The following post is a personal testimony of God bringing comfort to a hurting heart. The article was written by Christy Nelson, daughter of Pastor Dave Long who passed away four years ago this month.
Five years ago, I was standing in my grandmother’s kitchen as my dad put one arm around me and one around my sister as we smiled for a picture. All three of us were grossly unaware it was our last Christmas where no one was sick, and everyone was happy. The following Christmas we posed for the same picture, but this time haunted by the thought “we better take this picture because it could be our last Christmas together,” but it was. In fact, our hearts were shattered just a few weeks later when Dad left this world. A few weeks following, two of my grandparents also passed away.Grief upon grief.
So here we are four years later, Christmas time once again, and brokenhearted all over again. Of course, grief hasn’t looked the same every year and the rawness is less intense, but still, Dad isn’t here, and it hurts. Often with great suffering and grief comes great blessing. I have been reflecting lately on the specific things that ministered to my heart as we walked through suffering and then grief. So many things have occurred that I can’t list them all, but there are some that specifically stand out.
I seem to be in this place of perpetually watching people suffer. Both a sister and a daughter with multiple surgeries and even more hospital stays; a niece, born at just 24 weeks, who fought for her life; a dad with cancer, and so much more it pains me to list it all. But in my mind, I was supposed to be the strong one, the encourager. While I don’t like seeing people suffer, I actually do like being the one at the bedside, making people laugh and encouraging them when they are down. I have medical training, so that part doesn’t gross me out. I understand medical information that flies at you in every which way. I was expressing this “always watching someone suffer but not being the one to suffer” mindset I had to a pastor (a good friend of my dad’s) one day, and he stopped me and said, “you are suffering too.” You know what, he was right. I was trying so hard to be strong for others, I was pushing my own hurt down. This statement was like taking down a brick wall. This was the first key thing that ministered to my heart. I began to understand that when we love someone who is suffering, we are suffering too. When we acknowledge our weakness and hurt, we are able to draw close to God in a deeper way than ever before.
Sitting at my dad’s bedside during one of his hospital stays, a couple came to visit. The wife was sharing how rich and deep her personal time with the Lord had been because of Dad’s trials. Later, Dad and I took a stroll down the hall. Being perceptive as always, he asked me what was on my mind. I expressed my quiet times honestly hadn’t been that deep lately, with the weight of everything making it even harder to focus on what I was reading some days. His answer to me, “Me neither!” This was a bit of a shock to me, as Dad was one of the godliest men I knew. Then he lovingly reminded me that not every moment of our spiritual walk is “up”, sometimes we just have to be a faithful child of God’s. He will never leave us or forsake us. I realize this sounds like its contradicting the first lesson I mentioned. But when it comes to trials, the ups and down are pretty intense. It’s good to recognize there will be times of deep closeness and times where God feels more distant.
Not long before Dad got sick, we had a new family move in next door. The wife was a godly woman and we became fast friends. Like most people, she often asked about Dad and how he was doing. However, she took her care a step further. She put every appointment and test I told her about on her personal calendar, so she would remember to pray. The morning of these appointments, she texted me that she was praying, and then followed up to see how things had gone. I’m as guilty as the next person for having occasionally said “I’ll be praying” but then forgetting in the busyness of my own life. Not this friend. Her ministry to me was simple, and it was thoughtful. It required letting someone else’s heartache clutter her own calendar so she would remember to pray.
Standing in the parking lot of church one Sunday, about to get in the car to head home, my cell phone buzzed. It was Mom, who was with Dad in the hospital in Chicago. “They think the cancer may have spread to his brain and they are ordering an MRI” were the words that met my ear. A wave of fear washed over me. One of the kids from the youth group, that my husband and I lead, was outside as well. Observing the heartbroken look on my face, this kid came and stood next to me and put his arm around my shoulder. Not a word was spoken between us. This simple action ministered to my heart in a significant way. I learned that even when it’s hard to know what to say to someone hurting, being present is sometimes enough.
