Here is a guest post by none other than my amazing little sister, Michaela (pictured with me – just for the record, she picked this photo). She is the one who asked me to write this post from a few weeks ago (Contemplating Chemotherapy: Round 2 – What if it Works?) about our older sister, Christina, and chemo. So I asked her to write about her thoughts on the same topic, and she graciously agreed and sent me what you can read below:
Be Careful What You Ask Jason to Write About
A while back I asked Jason to write about chemo in light of our sister passing in previous months. I was curious how it settled with him as the two events happened so close in time. When I asked him, he suggested that I write a post. Naturally, I vaguely responded and put it off. When he wrote one about the subject, he again suggested I should write one to follow up his post.
The idea of writing about that topic is alluring and difficult. I wanted him to write about it to see how he put into words the two events. I didn’t want to write about it because it can be hard to put these past few months into words. I saw a danger in misrepresenting deep meaningful events with shallow words. It can still be a challenge to know how I am processing everything, much less to write in honesty about it. The second thought I had was, “Do I really want many people or strangers to read some of the most personal things in my life?” At the same time I was working through all of these thoughts, I found I was very hungry to read. I was looking to read how other people dealt with death and sickness. I was looking for how people navigated through grief that was once again blurry to me. I found two things from reading. First, it was merely a comfort to know others had gone through a similar experience and had similar thoughts. Secondly, certain truths they found began to shape my own life. If I enjoyed hearing Jason’s honesty, maybe I should share too. So I decided to write. And as I decided I realized it was not just writing, but being honest to speak of the reality of what has happened.
Knowing a Reality Without Living or Speaking It
It can be surprising after the death of a loved one how easy it is to live as if it didn’t happen. I think back to how I dealt with my dad’s death and I realize I guarded myself from grief. Although I didn’t go to extreme measures, I avoided the vulnerability brought about by death. I thought trusting God meant being strong and pushing through the trap of grief. When I let myself grieve, I thought it was holding me back from any progress. So I stuffed a lot of emotions. I didn’t realize this was my method, if you had asked me I would have said I thought I had grieved. But it didn’t take long for that to catch up to me, as evidenced in a major break down in a counseling class (ha!). I had to restart years after the grieving process of my father’s death. I needed to begin to see it as a way to process the loss of someone you love. As much as I wanted to control my emotions and skip all the crying, I learned I had missed the strange place grief has in the transition of someone dying.
When my sister passed, I tried not to shield myself from the reality but instead be willing to face what my reality entails. This was a lot harder then I thought it would be. It is surprising after someone dies how easy it is to think you can hold on to them (not to be confused with the good that comes with remembering and continuing to cherish someone). It can seem like if you refuse to give into the emotion that someone is gone then they will be in fact closer to you. On the other hand, if you grieve saying goodbye, it begins the process of forgetting them. As strange as it is, emotionally it’s hard to apprehend and accustom yourself to this transition. There have been days that I go to text my sister, and then have to remind myself that she won’t receive it. It is almost as if I am in disbelief and I have to try to convince myself that it even really happened. Oddly enough, I have to remind myself she will not be there at Christmas. Everything that happened can be so intense that you wonder afterward if it was real. There are other instances that it becomes so apparent it is emotionally wounding to face it. There have been nights that I wake up and the memories of how sick she was are all that is pictured in my mind. In those moments it is easy to want to run from those memories. To lay awake in bed and try for long amounts of time to have that memory erased. Rather than facing it head on, it appears much easier to have the pain of what has happened be avoided. After the shock of my sister’s death, my goal was to be willing to grieve this time around.
Forced to Face Reality
Not too long after, Jason found out the status of his health. It’s not so much him taking chemo and the effects of it that are difficult, it is the fact that his health is in a state that requires such intense chemo. Around that time, Jonny also got a report that there had been steady growth in several masses in his colon. So at this point, it was as if every tough reality was faced right in front of me. I would have loved to take one thing at a time. Maybe deal with my sister’s death first… then later think about my brothers’ health. To find out this news was like the big FAP (genetic disposition to cancer) monster in our family had lost all mercy for us. It forced me to see all the pains of death from the past, and all the future fears of my brothers.
It wasn’t so much a fear of death in the actual physical sense. Our family has watched my dad and sister face that in peace without fear. We would be silly to have watched God’s mercy and fear that passing again. We have a promise of their Savior’s raising them and already defeating death. That truth gives us hope that now my family is smiling even bigger than they were in this photo. Sometimes the comfort given to those that mourn is hope of being reunited in heaven. While this settles any fear, there is still daily life without someone. Even though there is joy in knowing they are no longer suffering, there is this weight of grief. The part that I wrestled with is the grief from death. The pain that comes from missing the ones you love until you see them again. The heavy sorrow can blur my eyes from being able to see. It can weigh so heavy on my heart as I seek to live fully after watching death.
