Reflections on a Difficult Year

It’s been one year exactly.

One year since our lives were turned upside down. One year of uncertainty, of exhaustion, of pain, of joy, of trial, and of grace. One year since we first heard the devastating diagnosis of cancer.

I think I spent the greater part of the year in shock, and somewhat in denial. To think that the person most dear to you is seriously ill is overwhelming, and to care for a family in the midst of that illness requires a kind of emotional distance and an almost stoic attitude. I don’t think that I actually fully grieved what we went through until the late fall or winter, after it was practically over.

Now, in reflection, I am in awe of what God so graciously, tenderly, mercifully carried us through.

I learned how much I can endure during difficult times and seasons, but not through myself. Through the One who gives endurance.

But he said to me, “My
grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that
Christ’s power may rest on me. That
is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in
hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I
am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

There are two instances I remember so vividly when God carried me through in a miraculous manner. The first was the night of Ryan’s second chemo treatment. He became extremely ill, despite the anti-nausea meds, and was vomiting so continually that I ended up calling my sister and brother-in-law to come and stay at our house while our daughter slept, so that I could take him to the ER.

It was already around 8 or 9pm when we went, and probably closer to 10 by the time he was in a bed and starting to receive an IV. The ER was packed that Friday night, and as I listened to a drunk mouth off the ER staff, I tried to make my 38 week pregnant body comfortable on the foot of my husband’s bed (there were no extra chairs to be found), while he alternated retching and attempting to sleep.

I stayed vigilant, keeping an eye on the IV, which kept running out, as the ER staff were too busy to keep up with my husband’s next bag of fluids. At about 2:30am, he told me to go home and sleep, so I did, reluctantly. I slept fitfully from 3:30 until 6:30, waking every hour to call and see how he was. Finally in the early morning they said he could come home, so I wearily went back to pick up my exhausted, but finally stable, hubby.

The amazing part of this was that only 3 days later, I spent the evening and half the night up with false labor, which finally died off, and then the next day started labor again at noon, with my husband by my side coaching me and had our son in the late afternoon- and I was not exhausted! I felt so well that by the weekend my midwife was trying desperately to convince me to slow down and stay off my feet! God gives us the energy we need to sustain us for the circumstances we find ourselves in. They do not catch him off guard- He is never surprised by any experience we walk through.

The second instance happened much later in the summer, on the day of Ryan’s very last chemo treatment. Because it was the last one, and I now had two little ones under 3 to care for and no extra help that day (which was rare, because we’d had either Ryan’s mother or friends from church every single other chemo weekend), he opted to be dropped off and picked up by me, rather than me having to figure out what to do with our toddler and newborn.

It was nearing the time when I expected to receive a call from one of the nurses to let me know he was ready to be picked up, when I received the call. It was a social worker from the hospital whom I had never met, with an urgency in her voice. She stated (quite matter-of-factly) that my husband had a Code Blue and that I needed to come to the hospital right away. “What’s a Code Blue?”, I asked. “It means he’s gone into cardiac arrest. But I believe they’ve got him going again.”

I hung up the phone, my heart practically beating out of my chest, and looked around frantically for a moment before grabbing the church phone directory. I called 13 numbers before someone answered . The dear wife of one of our pastors picked up and I managed to blurt out what had happened. Stunned, she asked what she could do, and I could only answer “Come” before bursting into tears.

Somehow I managed to pack up the children, including some extra clothes for the baby, and sped towards the hospital (which was providentially only about 8 minutes from our house). I nervously ran towards the Cancer Centre, babes in both arms, to find my husband lying in a bed, surrounded by nurses and doctors, but smiling up at me.

Unbeknownst to me, he had not gone into a full arrest, but they had proactively managed to prevent it with steroids and goodness knows what else. Unbeknownst to him, I had been told the worst. We shared a moment where he could see how visibly shaken I was, and he said it was one of the best moments of the summer, when he could see that despite my distance and need to stay strong and unemotional, that I cared so deeply and had been terrified of losing him.

