Saturday, October 28, 2023

Illness and Grief

A friend asked, how has widowhood changed your life? What do you wish others knew about widowhood? Here are some thoughts . . .

Our family had been remarkably healthy for years. Ed had seasonal allergies in the spring. One child had a few rashes as a baby which she outgrew. Another baby had bronchitis twice that required antibiotics. But most of our six children had never had any medications stronger than Tylenol. None of my children had a broken bone or stitches or been hospitalized since their birth. Our family’s medical history could fit on an index card.

Do bad things happen in groups? They did for Job, though we know those events weren’t random but a test from the enemy allowed by God. Sometimes it feels as if once the wrecking ball starts swinging, everything falls apart.

A few months after Ed’s brain cancer diagnosis, I heard screams for help and ran to the door to see my son hobble toward me. Wet grass, a small hill, and slippery boots somehow resulted in a collision course with his brother pushing a lawn mower. For the first time, I rushed a child to the emergency room. Ed left work and met us at the ER.

I wondered what the medical personal thought when they saw Ed’s nearly bald head clearly displaying a long skull scar. Clearly our family already had faced trauma. I rode in the ambulance with our son as they transferred him to a larger hospital and watched him being wheeled into the operating room twice in the next two days as surgeons repaired his knee. Thankfully he hadn’t injured any bones or tendons, and he healed quickly with only an ugly scar to remember the event.

But the doctor visits continued. And not just for Ed, whose medical file grew longer each month. In the two years between Ed’s diagnosis and death, all but one of us needed medical treatment. A broken arm, a bull’s eye rash, a UTI, a cut hand, and a leg rash so severe the doctor called in his co-worker to look at it. 

None of these were chronic conditions and each healed quickly, but at the time it felt overwhelming. What would happen next? I knew with six children, accidents and illness were inevitable, but why all on top of each other? Now? I wanted to hide our latest injury or illness from our friends and family, because I didn’t want to be on the prayer list yet again. I didn’t want pity, though I felt like pitying myself.

After Ed’s death, I observed that widows have two reactions to their personal health.

Some widows become more careful, almost paranoid. It was understandable. Their heartbeat is the only thing that stands between their children becoming orphans. Losing a husband, especially if he was young, makes you realize that life is fragile and contains no guarantees. It is easy to worry about every sun spot, push mega doses of supplements, and panic about busy highways.

Other widows become more cynical. They may have tried to eat healthful diets, taken safety precautions, and prayed for healing and protection, yet their husband died anyway. Why try to live a healthful lifestyle if death is inevitable? If you can’t grow old with the love of your life, living a long life no longer has an appeal. When dreams for a future together evaporate, life can feel pointless.

Widows can experience survival guilt. Why are they alive and their husbands gone? Why were they granted more years, more time with their children and their husband did not?

Some widows face financial challenges which not only add more stress, but also discourages spending money on their own health needs. A widow with children may focus on her children’s needs to the determent of their own. Not only is she parenting alone, and may be too busy for time to unwind and relax, she doesn’t have a husband to persuade her to get rest or medical help if needed.

After a traumatic loss, many people experience physical symptoms from stress. Some women lose hair, maybe as much as 50% of their hair—the result of hormonal imbalance from grief stress. Some women’s weight fluctuates, and they become under or over-weight. The distraction of grief and the inability to think clearly can cause an increased number of accidents and injuries. Numerous studies have shown that if you lose your spouse, you have a significantly higher likelihood of dying in the next six months.

A few weeks after Ed’s death, I began having pain in my right elbow. Sometime the pain even interfered with sleep. I couldn’t remember injuring my arm, and the pain seemed to wax and wane without reason. It was many months before it began to feel normal again and several years later, I sometimes found myself still pampering that elbow.

About the same time that the elbow pain began, I lost my voice. I could still hold a conversation, but I couldn’t sing or read aloud to my children. I struggled through homeschooling, and we listened to an audio Bible for family devotions. At church, I didn’t want to draw attention by not singing so I mouthed the words and choked back tears while wondering if I’d ever be able to sing again.

Neither elbow pain or losing my voice were major health conditions, but at the time, the questions felt heavy. Was my body reacting to stress? Had I injured myself while caring for Ed? Was my body warning me to slow down? Did I have a deeper health issues? Was I simply getting older?

A few years after Ed’s death, I realized that I hadn’t had a physical check-up since my last baby’s birth, seven years before. I knew it was wise to get updated blood work and a general check-up, but I kept putting it off. Even more important, with my family history of colon cancer, was to schedule a colonoscopy, but it was easy to ignore. Ed would have insisted that I schedule the appointments, but it was hard to force myself to make the phone calls.

Finally I visited my doctor for a physical, updated my blood work, scheduled the colonoscopy, and asked a friend to drive me the appointment since I’d be unable to drive home afterwards.

I dreaded the colonoscopy. I had never liked needles. Even though I had birthed six babies in the hospital, I had never had an IV. When Ed would get an IV during his many hospital stays, I always carefully averted my eyes lest I get weak-kneed. I had never had any kind of surgical procedure nor been under anesthesia, so I fought down anxiety at the thought of the colonoscopy.

This is your public safety announcement: If you are over forty, consider getting a colonoscopy. Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the US and preventable with a colonoscopy. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. With my family history, this won’t be my last one so I’m glad I no longer have to dread it.

