Category: pain


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.

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I have a dear friend whose husband is undergoing a stem cell transplant this very day to fight a rare form of cancer his doctors discovered a few months ago.  Turns out, because he is a diabetic, there is a specific protein used as a marker at his checkups.  A spike in that protein marker was the red flag that alerted his medical team to do more testing, thus finding the cancer.  His prognosis is good, very good in fact.  As I shared coffee and a bit of an emotional visit with his wife recently, she said almost in passing, “for all the hassle of [her husband] being a diabetic, it may very well be what saves his life.”

When I was diagnosed with cancer almost ten years ago, our midwife found a lump in my breast at my 8-week “well baby” check.  I wasn’t scheduled to have a mammogram for several months and there was no reason the midwife should have examined my breasts that day.  But she did.  They could very well have shrugged it off as hormones related to the pregnancy.  But they didn’t.  And the pregnancy with my third child  may very well be what saved my life.

After my first surgery – a lumpectomy – I developed an infection at the surgery site.  Our doctor was dumbfounded as it was extremely rare for an infection to occur with what he referred to as a ‘clean’ surgery.  I was on antibiotics for ten days before we could schedule the next surgery.  Because of the Christmas holiday and a skeleton crew in the lab, there was a delay getting the results.  This caused a delay scheduling the third surgery, a mastectomy.  At the time, we were frustrated with the multiple surgeries which delayed the start of chemotherapy.  After my chemo treatments ended we had a very narrow window in which to deliver Stephen before I began radiation.  The last week before he was born Stephen gained enough weight to avoid going to the NICU.  If there had been only one surgery on the front end, I would have started chemo several weeks earlier.  Stephen would have been born several weeks earlier, meaning he would most certainly have had days or even weeks in the NICU.

We all have had experiences similar to this.  Maybe not cancer, or diabetes, but what about the time you walked to your car and realized you had left something you needed in the house?  You took those few seconds or even a minute to go back inside.  And as you were driving you came upon a horrible accident, one that you could very well have been involved in had you left on time.  Little things like a forgotten item, big things like cancer or diabetes, every day, seemingly insignificant, sometimes frightening or frustrating.  May I encourage you to be mindful of today – and even thankful for – the speed bumps?

I’m a cancer survivor.  Ten years this Fall.  So is my Mom.  And my mother-in-law.  My Mom and I both had breast cancer.  I was diagnosed first and felt a strangely comforting familiarity when she was diagnosed almost two years later.  I knew what might possibly lie ahead for her.  I knew I could be her advocate for the best possible care because I had learned the lingo, knew the doctors, and understood that ‘chemo cocktails’ were not served on a pretty little silver tray at a party.  Thankfully, my Mom had one surgery followed by radiation.  No chemotherapy, which for her tiny frame might very well have been more deadly than the cancer they found.

A few short months later my mother-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Again, I felt to some degree that I could serve as her advocate.  I asked questions, a lot of questions, to the obvious annoyance of her doctor.  After a disastrous first round of chemotherapy, she found a new oncologist: mine.  Even so, chemotherapy was very difficult for her.  Everything that could possibly have gone wrong went wrong with every treatment.  But she is one of the kindest, most gracious, strongest Southern women I know and she now counts herself among the few who survive this ghost cancer that gives no warning, no symptoms, nothing.

Several years have passed and she, as a result of the chemo, suffers from neuropathy.  I had never heard of neuropathy before she was diagnosed.  Apparently, it is a long-term side effect of her chemotherapy.  Basically it means that she, at times, either feels debilitating tingles or numbness in her extremities – she either feels pain or she feels nothing in her hands and feet.  So much so that last year as she was leaving a movie theatre, she fell and broke her nose.  Couldn’t catch herself with her hands to break the fall.  As a follow-up to this ordeal with her oncologist as she was explaining what had happened, he looked at her and quietly stated, “This is your gift of life.  Your neuropathy means you are still here, still alive, still capable of struggle.” 

As she related this appointment that evening over dinner, it hit me: there are times in life when pain is our gift of life.  It means we are here to experience the struggle, the hardship, the emotion, the heartbreak of LIFE itself.  What is the alternative?  To feel nothing.  To be so numb that nothing reaches our soul.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like pain any more than the next person, but given the choice to never feel anything again, I’d like to think I would choose the pain. 

Wherever you find yourself on this Saturday before Easter, I’d like to encourage you and even challenge you to embrace your pain.  It may very well be your gift of Life.

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