My sister in law is dying, but God is with us as we grieve

If you’d told me a month ago that the word “dying” can be a word that brings comfort, I’d have never believed you.

At that point, death felt like more like a prowling animal threatening to pounce at any time. We had tried to build fences to keep death out. Sometimes we thought we had done it. But death kept finding a gap in our fences and widening them to become a hole and squeezing its way in.

When I say “we thought we had done it”, I really mean that we thought she had done it. She, my sister-in-law. She, the strong, young teacher and mother of three children who was fighting cancer.

We had tried to build fences to keep death out… but death kept finding a gap in our fences and squeezing its way in.

But, as the years and months went on, despite her best efforts, all the fences were destroyed. The long list of treatment options began to shrink. And, as a family we had to give up on building barriers and resort to being on high alert at all times. It was as if we thought that if we never relaxed, never let down our guard, we might just be able to keep death at bay.

It didn’t. It hasn’t. It hasn’t at all.

So now, we have had to learn how to live with knowing that – barring a miraculous intervention by God – she will die.

Death hasn’t been kept at bay. And now we are learning how to breathe with it standing alongside us. We sit at the table with it. We take it home and go to bed at night with it sitting in our room. We even had speak to it.

Death has become Dying – a present and continuous part of our family. No less horrific and certainly still unwelcome, but somehow less terrifying.

My sister-in-law is dying and this is our present and continuous reality. She is slipping from us and from this world, a little more with each passing moment. Hour by hour, day by day, week by week.

And in it all, the word dying – that present, continuous form of the word – we’ve learned to recognise as a small blessing. As an act of mercy by a God who somehow feels close, even though defeat is imminent.

We know too well that not everyone is afforded this mercy, this gift of stretched time that allows the unthinkable to sink in. We don’t understand why we have been given this gift of time when others long to receive it but don’t.

The slipping away slowly has helped us and her.

But it has made us grateful. The slipping away slowly has helped us and her. After fighting so hard, praying so many faith-filled prayers and declaring so many healing scriptures over her body, it is helping us.

Last week, I was in a zoom meeting where a really lovely, gentle woman shared her testimony of being healed. She’d received a diagnosis of cancer, too, but “the good kind” that was most treatable and she had recovered.

I listened to her story crying hot, angry tears and grateful to be watching via laptop rather than in a room where I might make a scene or – even worse – make her feel bad for the sharing the good news of what God has done for her. Of course, I didn’t want her – or anyone – to go through what we were. I didn’t even have a sense of it being unfair, actually. I just really wished we had a victory story too.

But in almost the same moment, God brought Romans 8.39-40 to my mind: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It brought me instant comfort – I guess this is why the Bible teaches us to hide scripture away in our hearts. My heartbreak was somehow tempered by the certainty that even if our bodies fail and healing doesn’t come, in the end, we all will have a story of victory to share because nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even death. Death may be sitting in the room with us but it is a defeated foe. Love has overcome.

My heartbreak was somehow tempered by the certainty that even if our bodies fail and healing doesn’t come, in the end, we all will have a story of victory to share…

So, my sister-in-law is dying. And we are sitting right in the middle of the present and continuous reality of it, trusting God that death does not have the final word.

Grateful for the artistry of palliative care workers who balance pain relief with quality time. Grateful for lucid moments. Grateful for old friends who check in and long days spent with loved ones. Grateful for every time we posed for an annoying family photo that now preserves the memory of better times.

And we yield to the mercy-drenched moments and allow them to ease her and us into the next season of our lives. We breathe deeply and slowly and try to face the strange idea that her time on earth will soon be over.

We let her go a little more. We let her leave us a little more. We let it all just be a little more, as we lean into the blessing of this present, continuous gift of time with someone we love who is dying.

Postscript: This story was written more than a month ago, now, before my beloved sister-in-law, Rhoda Yeates stepped into Eternity on June 1, 2020. It seemed fitting to share her story here, in the paper I write for that is named for the place she now knows so well.

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