The following three articles were written around the illness, death (June, 2010), and my grieving for my wife, Fawn Winsted. We were married thirty-two wonderful years and had eight children. It has been said that we grieve deeply because of our unique capacity to love deeply as humans created in the image of God. Grief is a testimony to our capacity to give a part of ourselves to another human being. When that human being is taken away permanently from us in death, a part of us dies with that person. It is a gut-wrenching, soul searching, agonizing process of adjustment that we call bereavement or grieving. Being made “one in Christ” in a Christian marriage probably makes it even more difficult in one way, yet it gives us the real hope that we will see this person again and that he or she is in a better place by far.
Every person grieves differently, because we are all so different. Our marital experiences are different, our faith is different, our relationship with Jesus is different. If we have loved deeply for a long time, then it would follow that our grief would also be deep and long. As a famous Christian hymn writer, William Cowper, once said, “Grief itself is a medicine.” A medicine of recovery, and so it is with me as I wrote these three articles (especially the last one) over a two-and-a-half-year time span, from the discovery of Fawn’s cancer to her death, and then looking back on her death.
The main characters of these articles are not perfect, but flawed. However, God took these two people—Brad and Fawn—and crafted a story of grace, forgiveness, and hope in a Christian marriage. Victor Hugo stated that “The supreme happiness in life is the conviction that we were loved.” Fawn loved me like no other, and I, her. I often introduced Fawn as my “dear wife,” playing off the meaning of the word “deer.” It usually brought a chuckle or two. The first article describes my reaction when the news of Fawn’s cancer struck our family. The second article is written at the time of her death, and the third article is written, looking back at the first year-and-a-half of grief.
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By the time most people reach sixty or so (like me), they are reasonably familiar with setbacks, personal and financial losses, the deaths of parents and elderly relatives, disappointments, and other disquieting news. This is especially so if you have a large family (I have eight children and six grandchildren) and many friends. As believers we know that man is made for trouble as sparks fly upward; that Christ has never promised us a sorrow-free existence; that sin is pervasive in every relationship no matter how close or friendly; that Christ suffered mightily for our sins (by his stripes we are healed); and that as believers we are called to share in Christ’s suffering.
Nevertheless, when sorrow truly hits unexpectedly (not the passing away of a beloved elderly parent after a long disease), shock, followed by discouragement, can often set in. Hard times often come in waves or groups and the overall effects can be devastating.
About two weeks ago, I found out that my wife has cancer. Sadly, it is an aggressive type that required the doctors to go immediately to strong chemotherapy rather than operating. Our little family world was suddenly turned upside down almost overnight, as the effects of harsh chemotherapy became evident daily. Our children’s faith is being tested as never before, amidst the sorrow of this discovery in their mother’s body. Friends are stunned, and I am understandably rattled and perplexed. Although I have seen similar tragedies in others, I naively thought that it would never personally happen to me.
Most of our lives are spent trying to make things more comfortable for those we love, including ourselves. Most Christians (like myself) work hard to establish nice homes, secure jobs, good health, solid education, loving relationships (especially with our spouses and children), and minister in their local churches (I’ve been a ruling elder in six congregations). We see God’s gracious providence provide for and sustain us daily and give him the glory for it. We see him work out difficult things in a manner that takes our breath away, understanding that God can indeed work “all things ... together for good for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Then ... bang, it happens. Suddenly it’s not some abstract, far-off event, but personal disaster that can’t easily be explained away. God’s timing, ways, and plans are not always our plans and ways.
So far, I’ve taken some solace in that great book of Job. Here is a righteous man who is hit with everything at once. His children were not suffering from some disease, they were taken suddenly—every one of them killed in a horrible maelstrom of circumstances. His response is surprising, telling, and comforting for a father. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). And after his health is gone and his wife has told him to curse God and die, he responds, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not accept evil?” (Job 2:10), demonstrating that God is clearly in charge and ordains all things (not just the sunshine, but also the devastating storms).
Job, of course, goes through much doubting, not helped by his misguided and arrogant counselors (presuming to know God’s will and judging Job). Job knows that he serves a righteous God and is clearly baffled as to why such a sorrow has been perpetrated against him. He, who has striven to live a godly life. Job says again in Job 13:15, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” Yet, Job insists on defending himself before the Almighty. When Job finally gets his day in court with Jehovah, he is never really given a reason for his particular sorrows and struggles, only that God knows what he is doing and that Job must trust him.
Job summarized God’s response by saying, “I know that you (God) can do all things; and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted... . Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know” (Job 42:2–3). Then God responded, “Hear and I will speak, I will question you, and you make it known to me. I had heard you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:4–6).
Job had sinned by questioning God’s sovereignty, grace, and justice. I sin by saying, “If God is in control, how could he allow this to happen?” My wife and I are locked into time and space, unable to see beyond this day. We are hardly able to discern our own feelings and motives, let alone those of others. We are unable to see how God can use even cancer to further his perfect will in this imperfect world. The ultimate questions always before my wife and me in a time of trial are: “Will we trust God with our lives and future? Does God really (in an eternal perspective) have our best interest and care in mind?”
The Psalmist struggles with these eternal questions as I do. But the answer is always the same—yes! God will be glorified and he will provide for his children. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? ... For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (Ps. 27:1, 5). There are many similar Psalms. I’m given comfort in the daily reading of the Psalms. I’m given even more comfort in Christ’s personally dying for me, protecting me and praying for me (John 17).
As finite and ultimately weak humans, doubts sweep over us (sometimes daily) as we face with our family this disease of cancer. Thankfully my family, church, and friends are truly comforting and praying for me and my children (not like the false counselors of Job). I will write more as this story unfolds. Please pray for me and my family during this time of testing and sorrow, as we watch someone we love suffer. Pray that my wife will recover and that she will be able to handle the difficulties in treating this dreaded disease. The answer to every struggle and doubt is Jesus Christ, the God-man who lived, suffered, and died for my wife and me. May we see that reality daily.
Brad Winsted is the director of Children’s Ministry International in Tucker, GA. He has been a ruling elder in six OPC churches. Currently, he is Coordinator for Children’s Ministries at Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Powder Springs, GA. Ordained Servant Online, March 2013.