The Elephant in the Room

Thoughts on dealing with death.

Sharon Cress is editor of the Journal

There is a huge proverbial “elephant” standing in the middle of the room. His name is death, and he could be described as huge and ugly and ready in an instant to levy ex­treme, resonating pain. Right now, in this article, he needs to be addressed. He is a difficult creature be­cause he has positioned himself in the middle of everything else that is trying to move forward. Knowing that life here at Shepherdess won’t move healthfully forward until he is dealt with, I write this note from my heart to you, my Shepherdess sisters.

“My husband’s death was a heavy blow to me, more keenly felt because so sudden. As I saw the seal of death upon his countenance, my feelings were almost unsupportable. I longed to cry out in my anguish...the Lord’s hand sustained me.” These words were written by a pastor’s wife whose hus­band died an untimely death. Her name was Ellen White.

She writes so candidly in her diaries about her raw grief in the events surrounding his death. She speaks to my own heart and anguish as she shares a dream she had about riding with James in their carriage and talking together about how they wished their lives on this earth could have been different—how they had made mistakes and wished they had done things differently. The dream seemed so real to her that she asked him if he was rejoining her.

 In her writing, Ellen White also recounts the ago­ny of being at her husband’s bedside when he died. Again, she seemed to be recounting my own experi­ence:

“I had vividly brought to my remembrance the experience I passed through when my husband was dying. I prayed with him in my great feebleness on that occasion. I sat by his side with his hand in mine until he fell asleep in Jesus. . . My husband died in 1881. During the time that has passed since then, I have missed him constantly. For one year after his death, I felt my loss keenly.”

No one minister’s wife can feel exactly the grief of another, but in this instance, it seems that Ellen White wrote those words just for me. As one minis­ter’s wife to another, she wrote from her soul about her broken heart to another minister’s wife with a shattered heart.

Few events can affect a minister’s wife so pro­foundly and change every part of her life so drasti­cally as the death of her husband. For me, it seems like the end of the world came and somehow I was the only one left behind. The life Jim and I shared together for 39 years was ripped apart, and pieces of my existence crumbled around me. My secure world, fastened with him for all these years, suddenly seemed frightening, unsafe, unsure and unsteady.

Many Christians, and particularly those of us in ministry, are not very good about admitting grief. It somehow seems embarrassing because our lives are so centrally focused on the blessed hope and life eternal. And to some people, taking the time to grieve, seems like slowing down on the road to  the kingdom and not moving as fast as others wish they would. For others, watching another person grieve makes them nervous. They give the impression they think the griever is holding up God’s whole timetable by mourning their loss.

Death is probably the most permanent of facts. Death tells pastors’ wives who like to be in control of our lives that we are not. Life changes in an instant. And, we can’t do anything about it.

It is interesting that it was the ordinary nature of life preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing Jim’s death had really happened; I couldn’t absorb the impact of it, incorporate it into my life, or try to begin moving through it. Confronted with sud­den disaster, we tend to focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable oc­curred.

But that seems to be the case in most disasters —the sky was blue on September 11, 2001; it was an “ordinary Sunday” at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And, it was a typical rainy November day in Maryland that Jim died. In the middle of the ordinary, a treasured man who had given himself to God’s church was gone. The love of my life was gone. As Episcopalians say at the graveside, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

When the doctor put her hand on my shoulder and told me that Jim was dead, I remember trying to straighten out my mind as to what comes next. The hospital staff complimented me for my behav­ior. It made me wonder what they thought I was al­lowed to do besides sob. Be aggressively angry? Blame somebody? Require sedation? Collapse on the floor? Scream?

Now, in my grief-related reading, I realize that shock is the brain’s natural way of insulating us against the full impact of loss. And I am painfully re­alizing that shock is easier than the reality that fol­lows—because the pain is worse now. Books and pastors tell me there is no one path through the feeling. But while each woman slowly and deliber­ately hacks her own way through this jungle of grief, this one thing I do know; God is walking beside me whatever path I choose. He lets me choose the path and then He stays close, guiding, protecting, nurtur­ing, and always holding me in His huge loving arms, even when I have no strength to hold on to Him. He promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, NKJV). Maybe it is because God knows the only way out is through. He’s been there. He is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, NKJV). He knows the loss and He has experienced the pain.

