Facing death in the parsonage

A pastor reflects on the death of his wife

Steve Willsey, D.Min., is associate pastor for pastoral care and spiritual formation, Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.

When my wife, Allie, died two years ago I was poorly prepared for the intense grieving that followed.

As a pastor of 35 years, I had regularly supported members who had lost loved ones, and I had grieved when my own parents died several years ago. But losing my wife was far more horrible than anything I had ever experienced. Like many of my generation, I had not been taught how to deal with such severe emotional pain. After the first few weeks, I seemed to be managing quite well, but it was only the numbness of shock. A deep depression soon followed, and I knew that I was in trouble.

Allie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years before her death. After surgery she began regular chemotherapy. Through it all, she maintained her dignity and normal lifestyle. As a budget analyst for the Administrative Office of the Federal Courts, she had heavy responsibilities, including travel to courts across the country. Although her treatments did not slow down we were able to maintain our own normal family schedule, including vacation trips to Arizona and New England, where we loved to hike in the mountains.

By the end of the first year of treatment, the test used by her oncologist to determine the progress of the cancer indicated that cancer cells were still building. Despite new chemotherapies, the results were meager. Her physician communicated little other than concern, though he never indicated that we should prepare for the worst. He was highly regarded in the medical community and kept current with the latest studies and treatments. We believed that he would find a successful treatment. Often, when we left his office, Allie would shed a few tears of disappointment, but the next day her normal positive attitude would re turn, and at times it seemed that the cancer was all but forgotten.

Our own research suggested that this cancer was difficult to cure, so as the disease continued to spread, we began praying earnestly for divine intervention. Until then, we had never really come to expect a miracle of healing. To be honest, too many experiences from my pastorate had left me with the impression that God rarely responds these days to the desperate cry for physical relief. Allie had reluctantly accepted my skepticism until she read a book loaned by a friend at work in which the author claimed that God can still be counted on to heal. I read the book as well, and became as convinced as Allie that God would honor our request. We simply would not accept that our lives could be interrupted by death. We came to firmly believe that if the treatment of the physician could not arrest the cancer, the Lord would.

The end

It was at Christmas, near the end of the second year after the original diagnosis, that Allie finally began to really suffer. At first we believed that her symptoms were from unusually strong doses of chemo that another new approach mandated. Feeling sick enough to stay home from work, Allie spent most of her day on the sofa in our living room. A couple of weeks later, she was unable to leave our bedroom, and there she remained until two days before her death.

As her condition deteriorated, I of course became apprehensive, but my faith and hers remained strong that the Lord would, after all, heal her. I believed that her present condition was only temporary. Even when the physician suggested that it was time to call in hospice care, I was not ready to accept that we were nearing the end. During the two years of her illness, we had only casually discussed the possibility of her death; now she was too sick for any meaningful conversation.

When the hospice nurse came, I was still refusing to believe that my wife (who had rarely been sick throughout her life) could be dying. But this health professional was trained to assist families in denial and came straight to the point. "Your wife is only days from death," he said.

From that moment, I entered a foggy existence where I reacted to the needs of the moment, leaving until later the emotions that were gradually building in me. That night, Allie began struggling to breathe (a pulmonary embolism had developed). When we were unable to make contact with Hospice Care, her physician sent her to the hospital.

Thirty-six hours later, she was dead.

The beginning

With my children by my side, I called family and friends, planned the funeral, received guests, and made it through the week. The service was on Wednesday evening and the following weekend I was at the church performing my regular activities. On Monday I was in the church office ready to get on with my ministry. Friends urged me to take a few days off, perhaps go some where, at least slow my pace, but I felt no need of changing the pattern I had followed for so many years.

That is, until a few weeks later, when depression began to reach the point where it could no longer be ignored, denied, or sublimated.

I had been visiting the cemetery frequently and crying at the grave. Sometimes I wished I could be occupying the space beside my wife. Standing there, I realized that I really had no desire to live anymore. I began to recognize that I could be in serious trouble.

At that time, I began seeing a counselor who helped me understand my re actions and guided me through the unfamiliar pain. When an invitation came in the mail to participate in a study of grieving among "older persons" (I was 59) at the National Institute of Health, I volunteered. There I met regularly with counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, and other professionals and was nurtured through the most difficult experience of my life.

I was placed on an antidepressant that gave me the extra boost I needed. Though I was contributing to a store of mental health knowledge, I came to depend on my visits to the counselor as signed to my case, so that I received as much or more than I was giving.

My life today

Yesterday was the second anniversary of Allie's death. I still cannot believe how much pain the loss has created, and I now know that I will never have what is so easily called "closure." I have be come reconciled to Allie's death and am learning to cope, but the pain does not go away. Of course, I have hope, and the promise that I will see her again gives me strength for each new day, but I miss her now. I have learned the meaning of sadness. I have also learned how to weep and not be ashamed of it. I know much more about the value of life and relationships. I have far greater compassion for my members who are grieving; in fact, I have begun a grief recovery group for our members and anyone in the community who would like to join.

Our need as a church

We had never entertained the idea that death could invade our family as it had. When it did, I asked, "Why would the Lord allow this to happen to me?" Now I understand that death is a natural part of the human cycle on this earth.

I wish deeply I had been better prepared. I have shared my experience with our congregation. My hope is that they have learned from me and my experience. I am happy to share with them, too, the blessed hope of a coming Lord that continues to buoy up my spirit.

Yet, one lesson that I have learned from this trauma is that, as a church family, we need to do more to train both pastors and laity in how to help prepare people for death, which sooner or later strikes every home. Death is something we can be sure will come. How negligent can we be as churches and denominations if we don't do more to help our people cope with one of the most painful costs of sin?

Allie's death showed me how unprepared I, a spiritual leader and counselor, had been. What about others? I wish profoundly that my church could have had some sort of program, something, any thing, that could have helped me better deal with what happened. How I wish there would be something more that we could have that could help me aid the inevitable others that death will cast be fore my path.

We must take some responsibility in preparing our church families for the loss of loved ones. At the time of a death, there should be many opportunities to effectively minister to those left behind. Our congregations need to be involved in learning how to help one another. This is uniquely, I believe, our special work as the community of the Life-Giver.

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Steve Willsey, D.Min., is associate pastor for pastoral care and spiritual formation, Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.

October 2000

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