Grief affects people differently, but anyone who experiences traumatic grief will be affected by stress. And stress impacts the very cells and hormones of the body. Knowing this fact can help make sense of the fatigue, distraction, maybe even mysterious ailments after a loved one’s death.

I had a compassionate husband—one that said things like “You go to bed, I’ll finish the dishes” or “Let’s get a babysitter so we can go away this weekend.” Part of widowhood has been accepting the loss of someone who knows my needs and cares for me as himself. While the modern focus on self-care is perhaps out of balance, we do need to care for our bodies as temples of God. If you are a tight-wad cynic like me, you may need to force yourself to schedule the doctor appointment or buy the vitamins.

And if you are close to a widow, help her care for herself. Ask if she is stressing about finances, offer to babysit so she has time alone, and encourage her to get needed medical care. It might feel like prying to ask about her medical needs, but she might not have anyone else who will.

All photos from our delightful family trip to Outer Banks, North Carolina.

Monday, October 9, 2023

A Fruitful Field

If you read through old blog posts from ten or so years ago, you'd find that I used to do a lot of homesteading-type activities. For example, we no longer raise chickens for eggs and meat.  Sometimes I miss it. Other times I'm willing to accept that my life looks differently than a decade ago. 

I wrote about this quandary for the recent issue of Commonplace. 

A Fruitful Field

 Soon after Ed and I became engaged, we toured the house that would become our home. A dusting of snow lay on the ground as we walked through the backyard to the one-acre pasture. I was smitten.

The house wasn’t perfect, but I fell in love with that pasture. I had spent hours of my childhood playing in a pasture like this. I could envision our future children scrambling over the rocks, playing hide-and-seek under the cedar trees, and picking raspberries.

A few years flitted by, and my vision came true. Now, when I walked through the pasture and avoided the clutches of brambles, I saw signs of childhood imagination. An overturned crate and a few jars marked a young lady’s store. Under a pine, old cans and a few rocks created a kitchen. High in the arms of an oak, a pallet was wedged, constructing a rough tree house. Our evening routine included picking burrs out of socks, rubbing lotion on poison ivy, and checking for ticks.

We attempted to make the stony field productive. We pastured a few steers and raised chickens. We dreamed of someday having a milk cow and perhaps even boiling maple syrup from our own sugar bush. But eventually the fence fell into disrepair, and the steers began regular visits to the neighbors. The chickens became dinner to some wild beast. We quit pretending we were homesteaders, and when visitors peered into the overgrown pasture and asked what we raised, Ed simply said, “Children.”

Besides, the steers weren’t the only ones pulled past the boundaries of our property. Ed and I pushed the stroller in Hagerstown, our nearby city, handing out Bible Study invitations and introducing our children to the concrete jungle. As years passed, Ed’s spare time became divided between work projects at a boys’ camp, Bible studies in prison, and sermon preparations. I remember Ed looking at the leaning pasture fence on a rare quiet Saturday and saying, “Maybe we should stay home and work, but the children are growing up so fast, let’s take a bike ride.”

Then brain cancer stole my husband. The children and I became dependent on others for daily sustenance. Fence repair wasn’t a high priority, and honeysuckle and wild roses prospered in our unruly pasture.

When I drove down the road I saw productive fields. A trim pasture with a quiet herd of black cattle. Tidy rows of peach trees. Orderly vegetables growing behind a picket fence. Lush acres of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. All my life I have valued efficiency, productivity, and profitability. My personality finds value in what I do, what I produce, what I give. My pasture didn’t live up to my standard.

But I didn’t see slothfulness when I looked at that field. I saw memories. I saw suntanned creative children spending hours under blue skies amid waving wildflowers and weeds. I saw a dad who chose people over projects. I didn’t see regrets.

Sometimes I compare my productivity, my fruitfulness, with what I see in others’ lives. But there are as many ways to live a faithful life as there are ways to tend a field. 

Ruth gathered barley, elderly Elisabeth guided a well-respected home in Jerusalem, Lydia sewed for the poor, and Priscilla traveled with her husband to share the gospel while making tents. A praying invalid, a mother of toddlers, a grandma washing dishes, a teen sending a note of cheer – all are fruitful fields.

Whatever our age, marital status, economic position, or health condition, each of us can bear fruit. Because fruit bearing isn’t simply what we do, or how we appear to others, it is about connection to God, abiding in the Vine, and allowing His Spirit to bear His fruit in us.i 

Yes, obedience and surrender are required, and faithfulness isn’t optional, but we can’t conjure up love, joy, and peace on our own—it is the work of God.

Some days I feel like a weedy pasture smothered by burdock and thistles. Life is often harder and more complicated than I expected. I compare myself with that lush field of soybeans and wonder what I did wrong. 

Sometimes it is hard to know if my desire to be fruit-bearing is based on pride and people pleasing or a genuine desire for God to be glorified. But the important question to ask is, Do I receive the Word of God with joy and am I nourishing that seed? If so, my Master is pleased even if my field looks different from my neighbors.

I dream of someday repairing our fence and filling the pasture with spotted goats. Maybe I’ll have another little flock of hens to scratch among the red clover. But even if this field grew only memories and nourished children, it has been fruitful.

iJohn 15:4-5

First published in Commonplace - In Fields and Wood in Fall 2023.


Related Posts with Thumbnails