Sandy’s Story: When There are No Words

There are times when overwhelming loss leaves us without words. Sandra Merville Hart has known such a time. But she has also known the love of God that carries us through those days. Here is Sandy’s story …

Sometimes … God just cries with us.

That year, between the two of us, my husband and I lost three parents. Though I prayed fervently for a different outcome—one where they’d all be healed—for the third time in six months a hospice nurse told me, “We’re seeing the kind of things we see in the last twelve, twenty-four, to forty-eight hours of life.”

This time it was for my dad. The strong man who had been a rock, a safe haven for me and my siblings, lay dying. Mom had died five months earlier and my father-in-law a month before that. Could this really be happening again?

~~~

My dad had been the caregiver for my mom for several years. Her Alzheimer’s grew worse, requiring more time from me and my sister to cook, clean, and help care for Mom. Before my dad’s stroke, one of us had visited daily for many long months. His stroke started an avalanche of sorrow and grief.

For it seemed that God had opened a box, letting out all the bad things at once, and didn’t close the lid until the box was empty. Strokes, two cancer diagnoses, Alzheimer’s, a broken hip—it all tumbled down on our precious parents. Each day—sometimes each hour—brought new struggles as I watched the health of people I loved so dearly seep away.

My sister and I shouldered the brunt of these trials so that my parents never knew all that happened with social agencies, social workers, nursing homes, insurance agents, attorneys, nurses, financial institutions, and hospice staff. I felt like I was drowning, with no one to save me.

~~~

Yet it was my parents, my father-in-law, and my mother-in-law who suffered the most. Alzheimer’s didn’t prevent my mother-in-law from grieving her husband.

The worst part was that my parents were in different nursing homes for about a month. My mom was too ill to go see him and the insurance threatened to cancel his benefits if he left the nursing home. It was a nightmare.

Anytime someone asked how to pray for us, I said, “Pray that my dad’s nursing home finds room for my mom.” Four days after she was accepted for hospice care, she and my dad were reunited in the same nursing home. Unfortunately, hospital staff had called my husband’s family to be at his dad’s side to say final goodbyes, so I missed that joyful reunion.

It was that kind of year.

~~~

For all that we endured, I’m sure we were saved from events that would have made it worse. I’m grateful for the mercies extended to my parents during those dark days.

My dad’s cancer diagnosis came five months after my mother’s death. My siblings and I were left reeling from the blow. He lived two more weeks.

Our broken hearts grieved his passing yet rejoiced that he now walked hand-in-hand with his bride on streets of gold. No Alzheimer’s. No cancer. No stroke.

I looked up at puffy white clouds during his funeral and knew somewhere up there my parents had been reunited. They were happy again.

~~~

I never felt God abandoned me, though I wondered why everything had to be so painfully hard. I leaned heavily on God and my faith. There were many days when there were no words to express my feelings in prayer. I’m grateful that the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans words cannot express. Romans 8:26 (NIV)

No one can emerge from such experiences without being changed.

I’ve learned that caring actions like a hug, a genuine smile, a card, and a meal can give you the strength to make it through the day. I’ve learned how to care for someone who is suffering through difficult days.

And I’ll never forget how God loved my parents and provided for them when everything seemed hopeless. I prayed that He’d take the illnesses away and heal them again. It wasn’t to be. But I felt that God suffered with me and my siblings. Just as Jesus was moved with compassion for hurting folks, God shared our pain.

Knowing God shared our sorrow was one of the greatest blessings I received from that experience.

From all this sorrow, I finally understand. Sometimes God just cries with us.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4 (NIV)

SandraMervilleHart_Headshot2 Please visit Sandy on her blog: https://sandramervillehart.wordpress.com/. And be sure to check out her newest book, Trail’s End, in “Smitten Novella Collection: The Cowboys,” releasing August 15, 2019!

Alice’s Story: Graveside Epiphany

My friend Alice Wisler lost her four-year-old son to cancer treatments in 1997. Though she wrestled with deep grief, it was divine grace that kept her from losing faith in a loving God. Jesus is able to hold together all the pieces of a mother’s broken heart, and to give meaning to even the briefest of lives. Here is Alice’s story…

Daniel'sPlaceOakTree The cemetery was decorated in fog that morning when I pulled my Jeep to the usual parking place under the oak. Some think cemeteries, especially when foggy, are spooky spots. For me, the cemetery is a classroom. Revelations happen there.

