death of a spouse, grace, grief, hope, prayer

On Grief and Grace

This morning, during a quiet, contemplative time that seems so elusive these days, I pulled out my journal, and these pages fell to the floor.

Max Lucado.jpg

I’d torn them out of a book I can no longer remember the title of.

I can hear gasps of dismay from fellow book-lovers all over. Mary tore pages out of a book? Why?

It was May or June of 2013. My husband David had died the year before, and my seven-year-old grandson Jacob was losing his battle with cancer. Talk about walking around in a fog of pain. No one but those who have experienced this kind of anguish can understand it.

I had since given it away, but one of Max Lucado’s devotionals had been instrumental in helping me get through that first year of widowhood. (on a side note, I have purchased several copies of this devotional, and each time have felt led to give it away)

Max Lucado morning and evening

I was driving down the street that spring morning when I passed a yard sale that didn’t look at all enticing from the road, except for the fact that a young boy was handling the sales. Something compelled me to turn around and go back. Keep in mind that in many ways I was a new Christian. It was only after my husband’s death that I had learned what it was to listen to God, but by this time I could recognize the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I wandered around the yard, not finding anything,  a bit confused as to why I’d stopped. I started to walk back to my vehicle when I spotted it; a Max Lucado book laying on top of an empty milk crate. I instantly knew this was it; the reason behind the compulsion. The young boy had to go inside to ask his mother how much the book was. His reply when he came out didn’t really surprise me.

“Mom is sick so she didn’t finish pricing everything. She didn’t remember any books, but said if there is one, a quarter is fine.”

I handed the young man a dollar bill, telling him to keep the change for helping his mother. His smile would have been reason enough for my stop, but I knew there was more to it. I couldn’t wait until I got home before beginning to read the book. Instead, I sat inside my vehicle, turning pages. I didn’t even get through the prologue before pulling a pen out of my purse. Without hesitation, I began making notations in the margins. I had no doubt. These words were meant for me. I drank them in as though parched with thirst.

Max Lucado 2.jpg

Page after page, I read Lucado’s words, words that spoke to my aching heart. Had I felt God’s presence during the past year after David’s death? Had I sensed God in the kindness of a stranger, through the majesty of a sunset, or a well-spoken word? Had I felt Him even in the darkness of Jacob’s diagnosis?

Yes, and yes. Even in this, in facing the loss of a beautiful little boy and the anguished eyes of my daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Ben, I had felt it. I had felt God’s caring presence. I had experienced God’s sudden, calming presence in the face of the darkest storm. I could go on and face what was ahead only because of His goodness and His grace.

I devoured those words that afternoon, before giving the book to Elizabeth to read. Whether she got the same thing out of it, I don’t know, but it had been just what I needed that day. Instead of keeping an entire book I might never read again, I tore out the pages that had spoken to me, putting them in the journal that had become a testimony of sorts; a journal that clearly illustrated the spiritual journey the loss of my mother and husband had begun.

Keeping these pages in my journal ensures that I will look at them again, remembering what it was like to find a timely answer through the words of another writer. The kind of answers I continue to find in the kind and gentle smile of a stranger in the grocery store, in eagles soaring overhead during a visit to the cemetery, or what I’ve experienced most recently; through the uncanny connection of the soul with a woman I’m interviewing in my job as a reporter.

Are you going through a period of darkness? Have you glimpsed even a tiny pinprick of light? Have you felt it? His presence?

To know that you can might be all you need to hear today.



Bible Study, Bible verses, faith, prayer

A Bible Study Re-Do

Readers of my book, Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace, will already know this: When my husband David died four years ago, I instinctively knew I needed two things; prayer and God’s word. Having grown up Catholic, I was used to praying rote prayers. While those seemed to be sufficient for handling my mother’s death in 2010, it was not what I needed when I lost my spouse. Instead, I needed the kind of praying I’d been exposed to at Christian Writer’s conferences; Out loud, and from the heart. Two weeks after David’s death, God led me to a church down the street where a youth pastor took my hands in hers and prayed out loud for me.

As for God’s word, while I owned several Bibles, I wasn’t sure how to study a Bible to find the answers I needed. Once again, He intervened. I read books by Godly people who had gone down this road before me; C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and H. Norman Wright. I found devotionals everywhere I went, and had some given to me. A Max Lucado devotional became a lifeline for me. I greedily devoured it in a few days before beginning another one. A mentor of mine asked me to write some devotionals for an upcoming Grief Bible, so I had to learn how to look for answers in the Bible. Embarrassing as it is to admit now, (though I admitted as much then) having a Bible and devotional on my end table was new to me.

