Post #3 in Refuge from the Ruins—A Miniseries on Grief and Suffering
Below you will find a few journal entries from the last several months. These words were not written with the intention of being shared as posts on the blog. But instead of trying to fit the last 8 months into a neatly organized blog post that feels “nice” to read, I decided I’d just give you a real glimpse into what this process has actually been like for me. So, for better or worse, here you go.
I still can’t believe this is real. I can, but I can’t. After eight months of watching her deteriorate and wondering during each hospital stay if she would ever come back home, it’s hard to believe it actually happened. She didn’t come home last time. Instead, she went to the home where she was ultimately created to be…
When we went to the hospital that day, we all knew what was happening, Katie included…It’s such a helpless feeling watching someone you love die. There is absolutely nothing you can do. So you try to speak as many comforting words to them as you can, with the hope that they can hear but no guarantee. You do whatever you think in the moment might make them more comfortable, but you really don’t know what they’re feeling because they can’t communicate with you. You try to read every sound, every grimace, every opening of the eyes. But the truth is you have no idea what they are conscious of, what they can feel, or what they can hear. You just do the best you can.
When they are still awake, what do you say to them? How do you communicate in minutes what they’ve meant to you in a lifetime? You can’t. So you hope that your relationship with them up to this point has let them know how dearly you love them. You hope that the words you’ve spoken throughout the years and final months of their life have communicated with them how deeply you appreciate them. You hope they know what a wonderful impact they’ve had on you and they will never be forgotten. But what do you say when all you have left are minutes before they fade out of consciousness? No matter how sweet or comforting your words might actually be, you can’t help but feel like they are simply not enough. Nothing you can say in those two minutes feels like it does justice to what your heart longs for your loved one to know. At least, that has been my experience these past four weeks.
Papa died December 10th. Katie died January 13th. One month, that’s all that separated them. Four short weeks with my husband leaving for training halfway in between.
This past month has stolen my breath. It has wrecked my heart. It has been grueling, exhausting and painstaking. There has been so much loss. But even in all of that, God has blessed with me gifts of joy. He has been there all along, and I still have so much to be grateful for in the midst of my pain.
So while I sit with the ache and sort through the grief, I will also look forward with hope and thanksgiving. Both Papa and Katie had mastered the specialty of being able to stay positive and thankful through even the toughest seasons of life. I hope I can do the same.
Tomorrow marks one year since Katie called to tell me she had cancer. She was so calm on the phone and kept telling me she was fine. I remember telling myself to stay calm, cancer isn’t a death sentence. She was young—surely with a little surgery she’d be fine. A week later we found out there was no cure.
Her death still feels surreal. It still hurts so much. It still feels wrong. Life will never be the same, although we’re trying to continue forward the best we can.
Late May 2014
It has almost been 5 months since Katie passed away. It feels like it’s getting harder instead of easier. I think that’s because I was so busy the first four months with having a baby, moving to another state and settling into our new life. Now that things have calmed down, I have more alone time than I’ve had since she died. It hurts so much.
I hate that she’s gone. I hate that she suffered. I hate it all.
I miss her smile. I miss her sarcastic comments and eye rolls. I miss her craving sweet tea and sending us pictures of her making silly faces. I miss the joy on her face when she fell in love with Josh. I miss texting her all the time. I miss her soft voice. I miss listening to her lose her filter. I miss everything about her. I miss sitting by her bedside. I miss taking her smoothies. I miss hearing her say everything will be alright. I miss pretending to watch cooking shows with her. I miss hoping that it would end differently. I’m heartbroken that it didn’t.
I want her back. I want to find out she was never sick, she never died and she’s still living at the Reid’s house just waiting for me to get back to Richmond. I want things to be the way they were before she got sick. But nothing will ever be the same again. Ever.
This time last year she was just starting chemo. We were trying so hard to be optimistic. June 2—the day I found out I was pregnant with Matthew—we went to the beach so she could have one more beach day before starting chemo. As soon as she started chemo, everything changed…
Katie would always say, “No matter what, it will be OK. I’ll be OK. It will be alright.” She said that right up to and through the end. But it ended with the part of “no matter what” that we dreaded–her earthly death. So is it really OK? Is everything really alright now that she’s gone?
