How Do Pastor’s Handle Grief?

After losing my wife to two cancers on September 26th, 2014, I have preached two sermons concerning grief and the grief process since then.  While dealing with not only my own grief, but the grief of my family and friends, the question arose asking, “How do Pastors handle their own grief?”.  This is a good question, since most people will seek counseling from a pastor while they are grieving.

The following article, while a bit long, explains what I endured during my wife’s illness.  I will sum it up at the end to hopefully, even in part, answer this question, at least from my prospective.

As Christians, many times during situations where a loved one has passed, part of the healing process is to seek grief counseling from your Pastor or from a Pastor.  This grief counseling will not complete the healing and grieving process, but it will facilitate it to help you to move forward and to learn more about handling the loss more effectively.

Much like when we are sick, we will visit a doctor to get the proper prescription and diagnosis so that we can begin to get well again.

So, the question that begs to be asked is, “Who does the doctor see when he or she is sick?” and likewise, “Who does the Pastor turn to when they need grief counseling?”.

How does a Pastor handle their grief when a loved one goes home to be with the Lord?  After recently losing my wife to two cancers, I was asked this very question.  Here is my answer:

Let me start, not at the beginning, but a few years ago.  In November 2010, my late wife, Judy, was diagnosed with Bi-Lateral Breast Cancer.  A lump the size of a golf ball in her right breast was already Stage 4, the one in the left, was 1cm and was Stage 1.  A trip to our Family Doctor proved there was cause for concern and we found ourselves at The Breast Center of Indiana at St. Vincent Hospital the very next day!

We met with Dr. Thomas Schmidt, the foremost Breast Surgeon in Indiana (as we were told, and he proved to be every bit of that and more!) and was immediately sent to see an Oncologist, Dr. Niraj Gupta.  Dr. Gupta started Judy on chemo pretty much right away.  She had the biopsy on both tumors and they showed to be malignant.  She handled chemo like a trooper!  After several weeks, the scans showed the tumors were shrinking and they began a round of radiation treatments.  Finally, Dr. Schmidt went in and removed the cancerous tissues around what was left of the tumors and we had to go back one more time to have some lymph nodes removed.  By the end of 2011, Judy was pronounced cancer free!  Regular visits to Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Gupta showed that she was in full remission with no signs of reoccurring.

During this time, friends and family were very supportive as well as our Church family.  I was with her at most all of her treatments and when I couldn’t make it, another member of my family would go in my place.  During the doctors visits, I was there for each of those, since the chemo had given her “chemo brain” and her short term memory wasn’t as good as it should be.

It was a difficult time, dealing with cancer with someone so close to me.  There was a possibility that the cancer could take her at anytime (there’s always that possibility with most anything), and myself and my family was having to accept that possibility.  Judy’s attitude played a major role in her recovery.  She never let it get her down and she always kept the attitude that she was going to beat this…and she did!!

Before moving forward, I need to go back a couple of years prior to this, because, thinking back, this might be relevant to what I am about to tell you next.

In January 2009, Judy started having some real issues with her legs.  These issues started probably a year or more before, but now was taking their toll.  She was unable to stand or walk very long and had lots of pain in her legs.  She had lost her job as a Private In Home Health CNA because she could no longer fulfill her duties properly.  She went on Disability and tried to keep as active as she could, but some days, she couldn’t do it.  Getting up and down was becoming a chore for her and then she started having abdominal pains.  Our Family Doctor was treating the symptoms and that seemed to be working…for the most part.  However, the leg issues kept getting worse and the abdominal pains would come and go.  She finally resorted to a rolling walker to get around the house, and when going somewhere, would use the electric carts (she loved those things!) or would take her rolling walker with her.

We got pretty good at knowing what we needed whenever we would go out to eat or to visit.  Finally, I got her a rolling walker, just to carry in the car.  This way she didn’t need to worry about not having one in the house when she returned home.  This was a pain for her to do, and she often was frustrated, but we chalked it up to “old age” and moved on.

