Coping With Illness and Bereavement

By Eddie Larkman

Sue and I were married in 1984 and within a few months were involved in pastoral ministry in London. She was the most straight-forwardly good human being I have ever met, and we could not have been more in love, or happier together.

But Sue was never strong physically, and after two years we found out why. Sue had ovarian cancer. Her ovaries and womb were removed – a devastating blow as we had no children. Worse was to come when the consultant told us that the cancer had spread widely, and was terminal. He suggested that Sue might live another six months, or a year or two at most. Sue was just 26.

A gruelling year of chemotherapy followed – I’ll spare you the gory details – but at the end of it, to our delight, the cancer seemed to be in retreat. We hoped – and dared to believe – that Sue had been healed. Our joy increased eighteen months later when we were approached by an adoption agency. “We have a little girl on our books,” the social worker explained. “She has been advertised all over the country, but because of her multiple physical disabilities, we can’t find a home for her. But we’ve heard of you and wonder if you might be willing to take her?”

So Rebecca joined our family, aged 14 months. The best medical opinion at her birth was that she might never be able even to sit up on her own, and when she came to us, we expected she would spend her life in a wheelchair. But with lots of care from Sue, who had a nursing background, and after several operations at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Rebecca began to progress far beyond the most optimistic forecast.

However, it eventually became clear that Sue’s cancer was still active. For three more years, Sue suffered horribly, especially during the final year of her life when she was a complete invalid. I thank God that with the help of friends I was able to nurse her at home until the end came in March 1996. Sue died as she had lived, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Among the final things she said to me was, “Tell everybody that the promises of God are true, and that those who hope in Him will never be disappointed.”

I now found myself a widower and a single parent with a ‘special needs’ child. This was not the life I had expected, and I felt exceedingly ill-equipped. We seemed to eat an awful lot of fish-fingers and chips in the early days. It was a great day when we progressed to fish-fingers, chips and beans – three things co-ordinated!

In the midst of learning new skills and adjusting to a different lifestyle, I was also having to come to terms with the loss of Sue. Nothing can really prepare you for the death of your life-partner. I have had times of self-pity when the sense of loss has been almost overwhelming; times when the dark clouds of depression have rolled in and it has felt like they would never be dispersed again.

And where is God in these situations? Through all that was happening, I was clinging to the Bible’s teaching that God can not only sustain us through times of suffering, but make us grow as He works out His purposes in our lives. I could see this in the lives of biblical characters like Jacob, Joseph, Peter, Paul, and a host of others. I knew the texts like Romans 5: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” – and other similar passages.

OK: so God uses suffering to shape our character, to make us like Christ, to prepare us for eternity – all this was clear to me from the Bible and I could grasp the theory. But how was this to be worked out on the ground in my situation? Could God really make me grow? To be honest, sometimes I didn’t feel I was growing so much as shrinking, in fact being crushed, my whole world closing in and becoming ever more confined. During Sue’s final illness and after her death, I often felt trapped, unable to lead the life I wanted, unable even to serve as a pastor in quite the way I’d hoped, hemmed in at every turn by my domestic role as a carer.

During Sue’s final illness and after her death, I often felt trapped, unable to lead the life I wanted, unable even to serve as a pastor in quite the way I’d hoped, hemmed in at every turn by my domestic role as a carer.

But God is a patient Teacher. Little by little, I came to see that God was calling me to follow Him not despite my circumstances, but in and through them; that the situation I found so painful was precisely the soil in which God was working for my growth as a Christian.

So long as I persisted in trying to write my own agenda for life, based on my wishes, I met with frustration – so many of my longings simply weren’t going to be fulfilled – not yet, anyway. But whenever I accepted God’s agenda for me (and surely that’s what’s implied in saying “Jesus is Lord”), life became not only bearable, but fruitful in unexpected ways. What I perceived as my prison became a field rich with opportunities for knowing and serving Christ.

For example, I began to see that there was nothing in my circumstances to prevent me attempting to keep the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love my neighbour. My trouble was, I kept wanting to serve God in all sorts of ways other than the ones He had prescribed for me. I would look at opportunities I was ‘missing,’ and think, “Lord, if only I could do that for you.” But God showed me that we love Him most and serve Him best by doing the thing He asks of us rather than constantly wishing we could do something else instead. Sometimes He asks us to speak at the Royal Albert Hall; but sometimes He asks us to empty the commode or cook a meal (after washing our hands in between, of course!).

When I have felt frustrated with my domestic duties, time and again I have been lifted by words from John Keble’s old hymn, “New every morning is the love”:

The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask:
Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us daily nearer God.

“Room to deny ourselves” – that’s counter-cultural! Well, I have found plenty of room for self-denial in being a single-parent with a disabled child. And I have to tell you, Keble was right: it has indeed been ‘a road to bring me daily nearer God.’ It has humbled me, kept me on my knees before God, given me daily reminders of my own insufficiency and His all-sufficiency. It has been a road packed with opportunities to learn trust, to practice patience, to value small mercies, to marvel at little miracles, to understand a bit more of dying to self and living the life of love. In short, it has been a road paved with grace and mercy, lavishly given, new every morning, drawing me through smiles and through tears to God Himself. So would I really prefer a different road?

The great lesson that I am constantly having to learn is that my circumstances – which for me have included long-term illness and bereavement – far from being the enemy of my soul, are its friend, its teacher. They set the agenda, mark out the course, underline the lessons I most need to learn, and persist in dragging me back to those lessons when I want to wander off into something more appealing, but less beneficial. This is not a cruelty to me, but God’s kindness. He has eternity in mind, whereas we are so short-sighted. He knows what it takes to make each of us like Jesus: to make us rich in our character and fruitful in His service.

God showed me that we love Him most and serve Him best by doing the thing He asks of us rather than constantly wishing we could do something else instead.

Circumstances change, and life has moved on in the years since Sue’s death. After twelve years as a widower, I met and married Kathy, a Texan with her own story of God’s amazing grace. I didn’t see that coming! In God’s goodness to us, we’ve enjoyed a fruitful pastoral ministry together at Corsham Baptist Church in the west of England.

And Rebecca? She has grown into a woman of God, managing her disabilities well enough to be fully independent, and serving for the past few years with a Christian ministry in the UK. Truly God’s grace has been lavished on us, even when I have been slow to recognise it.

Please don’t read this wrongly. We still live with weakness and long-term heartaches, the thorns and thistles of a fallen world. I’m sure you do too! Our journey isn’t over; we have not yet graduated from Christ’s school. But be encouraged: it is always possible by God’s grace to love and serve Him today, right where we are. Our Heavenly Father makes no mistakes. There is nothing in our circumstances to prevent us following Jesus – only things that God can use for our growth, when rightly received. God bless you.

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