Death

No Right Words: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

The news came in bits and pieces – a trip to the hospital, some internal bleeding, too much blood thinner. Then the suspicion of diabetes which would mean big lifestyle changes. More tests to confirm. And then they found the tumor, wrapped around pancreas and liver, obstructing valves and major arteries. Then the biopsy and the final (though no longer unexpected) diagnosis – Cancer.

And just like that, life changes. Conversations about what will happen next year or even next month are fraught with hesitation. The future everyone has taken for granted now dangles by a thread.

I am amazed by how quickly perspective shifts in these situations. Something clicks into places and our fundamentally adaptive natures try to bend themselves around a new reality. We find ourselves saying things that would have been ridiculous just weeks ago. “I’m so glad he made it to the hospital when he got sick.” “It’s wonderful that he has family with medical training to help.” We are grateful for the most absurd things. For the shots of insulin that simulate a pancreas. For a treatment plan that may buy a few more precious months.

This grief is one step removed from me -the loved one of a dearly loved one. I won’t pretend that this affects me as directly as it does her and her family. (But surely the next worst thing after losing someone you love must be watching someone you love losing someone they love).

I stand in my shower on the other side of the world and sob, hiding my face in the corner of the tiled wall. My loved one is losing her loved one and I am not there. How could I not be there? And instead I am in this wretched (right now) country 7,000 miles away, unable to do the only thing I know how to do. Be present. I get out of the shower and try to prepare myself for the conversation I’m about to have. I am afraid. I rely on words like air and suddenly there aren’t any right ones.

I think of the story of Lazarus. That famously short verse that simply says, “Jesus wept.” This story has always moved me deeply. It’s not just that Jesus shows empathy and humanity in this moment. It’s because he shows it in spite of the fact that he is minutes away from raising Lazarus back to life.

Almost two years ago to the day, a classmate of mine from college passed away unexpectedly. At the time I wrote this post about grieving where I reflected on what it meant for Jesus to weep for Lazarus in spite of knowing that glory was mere minutes away. Maybe this isn’t just a story to reassure us of Jesus’s compassion, but is also instructive for us in how to be human.

“I think it’s this exact feeling we have when things like Josiah’s death occur. We are wracked with grief because the world is not as it should be. Our hearts are torn because, even though we have the hope of eternity, in the present things are broken. I think Jesus shows us by example that it is appropriate, even correct, to grieve for the brokenness of the present even as we hold the hope of the future. What is more horrific  in the present than the stark contrast of the way the world is now against the glorious way it was meant to be and will be in the future?”

I open my computer and my friend’s face fills the screen.  “This is NOT OK,” I say to my dearest friend, whom I love as though she is a part of myself,. “And it’s probably not going to be OK for a long, long time. And it’s OK not to be OK.” I don’t know if it’s the right thing to say, but I refuse to profane this moment by spewing words I don’t mean. Maybe these aren’t the most encouraging words, but they are the only ones that feel true.

 

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A Sobering Moment: What Do We Do in the Face of Real Grief?

Those of you who are Wheaton friends are already aware of the sudden loss of 2011 alumnus Josiah Bubna on Saturday. For my non-Wheaton friends, Josiah was a year behind Jonathan and I at Wheaton, a big, strong guy who had grown up as a missionary kid in Africa and played on Wheaton’s football team.*

I am sure that some of you reading knew Josiah better than I did, and I won’t try to claim that this loss is greater for me than for any of you, but Josiah’s death has touched me in a profound way. While we in the Wheaton community have suffered several tragic and difficult losses in the last few years, this has been the one that has hit closest to home for me.

I worked with Josiah in the nursery at Blanchard Alliance Church. He was this huge, strong man with such a gentle heart. I can vividly picture the way he looked with a toddler up on his shoulders. His parents are missionaries supported by Blanchard Alliance and we often spoke of them and prayed for them in services. Josiah also often hung out in the office for the Wheaton Record where I was an editor. While we didn’t have the same group of close friends and didn’t hang out outside of our mutual activities, he was a familiar face to me and he was almost always smiling.

Beyond the grief I feel over the loss of someone I knew and the collective grief of our community, I have been overwhelmed by compassion for his fiancée. How do you go from planning your wedding and your future with someone one day to planning their funeral the next? I know that God is mighty to heal even this depth of hurt, but if I were her I don’t think my first reaction would be to turn to Him. If God had taken my fiancé or my husband now, I can’t honestly promise that I would respond with grace. I have been praying that God would give her a supernatural peace and surround her with people who can support her.

Jonathan wrote an article for Relevant magazine’s website recently that discussed the complexity of the problem of evil and how impossible- and even inappropriate- it is to give a simple answer to the question of why evil exists, or why bad things happen. It’s situations like these that really make you ask those questions. And it’s situations like these that leave you without answers other than  to accept the truth that Christ on the cross means that God is good, even – impossibly – in this.This has been sobering for me. It is an all-too concrete reminder of how little control we have over our lives and how none of us are promised a long one. Josiah was 22, but he did more with those years than many people do with 80. He played college football, got his degree, made many friends, helped in the nursery, moved to Japan to work with Samaritan’s Purse, fell in love, asked a beautiful woman to marry him and she said yes. He was a wonderful son and grandson and brother and friend. And even having lived so fully, it feels so wrong that he should just be gone. That a man who had that much to give should be taken. Beyond the sadness that I feel for his family and friends there is the grief of the wrongness of the whole situation and the deep conviction that things like this just shouldn’t happen.

