Tag Archives: loss

God-hope-cancer

Reality check

Working at a cancer support center offers many opportunities to hear people talk about hope. Most often, people hope for a cure—or at least remission—of the cancer that has taken up residence in their bodies.

It takes courage to endure chemotherapy and radiation, which disrupt daily life and can be painful (sometimes very painful). Often the treatments work and the cancer is cured or goes into remission. But sometimes the treatments don’t work. What happens to hope then?hope 4Recently, a woman came in after her oncologist had informed her that the treatment had not worked. Months of painful radiation and chemotherapy had failed to stop the growth of the tumors in various parts of her body. The doctor recommended a different type of treatment—something experimental—and this woman had made an appointment to discuss this new treatment.

Before that appointment, though, she wanted to talk about her situation. “Even if I take another round of treatment,” she said, “I know I will be right back here at some point, maybe in three months or six months, but this is where I am going to end up.”

I remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her that it seemed unlikely that the cancer was going to go away.

“My question is,” she continued, “how do I talk to myself about this? How do I wrap my head around the fact that I am going to die?”

Good questions.

I applauded her courage for even facing this reality.God-hope-cancerIn the three years I have been in this job, I have only met a few other people who were willing to admit they were going to die and who wanted to try to figure out how they could best live until they died. Mostly, people seem to deny the reality; they keep hoping for a cure or remission until the moment they die.

And sometimes, even when the person who is dying accepts it, their families and friends refuse to admit it, depriving the person of expressing what they need to at the end of life.God-hope-cancerWe then talked about hope.

What is she left with, she wondered, when her hopes for remission have been dashed? I suggested hope for something else—for inner peace, for gratitude for the life she has left, for the ability to see goodness in the midst of struggle.God-hope-cancerOne thing I have learned is that if we allow our fears of dying to shape our lives, we can never really live.

God invites us to live every day trusting in the kindness of the people around us and in the goodness of God. That looks different for each of us every day. Some days, it is easier to be full of hope and joy and gratitude; other days, even finding one small gift or grace can be a challenge.

My father used to say, “No one gets out of this life alive.”  I hope I always remember that and live in the freedom it brings.God-hope-cancer

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God-faith-fear

Meeting God in the storm

“…there were peals of thunder and lightning….When the Lord came down to the top of Mount Sinai, he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.” (Exodus 19:16-20)

Imagine standing at the base of a mountain in a great storm—thunder and lightning, the mountain trembling violently—and God saying, “Come on up.”God-faith-fearI have been known to tremble violently in the face of bad storms—thunderstorms, hurricanes and blizzards can send me into hiding until they pass.

But what about the storms of life—disagreements, disappointments and facing the unexpected. Those events can cause the same reaction in me—violent trembling.

And there is God, inviting me to step into the storm, to intentionally climb into the midst of it, not to shy away, but to actually face it head on. And there God will be, waiting for me, in the midst of the storm.

I envy Moses’ trust and courage to walk up that mountain in the midst of a violent storm.

If I were Moses, I am sure I would have said something like, “God, really? You want me to climb a mountain that is trembling, and walk right into the middle of a thunderstorm?” My fear of lightning would have been the first hurdle—and I don’t know that I could overcome it, even to meet God face to face.

But God waits patiently for me to change the narrative, the script that runs in my mind telling me to be afraid.

Like a toddler taking her first solo steps, God is in front of me, hands outstretched, waiting to catch me if I start to fall, waiting for me to trust Him.God-faith-fearChanging the narrative takes practice. Like the toddler or an actor learning a new role, there are many missteps before the performance works. Trusting God is like that for me.

It seems that every situation calls for me to relearn how to trust God. Every storm takes me to some default position of cowering in fear, and I have to visualize God with outstretched arms, calling to me, Come on, Madeline, God encourages me. It is going to be ok. I would think God would get tired of it, but that has not happened.