In April 2013, a year after my husband died, I began a Bible study at my church, using the Walking Toward Eternity series.

walkign toward eternity

Three years later, our Bible group still meets, though it has dwindled down from 50 at the church to eight of us in my home. This month we are repeating that initial study, delving into the topics of love, humility, forgiveness, prayerfulness, sacrifice, and thankfulness. In re-using my old journal from the study, I can see how much I have grown as a Christian. There were two things that struck me during this morning’s study.

#1 was that in April 2013, I struggled with hospitality, hesitating to invite people into my home because of a mess or the possibility they might judge me and find me lacking as a hostess. I smiled as I read my words from three years ago. The last time my Bible study group met here, I’d had a busy week at work and hadn’t had much time to clean. Yet I just shrugged my shoulders, knowing they  weren’t coming to see my house. Half of them just walked in the door without knocking because they’d gotten comfortable here. Mission accomplished: I’ve learned the meaning of hospitality.

The other thing that really hit home for me this morning was that when I opened my Bible to 1 Corinthians, I discovered a small yellowed piece of paper with my mother’s handwriting on between the pages. I’d forgotten that my daughter Elizabeth had given me the pieces of paper she’d discovered in one of my mother’s Bibles. My mother, a devout Catholic in an era when Catholics weren’t encouraged to read the Bible, was familiar with the Old and New Testament in a way her church allowed at the time. I can’t remember ever seeing her read it, but she must have, at least pieces of it. Something about 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 spoke to her so that she’d jotted those verses down, slipping the pieces of paper into her Bible. 1 Corinthians 2:14-15~ the very verses I’d just highlighted in my Bible, verses that meant something to me this morning as I attempt to discern God’s will for me.

“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment.”

bible verse.jpg

What did those words mean to my mother, I wondered, as I blinked back tears.

I won’t know, in this world.

But I do have faith that someday, I can ask her.




cancer, David, death, faith, Jacob, prayer

A Cursory Anniversary

I’d intended to chronicle all of March 27th and March 28th on my blog. In fact, I’d planned a lengthy and dramatic posting to go along with those milestone dates: Wednesday, the first anniversary of my husband’s death, and Thursday, his birthday. I’d hoped for, perhaps even anticipated, some momentous event to report each day; the light below the kitchen cabinet that has been on every day for a year would have mysteriously been extinguished, or a flock of dark butterflies with blue markings on their wings could have fortuitously made an appearance in the side yard. I wanted the fanfare, the lightning bolt in the sky, and a clear and unmistakable message from David.

Instead, the message came from God.

I thought those two days would be all about this;

grave 006

And they were, a little. I certainly thought about David all day, but then I usually do, anyway. I planned a pedicure and lunch with sisters to help me get through the first anniversary of his death. Flowers and cards arrived. I intended to post the photo of my toes, complete with small white butterfly on the big toe. I had the waitress take a picture of our table at a sister luncheon that included my very pregnant daughter. I snapped a photo of the lovely flowers from my niece Christina and my daughter Elizabeth, flowers that were joined by a beautiful bouquet the next day from someone who loves me anonymously.3-27 010

toes 002

3-27 016

But somehow, all those things seemed very insignificant in light of this; the little boy who built an entire block city at my house one day this week.

3-27 008

This is my grandson, Jacob. Jacob has been fighting cancer for more than 2 1/2 years. In the nearly 33 years I lived and loved David I’d only seen him cry maybe three times. One of those times was when I informed him Jacob had cancer. Having gone through cancer treatment himself, he couldn’t bear the thought of the little boy he loved going through the same. Last March, when I informed David that Jacob’s cancer had returned, I saw anguish in his eyes, but I did not see him cry. Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and held me close while I sobbed into his chest. And then my dear husband walked around to the back of the house and raked in the yard all afternoon, his shoulder aching painfully by nightfall. I am convinced that was the beginning of the end for him as we discovered a week later he’d likely had a series of small heart attacks.

I was not willing to accept the latest news from doctors at both Mayo and St. Jude’s;that there was no cure, no reliable studies open for Jacob’s type of recurrent cancer and now chemo would be given simply to slow the progression of the disease. I’m afraid I added to Elizabeth’s stress as I methodically perused the Internet for answers. “Just take another look at this one,” I’d urge when I forwarded yet another dubious Phase I trial study to her inbox. “Surely this one has promise.

“You do realize that Phase I means they have no idea what the medication will do and they are simply experimenting with the dosages, don’t you?” Elizabeth would gently point out, and of course I knew that, have known it ever since the summer of 2006, when I’d frantically searched for hope with David’s cancer treatment. I’d prayed for an answer back then, and it had been an easy one to discern; David qualified for a Phase III trial of a drug that showed promise in preventing the cancer’s return. Surely I could unearth the answer for Jacob, I rationalized as I scoured the Internet for the “magic pill,” the “secret potion,” the one thing that would save our Jacob.