I think it’s only right that we should feel this way. And I think that Jesus, too, felt this way. I am reminded of the famous story of Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. We use this story to point to Jesus’ compassion and his love for Lazarus and his sisters. But I think this is also instructive for us. I think that we forget sometimes that Jesus already knew the outcome of this situation. And not just on a grand universal scale. He not only knew that death would ultimately be defeated and that there would eventually be eternal glory. He also knew that in literally 5 minutes he was going raise Lazarus from the dead. So how could he get so worked up over this guy being dead? I think it’s this exact feeling we have when things like Josiah’s death occur. We are wracked with grief because the world is not as it should be. Our hearts are torn because, even though we have the hope of eternity, in the present things are broken. I think Jesus shows us by example that it is appropriate, even correct, to grieve for the brokenness of the present even as we hold the hope of the future. What is more horrific  in the present than the stark contrast of the way the world is now against the glorious way it was meant to be and will be in the future?

For me, this has also caused a lot of personal reflection about how I spend my time and what I am doing with my life. I have a lot of dreams. A lot of things I want to see and do in my life. When I express frustration with my job being something I don’t care about or with my present inability to pursue some of the things I want to, people often say to me, “But you’re only 24. You have your whole life to be able to do those things. Just because you can’t do them now doesn’t mean you’ll never do them. The things you don’t like about now are just a season. You won’t be in this same place forever.” I’ve always tried to see things that way. Not to live dissatisfied with where I am and always be looking for the next thing. But Josiah’s sudden death screams at me the opposite reality. That there is no guarantee. Perhaps today will be the end of my “entire life.” Perhaps today is all that I have. How can I know that this isn’t, in fact, my final season.

I don’t think the answer to this is fear, and I am trying not to respond in that way. But I do feel deeply convicted that I want to spend as many days as I can doing things that matter to me and that matter in eternity. I can’t spend any more time doing things that aren’t life-giving. I’ve been in my current job for almost a year. That’s over 2,000 hours I’ve spent doing something that holds little value or joy for me. I don’t want to spend my next 2,000 hours this way. Whether that means finding a job that’s more fulfilling in itself or simply finding a job that will give me more time and energy to invest in the things and the people I do care about.

I would ask all of you to sincerely join me in praying for Josiah’s family and especially his fiancée. I would also challenge you to consider, as I am, the reality of how fragile and fleeting our lives are and the importance of how we spend them. Josiah knew Christ and he loved and served people. It was apparent, even to those of us who didn’t know him that well. I want to live that kind of life, every day, for as many days as I am given.

One day I hope I can truly look at this, and things like this and say, “O Grave, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” But today I am still feeling Death’s sting.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               

*I know for me, it’s painful to have to go through the details of what happened over and over much less write them down myself, so I’m just going to paste the official email from Wheaton here for anyone who doesn’t know the details.

It is with deep sorrow that we report to the Wheaton College community the sudden and unexpected death of Josiah Bubna, class of 2011, who died Saturday afternoon (July 7).

While exercising at the Wheaton College track, Josiah sat down to rest and then collapsed. He had been running with his fiancée, Rebekah Falcone. CPR was administered immediately at the scene before the arrival of paramedics. Josiah was transported by ambulance to Central DuPage Hospital where it was determined that he had not survived.

Josiah and Rebekah were in the midst of planning their wedding set for August 11. They had met a year ago in Japan where they were both serving with Samaritan’s Purse.

Josiah’s parents, Joel and Elin Bubna, and his sisters, Angele (age 15) and Nadia (age 13) were all in Wheaton preparing for the wedding. The Bubnas are a missionary family ministering in Senegal, Africa. Rebekah is from New York state.

Pastoral care for the Bubna family is being provided by the staff of the Blanchard Alliance Church. Visitation will be held on Wednesday, July 11, from 5—8 p.m. at Hultgren Funeral Home, 304 N. Main Street, Wheaton, IL. A memorial service will be held on Thursday, July 12, at 12 p.m. at the Blanchard Alliance Church at 1766 S. Blanchard Street, Wheaton, IL.

A complete obituary can be found at the Hultgren website.

Please uphold the Bubna family and Josiah’s fiancée, Rebekah, in your prayers in these very difficult days.

Life and Death: You know, the little things

My great aunt passed away this past Sunday. I know for many people a great aunt is a more distant relative, someone they only see a few times during their life, but my great aunt was like a second grandmother to me. She never married and didn’t have children of her own. She was handicapped her whole life and my grandmother took care of her, so she was a part of all of our family events and gatherings.  When my grandparents moved from New Orleans to live next door to my family after Hurricane Katrina she moved with them into a retirement community right around the corner from my grandparents’ new home. And when she was no longer able to manage her own apartment, she moved across the street into the nursing home.

My great aunt, Eva Marie Hubert. Isn't she lovely?