When I arrived home in the middle of the night af­ter Jim’s death, I remember thinking that I just had to discuss all this with Jim. Everything had gone wrong on what had been our favorite holiday—Thanksgiv­ing. And now Jim would need to tell me what to do. My life was a mess, but Jim would surely help me sort it out. There was nothing I didn’t discuss with Jim. We didn’t always agree, but he was the one I trusted. I needed to ask him what to do next.

I am still incapable of imagining the reality of life without Jim. Ours was a marriage of time and memory. We had a 39-year history that kept solidly building upon itself. For all those years I—“probably vainly”—viewed myself through Jim’s eyes because within them I didn’t age. We simply grew up and ma­tured together. The marriage we built together grew so slowly and yet went by so quickly. It is hard to understand these opposites. We shared memories about things that no one else remembers, and I still turn to clarify some memory—the name of a restaurant, a person we met, the date of an event—and the only other person that remembers it is gone.

This is the first time in 40 years that I see myself again through the eyes of other people. Because the marriage relationship is so encompassing, intricate, and deep, the emotions about all this are complex and intense. There don’t seem to be words.

C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his beloved wife, Joy, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” The fear of life alone. The fear of the future. And the fear of the loss. The loss of my best friend. The loss of our dreams that were yet to be. The fear is a lot about the loss of those dreams.

Grievers need to take responsibility and make de­cisions about whether they will go through the grief and grow through the experienced loss, or choose to die themselves. Far too many women have emo­tionally died with their spouse. Their funeral was just delayed for another five or twenty-five years.

Some mornings I wake up and, for a brief moment, think Jim is on an overseas itinerary or downstairs reading in his favorite chair. I forget, for one split sec­ond, the reality in which I live. It is then I take a mo­ment and cry for the great loss. I cry for all the morn­ings I took for granted he would be there. I become aware of how his love and his presence changed me into a richer, better person. The differences he made in my life are part of his legacy, and I will carry it with me until Jesus reunites us. Late at night I miss holding his hand as he prayed for us. There is fear in know­ing no one will ever pray for me like that again. Karen Katafiasz wrote, “Your pain testifies to the depth of your love and the depth of your loss.”

My pilgrimage down this road is just beginning. It will be filled with scary nights and long days. It will be filled with pain and sorrow, but I know along this difficult road there will be you, the sisters in Christ who care and sup­port and give that drink of comfort­ing water that will quench my thirst for relief. And I know that many of you have walked “through the valley of the shadow of death” as well (Psalm 23:4). You know, through your own experiences, far more about loss and grief than you ever wished to have known.

Although these thoughts I am sharing with you are ending, the grief will go on. I realize that I will always carry Jim in my heart and that I am a better person for having had him in my life. There are some hours when the pain seems “better” and some mo­ments when it seems “worse.” There is a part of me that knows I will mourn this loss until Jesus restores what evil has wickedly and cruelly taken. There is fear in knowing the rest of my life here will carry this loss and the huge fear that it will never get easier.

So, dear friends in Jesus, “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:4, NIV). Thank you for your prayers. Your intercession on my behalf has wrought mira­cles. I have seen God’s hand work as never before because of prayer.

Your caring words have encouraged me to cling more tightly than ever to the “great and precious promises” of God (1 Peter 1:4). And I find particular comfort in God’s promise that He “will return” and “make all things new” (John 14:1-3; Revelation 21:5). Until that time, God promises to comfort those who mourn (Matthew 5:4). And in the earth made new, He will “wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).

Continue to pray for me. Continue to pray for each other. Continue to pray that Jesus will come soon and return to us the loves we have lost. Grief is too big a journey for one person to manage all alone. We all need each other, and I am so grateful that I maneuver this course of grief within the sisterhood of Shepherdess. Barbara Ascher wrote: “I have been trying to make the best of grief, and am just begin­ning to learn to allow it to make the best of me.” May it be so, dear Jesus, may it be so.