Leo A. Frailey
On July 10, 1509, a baby boy was born in Noyon, France. His name was John Calvin. On that same date 499 years later, a lovely twenty-eight-year-old woman breathed her last—her lungs and brain wracked with cancer. Her name was Jessica. She was my daughter.
The Lord gave the church a great gift in John Calvin, a masterful biblical exegete and one who systematized the Christian faith. Yet, the Lord took from us a great gift in our youngest child. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). In 2009, while the church commemorated the five-hundredth birthday of Calvin, I mourned the loss of my daughter.
In the midst of my grief, I wondered this: if “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28 NIV), then why should I grieve? Was it OK for me to grieve and feel sadness knowing I would never see my daughter’s face again in this life? How was I to adjust my Christian perspective to living without Jessica for the rest of my earthly existence?
I found the answer in God’s Word. In Acts 20, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that they will never see him again. Luke records that “there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:37–38).
Why were these grown men sorrowing and weeping? Why were they so emotional? I suggest it is because of the love they had for each other. Paul was a people person; he loved people deeply and worked tirelessly for their joy and well-being. This quality can be clearly seen in his letters, especially 1 Thessalonians 2:7–8, Philippians 1:8–11, and 2 Corinthians 13:5. Paul loved the Ephesians, and they loved him. When a mutual love like this exists, separation causes much pain. The Ephesians experienced great grief over Paul’s departure from them, and they were not ashamed to express it.
My daughter Jessica, like Paul, loved people and devoted her life to helping them. Everyone in her life felt it. When we lost her, we, like the Ephesian elders, experienced great grief.
The Christian faith to Jessica was much more than memorized catechism answers. Her love for Jesus grew ever deeper and became more and more contagious through her years in high school and at Covenant College. After graduating in 2002, she returned home to Columbus, Ohio, to attend the College of Nursing at the Ohio State University. That’s when the bomb struck.
Jessica was diagnosed with a rare, slow-moving cancer: Alveolar Soft-Part Sarcoma. Undeterred, she pressed on toward her goal even though she was gravely ill. In June of 2006, she received her Master of Science in Nursing, becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Upon her graduation, the College of Nursing faculty—impressed and moved by Jessica’s testimony and perseverance—invited her to become an instructor.
Less than two years later, Jessica had to make a shattering decision while lying in her bed one morning at the OSU James Cancer Hospital. She called and informed her supervisor that she was simply unable to teach next semester. Her life was waning quickly.
As I looked out the window of her hospital room, seeing the steam rising and disappearing from the stacks around the building complex, the words of James 4:14 struck me: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Time is short.
Jessica knew that time was shorter for her than for most of us. And so she made the most of it. The year before, she had thrown a beautiful wedding, telling me, “Dad, I want to celebrate with my friends, because I won’t be here for my funeral!” Jessica wanted to reflect the mandate that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him. How could I argue with such biblical accuracy?
Jessica had a keen mind, along with a transformed heart. She had a way of making good sense, when many are confused. A prayer petition in her diary (which she began after her cancer diagnosis) illustrates this: “Lord, help me to sort out when my feelings are valid and when they are sinful.” How often since her death have I been in a situation and thought, “I sure would like to talk this over with Jessica”!
I was not the only one who felt the impact of Jessica’s life. A professor and later colleague of Jessica’s, Dr. Jeanne Clement of the College of Nursing at OSU, wrote in the funeral guest book: “On July 10th Jessica left us and went home to be with her heavenly Father. I am richer for living, having learned so much more from her about life than I could possibly have taught her.”
Jessica had this effect on people because she focused on her heavenly Father’s love, not merely on passing earthly relationships. In her diary, she wrote, “I realize, when I look into my dad’s eyes, that he loves me with all his heart. If my earthly father loves me that much, how much more must my heavenly Father, who created me cell by cell?”
Jessica’s knowledge of the eternal love of her heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, her Savior and Lord, was the source of her love toward the people with whom she rubbed shoulders—people within and without the church.
So, what can the church, the body of Christ here on earth, take from this focus—the focus on God’s love? Our Savior taught, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). How are we doing with respect to Christ’s words, especially toward those who are grieving?
As I reflect upon my experience with grief, which began with Jessica’s cancer diagnosis and continues to this day, I find that the church has been helpful to me in many ways. The greatest help was being lifted up before the throne of grace by God’s people. During Jessica’s battle with cancer, many brothers and sisters told me that they were praying for her and for our family. What a comfort to know that God’s people genuinely love us!
Another help was the ongoing support of the local church. Jessica and her husband were members of Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church (PCA) and married under its oversight. The elders and people of this congregation were an incredible support to them and to our family between 2003 and 2008.
Jessica’s husband was especially touched by the elders’ love for them, most notably by the gift of a photo book memorializing their wedding. Through joys and sorrows, this local church was always there for us. They were there in her death as well, taking care of all funeral arrangements, from conducting the funeral to providing a meal for friends and family, and even to paying all funeral expenses.
More broadly, however, the church could be more helpful to those who experience grief. Most people—including Christians—have an empathy deficiency. We are naturally wired to see and comprehend troubles strictly from our own point of view, based primarily upon our experiences and our feelings. But this modus operandi is inconsistent with the Master’s instruction to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 niv). Jesus wants us to put ourselves in the other person’s place—to consider how we would feel if something tragic, such as the loss of a child, happened to us.
Consequently, we should be mindful of the Golden Rule before ministering to those who are grieving. Are we thinking about how our words and actions will affect them? Are we aware of the fragile state they may be in? Or are we “miserable comforters,” like Job’s friends, who theologically diagnosed his condition and prescribed a remedy accordingly (Job 16:1–5)?
Christ has done the ultimate for us, for our comfort. Therefore, we can and should comfort others with the comfort we have received:
Blessed be the . . . God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3–4)
Our sufferings in this earthly life should drive us to ponder the atonement of Christ for our salvation and comfort.
Jessica, looking into my eyes, saw my deep love for her. Impressions from this earthly relationship taught her to look to her heavenly Father, who “created [her] cell by cell.” As God comforts us, so we comfort one another.
The author is a retired OP minister. New Horizons, June 2018.