Sleeping that night in the hospital room with him, my three month old snuggled on the cot beside me, it all felt so surreal. Was I really walking through this? Was this really my life and not someone else’s? Was life truly this frail, this delicate, this precious?

Many times throughout the summer, friends asked me how I was getting through it all, and commented that they didn’t know how I did it and still seemed to be holding it all together. My only answer for them was that God provides exactly what we need for each season, but it never comes before we need it. His mercies are new each morning. He provides only enough strength for that moment, that hour, that day… but it is enough and He never fails.

First of all, I just want to say thank you all so much for your kind comments on my last reflections post. I appreciate being able to process through it more in writing, and pray that our story will serve to encourage and strengthen others going through a difficult season.

When I look back on our past year, I can recognize many of the things that enabled us to walk through that time of the diagnosis, the medical decisions, the chemotherapy treatments (and birth of our son in the midst of them) and the subsequent recovery and slow return to work.

The most important factor in all of it was truly the grace of God, as I wrote about last time. To receive His inexhaustible strength in the season of our greatest weakness was precious and ultimately, it was the thing that sustained us when nothing else could.

Related to that was the support of the body of Christ. Throughout the summer in particular it was evident that God was ministering to our needs through His people. I can recall so many times when I realized how much we were being supported and carried by those who loved us that I wondered how on earth anybody makes it through this stuff without community and family surrounding them.

I think the simple answer to that is that often, they don’t. They may survive physically, but emotionally and spiritually they are drained to the point of utter exhaustion and often despair. During their trial, they likely had to go without many of their basic needs being met, simply because they weren’t capable of doing it on their own.

How grateful that I was and am that we did not walk that road alone. May I gently remind you just how necessary it is that we, as Christians, remain aware of the needs around us and that we step up and take action when we see those needs?

I will admit that as the one in need at that time, it was hard to ask and often hard to receive. I have spoken with many others about this issue, and have come to the conclusion that we all struggle to admit that we can’t do it all on our own, and that to ask for help is such a humbling practice. I do think, though, that it is a necessary practice!

One thing that I learned through our experience was that the church needs to have both those in need, as well as those who are able to serve, and both must be functioning in the role that God has given them in that season.

The one in need is able to grow in humility, recognizing that they are not self-sufficient and cannot do it all on their own, but that they are a part of a body for a reason. It is a good thing to learn to ask for help, and even better to learn to receive it graciously! For those who struggle with this, I will say it again. God desires for you to reach out and allow others to serve you in your time of need.

If He requires that His people serve and bless those in need, does He any less require that the ones in need be willing to accept that service?

As well, those of us who are blessed to be in a season of rest and free from major struggle or trials ought to be ministering to those who are weak, tired, sick, discouraged, and grieving. Not only does it serve them and is one of the ways that God chooses to tangibly meet their needs, but it is also a way that God continues to work out the process of sanctification of our lives- that is, becoming more and more transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus, who was the servant of all.

Not only this, but as we serve those whom we are already in relationship with- our family, friends and church members- we display the love, care and glory of God to those who are yet to know Him! A church that is thoroughly loving and serving it’s own members stands out in a culture where many churches are full of strife, gossip, contention, loneliness and dissension.

I think that often, we don’t reach out in times of need or crisis or loss because we don’t know what we can do. We desire to help, and we may offer that we are there, if they ever need anything. Unfortunately, this does not translate into the practical care that one in the midst of difficulty requires. Those in a season of weakness already feel burdened, and the thought of having to determine whether someone really meant it when they said “if you ever need anything” is a bit overwhelming. What it often comes down to is that there is a vague sense of care or concern, but it means little because it did not translate into action or practical forms of care.

You may be wondering what are some of the ways that you can truly show your care or meet the needs of someone in a situation like ours. I know that until I walked through it on the receiving end, I was always unsure of what to offer as well. This is not a criticism for anybody. What it is, though, is an opportunity to learn and grow in the ability to serve and care for others.

Tomorrow, I will post about the ways that our friends, family and church family cared for us in the midst of our difficult season, and I will ask for your input as well, as I know that many of you have much wisdom to offer us and many of your own suggestions as to how we can bless those who are in need.

