Learning about God: A Personal Story
Part 3 of 6
Editor’s Note — This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of my wife, Eleanor, who died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in South Africa. For all of those 20 years I have tried to support people walking the grief journey as I was supported in that crisis time. It is only in the last few months that I have been able to write something I can share with others about the many crises of that experience and what I learned about God in the midst of grief. This article is part of that series. I pray it will be helpful to others walking the grief journey.
By Bob Terry
Editor, The Alabama Baptist
How can you give someone you love permission to die?
That was the struggle I faced as I entered the intensive care unit (ICU) of the hospital for the first time Tuesday afternoon. That morning a doctor visited me on the ward and told me Eleanor had taken a turn for the worse during the night. He told me she was in critical condition but he could not tell me what was wrong with her.
Later I realized he was trying to tell me Eleanor was dying but I refused to hear it, and because his own grief was still fresh from losing his mother, he could not say the words plainly.
The doctor who waited for me outside the door to the ICU had no such problems. He looked at me and told me in no uncertain terms that Eleanor was dying and that I needed to say goodbye to her now. His bedside manner was a little rough, to put it mildly.
My wheelchair was pushed to Eleanor’s bed and I took her free hand. I talked of our love, of my thankfulness of being a part of her life and the privilege of having her in mine. I talked of our faith in God and our hope for eternity.
During the time I talked about the medical conditions she faced, I said one of the most foolish things ever to come from my mouth. I assured her I would be all right.
Similar words were said every time I visited her the next few days. I believed them at the time but nothing could have been further from the truth. When you lose someone you love, you lose a part of yourself.
I thought I was strong emotionally. Much of my life I have lived in my head, not allowing my heart to respond to things people said. It was safer that way as editor of a state Baptist paper. But if I were ever emotionally strong, I cracked and almost fatally so.
On Saturday morning, Eleanor and I were placed on cots along one side of the Medjet plane which had more equipment on it than the hospital’s operating room. The first stop was more than three hours away, the international airport near Windhoek, capitol of Namibia on the opposite side of the African continent.
The plane was directed to the far end of a tarmac. A car was sent to take me and the emergency room nurse who watched over me to the bathroom in the terminal. When people glanced at me they quickly turned away. My face was disfigured from the accident and the surgery.
As we drove back to the plane — about 300 yards — I saw something that offered escape from the trauma, chaos and grief surrounding me. I saw a spinning airplane propeller blade.
I had read about people being killed by walking into a spinning propeller. Death was immediate. I could take a few steps and be free of all the problems facing me, I thought.
I was asked to try and walk between the wing and nose of the Medjet plane to get some exercise before the next leg of the journey home. My nurse boarded the plane to help care for Eleanor. Yards away propellers from a commuter prop-jet whirled. Even at my slow pace I could make the journey from wing tip to propeller tip in about 20 seconds, I calculated.
Eleanor was dying and I could be with her for eternity. I would not have to live with grief or face the loneliness and heartache the death of a loved one brings. It seemed like a perfect solution and it was only seconds away.
I walked outside my prescribed area to see if anyone was watching. They were not. They were all treating Eleanor. I walked to the edge of the wing and back. The more I walked the stronger grew the song of the spinning propeller. It was as if the sound was calling my name. It promised escape, relief. I wanted to take the first step.
Life is God’s first gift
But I could not. Life is God’s first gift. Our responsibility is to accept it. We are not free to treat it carelessly or to throw it away because of some unfortunate circumstance.
For me to take that step would be to give up on God, to act as if God were not able to uphold, to guide, to heal, to restore. Philippians 4:13 came rushing to my mind, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” — even walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
I could not give up on God, not on what He would do in the immediate situation and what He would do in the time that followed.
Perhaps my mind cleared a little after choosing life over death. I began to think of my children and my grandchild.
Already they would be deprived of their mother and grandmother. My responsibility — my opportunity — was to be more involved in their lives than ever, not to throw away that privilege.
I never again thought about suicide
About the same time that I took a step back from the wing of the Medjet plane a flight attendant stepped out of the commuter plane and soon a line of passengers was boarding. I never again thought about suicide. I had never thought about it before. That was something beyond the pale for me.
Now I am not so sure. I still do not understand suicide but am more sympathetic than before remembering those moments in Namibia when all I wanted to do was die and wonder what if … .
If you ever feel that way let me urge you not to give up on God. On this side of that experience I know He will see you through the chaos and through all the days that follow. He did it for me and God will do it for you.
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