Guest Post: Suffering Well Through the Death of a Loved One
John Musyimi (@Musyimi John) is the father of four children, a Pastor and Elder at Emmanuel Baptist Church, and an author of two books: ‘A Counterfeit Gospel’ and ‘Love Bila Regrets’, both available for purchase at Ekklesia Afrika. This year in February, Pastor John lost his dear wife and mother of his children. Read on as he shares how he is striving to suffer well in the face of loss and grief.
On the morning of Feb 19th, 2020, I sat across a hospital bed and watched an army of doctors desperately try to restart my wife’s heart. It had failed for the second time in a few hours. My wife Maureen (friends called her Mo’) had been admitted to the hospital for the past nine days, and the doctors were having a hard time finding a unified diagnosis for her symptoms. At that time, her condition got progressively worse, no matter what the doctors threw at it.
After what seemed like an eternity of rigorous attempts to save her, the team of doctors, in a synchronized fashion, stopped and slowly stepped away from the bed. The head surgeon approached me and muttered the words, “I am so sorry…” I can’t remember what he said after that. They called her time of death. My wife of seven years and mother of my four young children had just crossed the threshold from time to eternity. Friends and family surrounding me helped me walk to the bedside, to view her lifeless body, all of us wailing and blinded by our tears.
The ground underneath me seemed to give way and plunge me into an abyss. Shock and disbelief overwhelmed me as I sunk into great darkness and sorrow.
Post Mortem results would later reveal that she had miliary tuberculosis. It led to her lung failure and the eventual heart failure that took her life.
The week after her death
Soon after her death, the hospital ward started filling with friends and family who had somehow heard about it. Every new face brought with it a fresh wave of sadness and tears. Once again, we regathered around the bed where her body lay, and one of our pastors, Russel Armstrong, read a passage from 1 Thessalonians 4 and prayed.
Later, when I got home, my eldest son Taji, as soon as I walked through the door, asked: “Papa, where is mama?”
I proceeded to take him (5 years old) and his twin sisters (3 years old) to my bedroom and explain to them that mama went to heaven to be with Jesus and would not be coming back home. We prayed, and off they went. Back to their play …
Shortly after, my phone started to buzz with notifications on social media from people who had begun to talk about my wife’s passing. It was at this point that I decided to write a post on Twitter and Facebook to remove any speculation and have the news of her passing told in my own terms. I wrote the following:
‘It pleased the Lord to call my dear wife to Himself this morning. We are devastated, pray for us.’
Tears, visits, phone calls (many of which I could not pick up), and text messages (all of which I read) filled the days after. My elder sister, Jaque, who handled the logistics around the whole affair, would occasionally call me to seek my direction on various decisions. It had never occurred to me that I would have to decide what dress my wife’s body would be buried in, what message to write as her epitaph, or what I would say in tribute at her memorial service.
The nights after her death
By far, the most challenging waves of my grief came (and still come) at night. I suppose that because of the stillness of the night, one has to face their thoughts. My thoughts were torturous. They frequently robbed me of sleep. The thoughts that racked me most was that she never got to see or say bye to the kids. ‘Was scared the morning her lungs started failing?’ I wondered. The worst kind of these thoughts were those where my present self judged my past self harshly for failing to care for my wife well during her sickness. “If only I had done such and such, she would not have died.”
In my line of work, I had had much experience shepherding others in their grief. Now, the tables had turned, and I was the one in need of shepherding. My house was now ‘a house of mourning.’
Our Church held a public service every day until her burial on February 26, 2020. Her funeral was precisely a week from her death. I chose the dress she wore at the last wedding in which she and I served as the best couple. My friend John (the groom at that wedding) would preach Psalm 13 at one of those public services. The words I chose for her epitaph read ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord’ written by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:8. My friend and pastor, Ken Mbugua, would preach from that very passage on the day of the funeral.
‘…absent from the body, present with the Lord.’
Landmines following her death
In the days and weeks after the burial, I encountered many emotional landmines along the path. These consisted of little and big things that, upon coming across them, would trigger explosions of pain in me. Driving down Ngong road and seeing the cramped tiny apartment we were living in when she got sick and died -boom! Or further down, running into the first hospital that admitted her (Coptic hospital) -boom! At the office, I was filling an insurance form and came to the slot asking for my marital status -boom! When I read the postmortem report, with its cold and clinical descriptions, or when I received her death certificate -boom and boom! An interesting one happened when I called my bank’s customer care service line, and the agent picked up and said, ‘Thank you for calling X bank, Maureen speaking..’ -boom!
What possible use could I have for telling you all this? Allow me to share a snippet of the means of grace that are helping me to suffer through this dark season of my life. Perhaps you will find them useful in your season of trial and loss. If God uses my grief to serve you, then may His name be praised all the more.
Means of grace that are helping me suffer well:
1. Lean hard on the local church
God used Emmanuel Baptist Church (EBC) as the primary means of grace to sustain me. The members went above and beyond to care for my family and me. Some picked and dropped my kids off from school, those who cooked and delivered meals for us for weeks, some serviced my car and replaced its worn-out tires, and others prepared tea and snacks for the bereavement services. I am confident that I’m not aware of all the other different kinds of care extended to me during that period by those precious saints. However, I’m grateful for every seen and unseen deed. God sees, and may he richly bless you all.
Beyond my particular local Church, there was also a great outpouring of care and support from two other Churches that Mo’ and I had been a part of The Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and Mamlaka Hill Chapel in Nairobi. Their pastors and congregations were a tremendous source of grace and comfort. There were also various churches abroad that heard about us and prayed for us.