Now, let’s jump forward to September 10th, 2013.  By this time, Judy was struggling to get up and down on her own.  She was still mostly self sufficient, still cooking our meals, doing laundry, dishes, etc., but with more and more difficulty every day.  I was finding myself helping her with some of the more mundane chores around the house, such as sweeping, picking up after the dogs and the like, because, frankly, she couldn’t bend over or stand long enough to do them.  She found that she could sit on her rolling walker and do dishes, cook at the stove, and the like, and got by doing this for a while.

On the afternoon of September 10th, 2013, I came home from work and she was visibly upset.  She was far from be a hypochondriac, and she wasn’t really given to having a wild imagination, especially when it came to health matters.  She tells me that she needs to go to the Emergency Room.  Now, ok, let’s slow down a bit…going to the ER is a bit of a stretch, even for her, so I questioned her as to her reasons.  Let’s face it, ER visits aren’t exactly cheap!

She tells me that her abdominal pain is worse than it has ever been and that her urine was a bright orange.  Even I know something is amiss here, so we pack up and head for the ER.  I check her in and we wait about 30 minutes or so before they take use back.  They check her vitals and run a few tests and then we wait…for over an hour!  FINALLY, the ER doctor comes in and gives her some antibiotics and tells her she has a bladder infection.  Take these pills and go see your Family Doctor.  Then, sends us home.  Well, crisis averted…or so we thought!

On Friday, September 13th, 2013 (you got it, Friday the 13th!), I get a phone call at work from a friend of ours telling me that Judy is being admitted to the hospital.  This is at 11:30am and I am out the door and heading home a few minutes later.  That morning, Judy started feeling sicker and decided to go see our Family Doctor.  When she walked into his office, she was jaundiced and he knew something was wrong.  He admitted her to the hospital for tests.  After looking over the results of the tests for the “bladder infection”, he discovered that the tests were read wrong.  The antibiotics the ER gave her, caused the jaundice to appear and the misread tests actually showed she had Pancreatic Cancer.  The next day, she was on her way to St. Vincent’s Hospital for a complete workup and tests.  Our little ER visit that we thought was over, was actually the beginning of the biggest, most crucial and most frightening, event in our 18+ years of marriage.

Dr. Chad Davis, the Surgical Oncologist taking care of Judy, did a full scan of her entire body.  Yes, he confirmed the Pancreatic Tumor, but also, a tumor the size of a golf ball in her right lung…Lung Cancer!  They tested to see if this contained any small cell breast cancer and it didn’t.  Meaning…in layman’s terms…Judy had two primary, deadly, aggressive cancers AT THE SAME TIME!

Dr. Davis told me, that for a person to have one cancer in their lifetime is very common.  To have two cancers in a person’s lifetime, not unheard of, not real rare, but can happen.  To have two cancers at the same time, rare indeed, but to have three cancers in a person’s lifetime is extremely rare and unheard of.  There are no statistics concerning two cancers at the same time, due to the rarity of the situation.  The only known fact was, they can only treat one cancer at a time, not two.  You can treat one cancer, but the other cancer will run rampant.  There was no treatment for Judy.  Surgical options were not available due to her immune system already being drained by the cancers.  She would not be able to stand the strain of not only one surgery, but she needed two!

So, her stay lasted two weeks while they tried to come up with some way to treat these cancers.  Dr. Gupta, was once again her Oncologist.  While in St. Vincent’s, they started her on regular insulin injections to help control her diabetes.  I learned more about cancers and diabetes than I ever wanted to learn!  Dr. Gupta started her in December 2013, on chemo.  After about three weeks, he stopped the treatments to give her a break for the holidays and so she would hopefully be strong enough to enjoy the holidays.

January 3rd, 2014, another scan was performed.  The Pancreatic tumor had not grown or shrunk, it was still about the same.  The Lung tumor…well, now there were two!  The Lung Cancer was spreading!  Dr. Gupta discontinued the chemo treatments until they could find another way to control these cancers.  At this time, he told us that she had 2 months to a year.  We were devastated by this news.  He just pronounced her terminally ill, for all practical purposes.  Man’s medical science could not help Judy any longer.  Together, we turned her over to God’s hands and let Him take over as the Great Physician!