When my son died at age four, I wasn’t interested in much of anything, especially not a lawn with buried bodies. It seemed strange and empty to honor a grave that held what was left of Daniel. I wanted him with me. Four years was not enough time.

While Daniel was going through cancer treatment, I had hoped for a normal family life again.  For healing, health, and kindergarten.  More trips to the park for picnics, and pausing to hear train whistles. More hours of reading Maurice Sendak’s books and laughter over wild things.

I had prayed, clung to Bible verses, and had faith that Daniel would beat the malignant tumor in his neck.

After his death, I cringed at the platitudes neighbors and friends offered.  “He’s in a better place.”  “You’ll see him again.”  “Don’t cry, don’t cry, Alice. Daniel’s with Jesus.”

Time passed, the platitudes continued, but, surprisingly, the cemetery changed for me. Instead of a place of sorrow, it became a setting for family traditions. My husband, three children and I had picnics on the grassy slopes, tossed Frisbees—even played softball. On Daniel’s birthday we let go of helium balloons with messages attached to the strings. They sailed beyond our reach into the August sky.

Now, on an October morning 21 years after Daniel’s death, I came to the cemetery alone. Once I parked by Daniel’s grave, I did my usual mothering—brushing away twigs and wiping bird droppings off his marker with a wet toilette.

The cemetery hawk circled overhead—most likely looking for a critter to surprise—but I rather liked to think he was protecting the gravestones. As he showed off his wing span, I continued with my ritual of walking around the grounds, pausing at markers to read the familiar epitaphs. There was Audrey who lived one day. Taylor, another infant, was just steps away. According to his stone, his parents were so glad he had come into their lives, however briefly. Peregrina, who had been a beloved mother and grandmother, had an armload of red roses in the vase on her stone. I continued my trek, breathing in the morning air.

Solomon’s grave was new to me. The scripture on his epitaph was well-known, but it was the first time I’d seen his gravestone. I took in the words written in bronze: I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.  II Timothy: 4:7.

My first response to this stranger’s epitaph was, Well, Solomon, you had 75 years, so the passage makes sense to put on your resting place.

Daniel?  He had four.

I thought of how Daniel wore a Jesus Loves You pin he got in church. I remembered how he wanted me to read to him about the vine and the branches in the book of John. He told me that you give gifts to your friends. He recited jokes from a book, memorizing all the punch lines, because he didn’t know how to read.  When we crossed the swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain he held my hand because I am afraid of heights.

He had lived.

It was much too short a life.

But my mind didn’t stop there. I don’t know if it was something in the morning air or in the wispy patches of fog, but God got my attention.

Daniel’s life had a purpose and he fulfilled it. He ran his race with bravery, becoming a Brave Cookie to us. He had cherished his faith in God.

It was the first time in 21 years that I could apply this passage from II Timothy to the life of my boy. And from memory I recalled the rest of the passage found in that verse: I have fought the good fight.

It fit Daniel perfectly. As a cancer patient, he had fought hard through chemo, surgeries, radiation treatments, infections, and invasive needles.

I walked back toward Daniel’s grave as Jesus’ love weaved into my broken mother’s heart.

“You were created for a purpose and you lived it,” I said in the way mamas talk to their child’s grave. “I don’t know why you had to go so soon, but your life was every bit as profound as someone who got to live to see 75 or 85 or 92.”

The fog still hovered; there was no burst of sunlight, no sound of angel wings or trumpets, absolutely no physical indication that I had had an epiphany.

But my spirit knew. I think that it’s in these moments that Jesus’ love wraps us tightly. He gives us what we need, and it comes right when we are able to comprehend it, absorb it, and be thankful.

AliceWisler-2  Alice Wisler

Aggi’s Story: Drafted into the War on Cancer

Aggi Stevenson shared her journey through cancer on Facebook while she was living it. Whenever I read her posts, I marveled both at her faith and at God’s faithfulness. I asked her to share something of her journey with you, because in the worst of the battle she experienced the best of God’s love. Here is Aggi’s story…

There are no volunteers in this Army. Everyone diagnosed with cancer was drafted into the ranks of soldiers fighting this horrific disease. During the heat of the battle, warriors feel they are outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and powerless against the might and cruelty of the enemy. The loss of body parts, femininity, masculinity, and their crowning glory—the very hair of their heads—is staggering to the formerly healthy civilian.

