“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD.” (Psalm 118:17)
My sister Tracey loved that verse. She clung to it in hope. I pondered this as I looked down at her cancer embattled body and slowly disappearing spirit. Her three-and-one-half-year conflict with the enemy of ovarian cancer was coming to an end. She was nearly finished. Her hope of healing was nearly gone.
Tracey knew of stories where family gathered around a hospice bed to say goodbye, only to have the loved one live on, be healed, and return to their lives. Her faith was strong throughout the battle. She had plans that March of 2002 to go to Disney World with a friend, but our concerns about her symptoms led us to call her oncologist. When he heard what she was dealing with, he predicted that she wouldn’t make it to March. She was devasted to accept that defeat.
Only once did I hear her voice her despair. She was struggling up her stairs to the bedroom and turned toward me: “It’s just not fair! It’s not fair that I got cancer!” Then she turned and walked upstairs. Three years of optimism came to an end on the evening before February 11th when we received the phone call from my brother-in-law that it was time to come up and say goodbye.
We left our daughters with friends, took my young son, and drove the forty-five minutes to Upper Bucks County where they lived. Her husband Dave greeted us at the door, “Her eyes fixed this morning. That is how the hospice nurse knew the time frame. She can’t see anything. But she’s still hearing and responding.”
We went down stairs to the den where the hospice bed had been set up. My poor sister’s frail body looked more like only skin stretched over her skeleton. She allowed her two friends and I to care for her all night. She was nauseated and throwing up. She was struggling to breathe. At four o’clock, the nurse said that she thought it would be only a few minutes. Our disjointed family all gathered from different parts of the house where each had been dealing with their grief in personal ways. My eight-year-old niece was weeping and begging her mom not to leave her. Her ten-year-old son watched quietly, grieving internally.
But she didn’t let go. Her breathing was more like gasping. But she didn’t let go. A gray morning dawned. Around eight o’clock, friends came to take the kids out for a while. They both kissed her, “Bye mom. We’re going out for a while.”
As soon as they were gone, Tracey visibly relaxed. Her breathing became shallow, and her breaths came less often. A little before nine, she breathed out and never breathed in again. She was finished. Her hope in Psalm 118:17 seemed pointless. But my sister loved Jesus. Jesus promised a mourning friend, “I AM the resurrection, and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11: 25-26) Although her physical body was finished. Her spiritual life lived on in Jesus, our hope of eternal life.
So how do I manage the grief of loss that plagues me more than sixteen years later? Everyone grieves differently. I cried, and still do. I prayed for myself and my family, and still do. I talk about my sister a lot and honor her memory in any way I can. I listen to songs of our hope of eternal life. Then I get the awesome privilege of sharing my hope and empathy with others.
One verse calls God “-the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort that we ourselves ARE comforted of God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) We ARE comforted in the present and ongoing tense. To this day, I can rely on God to comfort me that my sister lives on with Him. Then I get to utilize His comfort to comfort others. There is HOPE even in loss.