Grief and Survivor’s Guilt
When people ask me how my family and I are doing these days [May 16, 2020], I answer that we are healthy and comfortable, but that we grieve for the multitude of people whose lives have been overturned, or ripped away, by Covid-19. As Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott states in his May 15 column, “Pain and suffering are no longer isolated or remote or contained; they are universal…” Grief in response to that suffering, combined with survivor’s guilt, has gripped me in a sort of writer’s paralysis for the past several weeks. If you’ll forgive the pun, it seemed wrong to write (right??) from my position of material comfort when so many millions of people are grieving for the loss of their loved ones, their own health, their livelihood, their homes, their sense of security, and myriad long-anticipated major life events and celebrations.
Grief and survivor’s guilt are two of the numerous points of intersection between cancer and Covid-19. Cancer, like Covid-19, leaves a haze of grief and guilt in its wake. Families and friends of deceased cancer patients grieve for the death of their loved ones, and living cancer patients grieve for the loss of their health, often body parts, future plans, and their previous sense of security and normalcy. For example, every time I get a headache nowadays, part of me wonders at least in passing if my breast cancer has spread to my brain. I’m reminded each morning when I get dressed that the body that I had before getting cancer is different than it used to be. At the same time, I realize that my cancer-related inconveniences are a pale shadow compared to the suffering, pain, and loss that so many cancer patients and their families have undergone. This is where the survivor’s guilt comes in.
This is why it was literally a Godsend to hear a recent sermon delivered via Zoom by Luther Memorial Church’s own Pastor Laura, who has radiated a heaven-sent combination of faith, hope, love, and empathy throughout the Covid-19 crisis. (Thank you, Pastor Laura!) In this particular sermon, she chooses to focus on the Psalm for the day, which was Psalm 31. This particular psalm includes such lines as “Be merciful to me, o Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish…”
Pastor Laura seizes on the psalm’s theme of grief, stating:
As Christian people we usually focus on finding joy and sharing gratitude as important spiritual practices, but life in a global pandemic calls for us to dust off and learn the ancient spiritual discipline of lament, so that we may all find a firm footing in the one whom we know holds us secure.
Pastor Laura’s call to lament, or express grief, reminds me that, in addition to the grieving found in the Psalms (including a whole category called the “psalms of lament”), there is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations. The Bible offers a model not for burying our grief, but for expressing it openly to God. The psalmist doesn’t hesitate to take his grief to God. And, according to the Bible, God listens...and enters into our grief with us. For Christians, Isaiah 53 points to God personified in Jesus: “He was…a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” And this same Jesus does not hold back His own grief when confronted with the death of His friend Lazarus: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Pastor Laura goes on to say, “Lament, firstly, is about joining God in God’s own grief over what’s happening in our lives or in the world right now.” I take great comfort in the God whom Pastor Laura describes as “our safe person on whom we can unload everything from disappointments to primal screams.”
In an article written for Relevant Magazine (September 11, 2019), Melissa Crutchfield points out that processing grief may demand different degrees of patience based on variations in types of suffering and personal temperament. She highlights a commonality, however, among these differences: “But as believers, we know one thing: We can confidently invite the One who endured the ultimate suffering into ours.”
For those of us prone to guilt because we suffer less than another, Crutchfield says, “When we minimize our hurt because we are comparing our suffering with another person’s, we miss out on allowing Christ to meet us in our pain.” My friend Esperanza touched on the subject of guilt in a conversation we had a few days ago. Like me, she acknowledged that she and her family had not suffered from the pandemic in the same way as so many others, adding, “At times, I feel guilty. But then I think that there’s no time for guilt. There’s too much that needs to be done.” Currently she is volunteering her time by training medical interpreters via Zoom.
Just as Esperanza is moving past feelings of guilt and serving others, Pastor Laura reminds us to voice our grief but not to stay stuck there. As she points out, the psalmist in Psalm 31 cries, “I am a broken vessel” but goes on to say, “But I trust in you, o Lord…Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” Weaving together a host of scriptural promises, Pastor Laura adds:
“[W]e know our Lord will turn our mourning into dancing, our Lord will be our refuge and hide us in the shelter of his wings, our Lord holds our time in the palm of his hands, and our Lord promises that where he is we shall be also, for Christ has gone before us to prepare a place for us.”
Even (especially?) in our grief, we can lean on these promises to become, as Pastor Laura says, “emboldened to turn our whole hearts to God in prayer for ourselves, our community, and the world.”
Psalm 30:5 tells us, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” We see this hope represented magnificently through a sunrise as seen from the patio of Yorkview Hall at York College. The picture below was taken by York College employee Rachel Myers and is shared with the kind permission of Rachel and the York College Office of Communications. (Thank you!)
