Tuesday, September 28, 2010

losing someone....

Recently I was asked to share "what it's like to lose someone to cancer" at a cancer information evening. A great title for a talk! This is what I said......

Hi, I’m Stacy and my husband John died of melanoma cancer on Christmas Eve 2004. Woah! That’s ages ago you might think but there are aspects of that event that resonate with me today. So I'd like to share a little bit of my story....

John’s cancer happened in two blocks - with his initial diagnosis and treatment in 1995 when he was 36. He had a referral to a melanoma specialist to check a large suspicious looking mole on his back. At the time I thought – don’t panic, don’t make it bigger than it is, it will be okay, nothing will happen to us, God’s got it under control..... I played it down in my mind as a way of coping and not giving in to fear. When John came home and said they’re 98% sure it’s a melanoma, I didn’t really react as I thought.... it won’t be, it’ll be okay....

He went in for surgery to have it removed with a large elliptical margin around it and it wasn’t until they came back with the histology that I finally reacted. The flood gates opened, I was sooo fearful and shocked. He needed further surgery and the prognosis was not good. It was a very large melanoma and it’s size meant John had a 70% chance of dying and a 30% chance of surviving. All cancer diagnosis eventually comes down to statistics – rates of survival, development of the disease... They can be frightening, overwhelming and ultimately unhelpful. We found we had to pray and really listen carefully to hear God’s voice in the midst of it all. And we did. John recovered from his surgery, he went in for checkups, had countless numbers of moles removed and we began to feel optimistic for the future. John always said “I dodged that bullet!”

Then in 2003 he was officially pronounced clear and was discharged as an outpatient. Yay! But then in September 2004, on his 45th birthday, he felt ill. Like he had gastroenteritis and he progressively began to feel worse. At first we thought it was something fairly normal or routine but as time went on, we started to put the dots together. A diagnosis from the specialist confirmed that John was suffering from end stage melanoma cancer, too late and advanced for chemo. He was pretty sick by then, riddled with tumours in every part of his body. And that was when our long dark night (as John called it) began.

I took time off work to be his full time nurse which was an amazing privilege and it made it much easier for him to bear everything. The thing about that, is it starts to wear you out. It’s a constant pressure emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually – it’s exhausting. My family were great, stepping in to help out where we needed it. It’s such a weird time - helping someone you love so much and actually don’t want to go, to face death and to die well. To try to ease the way in any way that you can. You feel like you’re in a bubble with the muffled outside world whizzing by. It’s emotionally charged, overwhelming, beautiful, meaningful, special, heart breaking, awful and terrible all at the same time.... and you wouldn’t miss it for the world.

John knew he was going to die. He knew the path God had prepared for him and what he was asking of him and he never flinched. He concentrated on finishing the race. He told the doctors, “I have no regrets. I wouldn’t have done it differently. I have lived a full life.” He felt immensely blessed, he talked to everyone about his faith in God. How he could face death without fear because he knew where he was going and that Jesus would be with him.

On the day he died, he said to me, “What’s the plan today, Stace?”
And I said “You’re going to get through today and finish the race.”
And he said, “I can do that.” And he did, John finished his race well.

In the early evening of Christmas Eve 2004, the room was very peaceful with a soft, golden light. There was a tangible presence of God in the room, strong and comforting. The girls and I were with John, waiting.... Beth saw John open his eyes and look up, like he was looking at someone. She said, “Mum!” We looked at John, he took two breaths and then he died. One step from here to eternity... John lived and died well. We knew God was saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Knowing John, his faith and the life he lived, gave us hope in the time of his sickness and death. We knew it wasn’t the end, that he had finished the race, he was with God, totally healed and complete in him. The night before he died, he said to the girls, “It’s not good bye, it’s see you later!” So for us, we know we’ll see him again. That has been a great source of hope in the midst of our grief.