January 7th, 2014, Judy was in the kitchen, about 11:30pm, and slipped and fell against the handle of her rolling walker as she went down.  I was already in bed, but heard her hit the floor and then heard her screaming my name.  I ran to her and she was face down on the kitchen floor.  I am a Certified CPR/AED/First Aid First Responder, and my training quickly kicked in.  I assessed her injuries, carefully rolled her onto back.  Her left shoulder was bulging and appeared to be dislocated.  I set her up on the floor and told her to stay put.  I called 911 and when the Paramedics arrived, they also, assessed her should to be possibly dislocated.  Oh goody, another trip to the ER!!

Her should turned out to be fractured, not dislocated.  That was good news.  Bad news was, we had to go see a specialist.  Dr. Daniel Daluga, was the surgeon that handled my knee surgeries in December 2011 and February 2012.  We went to see him and he took x-rays of her shoulder and then more “good” news…surgery was not an option because the least little infection could kill her!  The shoulder had to heal on it’s own.  We went back a few weeks later and an “extra bone” had formed over the fracture, leaving her with a permanent bump on her shoulder.  She lost most of the use of her left arm and couldn’t stretch it out to reach for anything.  He hand still worked ok, just limited reach.

After the January 3rd news, we contacted a Hospice Group called Southern Care.  They were very good with Judy and started right away with her hospice care.  By this time, a friend of ours and myself were her primary caregivers.  Hospice provided much needed support and supplies and came in several times a week to bathe her, tend to her needs and check up on her.  We moved a hospital bed in, and arranged the Living Room so that people could visit Judy and watch TV and also so she could be comfortable.  She was still fairly mobile, going to the bathroom, showering, kitchen and the like.  She needed help with some things, thanks to her left arm not healing properly, but was still mostly self sufficient, taking her meds, eating, getting up and down.  Judy had hit a plateau and appeared to be stable.  We had hope for the first time since this began.  Knowing God was there throughout, meant that Judy could be healed and actually beat these cancers too!  Lots of people all over were praying for her healing and recovery.  She was prayer lists in Churches and organizations everywhere.  When someone new would hear about her condition, she would go on yet, another prayer list.  We had placed all our hope and faith in God that Judy would be healed.

In April 2014, Judy began to decline again, now, she was needing more care than myself or our friend could provide.  She was needing 24 hour care and I couldn’t afford to get it for her.  Hospice gave her a respite stay at a local nursing home, so that I could get some much needed rest.  I was on FMLA at work, and was taking a lot of FMLA time.  Loosely translated, not bringing much money in!  There were lots of sleepless nights for me, as Judy would need help throughout the night.  Once or twice, a friend of hers would stay the night, but with others work schedules and the like, it just couldn’t happen very often.  The decision had to be made to put her into a nursing home.  I started her Medicaid paperwork and on April 29th, 2014, Judy’s sister calls me and explains that God has showed her the money to put Judy into an Assisted Living Facility (the same place their Mom is staying) for two months.  At this point, Judy was declining rapidly, so we felt two months may be too long!  April 30th, 2014, we moved her into the Assisted Living Facility.  Here she had the 24 hour Care she desperately needed.  Our friend continued to come in every day and continue her part of the caregiving.  I was able to at least get some sleep at night!  And I found myself in a new routine, once again.  I would come home from work, go straight to the facility, sometimes eat supper with Judy, spend usually 1 to 3 hours, go home, take care of the dogs, eat supper (if I hadn’t already done so) and go to bed and do it all over the next day.  On Saturday’s, I would go for usually 4 hours or more and on Sunday’s I was there sometimes more than 5 hours.  This was my routine now.  It was difficult seeing her this way.  She was lonely, I was lonely, but it had to be done.  There was no choice.  She had lots of visitors during her stay.  Sometimes, visitors would come in while I was there, or would be there when I arrived, so I would leave to allow them to spend as much time as they wanted with her.  I was seeing her every day.  By the end of June 2014 (her two months stay) Judy had hit yet another plateau.  She was once again stable.