After a long week of being in the hospital, Dad passed away on a Saturday evening. We had a long drive home from Chicago, and I slept soundly due to utter sleep deprivation. Yet I woke up from my own sobbing. I didn’t even know that was possible. Besides the most weighted pain that I had ever felt was the dreaded tasks of breaking the news to our children, helping write an obituary, and planning my own father’s funeral. With four kids to care for, it felt like too much. We spent Sunday with family, friends and our church. There was much comfort and love that flowed that day, but the weight of what was ahead still hung over me. However, Monday morning brought a real surprise. My doorbell rang, and in came a dear friend with loads of groceries. Not only had this friend brought us groceries, but she also put a menu on the refrigerator for the entire week, every meal, with every ingredient provided. I was suddenly given the ability to take care of my family during another long and difficult week. I saw firsthand that, finding a need, and meeting it without asking, was deeply encouraging and helpful.
In the weeks following the funeral, some friends took me out for dinner. My friends did something very meaningful for me. They simply let me talk, and they listened. I walked them through every painful detail of the day Dad died, and they never interrupted me. They just listened. They didn’t compare my loss with their own or seek to have profound comforting words. They let me grieve, and in doing so they grieved with me. In fact, the waiter stopped coming to fill our drinks, and instead started bringing more napkins for our tears. The poor guy didn’t know what was going on!
As much grief as I was experiencing personally, I also had four grieving children. Helping children navigate grief is challenging. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do it alone. Lots of things/people helped our children. The piano teacher came to the car after lessons one day and told me she was sorry that they had not played the piano much that day. One of our kids was too upset, and she felt it was more important to talk about grief and spend time praying together. Another family mailed us a book, Comfort for a Child’s Heart, by David and Helen Heidle. This was such a thoughtful gift. We went through a little each day before we started school as well as memorized Psalm 23 together. Our son latched onto his grandpa’s favorite sporting teams as his tangible means of grieving. As much as this pained my die-hard, Purdue-loving husband to have an Indiana University fan in the house, he took him to IU football games and (reluctantly) let him wear his IU gear around. I learned that grief comes in many different forms, so it requires different forms of comfort. While we try to be there for our kids, and help them through difficult trials, we need God’s people to help us.
As the weeks turned into months, the concerning look in people’s faces faded when they asked “How are you?” and the question returned to being a formality. I knew it wasn’t because people stopped caring. Rather, the harsh reality is that while family is stuck in a place of grief for a significant period of time, life moves forward for everyone around you. The key lesson I learned during this time was that when I opened my heart to people, people’s hearts were open to me. I committed myself to being honest when people asked me how I was, and it made the process of healing so much better. I felt the love of church family and friends in a whole new way when I allowed my heart to be raw and shared in my grief with others, rather than push it down. Grief can be a dark and lonely place, even when we are surrounded by people, if we don’t let them in. We need to be honest with the people God has put in our lives so that God can use them for our good.
The months have now turned into years. Life is feeling a little less heavy with the passing of time. During these last few years, many new people have entered our lives, people that never knew Dad. It saddens me to know there are new members at church that didn’t get to meet him, and a granddaughter that won’t know what it’s like for him to hold her in his strong arms. One of the people that never got to meet Dad is a new friend from church. She is a sweet lady and has become a dear friend to me. Last year she went with the kids and me to a spring event in town. We were standing in line for an elephant ear (If you don’t know what this is, you are clearly not from the mid-west!), and I was sharing with her a funny story about my dad. I can’t remember what the story was, but I do remember her reaction. Laughing at the story I shared, she exclaimed, “I can’t wait to meet him!” No, she didn’t forget he was no longer on earth. She was referring to heaven! And in that moment, she gave me my dad back. It reminded me that while death is permanent on this earth, Dad is living every day in the full glory of God!
Suffering and grief is a hard and painful thing to go through. It can be time consuming, and all encompassing. However, from it has come blessing, deepening of relationships, growth in godliness, and opportunities to minister to others I might not have had otherwise. I know that because of this experience, I can be more effective in the kingdom. Life is full of trials, and there will inevitably be more to come. But to sum it up in my own dad’s words: “My life is in the hands of the Lord; what better place is there to be?”