I shared yesterday about the beautiful design of the body of Christ, as a place where those in need can find support and care, and those who are able can serve and bless others. I think that it may be helpful to share from our own experience what was particularly meaningful and helpful to us during our recent season of need.

Here are some of the ways that our family was served throughout the course of my husband’s battle with cancer. I share them with you to give you an idea of what was most helpful, and also to show you how simple and practical it can be! Those who did these things for us most likely did not even know how significant their actions were, or how much they would mean to me months down the road.

Provide childcare

For anyone with small children, the need for childcare can be immense. Although we generally try to avoid leaving our children with other people most of the time, this was a season when we could not avoid it. Without church and family members offering a safe, comforting place for our daughter (and very occasionally, our young son), we would have either had to fork out large amounts of money for childcare (which we certainly did not have), or I could not have accompanied my husband when he most needed me.

One older teenage girl in our church came to watch Abbie for an entire day once while we went to a training seminar, Ryan’s mother came up almost every chemo weekend to watch the children and bring the baby to me to nurse while we stayed at the hospital, one family consistently offered to watch Abbie during Ryan’s surgeries or when his family was not available for chemo treatments, and our sister and brother-in-law came to spend the night when we had to go to the ER.

Provide meals

It is not necessary to wait for a request to come before you bring a meal. If you know that a family or individual is in a difficult season, I cannot think of a time when a meal would not be appreciated. Our church provided us with meals for two weeks after the birth of our baby, several friends came and dropped off bags of groceries or simple foods such as cut fruit, yogurt and granola, and we were often invited over to a home or out to a restaurant for meals.

It is difficult to prepare food for a family day in and day out when you are mentally and emotionally distracted and exhausted. So many times, those meals were such an incredible relief to me.

Provide house cleaning

At one point, shortly after the birth of our baby, a long time friend took me out for coffee and asked me what was the thing that I found myself most unable to do. I thought only for a second and responded that I simply could not keep up with the housework in the midst of all the appointments, caring for my husband, the mountains of laundry that comes with a newborn and toddler, and just being so tired all the time.

Less than a week later, she called and told me that starting that weekend, I would have 2 hours of housecleaning every Saturday, until Ryan finished his treatments. She arranged and paid for a single mom (who needed the work) to come in and do the deep cleaning each week so that I could focus on caring for my family. Do I even have to tell you what a relief and a blessing that was to me? Tears come to my eyes even now as I remember my gratefulness that someone would do that for us.

As well, the week after our baby was born, the ladies in my caregroup chose to use our regular ladies night as an opportunity to bless me and do a thorough clean of my house- with about 7 women working, it was spic and span in no time! Later in the summer, we ended up receiving the opportunity to move into a wonderful house, but unfortunately at a time when we had no energy to do so. Our church helped immensely, with caregroups coming over to clean and pack, many men coming to help us paint and do repairs in the new house, and provided the most effective troupe of movers we have ever had!

Provide an opportunity for rest

Sometimes, we simply needed someone to give us permission to rest, particularly me. I remember my sister-in-law coming over simply to play with my daughter and allowing me to nap or rest while my baby napped. One friend graciously allowed me to just come over with my kids, leave them with her, and go into her guest room and sleep!

I remember one specific instance when I was utterly exhausted from having dropped off my daughter atΒ  a friend’s, then taken my husband to a downtown hospital (we live an hour or more from downtown), where I sat in a waiting room and cared for our 3 week old while he had a day surgery, before driving all the way back to our friend’s to get our daughter, in order to go home and cook dinner. I was practically falling asleep at the wheel on my way to their house, and when they saw me, they all but ordered me to go and sleep in their daughter’s bedroom. After a short nap, I awoke and was told I hadn’t slept long enough, my children were fine, and dinner was cooking and that I was to return to bed! I argued but it was no good- so back to bed I went for another hour, only to awake feeling refreshed, to the smell of spaghetti and garlic bread. May I just say that that is true friendship?

