Deep Grief and Fought-after Joy

In the past three months I’ve been to five funerals. While four of the five of those funerals were for patients of mine, and one could say “you knew they would pass away,” it doesn’t change the fact that I grieve their loss. My four patients were all patients I had since I started my job in hospice. That means that for almost three years, I’ve spent many days a week with them…bathing them, assisting them with eating, taking them outside the second the weather warmed up, painting their nails, shaving their whiskers, giving them hugs, holding their hands, being their companion, re-assuring them that they are safe, making them comfortable, and offering them a listening ear. So of course, they had become very dear to me. And then within the course of three months, each of the four passed away. Worst of all, however, I lost my grandma smack dab in the middle of it all. It was unexpected. I found out on a Saturday night that she wasn’t doing well. I planned to drive up that next morning, but early that morning I received a text from my dad that said she was in her Savior’s arms.

Grief. Deep, deep grief. I feel like I’ve been drowning in it lately.

I’ve cried with my patient’s spouses, children, grandchildren, and siblings. There have been countless days when I would just fight that lump in my throat until I could get in my car and weep. I’ve suddenly started sobbing in the middle of a random conversation with my husband. But for the most part, I’ve felt the need to hide my grief from most of the world, to “put on my big girl pants”, and move on. I felt that people were expecting me to still be me: the smiling, happy, hospice Heather. And so I’ve been in this confusing place of feeling deep grief inside, but needing to remain happy on the outside.

I tried that for weeks and weeks. And poor Andrew had to deal with an exhausted, emotionally unstable wife (side note: He is just the greatest…so loving, comforting, and always able to make me laugh).

One day, though, as I was driving to work, I was praying about the day. I can tend to pray almost the same thing each day. But that day I stopped in the middle of praying and just blurted out, “God, I don’t know if I can handle this grief anymore! My heart is so heavy and I feel completely unable to appear happy today.” That’s when I remembered this sweet promise in Nehemiah 8: “The joy of the LORD is your strength.” It hit me like a ton of rocks. The JOY of the LORD. And the Psalmists says in Psalm 16:11 “In Your presence there is fullness of JOY!” So I said, “Holy Spirit, I desperately need you today. I need your joy. I admit that on my own I am completely incapable of having true joy. Would you please fill me up today with your joy?” 

Each day since then, I’ve been reminded to pray that. As I go throughout my day I am much more aware of my dependency on the Holy Spirit for His joy. And you know what? He gives it abundantly. And you know what else? I’ve found it over and over in the gospel. When I’m reminded of my helplessness before God (that I was dead in my sin) and that through Christ’s perfect life, agonizing death, and glorious resurrection I can have life and life eternal, I find great joy. It reminds me that I am more loved by God than I dare imagine, that I am His child, and that He is my great Comforter. He longs for me to run to Him with my grief. His word says “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). 

With all of this, I’ve been more mindful of heaven. I’ve had this ever-increasing hope for that day when I will be in the presence of my Savior. Just the thought of being face-to-face with God gives me profound joy. I envision falling on my face when I get just a glimpse of His glory. As I’ve been thinking about heaven, it’s caused me to think more about my time here on earth. If heaven is what I long for, then does that show in how I live each day? Am I bringing the hope of the gospel with me to each patient and their family, my family, my co-workers, the people at the gym, the barista at Starbucks, and the cashier at Target? Do they see joy in me that can only be from God? As I’ve been reading and studying I’ve been hit again and again with the reality that we are here for one purpose: to glorify God by enjoying Him forever. I struggle to do this faithfully every single day, but God is so gracious, and has been growing in me a deeper love for His glory.

I feel so strongly that He has called me to hospice (for the time being) and because of that, I know He will equip me. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But I know that He will be with me and it is through Him that I am able to have joy. This joy is a gift from God, but it is also a joy I have to relentlessly fight for. I find it as I remind myself over and over of the gospel, as I pray and ask the Holy Spirit to fill me with joy, and as I read God’s word.

I’ll never be able to sing “How Great Thou Art” again without thinking of one of my patients that passed. He was a very favorite of mine. His love for Christ radiated from him every day. He loved to sing and worship His Savior. He was such a beautiful picture to me of someone who found their joy in Christ. I received the call that he had passed and immediately jumped in my car to go help with post-mortem cares (and mostly to be there for his family as I had become very close with them). I practically ran through the nursing home and down the hallway, tears streaming down my face. I took a deep breath before I walked into his room, trying to compose myself in order to comfort his family. When I walked in, his wife ran to hug me and exclaimed, “He’s home, Heather! He’s home!” She then told me the story I will never forget. Moments before he passed, his family stood around His bed and sang “How Great Thou Art.” They reached the final verse and sang, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” As they sang these words, my patient smiled and took his last breath. Then they finished the verse and sang, “Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God how great Thou art!’” They sang these last few words as their loved one was actually doing just that: bowing in adoration of His God…face to face.

Lastly, I don’t want anyone to think that finding joy is easy. It’s not. What has changed for me is the realization that both my grief and my joy are meant to bring me closer to God. My confidence is in the truth that one day, I will cease to struggle with grief because in His presence there is fullness of joy forevermore.


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