Grieving a loved one’s death is a long, often lonely, always painful process. Four key players stand out in my continued healing journey through grief.
First is my firm belief in the promises of Jesus about our eternal future. They are blood-bought, meaning our resurrection is guaranteed. Nanci and I spent so much time talking about the world to come, and she would walk me through her afterlife bucket list. We would talk of adventures together on God’s New Earth that are all still ahead of us. So though her death is a heartbreaking interruption, we can both anticipate the everlasting reunion in a world without sin and suffering and grief, where happiness will be the air we breathe.
Secondly, I cherish my friendship with God. I have frequently pondered with astonishment in the last year Jesus’s words in John 15:15: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (NIV).
Jesus is my closest and dearest friend. He was and is Nanci’s closest friend. Jesus was closer to Nanci than I ever was, and He is closer to me than she ever was. He’s the only being in the universe that is true love. And He is with me on this present earth, and He is with her in Heaven; so that means she is with Him, and I am with Him. That certainty closes what would otherwise seem a huge distance between Nanci and me now. Jesus is the bridge that keeps us connected until we live in that new world, with new bodies and minds, that He is preparing for us. The connection I feel to her through Him is profound.
Jesus promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And in Hebrews we’re promised “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (13:5). Two of the three members of the triune God—Son and Spirit—indwell us! And He invites us to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). These promises mean that no matter how we may feel, we are not abandoned or unloved.
Thirdly—and these are not in order, or my dog wouldn’t come before family and friends—but one of the great blessings since Nanci went to be with Jesus has been our dog Gracie, who we picked out together. When I’m not traveling she is my constant companion. Every day we run together, and her sheer excitement and delight as she dramatically pulls her leash forward makes me laugh hard and run faster than I otherwise would. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” Animals are the second most important part of God’s creation, after people. We should see God’s nature in His creation.
Gracie is, of course, not God; she is secondary, part of His creation, but she points me to the primary, who is God alone. She snuggles with me, sending a message of love and affection. When I let her outside she runs around the yard crazily. When I give her one of a variety of healthy treats, she darts and jumps and is overcome with exuberance from the moment she hears the bag open. She then charges off to her favorite spot in the living room and relishes her treat for ten seconds before eating it. Her body languages declares, “I am surely the world’s most fortunate creature.” It is nearly impossible for me to be unhappy in her presence.
Fourthly, I’ve found a great deal of comfort in my family, church, small group, and close circle of friends. Paul instructed the Galatians to “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (6:2).
Our daughters have been wonderful to me, and have helped me in both physical and spiritual ways. They have called and checked in and made themselves available to help. Karina, who lives 1,000 miles away, has done a lot to organize and simplify our finances—everything from autopay to paperless billing to helping with taxes. Angela has often picked up groceries for me and dropped by meals and helped around the house. I consider our sons in law, “the Dans,” to be good friends, and I am encouraged by their wonderful care for my daughters and grandchildren. My grandsons have helped me mostly by just being who they are and sharing their lives with me when I’m at their homes and games, and by Facetime, videos, and texts. We are soon going to all gather for six days, the middle of which falls on the one-year anniversary of Nanci’s going to be with Jesus. I just can’t wait for all of us to be together!
Regarding our church, as I said at Nanci‘s memorial service, with all the people who hate the church these days and have terrible stories about church people, I can never resent the church but only appreciate it because of what I witnessed in the last years and months of Nanci’s life. People brought meals, prayed, visited her, massaged her hands and feet, and spent the night at our house to help care for her. I can only love the church because of what it has done for my dear wife. I saw the same kind of care for my mother when she was dying in 1981. I have never forgotten the four nurses from our church who were with her nearly day and night.
Our little group of three couples—Steve and Sue Keels, Paul and Michele Norquist, Nanci and I—ate together at the Keels’ house nearly every Thursday for twenty-some years, enjoying Sue’s wonderful meals. In the last three years we’ve shared many tears, after Jason, Steve and Sue’s son, died the day after Thanksgiving in 2019. Then Michele died January 1, 2022, and Nanci on March 28, 2022. Sue still fixes dinner for Paul, Steve, and me on Thursdays, though the six of us have been reduced to four. To show how this small circle connects with suffering, loss, and grief, consider that of the four of us still here, two have lost their son, and the other two have lost our wives.
If you don’t have them, take the initiative to make those kinds of friends. Hold on to them. Live beside them. Walk the valley of the shadow of death with them. We need each other. I thank God for my church, my family, my friends, my small group, for Him, and for His promises which guarantee I’ll never walk that valley alone.
I began this blog by talking about God and want to end it that way. What follows are the words of my wife Nanci which she wrote in her journal after meditating on Psalm 23. I recommend reading the Scripture first, since all she prays is prompted by it:
Please, Shepherd of My Life,
- Cause me to want nothing more—not even good health—than to have you as my Shepherd.
- Reveal to me that the pastures and waters to which you lead me are green and still—because you are there!
- Engage my heart to receive the restoration of my soul by your Holy Spirit.
- Renew my conviction that, for your name’s sake, righteousness is the direction of each path you have for me.
- May your Holy Spirit—the Comforter—banish all my fears of evil (being out of control, letting pride inflate me, weakness, pain, loss of plans) as I walk through this valley—because you are with me!
- Open my eyes and my ears to the protection and comfort of your rod and staff. Don’t let me miss those things and people which you have provided me for this purpose.
- Help me experience the table you have prepared for me in the presence of this cancer.
- Don’t let me overlook—or fail to ask for—your every healing drop of oil on my head.
- Keep my perspective on my daily overflowing cup of your goodness and mercy.
- Direct my longing toward my place in your house, forever!