Things That Spread
In the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, my friend Christi was taking her daily walk on a beach near her home in Long Beach, California. As she strolled along her familiar route, it occurred to her that she had not crossed paths in several days with an elderly woman she frequently passed on her walks. Christi voiced her concern to another woman she often encountered on the beach. Several days later, Christi found out that the elderly woman was, in fact, well, and had been checked on by several people as a result of Christi’s inquiry. The concern of one individual had morphed and multiplied into a series of visits that brought this woman cheer, along with the assurance that she was not alone.
Spreading is of the most fearsome characteristics associated with cancer and Covid-19. When cancer cells multiply uncontrollably, the multiplied cells form tumors that can spread throughout the body, destroying healthy tissue. And, as we all know, Covid-19 started with a single case halfway around the world and quickly spread to every continent except Antarctica. When such unwanted forces multiply so rampantly and destructively, it’s easy to feel powerless and alone.
My friend Christi’s beach anecdote was a reminder, though, that menacing, destructive illnesses are not the only forces that can spread quickly and powerfully. Goodness can spread, too, in many beautiful ways. If we are looking for God in the challenges of cancer and Covid-19, it can be comforting to note that the Bible identifies God as a source of abundance and the spread of good things. For example, all four gospels contain accounts of Jesus feeding crowds with what starts out as a very small supply of food. Three gospels contain His parable of the mustard seed, depicting the kingdom of God as blossoming from the tiniest, most humble beginnings into a deeply rooted, expansive, welcoming space. And, in John 10:10, Jesus identifies Himself as a source of overflowing goodness, saying, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Still, it can be easy to wonder where that God of abundance is when your strawlike hair is coming out in clumps from chemotherapy. Obviously hair loss is a minuscule problem compared to loss of life. Even so, it’s not fun, and it does make it easy to think of loss and depletion as having the upper hand. Yes, hair loss is a tradeoff for the benefit of anti-cancer medicine, but that benefit can be forgotten when you’re looking in the mirror or shivering from the drafts you never felt when you had hair.
However, I believe that God and love, not loss and depletion, had the upper hand. For starters, the day before I had arranged with my hair stylist to shave off my remaining hair, my husband, Karl, stunned me by appearing in our bedroom with a shaved head, as a gesture of solidarity. The next day, my daughter Ellen gave me a beautiful hug as I tearfully left for the hair salon. At the salon, the hair stylist, Karen, radiated compassion and warmth, and wouldn’t take any money for her time and work. Where was God? Spreading love through Karl, Ellen, and Karen, as well as through others who shared their compassion, wisdom, and generosity during my hair loss milestone.
I lost my hair in October, just as the weather was getting cold. Mercifully, even before a hair fell out, the Hat Brigade went to work. The members of the Brigade didn’t all know each other, but consisted of individuals who showered me with hats of all colors, designs, and textures, each one a heart- and head-warming reminder of the love of friends, strangers…and God. A number of the hats came from members of a group that meets at Luther Memorial Church called Stitches of Love. Founded in 1999 by Betty Hoke, it has proliferated the vision of one woman into a group that has provided more than 27,000 hats, scarves, sweaters, and other knitted items to children locally and around the world. The knitters multiply goodness to fill a need for warmth and to show that someone cares.
The Covid-19 pandemic, too, has spurred and multiplied goodness through countless kindnesses of friends, family, and strangers toward one another. Every day health care workers, supermarket employees, food pantry workers, trash collectors, and many others put their lives on the line to serve complete strangers. Many shoppers pick up extra groceries for people who are at high risk. Stories abound of people who have found creative ways to share love and light in the midst of this pandemic. A random Google Chrome search of “coronavirus, kindness” on April 7 yielded 130 million results!Cancer and Covid-19 are real and anguishing. That is part of the truth. I find it inspiring, and hope-inducing, though, to look at the equally real truth of the love that these diseases unveil. The Bible teaches that this love is the essence of God. Spreading love is the great commandment Jesus gave to His disciples twice at their last meal together: “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) and “My commandment is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) The contrast between God and disease is eloquently summed up by author Mary Pezzulo:
“The Holy Ghost is something like the opposite of a virus. A virus invades, but the Holy Ghost is already everywhere present and filling all things in the first place…A virus causes chaos, but the Holy Ghost brings harmony. A virus causes a pandemic, and the Holy Ghost causes a chain reaction of charity and love wherever we allow.”
