If life were a road trip, it would be windy and at times treacherous. Cancer, surgeries, recovery, radiation, seizures, scans, toddler tantrums, death, mourning and heartache have all been stops along the way.
January was the three-year mark from which my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. January also marked one year from when my father-in-law passed away from metastatic prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease. These years have been both rich and exhausting. When we are stretched, we grow. Here are some lessons I have learned:
- Set your foundation now.
Lord willing, you have yet to hear those words that change your life. My brother James says, “Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2 NIV, emphasis added). The hard stuff is coming. We need to lay a foundation of truths in our lives that anchor us to the knowledge of God’s sovereignty, His plans and His character. Studying the Scriptures, memorizing key verses and passages, and meditating on how God is greater than any of our trials leads to peace during hard times and suppresses anxiety.
- Refocus your eyes.
Too often when times get difficult or overwhelming our focus goes to the circumstances around us. We think about our next steps or the way we can solve the problem. For example, in a piece I wrote for Self Talk the Gospel, I talked about Peter’s experience when he walked out on the water to see Jesus. Peter managed to make a few steps in faith, but then his eyes started to focus on the circumstances around him. He saw waves and water and he became afraid. He could not see a way out. He became overwhelmed and began to sink into the water. His eyes lost their focus. Then something drew him out of this moment. The hand of Jesus reached out and pulled him up. His eyes returned to Jesus.
In the book of Psalms, David often laid out his fears, anger and questions before the Lord. Despite beginning with his difficult circumstances, these passages generally end with a “but God” moment. David refocuses on the character and truths of God. This refocus drew his eyes upward and grounded him in God’s promises. We too must consistently refocus on our sovereign, big God.
- Don’t squash your emotions.
In difficult times, it’s hard to know how to feel. Should you be strong? Should you cry? What is appropriate? As I have walked a difficult path the last few years, I have seen my emotions go from highs to lows in a matter of seconds. The most stressful and fearful moments were laced with laughter and tears.
In the last few days before my father-in-law passed, we had about 15 people crowed into his room. We were playing games, telling stories, laughing, crying and praying for miracles. These were beautiful moments in a really challenging season.
When Jesse came out of anesthesia after his first brain surgery, we didn’t know if he would lose any of his speech or if he would even recognize us. When he woke up with a heavily drugged levity, slurring his speech and telling jokes, I experienced an odd combination of tears, relief and laughter. Why is it we feel the need to act tough or cover up sadness? There is such freedom and relief in simply being real with the moment you are in.
- Self-care is important to recovery.
From two brain surgeries, six weeks of radiation, a grand-mal seizure and navigating the emotional/mental side of life-threatening illness with Jesse to supporting my father-in-law through a five-year-long illness, the process of hospice and ultimately his death, it took a lot to recover. I went through many phases of grieving and recovery, whether it was willing myself to feel normal or questioning why I had no motivation for things like the gym or reading my Bible.
Ultimately, the words of our pastor, Brad Bell, kept ringing in my head, “If your output exceeds your input, then your upkeep becomes your downfall.” Read it twice. If you give more than you take in (from God), then your upkeep ultimately takes you down, and simply put, I was down. I decided to do something about it and joined a women’s Bible study. I needed more input. I changed my mindset to refilling an empty tank. For me, this looked like consistent time of intentional community to pour into my heart.
- Celebrate and remember.
It can be hard to remember someone’s life or recount what God has done in your family. Hard is okay. I have experienced many difficult deaths in my life. Whether it was friends tragically dying in car accidents or the awful cancer that has taken many close to us, death is hard. As I reflect, the families that engage the process, talk about feelings, support each other and welcome community are the families that come out the least-scathed.
In high school, I saw this when the parents of a student killed in a car accident had us over to tell stories, play games and be together occasionally over the next couple of years after his death. For those dying from illness, this has meant having close friends and family over for a time of sharing, remembering, thanking, praying and worship. Jesse and I reflect often on our many blessings and remember to thank God for our health and Jesse’s miracle. The important thing is we remember what God has done, tell the story and celebrate it.
If life were a road trip, I conclude that the roughest, windiest and steepest roads lead us to the most breathtaking views. I remain thankful for the journey, and as I look back over our “valley” years, I stand in awe of the perspective.