Several hours after John died, I went into shock. I couldn’t stop shaking and I felt physically ill. My mind stopped functioning properly and I felt completely overloaded. That’s when the long dark night, turned into overwhelming darkness. I knew that it would be hard when John died, but I had no idea how hard. The pain was physically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelming. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t take anymore, it was more than I could bear.

I kept going through the days between John’s death and his funeral. There were things to organise, think about, people to talk to, flowers, venue, catering, music…… I just kept going – mentally and emotionally stretched. I felt God beside me, so close.... helping me, holding me, bringing me through. John’s funeral was amazing. Full of love, tears, laughter, praise, honouring God and John’s life. So many people came. Then we were alone.... starting to learn to live without John – my best friend, buddy, love, mate, partner, husband, rock, encourager, my girl’s amazing, funny, reliable, encouraging friend and Dad. There was such a space, a gap, a void, something so precious missing from our lives.

I walked with John into the valley of the shadow of death – he walked out through to the other side into the fullness of God’s promises for him. I stayed there in the valley, stuck in it’s long dark shadow. The walls of the valley are steep and the shadow is big, long and black. In the depth of that valley the darkness is overwhelming. I would have been overwhelmed if I hadn’t felt God close beside me, holding me up, giving me strength, feeling the pain and helping me to bear the pain, weeping with me. Whispering in my ear “I can get you through this.”

He will never give me more than I can bear. 1 Corinthians 10:13
God is my refuge and strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble. Psalm 46:1
Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Isaiah 53:3
I held onto those scriptures. They were my lifeline. They gave me strength to face each day, to take one step forward, over and over again. I have been through such times of unbearable loneliness. I have cried oceans of tears. I have felt strung out, wrung out and completely physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. I just kept turning back into God, nestling into him, sheltering under his wing, hiding myself away.

I felt so small, like a little child facing the world all by herself.... vulnerable, unsure of her place and purpose. My heart was broken – my baby was gone and the pain and impact of that was indescribable. People asked “Did I miss John?” I ached for him with every fibre of my being. Missed him, that’s an understatement!

I felt like I had no future. My future, my hopes and dreams had died with John. Part of me died with him. My world was completely black. I’ve always tried to look at life from the glass half-full perspective, looking for the positive, the good in every situation. Now I felt like someone had taken the glass, thrown it away and completely smashed it.

I held onto the scripture Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Every day I would say that over and over again. In my head I knew it was true but I didn’t feel it in my heart. I felt like I had no hope, that it was completely gone. It was my statement of faith to God. I know you have good intentions for me and I am going to keep holding this up to you because you are faithful. Sometime, somewhere in the future, something is going to happen.

And through it all God kept close beside me as I was walking, trudging, climbing, falling, stumbling, trying to find my way. My story is not that I’m incredibly brave or strong or amazing or an awesome woman of great faith but that in my mind-numbed, broken state I just kept turning back into God.... that every day I would choose to take all my pain, my hopelessness and give it to him. That I would take one step at a time, one after another, after another, every day.... choosing God, believing that he had good things in store for me... that he could get me through this.

Someone said to me that it would ease after about a year but it didn’t. My world felt completely black and hopeless for a long time. After two years I felt the darkness start to lift a little, turning my world to shades of grey. I felt like I had finally climbed out of the valley of the shadow of death and could see a little light. But it was still grey. It wasn’t miraculously over but there was a tiny seed of hope.

In going through the darkness and pain, I felt that God wanted me to feel the depth of my loss and my grief. To let it resonate fully through my heart, mind and spirit. To know how much I have lost, how much I missed John, to acknowledge how much my life had changed, to feel my broken heart, to fully experience all the feelings no matter how painful and to let God into the midst of it all to begin healing me.