The other hard part of that grief is the sadness from watching people suffer. I got my first colonoscopy/endoscopy this year to see if I have any polyps from FAP. Before my check-up I realized some of the things it forces you to think through before finding out the results. When I woke up from my exam, there was an initial relief from knowing the doctors did not find polyps in my colon. Shortly after, all I could think was that each of my siblings had gone through a different experience. That their news has been burdensome. It was one of the most sobering moments of my life. So when I heard Jason was going to be doing chemo, there is a type of suffering that comes with that. When I think about Jonny getting another check-up and receiving difficult news, there is a suffering that comes with that. There is a lot of physical suffering that has affected my family from FAP. If the cancer progresses like my dad’s and sister’s, they loose certain abilities before death. For my sister, she was unable to hold her children the last few weeks. She suffered the loss of being their mother in a close physical way. Watching that suffering to any degree can be difficult. I knew I would hear and see Jason deal with prolonged sickness in chemo even after multiple surgeries. Both bring up past sufferings and the warning of future suffering. In the midst of that there is a need for a greater comfort.
All that to say, at that point, to be honest, I was completely overwhelmed. Every time I thought about sitting down with the Lord to work through everything I had no idea where to start. I felt totally overloaded with the intensity of the past year. I thought if I forced myself to talk about it maybe it would help. But as I tried, I really had no idea of what I would mean to say. Everything that happened affected me so deeply that it seemed useless to talk about. The weight wouldn’t go anywhere if I described it. It was hard to try to dig out what there was to say about it. I love how C. S. Lewis describes words spoken by the Fox in Till We Have Faces,
“Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
Lewis describes how often we are unsure of what we mean. We lack the ability to dig the words out of our soul to even dialogue with God. He points out that something has to be formed in us to see God in these moments.
The Comfort of Facing Death
I kinda figured maybe if I just take a few days or weeks somehow it would become less overwhelming. I thought that was a great plan. The bad part about that plan is we kept singing this song at church that was the worst. It pretty much forced me to face all that lurked inside. Here are a few verses and the chorus:
“Set My Heart” Lyrics
by Vertical Church Band | from the album Frontiers
Quiet the voice of doubt again,
Echo within me every promise,
Let your Word be louder than my fears.
Speak to the void when I can’t see,
Lift up my head in every valley,
Let your joy be greater than my grief.
You make a way when none is found,
You tell the roaring ocean to bow.
I believe You’re moving even now,
Right here, right now.
I have set my heart,
Set my, set my heart on You.
You have every part of me,
I set my heart on You.
Nothing will ever break me, ever slay me,
All my hope in You.
Nothing will ever shake me, overtake me,
All my hope in You.
I have set my heart,
Set my, set my heart on You.
You have every part of me,
I set my heart on You.
I didn’t particularly like singing it because it made me a little emotional. Yet, at the same time, ironically, I found it begin to be a comfort to my heart as we sang it. It has all the lines of the thoughts I wrestle with. When I sang it I knew cognitively that I believed, but my heart was still trying to reconcile them to what I had just heard and seen. I knew my heart was still weighed down. I began to enjoy it because it became a prayer – that maybe if I keep telling God why I’m struggling, one day I might get somewhere. It was a simple reminder when I felt overwhelmed to just keep setting my heart on Him.
All that to say I am still trying to figure out how to work through this year. I am not sure what it looks like practically to face the reality of some of the harder events my family been through. But I have seen that God is merciful to shield us in the form of shock when it seems too much to process. He is merciful to gently remind us and ease us into realizing loss. He is even gracious in keeping us awake with painful memories that are part of the past. All of these, even though we often can’t find words for, work to meet God face to face and bring every part that forms our scared and wounded hearts into His presence. The greatest comfort that I have right now is not that God has lifted my grief, but that He is willing to face it with me. Even when I fight Him, He is merciful to lay before me the things I see each day.
“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me!
For my soul trust in You;
and in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge,
until these calamities have passed by.
I will cry out to God Most High,
to God who perform all things for me.”
– Ps. 57:1-2
More posts from the Contemplating Chemotherapy series:
- Intro to Chemo (Day 1)
- The New “Normal” (Day 2)
- The Drop-Off (Day 3-7)
- Chemo Jason vs. Normal Jason (Day 8-14)
- “[Bald] and Unashamed” (Day 15-28)
- Thanks(giving) for Chemo?
- Advent, Watching, and Waiting with Chemo
- “To Live is [Chemo], to Die is Gain”