Tag: faith

The Final Goodbye: Coming to terms with my husband’s death and how it wasn’t my fault

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“She began to understand quite clearly that truth cannot be understood from books alone or by any written words, but only by personal growth and development in understanding and that things written even in the Book of Books can be astonishingly misunderstood while one still lives on the low levels of spiritual experience and on the wrong side of the grave on the mountains.”

-Hannah Hurnard, “Hinds feet on High Places”


 

My husband has been dead two years now, and I still cringe when I hear the comment, “Well, at least you knew he was sick, at least you had time to say ‘Goodbye,’” which is an unfair assumption, because I didn’t. I didn’t have time to say ‘Goodbye’ because we weren’t encouraged to allow space for the reality of what saying ‘Goodbye’ would really mean. We were surrounded by a doctrine that if illness was talked about, we were in some way holding back the blessing of healing. We were surrounded by phrases like, “Just believe in healing…” “Just minister to it (the cancer)…just lay hands…” “Don’t ever say the ‘C’ word…” “Claim healing and it will be yours!” “Just believe…”…and we did, all of the above, over and over and over. Call it the “Name-it-Claim-it theology” or “The Prosperity Gospel theology” or “just-plain-crazy theology,” but whatever it was it was under the giant umbrella of hope, and it was hope that helped my husband get through the first five years of his cancer diagnosis in his early 20s and it helped us make it through the four years of our marriage. (After all, he did live with a disease for ten years that statistically should have killed him in six months.) It helped us cling to hope, it helped us find faith, it gave us fuel to fight…until…it didn’t. When the foundation of all we were taught to say was crumbling around us, and no matter how much we “claimed” healing, it seemed the opposite was happening. All of a sudden I was faced with the reality of death and the burden of giant questions that emerged when the box we had put God in was ripped wide open. I had to ask the questions: Is there more to hope than this? Is there more to the idea of time than what we think we know? I had to swallow that even in the midst of hope, the gift of our time here on Earth is finite, no matter how long or short. It’s not something we earn by how well we pray or believe, the time that’s given is already there, already waiting for us.

Let me preface by saying, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the hope and expectancy for healing—people have conquered incredible feats with hope– but it’s not hope if it leaves someone feeling guilty or ashamed or forsaken when life doesn’t play out the way we wanted it to. Through the last two weeks of my husband’s life I was told that his healing wasn’t happening because I wasn’t peaceful enough about the situation. I was told that I shouldn’t tell anyone my husband was in hospice, that I should take down the online updates about our family because it wasn’t anyone else’s business, and that the words ‘cancer’ and ‘hospice’ made people give up hope and think negatively. I was told to tell people that my husband was “doing just fine” in his last days. All of this confusing theology swirling in my ears and around in my head resulted in an incredible burden shackled to my feet. I was tormented by “What ifs”: If I had said ‘Goodbye’ then, would that mean his death would be my fault? If I prayed for his suffering to end, did that mean I was giving up on him? Did that mean I was a failure at praying for my husband? Did it mean he just didn’t believe enough—that I didn’t believe enough? I know better now, and I know God a whole lot better now too, but when the opportunity was still there, because we wanted to cling to hope so badly, there was no final ‘Goodbye,’ no special moments that gave any ”closure”—the kind people expect in a long illness, you know, “The Fault in Our Stars” kind of thing. There was certainly no using the ‘D’(death) word. No one, not even the hospice workers, explained what ‘5 Wishes’ was or what the dying process looked like, so I couldn’t even brace for it—which may sound naïve to people, and they would be correct. I was a naïve 28-year-old way in over my head and my husband was a 34-year-old doing everything he could to stay on this earth for his wife and his newborn daughter and two-year-old twins, and if that meant not acknowledging it, then that meant not acknowledging it—and I don’t fault him for that.

