At my ripe old age of 73, I have come to expect grieving as a reality I will frequently face. I’ve already lost grandparents, both of my parents, aunts/uncles, several cousins, and a number of friends. However, recently walking death’s row with my very close friend and then my daughter as cancer slowly took them from me was really hard.
When the diagnosis was stage 4, I had to accept my time with these two deeply loved people was suddenly limited. As a result, every other focus in my life went on hold, and chunks of my heart kept breaking off as the roller coaster ride of cancer took me on its journey. Inside, I frequently felt scared, angry, sad, and helpless, while on the outside I presented as hopeful, encouraging, and positive. Cancer is weird like that – you are told to “fight” to be positive and encourage every treatment option…while you see the vitality of life draining out.
At the same time, I felt surprised by joy. It truly was an honor and privilege to be so close to these two special people as their death approached. I was able to have significant conversations that penetrated my own mortality and faith. I am good at having deep conversations, but these conversations were unlike any other. As I listened with more intent than I ever had before and dug deep for courage to want to know more, I was able to share the beauty I experienced in how their life touched me and that I would forever hold as a precious gift. In this depth of sharing, an unspeakable joy sat side by side to a suffocating pain. Two strong and powerful feelings experienced at the same time are a lot to hold.
My friend and daughter first fought their cancer with strength borrowed from the cheers of family and friends. Many people had this or that formula for beating cancer; diets and supplements and new treatment protocols were encouraged. However, eventually, they moved toward a peaceful acceptance and began their preparation for death. The conversations also began to change. There was a different spiritual depth which emerged in me that was not from previous experience or head knowledge, but I can only describe it as whispers from God in the darkness. I was a witness to great courage in dying, exploration of what heaven might be like, and the sweet, tender expressions of love for God and family/friendships. The springs of joy that bubbled up as they moved toward another world focus caused me to want both to drink deeply and at the same time push time to stop as moments were too quickly slipping away.
The end of their lives came with a pain that meant for days just sucking in air hurt. It was like I had a heart attack; it felt that physical. A broken heart really is a painful thing. Truthfully knowing they were out of pain or even knowing they were safe in Jesus’ arms brought me little comfort. Grief demands it must be felt and processed, regardless of the pain it brings to the experience. I’d say that is still a work in process…I now hold the paradigm of pain and love together. My current “Red Dot” with grief is that I’d rather not ever have to grieve again. However, when I must grieve again – and I will – I know it is a journey that is beautiful, joyful, and precious, but equally painful. May God give me strength to embrace it and fully live in all of its joy and sorrow.
By Eileen G. Warren