Instead, with great patience, God keeps inviting me.

I have had several jobs that had ominous beginnings. In one of them, I went home sobbing every night for the first six months. What have I gotten myself into? I would cry out to God. Over time, though, things began to settle down and eventually I came to love that job. Leaving it was painful. Now, when I am facing storms in my current work, I recall the people and incidents from that other job. I remind myself that God is with me and storms do pass.

God invites me to look up, to the top of the mountain, and to take the steps I need to take to meet God in the midst of the storms of my life.

gratitude-thanksgiving

Gratitude

Recently, I facilitated a day of reflection for members of the cancer support center where I work. The theme was gratitude.

It may seem paradoxical to invite people to be grateful when they have cancer, because being grateful during difficult times can seem unimaginable; but I think that difficult times are when we need gratitude the most.

I shared this quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:

Yes, my primary mission has been to bring death out of the closet because everyone needs to view death as an opportunity. Death can show us the way to live. It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Death is a natural part of life, most easily seen in nature at this time of year, but a diagnosis of cancer or some other serious illness can also shine a light on our mortality.

gratitude-thanksgiving

When I was the director of a lay mission program, I spent Thanksgiving one year at St. Philip’s Mission in Swaziland, Southern Africa. The Mission is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, as rural as can be. The AIDS epidemic was raging throughout the country, and the Mission’s orphanage reached capacity soon after opening.

One of our missioners told the story of visiting the hut of a dying woman. Her three young children were at her side and the eldest, a girl of six, used a syringe to give her mother sips of water.gratitude-thanksgiving

Soon after that visit, the woman died and her three children moved to the orphanage.

During that Thanksgiving visit, we gave each child a book.They reacted with surprise and delight. “For me?” they asked as they lovingly cradled their gifts. It was as if they had been handed a precious diamond.

Their joy and gratitude brought tears to my eyes as I thought about my reaction to gifts I had received. Was I ever this grateful? Did I ever allow myself to be so humble that I could delight in something so small?

It occurred to me that their deep awareness of death led them to a deep sense of gratitude. Knowing their mortality helped them live fully.

It is a dance, this movement from death to life, from sadness to joy.

Since I moved to Michigan a few years ago, I had many moments of sadness and deep grief. And then, I will spend a day with my family or have a random encounter with a cousin or reconnect with a place in Detroit that was significant in my childhood—and I am filled with joy and gratitude that I made the move.

Taking a day away helps me to see how blessed I am, to be grateful and to trust that the best is yet to come.

 

 

Deep waters

“I don’t have any place to put that,” I said to my friend Steve when he told me he had decided not to take treatment for bladder cancer. Even with treatment, he was only expected to live a few months; without it, he would die very soon.

This was just eight months after my friend Jim died. Steve had been meeting with me during those months, walking with me through my grief. And now he was telling me that he was going to die. Sadness overwhelmed me. I had no place for this news.

Steve died a week later. I was numb, walking around in a fog so dense I feared I would not find my way out.

fog

 

In the three years since Steve died, two more close friends have died from cancer.

I don’t have any place inside me to put more loss, more sadness. Cumulative grief threatens to cripple me.

“Put out into the deep water…” Jesus says (Luke 5:4). Deep water? If the water of my grief gets any deeper, I fear I will drown. I am already in over my head.

I remember a friend recounting the losses of a woman she knew—first her husband and then one by one, each of her children died from some hereditary condition. “I don’t know how she goes on,” my friend had said. At the time, I could not imagine it either. How did this woman keep getting out of bed every day after losing her husband and children within a few years? How could she keep putting one foot in front of the other?

Now I wonder if my friend recounts my losses with same sense of incredulity. Is she telling others of my litany of losses and saying of me, “I don’t know how she goes on”?

I re-read chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel and noticed that Jesus got into the boat and taught the people on the shore before instructing the fishermen to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Jesus was in the boat. That detail had escaped my attention before, and I re-imagined the scene—not the fisherman alone putting out into the deep water, but Jesus was with them.