Provide an opportunity to share and discuss

Sometimes we didn’t have any particular physical need, but rather just needed someone to share our lives with. Those who were willing to speak openly with us about the cancer and what we were going through were so dear to our hearts. The reality is that whatever someone is facing is very real to them. It does not go away. It cannot be brushed aside. It is a part of everyday life, and it is ok to talk about it!

Sensitivity and discernment is needed, of course, because not everyone is built the same way emotionally. Some prefer to keep details to themselves, although they appreciate statements of care, concern, prayer, etc. These more private people may be blessed by a simple call asking how they are doing, or how you can pray for them. They may be blessed to receive a card, stating that you love them, are praying for them, share in their grief, are thankful to God for them.

For those who are more open, such as my husband and I, we felt so relieved each time we discovered friends and family that were willing to really go there with us. Who could talk about the cancer in something other than hushed tones, and who could even laugh about it with us. We found it necessary to find humor in our situation, and to not take ourselves too seriously.

We thoroughly appreciated those who felt comfortable enough with us to talk about our lives, matter of factly, and then when we were tired of talking about it, move on and just talk about something else. We also appreciated being treated as normal, and enjoyed having rare times when we didn’t talk about it at all, but instead just talked about the other aspects of life, or watched a funny movie, or went to the beach to fly kites.

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. It is simply one woman’s expression of what blessed and served her and her family in the midst of hardship. I hope that it encourages you to look around and consider how God may desire to use you in the lives of those around you.

If you’ve been through a difficult season yourself, what were the most beneficial ways that you received help, care or love? What are your suggestions to those who wish to help others, but are unsure of where to start?

And to those who have not been through this yourself, but have been able to serve others in times of need, what are some of the things that you did that seemed to be the most helpful or appreciated? What are ways that we, as mothers and homemakers, can incorporate these things into our daily lives?

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  1. Oh, Stephanie, my eyes are filled with tears as I read this. Thank you for the reminder that God gives us what we need for the moment. I know exactly what you mean when you sit back and say “Is this my life? Am I really in the middle of this?” and realizing the only way I could be surviving it is by the grace of God.

  2. Stephanie,

    I can truly identify with that surreal feeling. I had those same strange thoughts, “Is this really happening to us?”.

    It’s amazing what the Lord can walk us through. It does give me a sense of hope in the future. That no matter what comes, we can have peace in this, He will be there with us to carry us through.

    How vulnerable you must have felt, due to have a baby as your husband’s life hung in the balance.

  3. steph…i love you more…thanks for sharing your story…and ilook forward to reading the rest…

    you’re one of my young hero women!

    love u…

  4. Thanks for sharing some of your personal story of going through pain. I so agree with your ending. πŸ™‚ But I know that you still felt pain and sorrow of seeing your husband going through what he did. God is good in giving us the grace we need to get through each day. πŸ™‚

  5. First, I want to tell you how sorry I am that your life has been touched by cancer, and how glad I am that your husband has made it to his first anniversary–may there be many more. I also have a question.

    “One of our pastor’s dear wives picked up and I managed to blurt out what had happened.”

    Your pastor has more than one wife? I don’t mean to criticize, but when people are writing about their faith, I often stumble on religion details that they themselves may believe are not very relevant. Any clarifications you can offer would be helpful.

  6. Yikes! Catherine, I will have to fix the wording of that statement. What I meant to communicate was that our church has several pastors, not that any of them have several wives! They each have only one wife! Thank you for pointing out how that sounded!

    Thank you so much for your sweet comments, everyone. πŸ™‚

  7. God is so good. I’m so happy that you are experiencing it even through all your hardships. I will pray for you. God be with you and very close to you at this time.

  8. Thanks for being there for my son, Stephanie. I know God gave you to each other for such a time as this, and many more great and hard times ahead. Life does tend to throw in the unexpected, and no one ever expected that dignosis. It was a difficult year for us all! May God’s Grace be with us. Janet (Ryans’ Mom)

  9. Thanks, Janet! It was a difficult year, but you were a great support to us, and we were so thankful for that.

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