But it’s usually in our finest moments or in our suffering that we want more time, or we want to turn back the clock or we want to freeze it, and when death happens, something deep within keeps looking at that clock as if we could do something to change it. The day my husband died, I was asked by someone if I wanted to request for him to be raised from the dead. I had heard from people after his death, “We didn’t come to see him because we thought there was more time…that he’d pull through…”


 

…life happens quickly and slowly at the same time. Sometimes we have the privilege to determine its pace for a while and sometimes we don’t…


 

A friend recently sent me an article published at Christianitytoday.com called “On dying and reckoning with the Prosperity Gospel,” in which Morgan Lee interviewed church historian, Kate Bowler about her own battle with cancer and her perspective of the Prosperity Gospel in the midst of illness. I was brought to tears reading it because she was able to explain beautifully what I was struggling with on an incredibly painful, profound and personal level:

Prosperity gospel is a reflection of American avoidance of our finitude. Their denial of the inevitability of death taught me something about American confidence. Americans want to be in control. Self-determination is a theological good. It’s really hard when it comes to the fragility of the end. In almost all circumstances, I can understand why someone would go to a prosperity church. It has so many obvious appeals pragmatically, theologically, and emotionally. But when it comes to sickness, it offers so few resources to its folks. The saddest stories that I heard in my research were when it was obvious that people would lose to whatever sickness they were facing. But the church was not able to surround them with comfort and tell them that they weren’t to blame or that there were questions and uncertainties beyond our knowledge. They couldn’t tell them that God was present in the suffering of his people, not just in the triumph of them.

I have no PhD in theology and I’m no expert on what hope really means or why some people are healed while others are not. One might think that I should be jaded by hope or Christianity, or even God, but I can’t be, even though I’ve tried…I can’t not believe in hope, all I do is hope. Hope was, and still is an essential part of my daily journey. I can’t imagine what life would have been like without hope from the day I met my husband, until his last breath. I can’t fathom what my life would be like now without the hope that I embrace with each new morning. Where would my children be if I could not show them hope? I never did, and never will, give up hope, for hope is essential for our time here on Earth—along with faith and love. (1 Corinthians 13:13). I used to be so bitter about all the things that were said or not said, done or not done, because it felt like time was stolen from me, but I can’t be anymore because I see everything was said and done because we all wanted my husband to stay here for a little longer, just a little more time. I can accept now that life happens quickly and slowly at the same time. Sometimes we have the privilege to determine its pace for a while and sometimes we don’t. I can now see hope as something not used to manipulate a situation to the way we think it should go or to convince God to give me more time because I believed enough, but as the driving force that brings us through whatever this life brings us. God’s clothed us with the comfort of hope that our souls so desperately need. Hope is something greater than the current circumstance. Hope is something yet to be seen. It’s the force of Hope drives one to push through the darkness into the light. Hope is a surety that surpasses physical time.

But I do imagine sometimes…what if I got to say all the things I needed to say and he got to say all the things he needed to say, and the children and I got our special photographs with him in the hospice at the end? What if we got “The Fault in Our Stars” ending? The bottom line is our time is finite here on earth, so even if all the prayers for healing worked the way we wanted, and he lived to a ripe old age, if we had a choice, we’d always opt for more time. It’s human nature, I believe, to be time hoarders, because deep down we are not satisfied with the finality of this fragile lifetime. Deep down, in everyone, I believe there is an ache for eternity. We still face living in the paradox of grieving when people leave this world, we want to go back in time, wanting to change it, wanting to freeze it forever and never let go, desperately wanting more time and also wanting to move forward. God knows this. This is why we have memories in the first place, something locked deep inside that somehow, in some way, time is frozen, just for a split second. It can be a blessing or a curse depending on the memory. The smatterings of the past pave the present we walk in, but only the knowledge that one day that clock will be broken for good (Revelation 21:4, 1 Corinthians 15:55-57,) can help me walk into the future while I’m still here on Earth.


 

Hope is something greater than the current circumstance. Hope is something yet to be seen. It’s the force of Hope drives one to push through the darkness into the light. Hope is a surety that surpasses physical time.