I am not alone in my grief; Jesus is with me

Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.

What am I to catch? I ask Jesus.

Perhaps the catch of living in this deep place of loss and sadness and grief for the past six years is a greater capacity for understanding others’ grief, a profound empathy. Perhaps the catch is that each death, each loss, is deepening the space within me to accept my lack of control and my own vulnerability.

Perhaps the catch is that my capacity to live in gratitude for what has been and in hope for what is to come is getting deeper, that grief has shaped a space deep enough to hold it all.

hope-stone

 

Learning compassion

Nova Scotia was my summer vacation destination this year, and Peggy’s Cove was my first stop.

This small fishing village sits on a rugged coastline; its lighthouse is set upon huge boulders. Although the ocean was calm that day, I could imagine how treacherous a nor’easter or winter storm would be. “These are people who know how fragile life is,” I thought as I pondered rain, wind and waves lashing their homes.

peggys cove

Peggy’s Cove lighthouse

From Peggy’s Cove, we stopped at the nearby memorial for Swissair flight 111 which crashed into the ocean on September 2, 1998, killing all 229 passengers and crew. I remember this plane crash and how the people from Peggy’s Cove got into their fishing boats and searched for survivors. They were the first responders, and their empathy for those who had lost loved ones was apparent in the news coverage I watched. The memorial sits on a rather desolate piece of the rocky coastline, a somber site.

Swissair

Swissair flight 111 memorial

This memorial was the first stop on a “tragedy tour” that peppered my days in Nova Scotia.

The next stop was Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax where more than one hundred bodies recovered from the Titanic are buried. Some of the dead are named, but other tombstones bear only the numbers assigned to bodies as they were pulled from the ocean. Almost a hundred years before the crash of the Swissair flight, fishermen from Peggy’s Cove responded to this earlier crisis in the waters off their coast.

titanic 2

Five years after the Titanic sunk, the people in Halifax faced with a more personal tragedy—two ships collided in the Halifax harbor. One was filled with munitions on its way to the war in Europe. The resulting explosion killed more than 1500 people and injured 9000. More than 13,000 homes and businesses bordering the harbor were destroyed.

Another fishing villages we visited was Lunenburg, where we came upon a memorial to locals lost at sea. Some families have lost many members, and I again thought of how a people living so close to the northern sea know the fragility of life.

fishermans_memorial.png

Lunenburg Memorial

But Nova Scotia is more than its tragedies. Parts of the coastline are lined with beautiful beaches that are bordered by fields of wildflowers or dense forests. Inland, Nova Scotia is rolling hills dotted with farms and sheep and forests. We hiked through salt marshes, city parks and sandy beaches. The waterfront in Halifax is lined with restaurants and outdoor cafes, and a busker festival that weekend brought throngs of people out to enjoy the summer nights.

salt marh

Salt Marsh trail

There are also music festivals and gift shops filled with locally-made items—pewter, hand-knitting, crafty home goods and jewelry. I sensed a certain pride and independence, perhaps a resilience shaped by suffering.

The juxtaposition of the natural beauty, the spirit of the people and the many memorials touched me deeply. The people of Nova Scotia seem to have become compassionate through vulnerability and hopeful through sorrow—valuable life lessons. I hope to visit again.

Living in the present

“Stop holding onto me,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene….” (John 20:17).

Holding onto Jesus sounds like a good thing to do, so why does Jesus tell Mary Magdalene to stop? This instruction puzzled me as I prayed with this passage recently.

One method of prayer is to imaginatively put myself into the scene, to see myself as one of the people in the story or as a bystander watching the events unfold.  When I put myself into this scene, I can easily imagine myself in Mary Magdalene’s situation. I can identify with what she must have been going through in the days leading up to this passage.