2. Choose corporate worship that is serious and weighty
The Sunday following her death, I walked into our regular corporate worship gathering as a miserable, suffering saint. What I needed was gravity and seriousness that would minister to my deeply hurting soul. It was then that I appreciated how important it was that the tone of our corporate worship is always reverential and God-centered. I saw how a glib, lighthearted, playful style of corporate worship could potentially do a great disservice to hurting and suffering saints.
3. Employ biblical lament
A significant turning in my initial state of grief took place at a bereavement service the day following her death. I remember being in great pain but lacking the vocabulary to articulate it. It was just there, pulsating beneath the surface, a powerful ache that wouldn’t go away.
During that service, a dear sister in our Church got up to read a passage. The selection was from Lamentations 3. As she read, I felt as if God gave me the words to articulate my pain to Him. Afterward, a brother came and prayed a corporate prayer of lament. I cannot overstate how deeply significant that prayer was. (I have since thanked him for availing himself to be used by God at that moment). One could hear collective sighs of pained agreement in the gathered congregation. From that point henceforth, lament became a great companion and a source of relief for me.
“It was then that I appreciated how important it was that the tone of our corporate worship is always reverential and God-centered.”
4. Sing theologically robust songs
The songs we sang in those public services also proved to be a powerful balm for my hurting soul. What was useful about them was that they proclaimed a theology that was deep enough, wide enough, and high enough for the depths, width, and heights of my sorrow.
5. Lean on the power of family and friends
Different members of my immediate and larger family were of significant support. I have already mentioned my sister Jaque and her husband, my two other siblings, my parents, my cousins, uncles, and aunties all stepped in and helped. Our best couple, Isaac and Rhoda, provided invaluable support to us before and after. My late wife’s colleagues at Ogilvy were such a solid rock for us. ‘The Contented Mothers’ group provided and continues to provide exceptional help. Space does not permit me to mention all who were there for our family during that season. If you are reading this, know that you have my deepest thanks.
6. Resolve to face the darkness
Reckoning with the fact of suffering in general and my specific suffering proved useful. These reminded me of the realism with which the Bible treats suffering. So, I decided that I would not suppress any haunting images, thoughts, or memories of my wife’s death.
Instead, I decided to face it all head-on, review it, lament to God over it, resolve it in prayer, and file it away under His sovereign care. I had to learn not to use the 2020 clarity of hindsight as a battering ram against my conscience. I had to evaluate and resolve that my decisions prior were the best ones based on the information I had. Finally, I had to rest in the sovereign power and wisdom of God that had ordained her death at the precise time it happened. This continual exercise of grace prepared my soul for the many emotional landmines that I would encounter.
“…lament became a great companion and a source of relief for me.”
7. Rest in the sovereignty of God
A robust theology of God as sovereign over my wife’s sickness and death was an unbelievably steadying spiritual resource. God is good, wise, and loving and has excellent and caring reasons for taking her from me to Himself.
8. Draw on the grief of others
God provided three men who have walked the journey I am on and have served me by holding my hand and leading me through the labyrinth of grief. Two of them are alive today and correspond with me occasionally. One of them is the (long dead) puritan, Richard Baxter. I had an opportunity to read J.I. Packer’s work on him in ‘A Grief Sanctified’ and was enormously encouraged by the reflections of Baxter on the loss of his wife after 19 years of marriage.
9. Rehearse the hope of the gospel
Beyond lament, rehearsing the hope of glory held out in the gospel of Jesus Christ profoundly encourages me. Every sermon delivered during those services was robustly Biblical and unabashedly Christ-centered. The adequacy of God as a refuge, the victory of Jesus over death and the grave, the present power of grace for suffering saints, the future resurrection, and the glorious inheritance that awaits those who are Christ’s were all themes that we heard repeated over and over. Remembering that Jesus also suffered and died made him more precious to my soul as a sympathetic high priest. Having a loved one in heaven with Jesus made it all the more tangible to my faith.
“A robust theology of God as sovereign over my wife’s sickness and death was an unbelievably steadying spiritual resource.”
In conclusion, how am I doing?
I write this a little over four-months since Mo’ died. May 31, 2020, would have been our 7th marriage anniversary. I decided to make that the day that I took off the wedding ring. It seemed most appropriate to me; seven years before I had put it on, and seven years later, our vow ‘till death do us part’ was now, sadly, fulfilled. I also changed my status on my social media accounts to ‘widowed.’ It was an emotionally heavy day that saw me crying alone in my car at a mall parking lot.
As far as her clothes go, they are still neatly hung and folded on what would have been her side of the closet in my bedroom. Lord willing, at some point (maybe on her birthday, Oct 3), I will pack them in boxes and give them to our daughters when they are older.
The kids are happy and healthy. They have been on preventive TB therapy for the last four months, with two months to go. I was screened and found to be TB free.
If you were to ask me how I am doing now, I would say that I am doing okay for a wounded man. The wound is healing, but it is not all the way healed yet. I have miserable days every so often, but those are fewer and fewer. I miss her immensely. My walk with God is good. I am having sweet times of communion with him in the scriptures and prayer. I am back to work and have been praying for clarity regarding what my future in ministry will look like. God’s mercy continues to carry me through the darkness, and the hope of the gospel continues to be a sure and steady anchor for me. I am suffering, but by God’s grace, I am striving to suffer well.