Your Wife Is Dying!

Editor's Note: The cover of this journal was printed long before the events described below. When I saw the cover, I felt these events were particularly well-suited to the image this cover projects. We hope it will be useful to you.
Many years ago I read a book titled A Grief Observed written by the son of C. S. Lewis. The book was a review of how Lewis reacted and dealt with the death of his wife. In many ways, it was less than complimentary to Lewis as it showed how hard he struggled with the loss of his beloved wife. It is easy to tell people how you will react when death comes to someone you love. It is quite something else to react the way you think you should when the event actually takes place.

On November 5, 1996, I found myself in a waiting room awaiting news of my wife's surgery--a surgery that from the start was considered highly risky, but without which she would have no chance to live. After 38 years together, raising three kids, and working with a wide variety of efforts in Christian causes, my wife's heart had finally been overcome by a combination of diabetes and age. Bypass surgery was being attempted, but everyone involved knew that her chances of survival were not good. As I sat in the waiting room, I wrote letters trying to keep busy and stay positive. After three hours, a nurse came to the room and asked me to follow her to another room where she said the surgeon would come and tell me about the operation. It was a small room obviously isolated from the rest of the people in the waiting room. It was nearly an hour before the door opened and a nurse who worked with the surgeon came in and sat down. "Mr. Clayton," she began, "the surgeon has completed the operation, but we are not able to get your wife's heart to beat on its own. We are trying some chemicals to see if we can get it going, but it is not good. Would you like for me to call a chaplain?" I told her no, that I had my own connections, and she left me alone. Moments later, a couple started to come into the room, but was stopped by a nurse who said "that man's wife is dying, and we want to let him have the room for the family." It was at that point that I realized that I no longer was going to have my wife--my wife was dying, and I was very much alone. All that remained was the final pronouncement by the doctors that they could do nothing else but turn off their machines.

How should a real Christian react to such news? Do I really believe all this stuff I have verbalized over the years? How can I possibly make it without my wife? My mind went from theological apologetic positioning to self-pity. Amazingly, it was a matter of hours before the door would open again. During that time, a lot of emotions raced through me. I have always heard that there is a progression from denial to anger to self-pity to acceptance. There was no denial, and I do not recall any anger. What I do remember is a lot of self-pity. Sitting there by myself, it was easy to think of all the things my wife brought into my life that I was going to have to live without. I tried to plan the funeral and outlined how I would break the news to our children. I thought about all kinds of things I ought to do, but I always came back to the loneliness and self-pity that seemed to consume me.

The reader might say something to the effect of "Wouldn't a real Christian be praying to God at this point?" I had prayed a lot as we had gone into the surgery--always for the best answer to the situation we were in and for the strength to endure whatever happened. When I tried to pray in the confines of the small room, all that came was, "God, help me." What else do you say when the most important human in your life is gone? It is easy for me to answer that question now, but as I wallowed in self-pity and loss, I could see no options.

The thing that finally brought me to an end point was when I asked myself what was best for my wife? As a husband, I always tried to bring happiness and peace to my wife. If she really were gone, would that not be good for her? Certainly God could provide for her better than I could, and perhaps it was time for me to turn loose. No sooner would that thought cross my mind than I would find myself saying, "Yes, but how am I going to make it?" As time dragged by, I found myself shifting more toward what was best for my wife and less mired in my own loss and self-pity.

This story does not have an end yet. Seven hours after the ordeal began, the anesthesiologist came into the room to inform me that the chemical treatment they used was working and the heart was beating on its own. My loved one would survive the surgery, but then would be faced with lung problems, infection, wounds splitting open, and enormous pain that would bring heart-wrenching cries of agony. There have even been times when she expresses frustration at not having been allowed to go on to be with God, which I can only confess my selfish disagreement with. I am glad to have her a little longer, and I believe God has had a hand in helping us continue together in the work I believe he has for us to do.

I have frequently asked myself what would I have done and how would I have functioned if I were still an atheist in this situation. Would my self-pity have been any different? Perhaps not. How much did praying "please help me" really help? I believe it helped a great deal. Would my thoughts about what is best for my wife have ever come about? Certainly not in the same way. As I look back, I see that, while I feared loneliness, I was not lonely. Being in that small room by myself was not a problem. My response to the nurse, "I have my own connections," was truer than I realized. --JNC

                            --John N. Clayton

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