She was 80 years old, but she was mentally sharp as a tack, remembered everything, and didn’t even need reading glasses to see things perfectly. She was born in 1931 and contracted polio when she was only 10 months old. For her entire life she wore braces on her legs. She used a walker, and later a wheelchair when she lost the strength in her arms required to use the walker. My husband and I went with my family to visit her on Christmas Day. She was sitting up in her chair, looking very frail and incredibly thin, but talking about how she didn’t want to miss the Saints game on Monday night and her friend who was bringing her a pecan pie later on. She loved to give gifts. As a child I remember that every time we saw her she’d have picked out a few little things for us and have them wrapped up nicely, even after she was retired and had very little money to live on. Even in the nursing home, she would take candy or little things that people brought to her and tie them up in little plastic bags and hand them out to others in the nursing home who she thought looked sad. This Christmas she decided to give each of her grand-nieces a piece of jewelry from her own jewelry box.

Here she is opening her Christmas present when we went to see her on Christmas Day

A few days after Christmas she went into the hospital with pneumonia and didn’t recover. It’s always sad to lose someone, but I genuinely know that she was ready to go. She had lived a very full life and she wasn’t afraid to leave it. I think my grandmother will be affected the most by her loss as she has been caring for her sister since she was a little girl, but we are all thankful that she isn’t suffering and that she lived such a long, full life.

While this post is partly meant to remember and to celebrate my great aunt, it’s also about those of us still here. Even though my aunt has been steadily declining over the last few years, the finality of her death has really impacted me. It may not be as jarring or as tragic as a sudden death or the death of someone very young, but it’s still strange to me that she was here and we were talking with her just two weeks ago and now she’s not anymore. It’s made me realize how attached I am to this life, in spite of all the little things I find to complain about.

I was talking to Jonathan a few nights ago about how there’s a sense in which I feel that I, as a Christian, am not supposed to fear death. I’m not supposed to long for more of life. I’m supposed to embrace the time I’m given, but rest knowing that when this life is over I move on to something greater. But if I’m honest, I do fear it to some extent. I like this world. I love doing life with my husband and having a home together. I want to have babies and to see all of the amazing places in the world. I want to experience cultures, learn languages, adopt a child, write a book.

Here is a secret about me that is going to sound terribly morbid. For some reason I could never identify, I have always believed I would die young. I have no reason to think this –no medical conditions, no family history of sudden, early death, no impulse to engage in dangerous activities. It’s just something I’ve always believed somewhere in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until my relationship with Jonathan got really serious that I was able for the first time to even imagine myself growing old –because I can imagine him growing old and I can’t imagine ever being without him. And I think maybe it is this underlying belief, however unfounded, that subconsciously drives my overwhelming desires to travel and see and go and do and be and not waste time doing things I don’t care about.

I know that as a Christian I am supposed to feel that death only ushers me in to something greater than I can ever imagine – the presence of God.  And I do believe that. But there’s something even about heaven that I’ve always found frightening. Jonathan says it is because we cannot wrap our minds around something as large as eternity and it’s unsettling to think about the unknown and the unknowable. We are always somewhat afraid of what we don’t know and can’t anticipate. Sort of like how I (and I think many people) felt right before I got married—you know it’s going to be the most wonderful thing and you are excited for it, but at the same time, you are sort of anxious because it’s something you personally have never experienced and can’t quite imagine. You don’t have a mental framework for it. It is unlike anything you’ve done before.

I am not one of those people who can just pretend to have the “right” perspective on everything. I believe that there are people who genuinely feel more excited about heaven than earth, who have a more eternal perspective on life and death. But I admit that I am not there yet. And while this distresses me because I have always wanted to give the “right” answer, to have the “right” attitude, to say the “right” thing, I also think there’s something to learn from my own frailty.

If I recognize that I love life and say that I’m so grateful for the minutes and the hours and the days that I’ve had and that I hope to have, why do I still spend so much of that precious time just trying to get through it? Why do I sit at work and wish the time away?  Why do I spend the week just trying to push through so that I can get to the weekend? If I make the goal of each day to get to the end of it so I can once again crawl into my lovely bed, will those days add up to a life whose goal was just to reach the end of it? And isn’t that the exact opposite of that driving force that (sometimes unhealthily, I admit) beats with my heart Go everywhere. See everything. Don’t waste your days.

Conclusion: it’s ok that I can’t grasp eternity and that in my frailty, I even find it somewhat frightening. There is grace for that. It’s ok that I love life. It is a gift. I can’t place all of my value on things I will gain or experience in this life, but I can take these feelings and allow the Holy Spirit to use them. To say to my wandering heart, focus yourself. Live with intention. Stop running through your days just trying to make it to the end. Be attentive and be present, even when all you want to do is go home. Be mindful that the life you want to live is made up of what you do with your individual days, not just a handful of special moments.

So…Aunt Nan, I hope you’re dancing for the first time in your life with no braces on your legs. I have no way of knowing how many days I have left, if there is any validity to my feeling that I will lead a short life. But I trust that whenever my time here is over, there will be grace to bring me home. Without fear. And I sincerely hope, without regret.