How one family discovered the presence
of God in personal loss.
by Lettie Kirkpatrick Burress
The doctor’s silence thundered through the telephone wires. My husband’s first biopsy results were negative, so we had assumed the secondary testing would also reveal nothing. When I heard Dr. Coleman’s voice, I cheerfully responded, “Well, do we have good news?”
His sorrowful silence began our five-year journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Tom had cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 46 years old.
Our family was no stranger to tragedy. Two years earlier, Tom kissed our teenage daughter, Shela, as she headed into minor surgery. “See you later, Bebe,” he told her. Shela died during that surgery. How could we be facing another loss so soon?
Though Tom’s cancer was incurable and inoperable, we learned that he could gain remission and live well for some years. After the initial shock, my optimistic husband faced facts and chose to continue with his life. We knew from experience that we had God as a refuge and help in times of trouble.
Radiation and oral chemo brought brief, temporary remissions. Periodic bone scans revealed any new concerns. God gave us five fairly calm years following diagnosis. We didn’t dwell on the cancer, and it did not greatly disrupt our lives. It was a shadow over our days, the proverbial sleeping giant. But Tom continued to coach our four sons in sports, teach adult Bible school, and coach the Tennessee Volunteers from his armchair.
Weakness and hope
A new recurrence of cancer required Tom to resume treatment, but routine blood work following his oral chemo yielded baffling results. Repeat testing confirmed the horrible suspicion: Tom’s bone marrow was being destroyed by the medicine itself. He began blood transfusions and injections to jumpstart his own marrow production. Nothing worked.
Life became a series of days battling weakness and holding on to hope. To ensure that we would receive his company’s insurance coverage, Tom determined to work until he could go no more. His days consisted of working a few hours, going to the hospital for transfusions, and shuffling back home.
One morning Tom confessed to me, “The day before me looks like a mountain.” As he left, I cried out to God for him. God reminded me of the framed verse over our bed: “I will go before you and will level the mountains” (Isaiah 45:2).
Later, a friend called to check on us. I asked her to pray, explaining “I am drowning in his pain.”
Faith and humor
Tom continued to teach his adult Bible class even though the side effects of shots and transfusions limited his time at church. One day I overheard Zane, our eight-year-old, chiding a friend who had missed church. “Well, my dad is sick a lot, but he still goes to teach his Bible school class.”
Two months after the bone marrow shutdown, Tom left his job and began a rapid decline. Still, his faith was strong, and his sense of humor continued to amaze us. He informed our pastor, “I will either come out of this with a miracle, or Lettie will come out with a book.”
We soon knew that without that miracle, we were facing Tom’s death. And we knew it was time to begin the goodbyes. We held each other and cried. Then Tom called three (one was at work) of our boys into the bedroom, one at a time.
He hugged Adam, our oldest, and told him, “I love you.” Tom sat Adam down and told him to pray that God would either heal him soon or take him.
Judson knew how serious his dad’s condition was during their talk. Tom said that before his time came, he wanted Judson to realize how proud he was of him and how much he loved him. Tom told Judson that when he died, he didn’t want him to be sad, because he certainly wouldn’t be.
Note and closure
Zane wanted no part of his dad’s farewell; he would not look at Tom or acknowledge his words. I took Zane to our outside swing and asked him, “Do you understand that your dad is saying he might die soon?”
“I do,” Zane answered, then burst into tears. “I’ll feel sad forever! I’m afraid I’ll forget Dad.”
I assured Zane we would never forget but that his dad’s death would not always hurt so bad. After our talk, Zane typed this note to Tom:
“Dear, dad I writing this letter to you because I love you very much. and I hope you get better. and you are my favorite dad and I’m praying for you and I always remember you and I love you very much. love, Zane.”
Tom’s uncontrollable nosebleed found us in the hospital that very night. Logan, our eighteen-year-old, came to the emergency room for his goodbye. Logan discovered that the goodbye made it easier when the time of death actually came. Though the talk he had in private with his dad at the hospital was hard, it brought a sense of peace and gave him closure.
Longing to leave
Tom was beginning to long for an end to his suffering. One afternoon he asked me if I minded that he wanted to die. “I know you have fought tolive,” I assured him. “You have my permission to leave.”
Ten days later, Tom got his wish. A group of men came to our home to pray. I met them at the door. “I want you to pray for a miracle or mercy,” I told them. “He’s longing to leave.”
As the men concluded their prayer, Tom actually prayed for God to bless them! Shortly after they left, Tom’s heart rate began dropping. He died early that evening.
At a crowded memorial service, we celebrated Tom’s full life. His friends wore the color of his alma mater, University of Tennessee orange, and we exited to the tune of “Rocky Top.” I read a letter from our family at the service:
“Tom’s legacy in his family and community will live far beyond this day. In these last days he taught me much about trusting God during relentless suffering. He taught our boys about keeping on without complaint even in the hardest circumstances of life. With his unquenchable humor, he reminded us that we can laugh even in those hard places. But he also taught us that it’s okay to cry and gave us each the gift of loving goodbyes. Tom’s death brings wonderful news and terrible news: wonderful that his journey is complete and he will one day be with the Lord, terrible that we will now go on alone.”
I didn’t realize then how hard that loneliness would be. Becoming a widow and single parent at age 48 threatened to engulf me. While my daughter’s death broke my heart years before, my husband’s death nearly broke my spirit. My future seemed to die with him; the pain of loneliness was unrelenting.
But God spoke to me through the Bible: “The Lord . . . sustains the fatherless and the widow . . .” (Psalm 146:9); “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (147:3). God has used the loving presence and prayers of friends to undergird us. He was present in the countless menial and frustrating details involved in settling an estate, giving wisdom, and removing obstacles.
Healing and wholeness
The boys are healing; their faith has inspired me. Adam has challenged himself to become as knowledgeable about God and the Bible as his dad was and, when the time comes, to be a good husband and father.
Life for me has certainly changed. I joined an older Christian singles group and began hiking regularly with a local club. The words hope, believe, wait, and trust hold deeper meaning for me now as I move toward a different future than I anticipated. I cling to Psalm 27:13, 14: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord . . . Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage . . .” (NASB).
Farewells are painful, and grieving can’t be bypassed. But facing loss with faith in a loving God makes all the difference in the world.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.
Truths to Cling to in Trials
God sees our struggle (Genesis 16:13).
Even the darkness is light to Him (Psalm 139:12).
There are treasures in darkness (Isaiah 45:3).
His ways are higher (Isaiah 55:8, 9).
He is incomprehensible (Romans 11:33, 34).
We are precious; He is compassionate (Lamentations 3:32, 33).
He is growing and refining us (Job 23:10).
There will be an end to pain (1 Peter 5:10).
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