I hate death. Early that grim morning my wife died I told my closest friend and confidant: “I wish I was more fluent in profanity; I have a few choice words for the devil.”
“Until death parts us” Jane and I pledged each other one bright September day more than fifty years ago. True, there were some heartaches along the way, but we shared a lot of joys as well. Memories of those joys helped us when the going got tough—recent years weren’t much fun. Jane lived with constant pain for several decades. Gradually she lost mobility and bodily functions. Her last fourteen months she was confined to bed on home hospice care. Yet she never lost her lively wit, her gentle spirit, her feisty good humor, her quiet but firm confidence in God. Her patience put me to shame; it was my honor to serve as her caregiver throughout.
Those fourteen months were not horrible by any means. True, our lives were turned upside down as strangers took over parts of our private lives. God bless the hospice care team. But before long many of those strangers became friends. In all honesty, some grew to be part of our extended family. But the cumulative experience was surreal, like slogging through a swamp.
In the early days of the pandemic Lexham asked me to write a book on Christ’s consolations in the face of human tragedy. Christ and Calamity: Gratitude in the Darkest Valley appeared in 2020. Little did I know then the book would take on a life of its own within our household just a few months later.
Early on during hospice confinement Jane asked me to read from it aloud to her each night. Sometimes after I had finished she said: “Are you sure you didn’t write that just for me?” Looking back, maybe I did.
Soon we developed a comforting ritual: one chapter daily, followed by responsive prayer from the back of the book—me leading, both of us responding. A closing collect. A brief benediction. The sign of the holy cross. A joint “amen,” then fitful sleep. Together these comprised our private nocturnal liturgy for the duration.
“Vital signs,” they call them. Blood pressure. Respiration. Temperature. Eating and elimination. Jane’s signs remained monotonously steady right up till the last two days. Then an alarming steep decline. I knew our long journey was hastening toward its final end. “I shall fear no evil,” I kept repeating to myself. Death’s dark valley loomed.
Those last hours—though mercifully short—were not pretty. Our grown children took turns helping me keep vigil and administer pain meds. Congestive heart failure is not kind to the body. Lungs begin to fill, the heart races, oxygenation plummets. “It’s harder on you than on her,” our medical care givers assured us. We tried to believe them.
In the end it was just the two of us—just as when we started. Jane was no longer able to speak, but she could hear. I caressed her face, I held her hand and prayed into her ear. Comforting words. My love interlaced with God’s sure and certain word. Some things are stronger than death, after all. One day soon all tears will cease when sorrows flee away and death itself will die.
But—make no mistake—death is evil. The last enemy, the Bible calls it. Death was never in God’s playbook for his magnificent creation. Satan tricked our first parents into declaring rebellion against their Creator, and death was the consequence. A rending asunder of everything God has joined together: body and soul, flesh and breath. Yes; husband and wife.
Now I am alone in our beautiful house. But it’s no longer a home, not really. It’s where I live, but I live here alone without Jane, my bride. True enough, our family still remains. Three wonderful human beings, products of the union of our bodies by God’s gracious design. They and their four children plus the promise of generations still to come are all living, breathing signs of God’s ongoing lovingkindness. And I’ve come to treasure my friends even more than I did before. I’m not really lonely, per se. But I am alone nonetheless.
Aging is an adventure, I used to say; I’ve never been old before. Now this. I’ve never been widowed before either. I’ve helped scores of people through their grief over the five decades of my ministry. But now that journey is my own.
I always told people there’s no “one size fits all” script for grief. And that’s pretty much the way it is, I find. Favorite songs of days long gone dissolve me into tears. I crave the accumulated memories of Jane’s many friends; I want to collect them all into my private treasure trove of everything we shared together.
But it’s not the same. It’s like the pilot light has gone out in my furnace, I’ve told some people. Like an engine running long at full throttle, it’s awkward now at idle speed.
It’s time now to take my own medicine. Near the end of my book I wrote:
The life Jesus gives you by his cross and resurrection is everlasting. Your sufferings, though they may linger on and on, are temporary by comparison. To know Christ and the power of his resurrection you must also share in the fellowship of his sufferings, which will come to an end one day soon.
I believe that now just as surely as the day I wrote it. It’s the foundation of my daily consolation and my future hope of joys yet to come.
I pray it may be yours as well.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
by the death of your Son Jesus Christ you destroyed death,
by his rest in the tomb you sanctified the graves of your saints,
and by his bodily resurrection you brought life and immortality to light
so that all who die in him abide in peace and hope.
Keep us in everlasting communion with all who wait for him on earth
and with all in heaven who are with him,
for he is the resurrection and the life,
even Jesus Christ, our Lord.
(Lutheran Service Book Pastoral Care Companion, CPH:2007, 121‐122.)
Harold L. Senkbeil
3 February 2022
This guest post was written by Harold L. Senkbeil, author of Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley (Lexham Press, 2020).