“What’s with the rocks?”
“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I”ll tell you a story.”
#2 green: Lessons in trust
I commented to a friend that I didn’t want to do Christmas. It was early December and Karis had died in February. My friend replied, “I’m so disappointed in you. I thought you would be over that by now. I always thought you were a woman of faith.”
Does faith mean we don’t feel grief? The “proof text” for this idea is 1 Thessalonians 4:13. Here is my favorite translation of that verse: “Beloved brothers and sisters, we want you to be quite certain about the truth concerning those who have passed away, so that you won’t be overwhelmed with grief like many others who have no hope” (The Passion Translation). The point of comparison is between those who have hope of seeing their loved ones again, because they believe life doesn’t end at death, and those who don’t. For those who have hope, Paul says, grief will be different from what it’s like for those who don’t.
That makes sense, right? But the text doesn’t say we won’t grieve, or how long we “should” grieve, or what any individual’s grief process will be like. I went through complex grief that included PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) flashbacks and nightmares. This was because in the intensity of caring for Karis for thirty years, I didn’t have space to process my feelings along the way as both she and I experienced one loss after another, one life-and-death crisis after another, not just the loss that came with her death.
Does this mean I didn’t have faith? No. I never lost my faith in God. It means I went through complex grief. It took a lot of time, and I couldn’t have done it by myself. I needed help. Rather than criticize or judge me, God walked through those tough months with me, slowly healing me from the traumas I had experienced.
Does that mean I wasn’t actually trusting God all along the way? Well, yes and no. There were specific moments when I didn’t know how to trust him. One of those was early on, when Karis was just a few weeks old and doctors told us it was wrong to keep her alive artificially—we should disconnect everything and let her die. God sent a pastor to me in my distress who gave me hope I could cling to. When I confessed I didn’t know how to trust God in the agony of this situation, he said “Then it’s time for the Body of Christ to have faith for you.” Tears are coming to my eyes right now as I think about that day and the comfort of his words.
Let’s back up even further, to the time when Karis was a few days old and we realized something was seriously wrong. We had friends who told us all we needed was faith. They were disappointed in us when we took Karis to the doctor, and when she went through surgeries and took medication. I recounted to my brother-in-law the tension this introduced into our relationship with these dear friends, and he told me the story of the man in the flood who refused all of the help God sent to him. When he drowned and went to heaven, he was angry with God for not hearing his prayers. God said, “I sent you a canoe, and a rowboat, and a helicopter. Why did you send them all away?”
Just so, God opened doors for Karis to have the best possible medical care. Even so, for thirty years he intervened over and over again to preserve her life when the doctors reached the end of their resources. Until he chose to take her Home. When I read Karis’s journal from the last year of her life, I learned that she pleaded with God again and again, “Please, Father, take me Home.” I think he finally said, “OK. Let’s do this.”
Karis believed absolutely that God would keep her on Earth as long as he had use for her here. That belief was bedrock for her. It meant she lived exuberantly, because she didn’t fear death. Many times, when doctors told us it was the end of the line, I became anxious. Karis was always frustrated with me for this. She wanted me to have the same faith she had, that her life was completely safe in the arms of her Father, God. But I don’t believe God condemns any mother for fearing for her child in adverse circumstances. God built into mothers concern for their children’s safety. He understands us because he made us this way.
The Saturday morning before Karis died, the head of the transplant ICU met with our family. He explained that there was nothing more to be done for her, and that when we were ready, we could make the decision to take Karis off life support. But the doctor understood how difficult this decision would be for us, and he encouraged us to take all the time we needed.
We felt so supported by that doctor. The decision was challenging for us in part because God had intervened and given Karis back to us so many times in what felt to us like similar circumstances. We agreed as a family that we would disconnect her only when each of us was ready. Three days passed while each of us tried to work it through.
But for the ICU nurses, those three days were just wrong. One day Karis’s nurse confronted me. She said we were being selfish and were more concerned about ourselves than about Karis, whom she believed to be needlessly suffering. I told her that I was certain Karis was fine, and would be fine, whenever she died. But if we did not make this decision unanimously as a family, it would crack us apart. We might never be fine again. We might never be able to repair the damage such an action would cause.
Mercifully, God took Karis just a few hours later. We never had to make the agonizing decision to take her off life support, which felt to some of us like we would be participants in her dying, after fighting for so many years against all odds for her living. I know that was a gift to us, and that not every family has the blessing of experiencing that outcome. I can see how easy it would be to judge us from the outside, especially for someone who deeply loved Karis. But I hope that out of this situation I have learned greater trust, and less need to judge. Only God understands each person’s needs and all the factors involved. I think there is seldom a right and a wrong in complicated situations like this one and like so many others that our family experienced along the way. I believe that God, in his wisdom and in his love for each of his children, is the only one who is fully trustworthy. Even when we misjudge a situation and make a “wrong” choice, we do not thereby defeat his love and his determination to bless us. Nothing, Scripture tells us, can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38).