I wouldn’t necessarily say everything is alright, but this is what I do know:
Katie is better than OK. She’s great. She’s in the safest, most loving and beautiful place she could be–free from cancer, free from pain, and totally complete in the presence of the all-loving Jesus. Since death could not hold Christ down, it cannot hold Katie down–she is most certainly with him in paradise.
Furthermore, God is still here among us. He has not abandoned us. He is still holding us in the palm of his hand while we finish our part of the race. Just because Katie crossed the finish line 1st does not mean God is any less loving or present in our lives.
We are all going to cross the finish line at some point, so we better make the most of every moment along the way.
Cherish your loved ones, but don’t put your hope in them. Put your hope only in the One who conquered the grave, the One who can never be taken away–Jesus Christ.
It is only because of the hope we have in Christ that we can truly say, no matter what, it’s still OK–He’s still on His throne and we have nothing to fear. Our hope is in him alone.
This isn’t easy to admit, but I think pieces of my heart are growing bitter. I’ve tried to maintain a positive attitude about everything and I’ve tried to keep my eyes focused on the bigger picture. But, despite these efforts, I think I’m still growing bitter little bits at a time.
I notice it during prayer and when I listen to sermons. I notice it when I’m short with my husband for no reason. I notice it when I’m around bubbly super-energetic people.
There’s an underlying hardness that I try to mask, ignore and reason away. But just when I think it’s gone, it shows its ugly face again.
A pastor recently suggested that when people grow bitter from life’s trials, it’s just because they need to get their attitude in check. If they would just make up their minds to have a positive attitude and trust God, the problem would be solved (so he claimed).
But I don’t believe it’s that simple. In fact, I believe he’s missing something crucial to the healing process.
The message he’s declaring upon the church is the very message I once used as a reason to suppress my emotions, ignore my pain, invalidate my sadness, and validate my lifestyle of numbing out. Rather than letting myself acknowledge, confront and deal with my pain, I would tell myself to fix my attitude. I really believed that it was wrong and sinful to be angry, especially at God. Eventually I became so accustomed to suppressing my true feelings that I convinced myself I never even felt angry.
After years of working through recovery, however, I now know that belief was both misguided and false.
God is big enough to handle my anger.
When I choose to fall at God’s feet and enter into dialogue with him about my broken heart, I invite him into my brokenness and allow him to meet me just as I am—heartbroken, angry and afraid. If I pretend like the pain isn’t there, that opportunity is lost, the pain festers and the bitterness only grows.
So rather than ignoring my emotions, I’ve tried over the last seven years of recovery to say,
“Lord, I’m angry. I’m hurting. I’m disappointed. I’m confused. But I know you are all-loving and completely good. I believe that, even when I can’t feel you and even when it’s hard to see your hand at work, you have not abandoned me. You are still on your throne. Your redeeming love is still at work in my life and in this world. You have a plan in all of this and it is good. I am choosing to trust you. Help my unbelief. Here’s my broken heart. Thank you for taking me as I am. I love you, Lord.”
But the last several months were a complete whirlwind. So many things were happening all at once. There wasn’t time to process it all. Whenever I sat down to write or talk about it all, I fell into an exhausted daze and life continued unfolding faster than I could keep up with.
As a result, I rarely took the time to fully hand over my raw and broken heart to God. Of course, I pleaded with him daily to intervene and work miracles. But I never really talked to him about how it all was affecting me emotionally, spiritually, or mentally.
I wasn’t talking to God about it and I certainly wasn’t talking to anyone else about it.
So what happened? Emotions were suppressed and bitterness festered.
But that’s not what I want. I want things to change. It’s not about my attitude. It’s about being real, being honest and opening up with God about what’s really taking place in my heart. And I need to start today.
You know my heart better than I do. You see my bitterness in its entirety. Father, I don’t want to grow cold. A bitter heart is not what I desire. I confess that I have not been fully placing my heart at your feet. But I’m here right now asking you in your tender mercy to meet me as I am—broken, disappointed, angry, hurt, heartbroken, fearful and confused. Please take this honest cry from my heart as an act of me reaching out to you, longing for you and laying my mask at your feet.
God, I’m angry that Katie got sick. I know she is complete with you now, but I’m angry that you allowed her to suffer so much. I am so grateful she isn’t suffering anymore and I’m so grateful for all the ways you provided for her needs while she was sick. But God, she got so sick. You saw her deteriorating. You saw her hurting. And despite our earnest and sincere pleas for your intervention, you allowed it to continue.
