Living in the Valley

Speaking to the grieving and suffering isn’t the easiest of tasks but we really want to offer words of comfort and support.  I find myself in a position where I can provide some feedback based on my own experience.  You see, a little more than five years ago, when she had just turned 54, my wife was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Since then many have shared words of support, so I would like to offer my reaction to a few that “work” (at least for me) and others that fell short of their intent.

For example, I am confused by comments like,  “We don’t know always know why these things happen.”  And I was shocked when one elder said to me,  “We know that all things happen by God’s will.” Could it be that Pam’s illness was somehow the result of my God’s plans?  But no, when I read my Bible I see that my Savior wept with the grieving sisters when Lazarus died, rather than saying to them, “It’s OK, I planned this.”  My God walked with David through “the valley of the shadow of death,” guiding him with rod and staff and not checking that the height of the walls were up to spec.  Let’s let the secular world look for “cause and effect” and waste their time feeling lost because some things in life just aren’t fair.  Instead, I take comfort in one of my newly-crowned favorite verses:  “God causes all things to work together for good.” (Rom 8:28)  Even in the midst of dealing with the disease, Pam and I have found joy and ways that we can “in everything give thanks.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, and Pam’s favorite scripture, by the way)  God can take all the pieces of my failed dreams and cast-off hopes and still build something to His glory.

It also helps when I keep things in perspective.  One minister asked me, “How are you dealing with this tragedy?”   I was flustered for a moment – unable to answer the question – because I don’t consider it as a tragedy.  I better explain that.  A tragedy is defined as “an event causing considerably more than average suffering or distress.”  OK, granted that if you go by the actuarial tables I’ve probably been robbed of some 25 years with my wife on this earth.  Yet that time is significant only if I fail to remember that our hope is in God (Psalm 39:7).  With that hope I look forward to a time when we will stand hand-in-hand before the great throne, for all time praising the name of Almighty God!  OK, quick … somebody who’s good at math answer me this:  25 years is what per cent of eternity?

With God’s help I find I can handle the daily feelings of inadequacy and failure.  (After all, I’m “the man” and I should be able to somehow “fix” this for the woman entrusted to my care, right?)   And with His grace I can deal with the frustrations brought on by the never-ending cycle of daily care for Pam’s every need, complicated by her shifting moods and abilities.  Actually, I’ve learned that my general attitude is a good barometer – whenever I start feeling stressed out it’s a sure indicator that I’m trying to run on my own strength.  Rather than being driven to despair, those feelings drive me to my knees.  All the books and articles I researched told me that I would face these challenges, but there was one they didn’t warn me about.

It turned out to be quite a surprise to learn that the greatest struggle I would have to endure was with the loneliness.  Things were pretty normal in the early part of Pam’s illness, but as her condition worsened we were no longer able to participate in regular social functions.  As a result I found myself more and more off to the side and on my own as family and friends stayed away … either out of embarrassment or discomfort (I’m hoping it wasn’t out of apathy).  These folks simply got on with what they were doing, adjusting ever-so-slightly so that they would not be inconvenienced by my absence.

Now contrast that with how the church took care of us.  When Pam’s behavior deteriorated it was also too distracting for us to participate in church services and functions.  Indeed, for a while I had to stay home – which fed my feelings of isolation.  However, my church family came up with the idea of putting together a team of people who would help watch Pam so I can continue to be a part.  My church brothers and sisters are the only people who regularly call me or even drop by for a visit, willing to talk with me about where my current Bible study is taking me or comparing our crops of dandelions.  Some even sit with Pam and I for a meal (without being embarrassed by her child-like eating methods).  The impact that these simple acts of friendliness have had on my life is difficult to explain – it just doesn’t sound like it’s a big deal.  Perhaps it would help if I say that through these I have experienced the reality of Jesus’ statement about “where two or more are gathered.” (Matthew 18:20)

You are my heroes – you who have been called to the ministry of our God – so it with humility that I offer this parting word of advice:  add feet to your church’s prayer lists.  Certainly God has charged us with participating in the “assembly of the saints,” but He also describes Himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac, meeting the needs of individual believers.  We are His arms that comfort, we are His hands that reach out in comradery and support and we are His presence.  I’m taking this lesson to heart.  When someone in my church is laid up or facing long term challenges like the one I’m living with, I won’t assume that they have somebody who’ll regularly visit with them.  And while it’s thoughtful to drop off a meal, it’ll mean so much more to participate in a two-family pot-luck.  Some may dismiss this idea, arguing that providing this level of support is more properly the task of that person’s family and friends.  Oh wait….that’s US!

Doug Ebert
Rock Hill Church

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