I Never Had a Chance to Say Goodbye

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God has and continues to reach out to me through family, friends, and my brothers and sisters at church.

For many years I have treasured one of Isaiah’s proclamations about the servant of the Lord that is applied to Jesus in the New Testament. It involves two images well known to the prophet’s audience: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isa. 42:3). These two metaphors exude tenderness and compassion for the hurting.

My dear wife, Judy, had many “bruised reed” and “smoldering wick” experiences, especially when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when she was 35 years old. Each time, our Lord tenderly restored and strengthened her. The Good Shepherd led her through the valleys and comforted her.

In the spring of 2013, she went into the deepest, darkest valley of her life. She spent nearly three weeks in a psychiatric hospital after an emotional breakdown. Soon after, doctors diagnosed a back condition that caused tremendous pain. While preparing for back surgery, we also learned that she had a nonmalignant brain tumor on her optic nerve. We were told that surgery on this would be extremely risky; the prognosis was dire.  

All of this took a toll on her faith. As the bad news piled up, she felt like a smoldering wick. At one point, she hugged me and said, “I wish I could go to sleep and wake up in heaven.” Sadly, it did not happen that way. Overwhelmed by all she was facing, she snuffed out the wick rather than waiting on the Lord to rekindle it.

Over the years, she had talked about suicide. There were times when I drove home wondering if she would still be alive. Yet, when it happened, the reality was shocking. By God’s grace, I am comforted now to know that she is no longer suffering but rather is experiencing a peace beyond our comprehension.

I believe God did not cause Judy to end her life. Nor did God prevent Judy from taking things into her own hands. At the same time, I am convinced that God did not plan it.

This raises the question about the psalmist’s claim that all our days are numbered or ordained for us. It brings to the surface the ongoing struggle of how to balance God’s sovereignty and our human responsibility. I am learning to live with the questions rather than searching for explanations. 

I used to think that suicide was the cruelest act one could do to those left behind. Many survivors experience severe anger. For me that has not been the case. Instead of rage, my reaction has been one of deep sadness that the human spirit can get so low that everything seems hopeless. Along with sadness is the disappointment that I did not have a chance to say goodbye.

When Judy died, something in me died also. A vacuum was created that no one else can fill. Her special way of affirming me, the intimacy we shared, her wonderful smile, and our mutual care for each other are all memories now, no longer to be experienced. I miss the everyday things we used to enjoy. She is no longer able to assist me when I am stuck with a crossword puzzle clue. She is not there to look over a completed jigsaw puzzle. I no longer hear words of appreciation about the flowers in the garden or share chuckles with her about our favorite comic strips.

In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. . . . But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

For me, it has been extremely helpful to keep thanking God for the wonderful times Judy and I shared together. By God’s grace, in spite of Judy’s suffering during the last 35 years of our marriage, the good times far outweighed the bad ones. It helps me to keep this in focus as I continue in my journey.

One does not “get over” the loss of a dear loved one. Gradually, you learn to live with it. One bereaved person put it this way: “The loss, the emptiness, the separation will subside to a dull ache you learn to live with.” Nearly seven months into the process, I am only beginning.

As the psalmist said, our God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Ps. 147:3 ). But much depends on what we do. If we continue to wallow in the loss or remain bitter and angry, our woundedness remains. Difficult as it may be, we have a choice. In his book Walking with God through Suffering, Tim Keller writes, “So walking with God through suffering means that, in general, you will not experience some kind of instant deliverance from your questions, your sorrow, your fears. . . . There will certainly be progress . . . but in general it will be slow and steady progress that comes only if you stick to the regular, daily activities of the walking itself.”

I have no idea how my journey will continue to unfold. I pray that I will always be fully aware of God’s presence, love, grace, faithfulness, rich promises, and understanding. This is the solid foundation that enables me to cope with the adjustments of living without Judy.

God has and continues to reach out to me through family, friends, and my brothers and sisters at church. Among my blessings are nonjudgmental persons who listen to me tell the story repeatedly. Caring persons who pray faithfully for me. Patient persons who do not give up on me as I walk through the pain. Informed persons who understand that grieving is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith, but the price of love. Inspiring persons who encourage me to exercise, eat healthy meals, and get adequate sleep. Insightful persons who are aware of my vulnerability.

With God’s help and the support of the Christian community, I am letting go and reordering my life. And I am praying that at the core of developing a new identity, God will mold me more firmly into the image of his Son.  

About the Author

 

Robert Koornneef is an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. He is semi-retired and serves as a minister to seniors at Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Thank you for the amazing vulnerability that you have shared with us.

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