When Janine Hughes and I met in 2001, we became fast friends, as did our then 4-year-old daughters. In 2004, my family moved out of state, but our friendship continued. I walked with her, though from a distance, through all of the trauma she describes in her story. A picture from her August 12, 2012 baptism sits on my desk. Here is Janine’s story…
As an atheist for most of my adult life, my question was always: “Does God exist?” I came to understand that I was asking the wrong question. The question is: “Does God’s love exist?” It was through suffering that I found the answer.
In September 2009, my husband Bert was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. One morning we were a typical family of four living in suburban Minnesota, and by that afternoon we were a devastated family facing the imminent loss of husband and father. My entire world shifted and a terrible darkness began to close in.
As soon as Bert was diagnosed, we found ourselves surrounded by a community of loving, caring, supportive people. Friends, family, people from the school—even people we really didn’t know—brought meals, took our children to various activities, brought care packages.
Endless cycles of chemotherapy prolonged Bert’s life. We celebrated Thanksgiving 2010 thankful for more than a year together as a family. The next day my brother Dave died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 56.
Bert died in April 2011. I found myself surrounded by an ever-growing network of love and support. The church we had joined embraced me, family and friends continued to be there for me and the children. It was in the weeks following Bert’s death I realized I was surrounded by God’s love. God’s love is real. And if God’s love is real…..I opened my heart and God took over.
Thanksgiving 2011 my life exploded again. My eldest sister Mary was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. We were dealing with that crisis and her impending death, when in January 2012 my seventeen-year-old son Sam died by suicide.
The memories of that day are muted, repressed even, as necessary. But I remember calling people and people coming over. All through the day, people sat with me and my daughter for hours. Long stretches of silence were occasionally broken by quiet questions, crying and prayer. Left alone, I would have been curled up in the fetal position, surrendering to despair. But that group of people surrounded me and held me upright. God’s love surrounded me.
Two weeks later my sister died. I lost four family members in fourteen months.
When people ask me how I got through that time of loss, I tell them, “God. And God’s people.” It is only by God’s grace and the love and support of his people that I am here today to tell my story. It was in my very darkest hour that I first saw the evidence of God’s love. He loved me through the hands and feet and voices and embracing arms of others. The world is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with God’s love.
After almost eight years, I am still grieving and processing my losses. I miss my loved ones, especially my son. Sometimes I feel great sorrow, and sometimes I harbor doubts. But through the experience of great loss, I realized I didn’t have to prove the existence of God, because he had proved his love to me.
Is God’s love real? Absolutely. I know because I experienced it, and God continues to make his presence known to me day by day. To debate the existence of God is empty rhetoric. In my darkest hour, he bypassed intellectual arguments and invaded my life with his love. The real good has come into my life and there’s no going back. I’m so thankful there’s a God of love and mercy so that I can look past the pain to something greater—to hope, mercy, grace, forgiveness, comfort, peace, and so much more.
Janine’s baptism, 2012