This person she loved had been brutally murdered and she is bereft in her grief. She keeps vigil by his tomb, weeping. Then, the next day, the stone has been rolled away and his body is gone. I can imagine her confusion and anxiety, the feeling of utter emptiness. How could this happen? Who would have taken his body? Why?

To have lost Jesus the first time was horrible, and now, this second loss must have been almost unbearable.

And then, miraculously, Jesus appears, but somehow different and unrecognizable. Is he the gardener? And might he know where Jesus’ body has been taken? I imagine Mary’s desperation as she pleads with this person. Her angst is palpable. When he speaks, though, she recognizes his voice. It is Jesus.

The shifting emotions in so short a time are almost too much to bear—deep sorrow, confusion, fear, anxiety and then joy at seeing Jesus alive again.

I think of the relief a parent feels after finding a child who had wandered off in a store or of hearing that a loved one is safe after news of an accident. At first, fear grows unchecked. Then joy overflows. We embrace and hold our loved one near, so happy to be reconnected.

So why is this situation different? Why does Jesus tell Mary to stop holding onto him?

When I imagine myself in this scene, at the moment of recognition, I can see myself embracing Jesus, and perhaps that is what happened, but the details were omitted from this passage. Perhaps Jesus allowed Mary a few moments of nearness, of holding onto him—and then Jesus gently separated from her. “Stop holding onto me,” he says, because he needs her to go tell the apostles what she has seen.

As I prayed, I remembered great losses that have left gaping holes in my life and plunged me into grief. What had once been was no longer, and I was bereft and uncertain of the future.

Was Jesus telling Mary—and me—that even though what once had been is no longer, I need to stop holding onto the past? That when I can let go of what was, I can be open to what is to come? I only need to listen for Jesus’ voice and be open to seeing something other than what I might expect.

 

 

One particular day

I suppose most people can remember one particular day when something happened that caused a major life change. That day for me was five years ago today—July 8, 2011. My friend Jim had a seizure while sitting at his desk, hit his head when he fell, and was unconscious when found several hours later. A CT scan at the hospital, checking for a concussion, instead found cancer in three lobes of his brain; and not just any cancer, but a very, very aggressive, non-curable cancer. I knew nothing would ever be the same.

Jim had always believed that our life experiences brought lessons—and really difficult experiences brought really important lessons. During his cancer journey, he continually asked God, “What is the invitation in this?” and “What am I meant to learn from this?” His lessons ranged from letting go of important parts of his identify to allowing himself to be physically cared for to deepening his belief that he was in God’s hands. Jim became much more trusting while he was sick (although I think he maintained a certain level of skepticism when it was time for the daily injections I had to give him).

Every day we laughed and every day we were grateful. Even on bad days, when everything that could go wrong did—like the day Jim needed emergency surgery just three days after being released from the hospital or when he developed a blood clot the day before we were going to the ocean—even on those days, we found humor and gratitude.

In the face of a non-curable, aggressive cancer, it was actually fairly easy for me to admit I had no control. If a neurosurgeon, radiologist and oncologist could not get rid of the brain cancer, what could I do? Instead, I asked God, “What is the invitation in this for me?”

And God responded, “This is what you are to do: you are to love Jim unconditionally, forgive him without limit, and let him go.” They were words from a prayer I had prayed every day for ten years, and God was pointing out to me that this was my chance to practice what I had been praying —every day for almost nine months. I wanted to be more loving and forgiving and less controlling and here was a great opportunity.

While he was sick, we talked about my moving back to Michigan to be near my family, and when my sisters came to visit, he gave me to them. Two days later, he died a very peaceful death, at home with his dog by his side.

On that day of Jim’s diagnosis five years ago, I could not know the difficulties, heartbreak and sorrow that was to come. Nor could I know the gifts, joys and blessings.

When I look back at July 8, 2011, and everything that has happened since, I am both amazed and deeply grateful. Life has changed, and it is good.