As a symbol of hope, I leave you with a picture of a bird’s nest that my cousin Debbie found outside her window recently. In the midst of Covid-19, birds are still laying eggs, spreading life. You have to look carefully to see the eggs in the picture, but they are definitely there. “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
“We’re afraid some of the cancer may have made its way into your blood.” The words of my oncologist pierced the protective emotional armor I had built in preparation for my initial oncology appointment following my breast cancer diagnosis. My anxiety shot through the roof. I had had a couple of days to process the diagnosis, and thought I was coming to grips with the new reality that I had cancer. My mother had soldiered valiantly through breast cancer treatments, and I planned to follow in her footsteps. It brought comfort to know that the same wonderful surgeon and oncologist who had treated her were going to be treating me. I thought I had a roadmap of the future all laid out…and then that roadmap got shredded when I learned that my type of breast cancer was different than my mother’s, and was going to involve additional treatment and uncertainty.
Cancer slammed me over the head with an unwelcome reminder: life doesn’t come with guaranteed roadmaps, and there are some things I just can’t control. Uncertainty and lack of control are hallmarks of the COVID-19 crisis as well. Over and over we hear the words “unprecedented” and “unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.” This massive uncertainty and lack of control are a recipe for anxiety. Where is God in our anxiety? In speaking of God, the Bible says, “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7). And Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
These commands imply that we do have a degree of control, in partnership with God: there’s no sense in giving a command that the respondent doesn’t have the ability to carry out. In my cancer journey, exercising control has included trying to follow the treatments that my doctors recommend; and seeking information from my doctors when I have questions, instead of venturing into wild, unproductive speculation. I find it indispensable each day to find something to be thankful for. And I throw up my hands and ask God to bring good out of whatever I am going through, reminding myself over and over that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
It may seem completely counterintuitive or artificial to thank God in the midst of worry, uncertainty and crisis. In my own experience, though, there has always been something to give thanks for. Before getting cancer, my mother developed a devastating case of viral encephalitis that left her for a time comatose, on a ventilator, with acute inflammation of the brain. Anxious doesn’t begin to describe the state of my own brain during that time. I didn’t know how even to begin to pray, let alone give thanks. Then God sent me three wonderful friends, Claudia, George, and Barbara, who invited me into their daily prayer circle. Each of them was in the midst of a terrible medical situation involving either themselves or their dearest loved ones. Still, they maintained thankful hearts and taught me a prayer of thanks that has stayed with me ever since, bringing me comfort and relief at the most stressful times: “Thank you for breath in my lungs, for blood running through my veins.” I can always take that prayer as a sincere starting point, and then I begin finding more and more things to be thankful for. And this creates a tremendous sense of relief from anxiety.
From there, if we carry out the call to center on God and to find things to be thankful for, it can inspire us to move forward toward one of the most satisfying antidotes to anxiety: using our energies to help others. Admittedly, I’ve been on the receiving end more than the giving end, but I can attest to the stress relief that brings, too. It would be impossible to list all the help I’ve received since my cancer diagnosis. Still, I believe God has heard and seen every prayer, smile, hug, visit, meal, treat, card, bottle of lotion, packet of ginger tea, and sacrifice by my family, church family, coworkers, friends, neighbors, and, of course, my medical team, and used it as medicine for my soul as well as my body. I fervently hope these kindnesses have been blessings to the givers as well.
Some of those face-to-face gestures are, sadly, not options in this time of COVID-19. Fortunately, we still have many, many opportunities to help. As the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service points out, “If this crisis has made anything clear, it is that we are all connected and dependent upon each other to ensure the health and well-being of our neighbors and ourselves.” German chancellor Angela Merkel stated in a message to her nation, “We all have to find ways to show affection and friendship… We can now, resolutely, all react together…We must show, even if we have never experienced anything like this before, that we act cordially and reasonably and thus save lives. Without exception, it depends on each individual and therefore on all of us.”
In the words of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the B’nai David-Judea congregation in Los Angeles, on March 12 in The Forward, “[L]ikely the most impactful thing we will do as we navigate this anxious chapter is to be constantly mindful of protecting others…Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”
As for those things we can’t control: letting go of them by casting anxiety on God means taking my focus off of myself and taking the chance that there is a loving creator who embraces me in all my vulnerability. As Christian author Randy Alcorn points out, there are alternative, unwanted trajectories our worries can take when we don’t cast them on God: “We can cast them on ourselves, creating guilt, fear, depression, fatigue, ulcers, and illnesses. We can cast our worries on others in a negative way, in anger and resentment.” (https://www.epm.org/blog/2014/Jan/20/three-things-worry).
Dealing with the uncontrollable also means taking problems one day at a time, a concept Jesus expresses in Matthew 6:34 (“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”). Dutch resistance worker and evangelist Corrie Ten Boom faced great uncertainty as she, along with her family, sheltered Jews in a secret hiding place in their house in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II, and were sent to prison and a concentration camp for their efforts, constantly facing death. She and her family drew on God as their source of peace in a situation that was a petri dish for anxiety and worry. In Clippings from My Notebook, Ten Boom states, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength - carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn't empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
As we cast our cares on God, pray, give thanks, and live out our thankfulness by reaching out to others, we can take comfort in the promise in I Peter 5:8: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Getting Slammed with Unwelcome News
The text below began as the first in a series of reflections on where to find God when cancer strikes. In the meantime, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has bulldozed its way onto the world stage, bringing with it death, suffering, fear, and profound change. It strikes me that some of the same questions we wrestle with when dealing with cancer can apply to the new, uncharted territory of COVID-19. While the following article chronicles my experience with a cancer diagnosis, the search for God and hope is just as relevant in the face of COVID-19.
