Steve, I know you’ve been through your own bout with cancer. Would you be so kind as to write a post explaining your thoughts as a Christian while going through it? I’m sure it would be an encouragement to other Christians who find themselves in a similar place.
I. Life Under the Curse
In a fallen world, life is a series of sad farewells. Either we say good-bye to the things we love, or they say good-bye to us. It can be people. A pet dog. A special time of life. A special place.
Sooner or later, everything here-below leaves us. Either we are left behind, or we leave everything else behind. Cancer is just one example.
How we cope has a lot to do with what we have to look forward to, either in this life or the afterlife. And how we prepare for that eventuality.
The prognosis clearly makes a difference on how the cancer patient and his loved ones deal with the challenge.
The easiest case is if the cancer is highly treatable.
If, on the other hand, the cancer is terminal or likely terminal, then all parties concerned have to make a major adjustment.
Then there’s the 50/50 scenario. In a way, uncertainty can be more stressful than a dire certainty. If you know the likely outcome, even if it’s grave, you know how to plan. You know how to pace yourself. If you know, more or less, how much time you have remaining, you have a better idea of what to do with your remaining time.
III. Cancer Patient
i) How cancer hits us depends, in part, on where we are in life. The time of life. How many people do we have to live for? How many people live for us?
It can also depend on the where as well as the when. Some people are fairly indifferent to where they live. Their satisfaction comes from other things.
But other people have a strong sense of place. They are rooted in a particular place, which, in turn, roots them in a particular time. When transplanted, they wilt.
We can begin the process of dying emotionally to this life long before we begin the process of dying physically to this life.
ii) There’s a paradox to youth. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which the young have more to live for. On the other hand, that’s a more resilient age.
IV. His Loved Ones
In addition to how the cancer patient may cope, there is also the issue of how his loved ones may cope. That depends, in part, on the prognosis.
If the patient is terminal, the way they cope with the prospect of his impending demise may be different from the way they cope with his actual demise. How we feel before it happens, in anticipation, may be different from how we feel after it happens, in recollection.
You can’t know what it feels like to lose something until you lose it. You can’t truly miss something or someone until it’s gone. You’re bound to feel differently, when the situation is different.
V. Facing Death
i) In one sense, God makes death easier to take, for it’s unavoidable. It’s not like a Faustian bargain where we’re tempted to choose between our faith in God and our survival instinct. God mercifully spares us from feeling torn between the two by taking the choice away from us.
Since death is inevitable, we can focus, not on whether to die, but on how to die. And how to live in the shadow of death.
With faith in God, you have nothing to lose. Without faith in God, you have everything to lose. And that is true from both a Christian standpoint and a secular standpoint.
ii) God has boxed us in. As Christians, God has boxed us in with himself. So, thankfully, we’re never tempted to lose faith at the very end. For there is no alternate escape route. Death is inescapable, but by the same token, so is God.
iii) God already weans many Christians from this world by gradually severing their emotional ties to this world. By removing the things that made their life here-below fulfilling.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes death wrenches us from life, but in many cases we already have mixed emotons about our remaining years. We have already acquired many regrets, for lost years, lost loves, lost opportunities.
We pin our hopes on the Gospel promise of heavenly redemption. To be whole again. To be whole in a way we never were, could never be, in this broken, tragic world below.
VI. Coping Strategies
i) Different mourners have different coping strategies. There is no uniform way to grieve. Different mourners grieve differently. The same mourner may grieve differently at different stages of the process.
They will grieve in anticipation of the death. They may grieve differently a week later, a year later, a decade later.
Some losses in this life are irreparable in this life. And some mourners can’t cope at all. They commit suicide.
ii) We shouldn’t kick ourselves if we can’t “snap” out of it.
For some folks, who were inseparable, the worst time is closer to the time when they lose their loved one. Over the years, the pain is less immediate, although it may always lie just beneath the surface. It can be reopened very easily.
For others, it gets worse over time because the sense of absence is unremitting. We can suffer incurable wounds in this life. The hope of healing lies beyond. We need to adjust our expectations to the limitations of our fallen, mortal existence–this side of the grave.
VII. The Gated Garden
A well-tended prayer life is like a gated garden. A world within the world without. Outside observers can’t peer over the wall. This is where we commune with God. Alone with God. A private bridge between life, death, and immortality.
i) The cancer patient can pray. His loved ones can pray. They can pray for his recovery. Or, if he dies, they can pray for restoration.
ii) We can thank God for the life he has given us. Cultivate a thankful heart. Become observant of God’s daily, unobtrusive blessings. Become observant of his providential care, in the emerging pattern of our lives.
iii) If the cancer patient dies, the survivors can thank God for the time they had with him (or her). It’s easy to take folks for granted when we expect them to always be there. A phone call away. A plane ride away.
It’s easy to overlook the many goods. Recollect and give thanks.
I’ve discussed this before:
iv) Not only can we pray about the departed, but (in a qualified sense) we can pray for the departed. I’ve discussed this elsewhere:
This can give the mourner hope. Restore his hope. Redeem the time. Redeem the past. Banish vain regrets.
It’s less than a promise, but more than despair.
v) Finally, we need to remind ourselves that God knows our heart. God made us to be the emotionally needy, dependent creatures that we are. God knows our situation. Indeed, he puts us in our situation.
God knows what we need in this life, and in the life to come. What that will be remains to be seen.
We must learn how to wait–knowing that whatever awaits his children was worth the wait. Worth the tears. Worth the yearning.
We must learn to trust, and in one sense God has made it easy to trust him, for nothing else is trustworthy. There is no fallback. In the end, we have no one else to turn to. Nothing else to take his place.