In May 2014, they performed a brain scan to see if the cancer had spread to her brain yet.  No cancer was found, however, small vessel disease was present.  This is like what you would see in the onset of Alzheimer’s.  Judy was experiencing some dementia,  confusion, hallucinations and other symptoms that would suggest the cancer had spread, but these same symptoms go along with small vessel disease as well.

The money was found for yet another month stay.  God was providing, not only the care she needed, but a place to get the care.  July 4th, 2014, our 15th grandson was born!   Judy was able to hold him a couple of weeks later when they came to visit.  This really made her day!   During June, July and August, Judy had several close calls with diabetic comas.  Several ER trips to stabilize her blood sugar and revive her.  The last one lasted more than 5 hours.  By the end of August 2014, evidence was present indicating that the Pancreatic Cancer had spread to her liver and surrounded her pancreas and bile duct causing issues and more abdominal pain.

God provided the money for Judy to be able to stay in the Assisted Living Facility every month until He took her home.  By September 3rd, 2014, her 64th birthday, it was evident that the Lung Cancer had spread to her brain.  She was having more dementia, more confusion, hallucinations, some speech difficulties and she was having trouble making her hands and fingers do simple tasks, such as pick up a fork or spoon or even a napkin during meal time.  This frustrated her, but she persevered.  She had a good birthday party that day, family and friends were there to help her celebrate.  She seemed to be at a plateau again, but now only with a slight decline.  Again, we had a glimmer of hope, but was sure it wouldn’t last long.

On Thursday, September 18th, 2014, I was able to setup a Skype session with our daughter, Lana and her kids, Grace and Robby.  Skype allowed us to use our tablets with the cameras to do a two way video call.  Judy was able to see and talk to Grace and Robby, two of our grandchildren in Rhode Island, for the first time since her visit a couple of years ago.  She had talked to them on the phone, but it just wasn’t the same.  Her wish was to go to Rhode Island one last time to see them, but this just wasn’t possible for someone in her frail condition.  This was the next best thing to being there!  Even my 92 year old Mother-in-Law, Jean, got into the action!  Judy’s Mom lives at the same facility where Judy was staying, so they would see each other every day.  The Skype session was a big hit with everyone!  It really lifted Judy’s spirits, getting to see the grandkids and talk and see Lana too.

On Sunday, September 21st, 2014, Judy had a pretty good day all the way around.  She was feeling no pain, she was fairly lucid and laughing and having a great day.  After my evening Worship Service at this facility, I stopped back in to check on her.  She was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her.  I had left my motorcycle helmet in her room and quietly slipped across the room to get it.  As I walked by her bed on the way out, she woke up briefly.  I stopped and talked with her for a minute or so and told her I was leaving and would see her the next day.  She went back to sleep with a smile on her face.

I had taken Monday off to work on Judy’s Medicaid paperwork.  We were sure that come October 1st, we would need to put her into a nursing home as the money had run out for her stay at the Assisted Living facility.  I worked on her paperwork that morning and went to visit her.  She had started vomiting fairly regularly and was feeling real sick at her stomach.  She had not eaten anything and even when she took her meds, they didn’t stay down long.  Hospice was called in and they quickly took her off a lot of her meds and replaced some with liquid versions of the medications so that the pills wouldn’t upset her already, delicate system.  I stayed with her for a while that day and had to take the next day off to finish the paperwork.  I had visited a couple of nursing homes to try and see if I could setup a placement on short notice.  I went back to stay with her that afternoon and she was still vomiting regularly.  This was day two of not eating and only drinking a few sips of water.  I went to work the next day, Wednesday the 24th.  I couldn’t concentrate on doing any work as I was on my phone handling Medicaid and nursing home business as well as taking calls from friends and family.  By Noon, I realized that I wasn’t going to get anything done, so I took the afternoon off and went back to stay with my wife.

