griever is to not make any major decisions for the first 12 months. I began to think this through as to why one year. I realized soon that twelve months gives time for a normal cycle of life and the opportunity to go though most “firsts” after the loss. These events include; first birthday, first holiday seasons, first time talking to friends and relatives, first season changes, first time in familiar settings, etc. So, I realized I can “lean into” the process by doing these “firsts” intentionally.
It was my blessing to have friends and family who understood that. They were very cooperative when I connected with them about visits and going out to social events with them.
One month after Judith’s body was taken away it happened again. I began to struggle sexually again. At least it was not such a surprise. I noticed again that my struggles did not include guilt or conviction from the Spirit of God. I began to plead with God as to how to understand (and continue to deal with it successfully) what was going on. I had been open with Judith about this happening to me after Ruth’s death. She surprised me saying it happened to her as well. She felt bad about it.
Finally, in the middle of the night God put some things together. In the past I have helped several men deal with the addiction to pornography. In my research how to help them I learned that science has identified that sexual enjoyment comes from the same part of the brain, as other addictions that we consider hardcore. I began to realize that it is a very real possibility that our healthy sex life was like an addiction to my brain and that when it was totally gone (not even able to touch her hand) within thirty days I went through a “dry out” time. This time was physical and not moral, hence no need for guilt. I am not a professional in all this by education. But the concept has helped me and others I have shared it with.
Many of the firsts came by surprise. The first time I was out socially with people who did not know me I was blindsided with the question, “So where is your wife?” I startled everyone with my reply of, “She is in heaven.” Silence. I knew I was progressing the first time I was in a similar situation and I did not feel like the conversation was complete until everyone knew I was recently widowed. I was beginning to develop a new identity without Judith.
One reality being widowed is the challenge of thinking of myself as a whole single person and not a half of a couple. My friends struggled with that as well. Some struggled with it so much that they have pulled away from me. There is also the issue that in a subtle way, to some, I am a threat socially to some men pertaining to their wives. It sounds strange but it is often true for both widowers and widows in social settings, even among Christians.
A pastor friend, and his wife posed a classic question to me. How can we as a couple prepare for such a tragic event as one of us dying “before our time”? I have a few suggestions to present. First, be committed to developing the deepest, most open relationship possible. Keeping your emotional distance to possibly reduce unknown future pain is not a good idea.
Next, I encourage that you have open communication as a policy, even when things are great. That way, it won’t be a new event to add to the struggle of tragedy. Also, it should be a given, but I see it not happening too often, practice walking with God closely when things are normal or “easy.” That way you won’t have to learn how to trust Him AND go through tough times at the same time.
Have conversations about “if I go first” at some time or another…better sooner than later. This could help your spouse greatly with hard decisions should you go to heaven first. Live each day with the appreciation for your spouse like you could lose them tomorrow. I remember that for weeks after Judith’s funeral, I wanted to shout to all the couples I saw around me to really appreciate what they had in their spouse.
Keep all relationships current. To this day, I have no relationship regrets with either Ruth or Judith because we lived out our relationships with short, current accounts.
I also recommend couples be willing to take the message of 1 Corinthians 7:4 farther than the bedroom. Help each other take care of their temple (physical body). After talking to an oncologist who is a godly good friend about Judith’s reports and condition, he pointed out that usually pancreatic cancer is fast growing. There was every evidence that “for some reason” Judith’s grew very slowly. I see now that Judith’s effort to eat and live on the extreme edge of “healthy” kept her alive many years longer than most. My support of that and assistance made that happen.
Finally, don’t be afraid to educate yourself about the grieving process. One illustration of this is the mistake of most people thinking the mourning process is only an emotional thing and ignore that it is a physical condition as well. It WILL happen to one of you eventually. My case is unusual only because it happened during younger years. Dying happens among the elderly every day. Remember, unless the Lord returns, none of us gets off this globe alive.
“Till death do us part” is no joke. It is for real and should be considered seriously.
Should you find yourself or someone you know experiencing grief so severely that they can’t participate in normal dialog, please don’t hesitate to get or recommend professional help.
This article was written by David Knapp who is a sought after national speaker. He is a published writer: Grit Newspaper; Christian Herald Magazine; Brown Gold Magazine; The Gospel Herald Magazine; and a regular contributor to Union Gospel Press publications. Knapp has served as a regional public relations director for an international religious, non-profit, New Tribes Mission, an administrator and professor at the junior college level; New Tribes Bible Institute and Frontier School of the Bible. But he counts his greatest joy and accomplishment as the proud father of eight children and the devoted grandfather of 26.