Category: heartache


In my mid-20s, I was part of a small Bible study group which was, truth be told, probably more of a ‘find your spouse’ study group than anything else.  We had a lot of fun and spent ridiculous amounts of time together as a group.  Church functions, discovering new restaurants, pool parties, bowling, Christmas decorating, weekend trips, shopping, football, Spades tournaments that lasted for days, New Year’s eve parties, and more than a few late night races between those of us who had fast cars (and yes, I was one of them). One particular weekend, very late on a Saturday night, we were exploring how we felt about the serious topic of life.  Everyone had to write on a piece of paper one word to describe how they felt about death. We scribbled on our papers and folded them up, laid them in a basket, and one person began reading all the words out loud.  “Scared”, “dark”, “alone”, “final”, and “trapped” were just a few of the sentiments.  Then our self-imposed leader read mine: “peace”. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I love being alive and want to squeeze every moment I have out of it. A friend said to me recently (in her elegant, slow Southern drawl), “Dawn, I hope when you reach the end of your life, there’s no more dance left in you.”  Her simple statement hit me deeply as someone who has faced a terminal illness and, praise God, lived to tell about it. I truly don’t have a death wish. But as far back as I can remember, I’ve never been afraid of it.  Death has always seemed to me a warm blanket of rest. And letting go. And peace.

For the past several years, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be part of a volunteer ministry at my church whose primary focus is caring for families as they navigate the dark waters of a loved one’s terminal illness.  As one of the leaders, I am often the first point of contact for a family after they have been advised by their doctor that it’s time to ‘call in hospice’. Our small band of volunteers serve as a sort of liaison between the family and hospice care. Many of them have never heard of hospice and don’t fully understand what it is, so we help them understand the language of ‘end of life’ care.  We also help with the daily tasks of life: housecleaning, yard maintenance, preparing meals, laundry, grocery shopping, and day-to-day errands, so that family members are able to focus on caring for their loved one.

There is no time or energy for hiding behind masks here. Grieving before a loved one draws their last breath takes on many faces, and we have learned that no one has the right to dictate how another walks down the path to good-bye. Sometimes they need to laugh so they don’t fall apart.  Sometimes they need to vent – and there are no rules about language here. Sometimes they need to weep. Bitterly. Sometimes they need to ask questions and try to answer what is destined to remain unknown.  Sometimes they need to sit and embrace the silence. But they don’t want to be silent by themselves. There is an unspoken comfort that comes from simply having a warm body close enough to reach out and touch. Even if they don’t

People often ask why we do what we do – especially when they hear about us for the first time.  “You mean you go into a stranger’s house and clean their toilets?” Yes.  “Why on earth would you practically move in with someone who’s dying?” Because they need us.  “Wow – you guys are weird.”  The families we care for would disagree.  There are many answers, and we all respond in our own way. But for me, the answer is two-fold: meeting people at the point of their need is what Jesus does. Not to over-spiritualize or set ourselves up on some kind of pedestal, but for me it is truly that simple. However, a very strong secondary driving force, and probably what drew me to this in the first place, is that I feel very much at home with people who are broken.  Whether they are broken because of their own choices or choices that were made for them or choices that were forced on them, I am drawn to them.

After being unemployed for almost a year (three days shy of one year to be exact) I’ve been incredibly blessed to begin working with an organization whose focus is providing a safe haven for ministers and their families in crisis. It is a comprehensive, intense program (on average from 12-15 months in duration) which offers relocation, housing, counseling, and childcare when necessary in an effort to provide healing and restoration to ministers and their families who have had to walk away from their calling – as a result of their own actions, or the actions of their home church.  I was initially thrilled about this opportunity because it meant I would be writing – and getting paid for it!  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that once again, I’m submerged in an environment where people’s lives have been shattered.  Men questioning their failures. Women questioning their marriage. Children questioning their future. 

The vast majority of the time, I will not personally interact with these families. Most of them I will probably never even meet.  But what we are doing is helping them put their lives back together. The ‘safe haven’ we provide is guiding them to an honest and authentic relationship with God, themselves, their families, and their church. It is a painful process. Peeling back years of unresolved or unexplored issues to face the core of their own souls.  And then to slowly, gently provide the balm of restoration. To help them stand again, scarred from the battle, but equipped with tools to win the war. I can’t say I love my job because it doesn’t feel like a job. I love what I am a part of. I love knowing that families have a place for hope.

And I feel very much at home.

About two years after my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment I hit an emotional wall.  And hit it hard.  I was struggling to wrap my brain around why so many thousands of women, a few of those thousands personal friends of mine, die from this disease.  Some pass peacefully, others in horrific pain.  Why, God?  Why did you take her and leave me here?  Those women had families, too.  They were nice people who were courteous and kind and respectful and raised their children right and made Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter magical for their families.  They worked miracles on a shoestring budget, sewed buttons on shirts and patched jeans, and never let the Tooth Fairy forget that baby tooth placed carefully under a pillow.  So why take them and leave me?  Most days I would say I like them a lot better than I like myself.

I imagine this morning and for many mornings to come there are an awful lot of folks in the Southeast who are asking that same question.  I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning watching the news, tracking the storms, looking out the window, listening, waiting.  And all I heard was rain.  Hard rain at times but nothing more.  I watched those storms make an inverted ‘v’ right across the area where I grocery shop, pick up my dry cleaning, and take my children to school. This morning not even a tree branch is out of place in my backyard.  The sapling cherry tree that I planted just a few weeks ago actually looks like it grew a bit overnight.

Obviously, I don’t have an answer that will cause people to sit back, throw up their hands and say, “oh, now I get it.  Now I understand.”  However, I can offer this: understanding the ‘why’ of life, at least for me, is a daily exercise for my heart and head.  When I reflect back over my almost ten years of being a ‘loud and proud’ cancer survivor, it’s the little things that help me keep it all in perspective.  When I see another woman who is obviously going through treatment, I don’t hesitate to touch her arm and ask her how she’s feeling.  What is her diagnosis?  How is treatment going? Does she have a strong support system around her? And I try never to forget to tell her she’s beautiful.  She’s strong.  And she’s a survivor every day that she wrestles her foe to the ground.

For many of us life goes on today just like it did yesterday.  Let us not forget to be tender, merciful, kind, patient, and gentle with those for whom life will never be the same.

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