“It’s cancer.” How many of us have been on the receiving end of those words from a doctor? And how many more of us have heard them spoken about someone who is dear to us, someone we would do anything to spare from pain? If you have heard these words, then maybe you’ve wrestled with questions of why this has happened to you or a person you love. It’s possible you’ve also wondered how a good God could allow the suffering, fear, distress, and hollowed out feelings that come with cancer…and whether God can help us.
My breast cancer diagnosis in 2018 has led me to ponder these questions, and to see what others have had to say about them. Along the way, two points have become clear: first, people propose a broad spectrum of answers; and, second, there is an enormous range of cancer experiences, each highly personal and individualized. I’m indebted to so many people who have been willing to go out on a limb and share their reflections, nurturing me and many others out of the depths of their experiences.
In light of the breadth and depth of what has already been written, it’s overwhelming and intimidating to attempt to write about my search for God in the midst of cancer, and, now COVID-19. For some time, though, I’ve felt a nudge to do just that, and Luther Memorial Church is kindly providing space for my own reflections. God willing, I’ll be writing on this site periodically to share where I think I’ve seen God in cancer, and how these sightings intersect with the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll be writing from my perspective as a believer in an all-loving God revealed through Jesus Christ. Whether you share this belief or not, I pray God will use these reflections as a blessing for you, and I sincerely apologize if they cause you distress or frustration. If you or a loved one is dealing with cancer, you are already experiencing plenty of distress and frustration (as we all are now in the COVID-19 crisis).
For me, the question of God, cancer, and COVID-19 is part of a larger question of why a good God allows suffering. And I just don’t know the answer to this question. However, the God I follow says in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Speaking of trouble, Jesus didn’t exactly avoid it in this world – the Bible says that He, as God, actually died, too. So, although I’m going to die at some point, either from cancer, COVID-19, or some other cause, God has already gone ahead of my departed loved ones and me, paving the way, and promising the victory of life over death.
If God doesn’t promise a problem-free life, what promises does God provide that might make cancer, COVID-19, and other suffering more bearable? One of the most precious ones to me is found in Hebrews 13:5: “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.” Another breathtakingly beautiful one is in Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” I John 4:7 and 8 tell us that love comes from God, and that God is love. And, throughout my cancer journey, I’ve clung to John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”
For me, it has helped enormously to look for God in the glimmers of light and love along the cancer road. Consciously identifying these glimmers, dwelling on their beauty, letting them caress me with peace, thanking God for them: these steps have provided immeasurable comfort and strength. This doesn’t mean I haven’t had many ups and downs, and times of anxiety and distress. I’ll talk about some of these in the future, if you’ll bear with me. For now, let me close by telling about one of these glimmers of light, when God used Girl Scouts and art to touch me when I really needed it, right after my cancer diagnosis.
I had just been diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer. At the surgeon’s office, my husband, Karl, and I learned that the medical response would involve words I didn’t want to hear, like “chemotherapy” and “mastectomy” (and, eventually, other treatments). Even then, there would be no guarantees, although, by the grace of God, scientists have developed remarkable medicines that weren’t available to treat this type of cancer not too many years ago.
As we walked from the surgeon’s office to the car in a daze, Karl asked what I wanted to do next. The answer came to me instantly: “Let’s go to church and look at the mural.” Just the previous week, for their Girl Scout silver award project, our daughter Ellen and her friends Lauren and Heather had completed a beautiful mural illustrating Ezekiel 47:12, which provides a vision of a world full of beauty, free of cancer, COVID-19, and all other suffering: “Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” [my italics]
Karl and I stood in the hallway, gazed up at the mural, and cried.
I had delighted in that mural ever since Ellen, Lauren, and Heather began painting it, and had pictured the comfort that it might bring to people walking down that hall who needed healing. Never had I pictured myself as the one who would be needing healing, and so soon after the mural’s completion. But this mural was a gift from God, a glimmer of light, a safe space to cry and decompress, gently ushering in a vision of peace and loveliness for all, shining through the darkness of all cancer, suffering, worry, and heartache.
Mary Carol, a member of Luther Memorial Church, felt a call to use her gift of writing to offer hope and encouragement to others who may find themselves in times of special need. In addition to teaching Humanities at York College of Pennsylvania, she, along with her husband, is raising two children.