During that sister luncheon on Wednesday, a luncheon planned in gratitude to the sisters who had surrounded me with love and care a year before, I was especially grateful for the presence of the daughter next to me. Elizabeth has not attended very many family activities since Jacob’s diagnosis. Childhood cancer thrusts the parents into a foreign land where very few people can understand their new world; a world of cancer that is lonely indeed. When Elizabeth discovered she was pregnant with their fourth, during a period when they were hopeful that a stem cell transplant would eradicate Jacob’s cancer forever, we took the due date as a hopeful sign; Elizabeth’s March 28th due date was her father’s birthday. Now, she faces the dismal prognosis of her son’s cancer at the same time as the blessed event of her baby’s arrival. What grandmother wouldn’t strive to find the cure the doctors surely had missed in the face of that? I have so boldly prayed for Jacob’s healing. Surely, I would discover the answer to my prayer.

Two of my sisters made a comment during Wednesday’s luncheon, something along the lines of “If God was going to perform a miracle with Jacob, at this point he could do so with whatever treatment is chosen.” I heard them, but I did not listen, still intent on my Internet research and the certainty that God would lead me to the answer. My poor daughter. That afternoon I e-mailed her the phone number of a doctor in Maryland who was conducting a Phase I trial of a chemo drug encapsulated in a lipisome bubble, despite the fact that both the Mayo and St. Jude’s doctors had discouraged them from pursuing any Phase I studies.

It is moments like this I miss David the most, I thought on Thursday, moments that we should not face alone in dealing with issues affecting our children and grandchildren. I never imagined being a single parent, or facing impending grandparenthood without my partner. Yet at the same time, I was glad for David’s absence, for it spared him the news of Jacob’s grim prognosis. I thought back to the Sunday after David came home from the hospital after heart surgery, and a visit from Jacob. Uncharacteristically, he had come to the door alone. From his recliner, David spotted Jacob’s thin arm knocking. While I meant to discourage small visitors from tiring David out, he insisted I allow Jacob inside. Jacob entered shyly, and stood there, arms akimbo, little bald head covered by an Army hat, just staring at David. Thinking he was fearful, I tried to break the ice by mentioning that they’d both been in the hospital at the same time. I may as well have been talking to the wall. They didn’t pay any attention to me; they only had eyes for each other. At the time I thought how odd that was; it was as if my grandson and husband were in the room alone and some unspoken message was being transferred between them through their matching brown eyes. Neither looked away from the other, and even as Jacob moved to the couch, he held David’s gaze.  I didn’t think it then, but I have since David’s death; Did they know something? Did Jacob, closer to God than anyone else I know, somehow sense this was the last time he would see his Grandpa? Was there a message to the little boy in David’s long-held gaze? Did these two people; the 6-year-old boy and the 60-year-old man realize something the rest of us don’t?

I have learned a lot about prayer and praying in the year since David died. I know Christians who have insisted if we ask and believe, then Jacob will be healed. I do not agree that is the promise we are given in the Bible. God’s answer might not be healing for Jacob. I also know atheists who scoff at the very idea of praying for anything at all.  I have personally seen and experienced the power of prayer too often to dismiss it. Prayer and Bible verses got me through this past year.

Yesterday it hit me like the proverbial thunderbolt I’d yearned for on the 27th and the 28th~ I’d unconsciously reverted back to my old method of prayer, a method that proceeded a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’d been fervently praying, and then telling God what the answer should be; the answer should come in a miracle drug that I, personally, would discover on the Internet. Had I learned nothing in the year since David’s death?

Someone told me “Prayer doesn’t do anything” after David died. They’d prayed for David during his cancer, prayed as they watched his health deteriorate after the treatment, and then prayed again after his heart attack, and still, he had died. I answered then that while my husband lay in a hospital bed recuperating from stent surgery, I had leaned over to kiss him. Because I couldn’t reach his face, I ended up kissing his arms and hands. When I told him that I loved him, he responded with a simple and heart-felt “Thank you.”

THAT was an answer to a prayer,” I told this person. “Having that kind of relationship was an answer to a prayer both David and I had prayed for years; that our marriage would improve.When David said that simple thank you, he showed me how grateful and sure he was of the love I could freely give him, a love that had grown and blossomed during his cancer treatment. The cancer was an unexpected answer to a prayer, and the relationship we savored for more than five years afterwards was a gift I will cherish forever.”

I will continue to boldly pray for Jacob’s healing, continue to ask for prayers from others, but I will also trust in God’s plan for Jacob and our family. 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
 in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)