As Mike Robinson watched the death sentence of Motor Neurone Disease being executed on his wife Bev, his mind battled to accept her “ignominious” loss of independence and cruel struggles to breathe, which eventually took her life.

Having been married for 50 years, the retired Baptist pastor struggled to imagine going on without the love of his life, whose grace and patience in the face of the “wretched” incurable disease inspired many in their retirement community in the hills district of Sydney.

While he never seriously considered walking away from his Christian faith, he came to understand why so many people do. He just couldn’t understand why God would allow a woman of faith to suffer so much.

When Bev finally slipped away, Mike fell into a bottomless pit of grief – despite believing that Bev had “gone home” at the end of her earthly journey.

 “I was giving them permission to ask questions that they felt that they couldn’t ask, particularly in their Christian community.”

Left to ponder how to continue the journey alone, Mike felt a thought whisper to him as if from outside himself – why not write letters to Bev?

“Immediately I thought ‘great!’ Not my thought but it’s a good one. And then I thought ‘oh no, people will say poor Mike, he can’t face reality; he’s gone round the twist.’”

In his defence, Mike says he knew Bev would never read the letters or answer any of the questions. In any case, Mike jokes, he couldn’t mail them because he didn’t know heaven’s postcode!

“…we have a God who is able to cope with [our] questions. If not, we’ve got to tear half the Psalms out.”

He saw the letter format as a literary mechanism to help begin healing from his enormous sense of loss. When Mike decided to post the letters on his blog, Barnabas Network, he was amazed by the intensity of the readers’ responses. “That caught me by surprise, the strength of what people were saying to me. They didn’t come just with ‘have you ever thought about writing?’ They were very direct – ‘these must be published.’”

The honesty of sharing pain

So in October, 18 months after Bev’s death, Mike self-published a book entitled Our Journey Through the Valley. It is a collection of journal entries by Bev and Mike from the time of her diagnosis of MND in 2013, as well as the 71 letters he wrote to her in the year after her death in 2015.

But until then I will go on singing
Until then with joy I’ll carry on

“The kind of comments have mostly been appreciating the honesty, that we haven’t tried to spiritualise things away,”,” says Mike about how readers have responded to his writing. “We haven’t pretended to be other than what we are in terms of dealing with Bev’s condition.

“The sense of people feeling somehow, in being as honest as I could be with the reader, that I was giving them permission to ask questions that they felt that they couldn’t ask, particularly in their Christian community because you’re supposed to just trust God.”

Rather than being depressing, the book is a moving chronicle of the emotional and spiritual struggles Mike went through as his grief intensified rather than abated with time.

Gripped by a powerful sense of Bev’s absence, Mike recorded his daily struggles to face the reality that the love of his life was never coming back until Jesus returned. Early on, he adopted the theme of “until then”, as a way of coping with that finality.

The theme came up after another “whisper” from outside himself. As he was sitting wrestling with how to carry on, the words of a song started to come but he didn’t recognise them. So he typed the words “Until then” into Google and this is what it came up with:

My heart can sing when I pause to remember
A heartache here is but a stepping stone;
Along a trail that’s winding always upward,
This troubled world is not my final home.

But until then I will go on singing
Until then with joy I’ll carry on
Until the day my eye beholds the City
Until the day God calls me home.

“I’d like to think that the book would be cheering some people on in terms of their own journey,” he says. “I’m certainly not trying to prescribe how you should deal with your grief; I’m just telling what I learned.”

“I found it satisfying and fulfilling when people would say ‘you’ve got no idea what the book has meant to me.’”

There were times when I left high care up there to come down to the unit and I just wanted to smash something.

Mike’s honesty can be confronting, as when he asks himself the question: have you forgiven God for what he allowed Bev to go through? “Now, of course, the idea of forgiving God is close to blasphemous,” he says. “Fortunately, we have a God who is able to cope with those questions. If not we’ve got to tear half the Psalms out.”

Forgiving God

Mike says that he has forgiven God because “I know that he’s not accountable to us and that’s what forgiveness is all about – we are accountable to him.”

Mike had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease back in 2000 and the assumption had been that Bev would nurse him in his decline.

I’m enormously grateful for all that we shared together.

Now he is grateful that they moved into a retirement village in the northern suburbs of Sydney at a relatively young age because when Bev fell ill, there was nursing support available.

“I can’t say that I’m the same person as pre Bev’s death. I’m enormously grateful for all that we shared together because one of our goals was to reach 50 years of marriage,” he says.

“But when you’re watching someone go through the things that she went through. There were times when I left high care up there to come down to the unit and I just wanted to smash something. Just as well we didn’t have a dog because he would have been kicked.

“It was just the anger and the sense of helplessness, I suppose, because there’s no treatment for MND. And then to realise the way she handled things. Whenever I wanted to have a pity party about my own situation, I only had to spend some time with Bev – without her saying anything – just the comparison between what was available to me to deal with my condition and what wasn’t available to her.”

He is comforted by an image of Bev at the point of death running – something she hadn’t been able to do for some time – to meet Jesus, as in Isaiah 43: 31.

Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

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Our Journey Through the Valley

Mike Robinson

Available from Barnabas Network

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