And all along the way God sent me people - my amazing family and friends and sometimes even strangers got alongside me, encouraged me and helped me to keep moving forward when I felt like giving up. They loved me regardless of how I was, they prayed for me, encouraged me, gave me words of wisdom, fed me, hung out with me, carried me, poured me a wine, cried with me and laughed with me. And there were times when I thought I’d never laugh again (and I am normally a pretty funny person). They let me just be me. They let me process things at the pace I needed to. My beautiful girls put up with a lot through all of this. They are my most loyal supporters, cheerleaders and friends. And my family, my gorgeous sisters were amazing. We often talked about hunkering down, wagons in a circle, protecting each other like in the Wild West!

I’m still on a journey with my grief. As I’ve walked through the darkness, I’ve fully experienced the depth and power of God’s love and his healing power in my heart and life. Through death and pain, I’ve found a new life with depths of compassion and love that somehow make me a richer person. I’ve found a life with hope!

I’d just like to finish with this thought - cancer has taken a high toll on my family. Eight months after John died, my Mum died suddenly of undiagnosed bowel cancer and at the moment I am supporting my sister through treatment for breast cancer – she’s had a mastectomy and has just finished chemo. And yet in the midst of it all we still love God, we press into him for comfort, direction, encouragement and support. We see his healing hand working every day....

....and we are still standing strong. So in all of that cancer has not won!

Know Hope by Michael J Totten
Hope by Jake Belder
Your Existence by Ashley MC
Graffitti Heart by 55Max

Monday, September 13, 2010


We recently had our staff retreat at a friend's beach house at Takatu, an hour's drive north of Auckland. It is the most peaceful place, set in a valley surrounded by fields, bush and sheep. The beach is close at hand. You can see it from the deck! While we were there it rained constantly but it didn't really matter because the house is well designed for indoor and outdoor living. It was still great to just relax, reflect and chill out together.
I love their decorating style. Precious objects, artworks and books sit alongside collections of natural and found objects. Family treasures are lovingly and artfully displayed. It is relaxed.... it says comfort and home.... it invites you to kick back, unwind and let the stresses of the city fall far behind you.....
Stencilled acrylic on board by Rick Shanks
"Let us spray!"
We had to leave all too soon. Reluctantly we packed up and headed off just as the sun started to peek through the clouds!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

road trip

Last Saturday Beth, my niece - Ruth and I headed down country. It was the most glorious day - clear blue skies and sun!
Ruth LOVES horses (and anything to do with animals) so we organised a visit to Morrinsville to see our rellies - Gail, Fred and Victoria. Victoria breeds horses (in her spare time) and has around 15 horses of various ages, maturity and levels of obedience on her property. She took us for a guided tour to meet the horses with her exuberant, slightly naughty dog - Roxy - who did an impromtu round up of the calves and spent the rest of our walk on the lead!
While Ruth and Victoria attended to the horses, Beth and I wandered around their gorgeous property. The lady who owned it before Gail used to host garden tours so there is an abundance of flowers, trees, garden sculptures, rustic seats, doves, ducks, a pond and fish to peruse and enjoy.... so beautiful and peaceful.
After lunch we went to check out Gail and Fred's latest project - a property up the road with three neglected commercial greenhouses. It has an abandoned air. The previous owners had let the greenhouses become completely overgrown but as Fred has hacked the roof-high overgrowth back he's found many of the flower beds intact underneath. Over the next months and years, they hope to bring life and order back to it all (in their spare time). It's a huge task but a rewarding one. You can see the beauty of the flowers that they've uncovered so far. These are the rejects unsuitable for the flower markets. We gathered that huge armful to take home!
Fred also has a small flock of sheep. We helped to round up them up so the lambs could have their tails docked. On that note this city girl decided to head home!!
It was an amazing day. It was really restorative to get out of the city and to spend time in the country surrounded by beauty, nature, animals.... just to stop, take a breath and relax. We are also in awe of our country rellies who have such industrious hobbies. Phew! Ruth came away totally exhausted but happy with all her animal adventures.... falling fast asleep on the way home!

Photos by Bethany Peters, with the odd one taken by Ruth Lord and Stacy McIvor


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