 

As I slowly and painstakingly go through my husband’s things, I fantasize that maybe I’ll run across a letter, one final letter addressed to me saying all the things he wanted to say. But I know that letter doesn’t exist. I take my fantasies of the “Final Goodbye” and drive that energy into the tangible memories he did leave me with, like this one:

The song we swayed to for our first dance as a married couple at our wedding was Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” I was naïve then to the profound statement that song would have in our marriage, but I don’t think my husband was, and I think that’s why he picked that song. Perhaps, in a way, he picked that song as his “Goodbye” to me.

Now, I recognize the “final Goodbye,” was only an intro to an “eternal ‘Hello.” I wait, patiently and impatiently, knowing it will come…in due time.

 

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

-Jim Croce, “Time in a bottle”

Re-purposing the brokenness

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I just got my phone evaluated by a “phone expert” the other day. It wasn’t working the way it used to and I didn’t understand why. It was the same phone I had gotten a year ago, so why wasn’t it functioning the same way it had before? This is my first experience with a smart phone, a world I’m totally ignorant to, so the poor phone guy had to keep explaining terms that were foreign to me. He said that I needed to upgrade my phone to a new one. But why? I just got used to the one I have—I don’t want a new one! I want it to work the way it did before. He explained if I wanted to experience what I had previously with this phone, I’d have to get a new one, because this one was outdated. Done. But I resisted. I don’t want a new phone. I just want to make this one better! In the phone world, I guess I can’t have that, but it does make a good metaphor for what I’ve been learning in other areas of my life.

I have been waiting for my inner wounded soul to “get better.” Waiting for the day the clouds would part and all of the sadness and loneliness and anger and despair would lift and I would just feel…better. I didn’t really know what “better” would look like, but I catch myself fantasizing sometimes about what it would resemble, not being able to put a finger on anything in particular or in great detail, but honestly, “better” looked like anything that was total opposite of how I’ve been feeling. Only now, something has been stirring inside me to abandon “better.” Truth is, I’ll never be what I once thought my ideal of “better” was, and I don’t really want to be “better.” God prodded me to seek a different meaning for my new…whatever you want to call it—life? Chapter? Season? And there’s no instant upgrade involved in God’s timing here on Earth most times. The only way to get there is to re-purpose the brokenness; not replace it.

Perfect, tangible, visible examples that come to mind as I’m trying to grasp what is happening in my own grief experience is best explained by a specific art form of re-purposing broken materials into something that the object wasn’t at first intended to be, but is worked with and formed into something completely different than before, transformed from the original pieces. Take mosaics for example, or the ancient Japanese art form, Kintsugi, of taking broken pottery and fusing the pieces together with gold or silver—the end result is far more valuable than its original form.

In our culture today re-purposing, or up-cycling has become somewhat of a cool, hip, artsy thing, but it’s nothing new. God’s been up-cycling from the beginning. Taking broken things and not necessarily upgrading the broken thing to a brand new thing, but taking the broken pieces and using them for a re-purpose, a more valuable purpose, a greater purpose.

So while I do have to give in and upgrade my phone in order to have it work the way I need it to (OK, I don’t HAVE to do that, but it might simplify tasks a little bit). I don’t have to sweep my brokenness under the rug or into a dustpan and throw it away, praying all the pieces will just go away. If that was the case, how many more pieces would be lost? Precious pieces that, though painful, are so beautiful, like the pieces of cherished memories; our first kiss, our wedding, dancing in the living room, holding our twin babies… the bittersweet pieces of my husband holding our daughter for the first time as he struggled to breathe, or my taking his hand when there wasn’t anything else I could do in the middle of the night, or watching a man so broken give all the broken pieces of his life to God and in turn, receive a peace that overcame him in his last breath…and all of the tiny, unbearable shatters of my former life through this grief journey. All those pieces are painful–crushing at times–but I can’t throw them away and I don’t want to upgrade to a life where those pieces don’t exist. All I know is that while I can’t see it completely right now, the pieces that are being put back together now will resemble nothing of my former life, but will still contain all of it. There is beauty in my brokenness and one day I’ll see the final result, but until then through painstaking patience, I’ll keep giving each piece, no matter how deep it cuts, to my God.