I arrived at her room about 1:00pm and she was sleeping.  I spoke to the facility nurse and found out that they was able to get the vomiting under control the night before, but she still wasn’t eating and barely drinking anything.  Judy would wake up for a few moments and speak.  Not complete sentences, just a couple of words.  She would then go back to sleep.  I sat with her the rest of the day and was able to give her some water each time she would wake up.  By this time, she was on morphine and liquid Adavan only.  All other meds had been removed.  I called my work and took the next two days off, not knowing what the future held for us.

I called my sister-in-law, Debi, and told her of Judy’s condition.  She came in a bit later and so did Judy’s older sister, Diana, and they too, took time off from their work to stay with her.  I went home that evening, exhausted, about 9:00pm.  Debi and Diana were going to stay the night with her, so they could call me if anything changed.  This was the beginning of her diabetic coma signalling that it wouldn’t be long now.

On Thursday, September 25th, 2014, I went in about 7:00am and stayed the entire day with the exception of slipping out for a break every so often.  Now, Judy was mostly sleeping and when she woke up, she wasn’t recognizing too many people.  She could recognize voices and heard the kids when they called and we held the phone to her ear.  She would light up when she her kids voices.  Another day of no eating and barely drinking much water.  When she was thirsty, she couldn’t verbalize much, but she let us know what she wanted.  After being there all day, I went home about 8:00pm to get some rest.  At 7:00am the next morning, I received a phone call from the facility nurse telling me that Judy’s condition was worsening.  I needed to be there.  I rushed over there and had already started calling friends and family the day before, so now I was frantically trying to get Lana home from Rhode Island and her brother in from Terre Haute.  Other family members were already gathering.

This was Friday, September 26th, 2014, and now day five of no eating and barely drinking any water.  Judy was in no pain or discomfort.  She could no longer speak recognizable words.  Mostly grunts and groans.  She was unable to see anything and her eyes wouldn’t dilate like they should.  She could still hear but didn’t recognize anybody at this point.  By noon, family and friends were gathering, phones were ringing and plans were being made.  Lana was able to get in about 6:30pm and went to her Mom’s bedside.  At 8:00pm, again, exhausted from all of the long days and short nights, I went home to clean up and get some rest.  At 10:00pm, our Daughter-in-Law, Connie, called me and said the time was short.  I jumped into some clothes and rushed back to my wife’s bedside.  When I arrived, she had a room full of friends and family members gathering around her.

At 11:32pm, my wife was taken home to be with the Lord! The nurse came in and pronounced her and then had this verified by a second nurse. The end had came now, 1 year and 13 days after her diagnosis. She was now, for the first time in years, fully healed and cancer free once again! Our tears were both of joy and mourning. God had finally answered our prayers to have her fully healed!

The following day, while talking to our daughter, we discussed the fact that we were not grieving like we should. In other words, our grief was not as present as we thought it should be. Realizing that we had actually began our grieving process many years earlier, and our actual grieving had came to a climax a year earlier when Judy was pronounced terminal. We began the peak of our grieving then. Not knowing when the final day would come, we grieved every day until that blessed moment arrived. For the most part, our grieving was complete. We will never stop loving her or never will forget her. She will always be in our hearts and memories. We will continue to miss her and grieve for her as time goes on. Life for us will go on and we will continue to move forward in our lives. What happens next…well, time will tell, it always does!

I started this post with a question…”How does a Pastor handle their own grief?”. Pastors grieve like everyone else. Pastors are human too. In my case, I sought out the counsel of a fellow pastor, who is a friend of mine. This helped me greatly. I prayed a lot, sought out scripture, read the Bible a lot and worked through my grief with friends and family too. Like I said before, life goes on and we must move forward. I went back to work right away after my 3 days of bereavement and continued with my ministry, only taking the one week off from preaching and Bible Study. This helped me to get some normalcy back into my life and helped to keep me on track.

Am I still grieving over my loss? Yes, I am! I will for some time. Will this disable me and keep me from moving on with my life? No, it won’t! Whatever God has in store for me, I am ready to take it on and will continue living my life!

Thank you for enduring this long post. Writing this has also helped me to handle my grief as well. Remembering the past, never forgetting the life we had together.