Gaining From Life's Losses
I will never forget his words to me that day.
The Grand Canyon
We sat side by side on chairs with metal frames supporting slightly padded seats and backs in soft colors designed to comfort patients waiting in the otherwise cold, impersonal cubicles filled with the smell of antiseptics, calling to mind visions of people tucked under crisp, white, hospital sheets. The doctor stood before us sharing the results of Michael's brain scan. His words seemed very distant and somehow muffled. It was a massive brain tumor – a glioblastoma.
Michael's mouth - the mouth I loved to kiss – formed that smile which won my heart thirty-eight years earlier and spoke, "Stiff upper lip, Bunky"; using the nickname he'd given me, his bunk-mate.
Foregoing treatment, he died naturally with grace and peace in the Lord seventy-six days later, early on the morning of January 4, 2006.
Nearly a year had passed and I was still wearing that stiff upper lip, wanting to appear strong – to prove that God's grace was sufficient.
Keeping busy with the affairs of daily life, I refused to look back and long for the life I'd lost. The word is denial.
But, fall was approaching and I began to remember the events of the previous September when signs of Michael's brain tumor became evident. Our last autumn together in the Smokey Mountains flashed across my mind. Reflections didn't end there – it was a flood of memories of all the places we'd traveled together!
Closing my eyes I could feel the crisp clear air as we stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon one majestic Christmas morning. Michael stood behind me blocking the wind and I leaned into his body as he wrapped his arms around me to keep me warm. Because of the holiday it seemed we were the only two people in the park – maybe the only two people on earth that glorious, holy morning.
Approaching the El Tovar Lodge on the South Rim, we could smell coffee brewing and cinnamon buns baking. Red ribbons and boughs of holly draped across the mammoth ancient timbers lining the walls and ceiling of the lobby and the aroma of wood burning fireplaces and evergreen mixed with the scent of cinnamon and permeated every room. The crackling of burning logs joined a chorus of carols playing quietly in the background while blazing fires warmed our bodies.
Romance filled the air and there was love in our hearts! Love for our Lord who had blessed us with all the spiritual benefits the Christmas Season represents and, who allowed us to share in the pleasure of the moment with him and with one another.
My mind raced to a hundred other good times. Times shared with one another; times of overflowing life and love – always so much love.
Oh God! I dared to open the door, looking back for the first time, and was struck with a crushing pain words cannot express. There was only grief – no comfort! It was as though I refused to be comforted, wanting in some strange way to feel the pain. I wanted to die! I found myself increasingly spending time and emotional energy looking back and longing – longing for my husband, longing for my life as it had been.
From a dark hole of inconsolable grief I cried out to God and confessed I couldn't bear such sorrow in my own strength.
In answer to my cry, God's Spirit helped me understand the pain. It was the grief of separation brought about by death. Michael and I were one; the fabric of our souls intertwined over thirty-eight years of marriage. Death shredded the tapestry of my life creating a massive chasm in my soul.
Then the Spirit brought to remembrance an article I'd read many years ago in Discipleship Journal devoted to "Seeing God Through Suffering"; in particular the piece entitled, "The Greatest Grief." The thoughts were taken from sermons by the great nineteenth-century English preacher Charles H. Spurgeon on the Savior's sufferings as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Digging out the old journal I studied the article once again.
In all Christ's sufferings the thought that the Father must withdraw his presence from the Son because of the sin he would bear on our behalf touched me most. God's holiness required that he not look upon sin. It was the greatest grief God could experience. The Father's willingness to endure such separation from his Son undeniably demonstrated his immeasurable love for us.
Until I came to know, by experience, the pain of separation brought about by the death of a loved one, I had no idea what that sacrifice cost God, the Father, and God, the Son. My suffering was great - God's suffering was infinitely greater!
That night as I cried out to God for comfort and hope, his Spirit answered by showing me that he, in a very real way, understood how I felt. He, like me, had experienced the pain of separation from a loved one through death. In the midst of that revelation I could hear him saying over and over again, "I did it because I love you!"
God's comfort, expressed in his all-surpassing love for the suffering soul, brings joy to even the most wounded heart.
It was a mistake to think that I should keep a stiff upper lip. It was a mistake to think God could not be glorified if I allowed all that pain to spill over in a monumental show of grief. How could I be so foolish? Didn't I believe he who gave his only Son for me couldn't or wouldn't meet me there, in that place of grief, with his love and comfort?
Of course he would! The Bible calls him the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 reads, "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." (NIV)
Sometimes loss comes into our lives without warning; sometimes we see it coming from a long distance away. Inevitably, in its wake, we are burdened with loneliness, physical limitations and pain, homelessness or poverty and always the psychological and emotional pain - the grief of loss. The death of a loved one, a broken relationship, the limitations of age, ill-health, an accident, home foreclosure, unemployment; all can result in loss of a way of life we were enjoying.
Nevertheless, I've discovered that coping with the pain of loss can be a valuable life experience and can actually serve to enrich our lives. Suffering permanently changes our lives and causes us to refocus. It can be an opportunity to check our priorities.
In examining my own priorities following the death of my husband, I've found myself drawing upon the verses from 2 Corinthians and concluding that, for me, the top priority needs to be loving and serving others - particularly those hurting souls who stand in need of a touch from the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.
Notice one of the reasons God gives us comfort is "...so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God."
Loving and serving others – I believe that's what we were designed to do, but our inclination from birth seems to be self-serving; living as a servant comes naturally to very few of us. It's not our first choice, but when something dramatic comes into our lives, like the death of a loved one or a devastating illness or injury; if we're willing to allow it to cause us to refocus and change our priorities – maybe giving us a better handle on what life was really meant to be – we can end up gaining from our loss!