God, I know there is more to the big picture than I can see. I know you were still there for Katie. I know you heard our prayers and didn’t really ignore us. I know you are good, loving and faithful.
But it hurts, God. It doesn’t make sense. I know we live in a broken world and suffering is a part of living in a sinful world. I know you were with us in that room when she died. I know death isn’t really the end for us. But, oh God, I wish so desperately Katie had never gotten sick. I wish so badly she had never suffered.
Thank you for all the ways you did provide. Thank you for conquering death so we can confidently say this is not the end. Thank you for the joyous gift of Matthew’s life. Please take my heart and fill the pain with your healing, your love, your wisdom, your peace, your joy and your redemption. I need you, Jesus.
(The next day)
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wrote yesterday. When I use the word bitter, it’s different than what I’d normally think of or associate with that emotion. I don’t walk around thinking I’m so angry or life is so unfair. Most of my days are spent laughing and playing with Matthew. I still feel grateful daily and consider myself abundantly blessed.
I guess that’s why I referred to it as “subtle hints” of bitterness. Because it’s not overt, in your face & lashing out bitterness, it can be easy to miss, dismiss and mistake for something else. When I’m impatient with my husband, I focus on his shortcomings and blame him. When I struggle to laugh or carry on an upbeat conversation with anyone other than Matthew, I assume it’s because I’m exhausted (which I usually am) or shy in new settings. But when I’m sitting in church, reading the Bible or spending time in prayer it’s harder to ignore.
Did the past year really happen? Did I really watch one of my best friends die? How is that possible? Why did God let her go through that?
I don’t know how to describe what it’s like to watch someone die. First, there were the 8 months of watching the cancer completely take over and eat away her body. Then there was that final day of watching her leave this world forever.
On one hand, there is a constant deep heartache that is always there. But in other ways, I feel detached–like I just watched the last year play out on a screen and there’s no way that was actually reality. It’s so hard to explain.
Although I might not know how to put everything into words, I’m grateful that you see my heart, my mind and my life with total clarity. Thank you for loving me despite what you see in me. Lord, I surrender my heart and my life to you. You are in control and I’m choosing to place my trust in you alone–no matter what.
“As the Scriptures say, ‘People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” 1 Peter 1:24-25
Thank you, sweet Jesus, that you remain forever. Please soften my heart. Mend the brokenness, heal the pain and melt away the bitterness. Fulfill your promises in Scripture to make beauty from these ashes.
I’m out of words. I feel more than perhaps I’d like, but every time I try to put it all into words I stare blankly at my computer screen, type a few sentences and then hit backspace until all the words disappear (like somehow that’s going to help). I still don’t really know what to say or what to talk about.
On January 9th, my heart broke. It broke in a way unlike any time before and the pain pierced deeper than anything I’ve ever felt. Six months later, I’m still not sure life will ever be the same. How could it be?
Yes, it’s true that life carries on after someone you love dies. Time does not stand still while you sort through your grief. Days keep coming and going, and your busy life continues racing along. But then all of a sudden you realize 6 months have passed and your heart still has a gaping hole in it.
There is an undercurrent of heartache to most of my days. Sometimes it’s subtle—just a quiet ache that never fully dismisses itself. Other times, it’s not so subtle. The word “cancer” still makes me feel cold all over while a sense of panic freezes the life circulating within me. I’ll be going along with my day as usual and then, for seemingly no reason at all, my heart will attempt to pound out of my chest. One little reminder and my mind fills with images of waiting rooms, beeping monitors, shallow breaths and life-departing groans. Words that were said replay in my mind, and words that were never said (but maybe should’ve been) seep guilt into my bones. Then, as quickly as the memories flooded in, the reality of the here and now catches up to me. I remind myself that right now I’m actually just sipping coffee with friends or listening to my husband talk about his day. Taking a deep breath, I tell myself that everything is okay. Then I attempt to pick up wherever I left off and hope those around me don’t notice I’ve been MIA from the conversation for the past minute—a minute that felt like a year.
Losing a best friend to cancer is awful. There is no other way to put it—it completely sucks in every way. Yes, life is indeed carrying on; but there will forever be a hole where there was once an incredible friend…
Godspeed, Katie. I love and miss you terribly.