In 2014, I was drafted into the war on cancer. For what I gained in the midst of battle, I wouldn’t exchange this experience for anything.

~~~

Normally after a mammogram, I wouldn’t be wearing a soft robe in a private waiting room watching coffee drip into a paper cup while they decided if they needed more pictures for the third time. Just when I thought I could dress and leave, the doctor ordered a breast ultrasound. By then I was given the VIP treatment. The nurses offered me everything available to make me comfortable. We joked and laughed as they asked if I could stay even longer because the doctor wanted to personally perform the ultrasound again. While pretending to be oblivious to what was happening, my heart pounded and my head throbbed. Still smiling, I left with an appointment for biopsies.

Biopsies were done on both breasts and lymph nodes. The two-week waiting period seemed like an eternity.  Finally the day came to learn the results. When I arrived at the doctor’s office there wasn’t one person, patient, or staff in the waiting/check-in area. This can’t be good, I thought…and it wasn’t. The diagnosis was bilateral breast cancer and lymph nodes tested positive as well.

As the words, “I’ve—got—cancer” penetrated my mind, heart, and soul, I felt a comforting warmth, as if wrapped in a blanket fresh from the dryer. A heavenly peace enveloped me, and I experienced a calmness that was not my own. There were no tears, no fear, just peace and strength—exactly what I prayed for.

~~~

My husband, Jim, held my hand and remained quiet, his face ashen. We viewed the x-rays and chose the hospital, surgeon, and oncologist from a list of professionals we knew nothing about.

Afterward, we walked to the car in silence. As the car doors closed, my rock of a husband crumbled to pieces. I consoled him as he wept on my shoulder. Again I possessed strength that was not my own.

Was it time to leave my precious family?  Was God going to march me right into heaven? He could heal me or take me home. Realizing God’s perfect will was to draft me into battling cancer, I was okay with whatever decision He made. I had fallen helplessly into His hands.

~~~

In full armor, I fought a brutal war of losses. I lost both breasts, hair, control of bladder and bowels, the ability to walk, and the capacity to care for myself. I lost track of whether it was day or night, what day of the week it was, or how many days I’d been in bed. My breathing became labored with the least bit of exertion. I suffered blood clots, constant nausea, and nerve damage that caused my feet, legs, tongue, and lips to become numb. Once when I cried out to God that the writhing pain was too much for me, I remember nothing else until I woke up sometime later. He had simply put me to sleep.

Jim was a gentle and loving caregiver. He assisted with bathroom duties and lowered me into our jetted tub to soak my aching body. I remember times when I would awaken to his warm hands rubbing my bald head, pulling the covers up around my neck when I was cold, and kissing my forehead. I was vaguely aware of him putting my cap back on that I had lost in the bedding because he knew how important it was to me for my head to be covered.

~~~

Every two weeks I climbed into my tank, traveled to the battlefield, and engaged cancer. When I could no longer walk, Jim carried me, drove the tank himself, and pushed the wheelchair that held my withering body into battle. Every chemo treatment was worse than the one before. Each time, I left the cancer center in defeat, wounded and beaten yet again.

This life began to dim, and I looked forward to heaven.  The suffering finally became unbearable. Waving the white flag, I surrendered to whatever God decided to do with this warrior who was too war-torn to continue. The chemo treatments were stopped. Gradually I began to get stronger. I could care for myself again. I no longer had to be in isolation because of a damaged immune system. Three months later I had healed enough to undergo 33 radiation treatments and breast reconstruction.

~~~

I’ve been cancer-free since 2015. I now have the privilege and great joy of counseling and praying with cancer-fighting warriors and their loved ones. Any time, day or night, I’m always available to them.

Cancer took me into a deep and exciting relationship with God that I would never have known any other way. Through it all, God was faithful to supply what I needed, and the people I needed at just the right time. Family and friends all rallied around me and held me up. I saw God’s love in and through them, and especially in the tender and tireless care of my husband. God’s presence with me in the midst of the battle is indescribable, and to this day I find great difficulty putting it into words. The darkest days couldn’t touch the light show that was going on in my soul. God was so close, it was as if I could feel His breath on my cheek.

Mountaintop experiences are breath-taking, and thank God for them, but if we only had those exhilarating times we wouldn’t understand the breath and depth of God’s love. He loves us through our suffering as well. He’s still the same loving God in good times and bad.

aggi stevenson 2 Aggi Stevenson

Janine’s Story: Finding God in the Dark

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 baptism 2

Janine’s baptism, 2012