Across the years since Ray, my then-39-year-old husband, went to work, suffered a fatal heart attack, and never came home, I’ve pondered which is more painful, losing someone suddenly or watching them decline over time before they pass away. Having now experienced the latter with my dear mother, I can affirm what I suspected all along – either way, it hurts.
The phone rang within minutes of my young daughters and I returning home from a shopping outing. I answered to hear someone who identified herself as Chris, a patient care coordinator from the local hospital. She told me Ray had been transported from work to the emergency department by ambulance and asked if someone could bring me to the hospital. I assured her I could drive myself, gathered my girls, and said a brief prayer for Ray’s well-being before we set out.
As I drove, hands clasping the steering wheel, praying we’d find Ray alive, it occurred to me that Chris’s question regarding someone accompanying me already provided a clue to what lay ahead. The knot in my stomach was as tight as my clenched fingers.
When we arrived, Chris asked me some questions about Ray’s medical history as she ushered us to a private room to await the doctor, who would provide more details. As she turned to go, I asked, “Can’t you at least tell me if he’s alive?” She looked at me, silent.
I demanded, “Is he alive?”
“No, honey, he isn’t.”
Ten-year-old Mary, seven-year-old Jessie, and I heard the unthinkable, life-altering news as one and uttered a collective protest of disbelief. How could it be that our beloved father and husband would go to work on a beautiful spring day and not return to us?
In describing the aftermath of Chris’s statement, I’ve said it was as if I took it in only briefly before a giant door slammed shut to protect me from the enormity of it all. Shock, numbness, denial. But sometimes, the pain of profound, searing loss would overtake me, leaving me sobbing uncontrollably, longing for my life partner. Gradually, over weeks and months, reality dripped into my soul bit by bit as I was able to accept it.
There’s a tender scar where the raw wound used to be, and the torrents of tears have given way to deep sighs of acceptance, the expression of a heart pining for its missing piece.
A Gradual Decline
Even though I had no idea the Lord would call Mom Home a few weeks after I wrote Our Refuge (please see March 2021 Archives), I now know He was graciously preparing me for what was to come. I could no longer deny the changes I’d observed in Mom’s body and mind over the past few years, each one chipping away at her abilities, each one like a knife to my own heart. It grieved me so to watch her world become ever-smaller, to see her struggle to accomplish tasks once so easy for her.
I often thought of a friend’s comment two years ago when Mom was so frail, her body weakened by pneumonia, “I think seeing our loved ones decline makes it easier to let them go when the time comes.”
Even so, I couldn’t imagine the time would come when I’d sit by her hospital bed and plead with the Lord to relieve her pain entirely by taking her Home. But it did.
This time, the life-changing call came from my dad. On the morning of April 20th, his 90th birthday, he phoned to let me know Mom had fallen and broken her hip. I rushed to their house, two miles from mine, praying as I had on the drive to the hospital 24 years ago. The EMTs arrived soon after I did, followed shortly by the ambulance.
The image of them carrying Mom out to the ambulance, cradled in her sheet, pain etched on her face, gave me notice regarding the likely outcome, much as Chris’s question about someone bringing me to the hospital had. The following day, Mom made it through the surgery to repair her hip, but it soon became apparent even if her body recovered, her mind might not.
Mary and her husband, Justin, Jessie, and I took turns staying with Mom. There were some peaceful, lucid moments, but mostly we watched as she fidgeted and imagined all sorts of things and people, some pleasant, others deeply troubling. We wondered how her tiny body could keep up the almost-incessant activity without shutting down. We mourned as the bruises multiplied on her paper-thin skin, the aftermath of the fall, the surgery, and numerous blood draws. And we began to pray those prayers for ultimate relief and deliverance.
God mercifully answered our petitions on Mom’s behalf on April 30th, when she took her last breath and peacefully passed from our presence into the presence of Jesus.
Different, Yet the Same
Losing Ray suddenly gave me no opportunity to prepare and resulted in a cycle of denial followed by painful acceptance of reality, a process repeated for months, the dripping I described earlier. Even though I was a rational person and recognized what happened, my subconscious searched for Ray everywhere I went and expected him to return home, hopes that could never be fulfilled.
On the other hand, every moment I had with Ray was normal. I didn’t watch him decline and become a shadow of his former self. Our last conversation was about attending church the next day. But not getting to tell Ray goodbye or express my love and appreciation one last time caused me much sorrow and regret.
Losing Mom a little at a time led me to begin grieving while she was still with me, as I missed activities and aspects of our relationship that were no longer possible. The accelerated pace of her decline after she broke her hip prepared me to let her go. In those final days, I also had the chance to pray with her, thank her for being a wonderful mother, and tell her how much I loved her. Though losing her is painful, it’s not the raw, open-wound kind of pain I felt when Ray died. It’s already a deep sigh of acceptance in my soul, tempered by the joy of knowing Mom is no longer suffering.
Prepared or unprepared, the result is the same. Death is absolute in this life, leading to separation, albeit temporary. For now, there are no more conversations, no more hugs or hand-holding, no shared reminiscences about past experiences or anticipation of future fun-filled activities.
Despite knowing death would not have the final say, Jesus wept outside Lazarus’ tomb. Likewise, we weep over the passing of our loved ones. Because it hurts. Aging and illness and death weren’t part of God’s good plan. Death entered in when Adam and Eve disobeyed, the penalty for their sin, just as God said it would (Genesis 2:16-17).
But God already had a plan of salvation. God would send His Son to crush the head of the Serpent (Genesis 3:15), to redeem those He chose before the foundation of the world. Jesus, man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3a), comprehends our heartbreak when we watch loved ones suffer and die. So we approach His throne to receive grace and mercy in our time of need, knowing we have a great High Priest who understands (Hebrews 4:15-16), no matter how our loss comes about.
Furthermore, we grieve with hope as we look forward to Jesus’ promised return when He’ll wipe away every tear, and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4).
O Lord, it’s so hard to be separated from our loved ones. Thank You that You come alongside us to comfort us as One who understands our grief and who enables us to grieve with hope, knowing the separation is only temporary because of Your sacrifice on our behalf.
 Dad, Mary, Justin, Jessie, our pastor (David Donovan), and I were with Mom when the Lord called her Home.