My husband died six years ago, one week after Thanksgiving and three weeks before Christmas.
When Jeff first died, I thought the timing was terrible- not that there is ever a good time for someone to die. I wondered if we would ever be able to enjoy the holiday season again. But over the years God has brought healing, not just in spite of the season, but in part because of the season. For those of us left behind, the anniversary of his death comes between celebrations of thanksgiving and of hope. What might have been a day of bitter longing is slowly but very surely being redeemed in God’s loving hands.
Thanksgiving was Jeff’s favorite holiday. A whole day of gratitude, devoted to the things he was most grateful for: family, food and of course football, both on tv and in the yard with his boys. Jeff always said there was something pure about Thanksgiving, when we stop and celebrate God’s generosity in giving us the most ordinary things. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17)
Giving thanks prepares our family for the sadness of the next week. We have a tradition that helps. At Jeff’s memorial service, we gave each person a red paper heart, and invited everyone to write a message or a prayer or a verse on those hearts, which were then hung on a Christmas tree in the foyer of the church. Every year on December 2, the boys and I put up a tree in our house and we decorate it with those same red paper hearts, reading the inscriptions as we go. Many of them are funny, especially the ones written by kids he coached. One friend named Will talks about Coach Harris driving down the highway, steering the car with his knees; many of the hearts read “ROLL TIDE” or “Go Cats” (Kentucky Wildcats, of course). Another one says, “Don’t worry, there are sports in heaven.” Reading them over helps us remember how much fun we had, and how Jeff’s life mattered to so many.
Here’s what God has done: in giving thanks for Jeff’s life, we are also aware that God gave us certain gifts through Jeff’s death. During his illness, God gave Jeff a special grace which has become a legacy of faith for his family. The way Jeff lived taught us so much, but the way he died has taught us how to live with his death.
God gave Jeff incredible peace throughout his illness. He did not want to die, and he endured terrible treatments in an effort to buy as much time with his family as possible. He did not shrug his shoulders and resign himself to his fate; he put himself through torturous procedures, surgeries and medications in order to live, and he took every bit of palliative treatment the doctors suggested. He believed in God’s sovereign power to heal, and he asked Him for healing over and over. In spite of it all, he never felt sorry for himself. Time and again, friends would ask him: “Aren’t you angry with God? Don’t you feel sorry for yourself at all? Do you ever ask ‘why me’?” Jeff would just shrug and say, “Well, why not me?”
When my sons and I have been tempted to feel sorry for ourselves because he is gone- and that temptation is very strong for me- we remember his attitude. In spite of a slow, painful dying that would tear him away from his boys much sooner than any father would ever expect, Jeff humbly accepted that all humans suffer and die. He never felt cheated, but instead insisted that God had always given him better than he deserved. If you ask me, that’s a miracle. By the grace of God, Jeff knew the crucial difference between grieving and self-pity. If I will let it, grief can take me straight to the Father to receive His comfort. Self-pity sells the lie that God has treated me badly- worse, in fact, than He has treated anyone else- so I end up separated not only from God, but also from anyone who might be able to help me. By embracing his sorrow and avoiding self-pity, Jeff brought glory to God, gained peace for himself, and showed our little family a narrow path to navigate our own grief in the years to come.
God gave Jeff another gift which he passed along to us: Jeff was completely unafraid to die. He had no fear about his future. Body and soul, Jeff trusted God, and that certainty has been a powerful and comforting witness to us.
One day, when Jeff was in terrible pain, I made the useless offer that if I could take the suffering for him, I would. I was ashamed the minute I said it; I just felt powerless to help him. He surprised me, saying that he wished we could trade places too, because cancer was taking him to heaven. He wished he could give heaven to me and stay here in my place, because living here was going to be very hard, and heaven was going to be, in his word, “awesome.” He was dying, yet he honestly believed that of the two of us, he had the better future.
Jeff had taken Paul’s words to heart. He knew that “to die is gain,” and he would have given that better part to me if he could. (Philippians 1:21) This is the heart of a man who trusted his God with his life and his soul. Jeff loved life and people and food and sports and laughing and pranks and HIS BOYS most of all, but he took God at His word: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9 NLT)
Which brings us to Christmas.
When God sent angels to announce the births of John and Jesus, the Jewish people had not heard from Him for four hundred years. Think of it. The silence must’ve been deafening. Multiple generations had been born, lived, and died without a word from the God who had once lived with their ancestors as a visible pillar of fire and cloud. The Jews lived conquered in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, desperately clinging to the hope of a Savior who must have seemed less likely every year. Their religious leaders oppressed them with laws and elaborate rituals, much of which was not from Scripture; their secular leaders oppressed them with heavy taxes, military presence and vicious leaders. Powerless, poor, and burdened, the nation of Israel needed a word of hope from their God, who seemed determined to stay silent. Certainly none of them could have imagined what God was about to do.
Into this darkness, Jesus came. Against all odds, Christmas is the coming of the Light. “In Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of all mankind. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
Into the darkness of grief and despair, Jesus comes. He is the Light that overcomes even the darkness of death. He is forever and always the Light of all mankind: the Light of a young man dying, yet filled with peace; the Light of young sons devastated, yet strengthened with unfailing love; the Light of a widow despairing, yet sustained with tender care. The Light that is Jesus cannot be overcome.
And so this season becomes for us a celebration in the middle of heartache. Only with Jesus is such paradox even possible. If God can be God and a baby boy, if the powerless can also be the All-mighty, if the most helpless can also be the Most High, then we can rejoice in our sadness. We celebrate the Light breaking through the darkness, once and for all, knowing that Light can never and will never be overcome.