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Death and loss may undermine confidence, but faith gives us eyes to see

I thought I knew what faith is. I thought I understood the true meaning of the classic definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Over the past 30 years, as my faith matured, I counseled others on faith, especially comforting friends and relatives who lost loved ones or to finding comfort when I lost my parents and younger brother at 51.

As a “born again” Catholic Christian, I confidently assured them and myself that, though we might not understand now, our loss wasn’t permanent and “some day” we would be reunited with that loved one in God’s presence.  I thought that was faith. Now I know it wasn’t.

When my wife Judy was suddenly taken from us after an excruciatingly brief illness, my confident assurance evaporated.

Everything happened so fast. In early June, she began feeling tired, short of breath and occasionally dizzy.  A month or so earlier, she received a clean bill of health after her annual physical.  She agreed to see a doctor again, but put it off, hoping to be with our daughter as she delivered her first child, our fifth grandchild. She finally made an appointment for June 15.

Our daughter went into labor early Sunday, June 14, and delivered Andre Steven just before 11 a.m. Judy drove her to the hospital and was in the delivery room.

As we were preparing to take our daughter and grandson out of the hospital, Judy and I went to her doctor’s appointment.  Blood tests indicated a major problem.  Judy was immediately admitted.

That night, Monday, we learned the bad news: leukemia.  Two days later, on our 42nd wedding anniversary, we received worse news—not just leukemia, but acute lymphocytic leukemia, extremely rare in adults and so rare none of the doctors would discuss a prognosis.

We had faith, so we would beat it.

In the next 15 days, we never seriously discussed the possibility of death. The first round of chemo went well.  We were in contact with the bone marrow transplant center to make initial intake arrangements.

Suddenly, Judy contracted a virulent infection. It blossomed into double pneumonia and in hours spread from her lungs to her blood.  She became septic. Multiple organ failure followed. Between 8:30 p.m. July 2, when she was laughing, visiting with a friend and me, and 12:30 a.m., her blood pressure and blood oxygenation dropped. She was gasping for breath.

Despite heroic measures by nurses and doctors, she passed the next morning.

In the months since, there have been wonderfully gratifying events and evidence of how much Judy was loved.

More than 250 people participated in her Rosary. More than 450 attended her funeral mass. Hundreds of cards and expressions of sympathy.  Thousands of dollars were contributed to funds in her name.

None of that has filled the void left by her loss, and I have no sense of her presence nor conviction she has passed on to a better place.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe she has. My head and all the teachings of my faith tell me she has, but I don’t feel it. I don’t have the same conviction or assurance for myself I so blithely passed on to others regarding their losses.

All I have is faith and hope. Other than one powerful event, I have little of the “evidence of things not seen.”

Others have had more evidence of Judy’s continued existence than I.  A brother-in-law saw a presence standing beside me during Judy’s funeral. A friend’s daughter wrote that she dreamed of Judy, who said to tell us: “I am all right.” A grandson waved at my niece who was staying with us and when she waved back he said, “I’m not waving at you, I’m waving at grandma.” She asked, “Can you see her?” He said, “There’s that white thing (beside you).”

What I have mostly had is a terrible aching loss at the core of my being, an actual physical pressure as if something was ripped out of me, and the only thing left is pain. It’s not that I have lost my faith or my conviction of God’s goodness.  It’s more like they have been buried beneath a load of loss and grief so heavy that nothing I can do can lift it.

I have been told by some who knew Judy well that I need to work on gratitude for having had the best of Judy for more than 40 years.  They are right. We built a great marriage together and were more in love the day we parted than 42 years earlier when we naively walked up that aisle together.

Now all I have is the loss . . . and faith …and one powerful piece of “evidence of things hoped for.”

About 10 years ago, the class ring Judy bought for me when I graduated from college in 1969 went missing. I couldn’t wear it constantly as it gave me eczema, so I only wore it on special occasions—weddings, funerals, parties and graduations. After one event, I couldn’t find it. I looked everywhere—in suit pockets, luggage, all our jewelry boxes. I was heartsick and told Judy about it.  She was as usual gracious and just said it would turn up sometime.

A few weeks ago I was getting ready to attend a social event at Eastern, an event I would have worn my class ring to. I thought, why not look for it? Who knows what prompted me to make the effort.

A survey of my two jewelry boxes turned up only the usual cuff links, tie clasps, service pins and memorabilia.

In the third drawer of Judy’s main jewelry box, there it was in plain sight—the ring.

If Judy had seen it, she would have triumphantly produced it.  She knew how much it meant to me and how much its loss hurt. I can’t believe she had not looked in that drawer many times.

I don’t know where that ring had been hiding, but I have a theory about finding it.  Maybe Judy led me to it to bolster my faith, to help me understand that things we think are lost forever may not be. We may find them again in God’s time, not ours.

To help me realize that while right now I can’t understand that we have not lost her, that she is still around, just not in any way I can at this time see and feel and know.

To help me keep the faith.

Steve Blewett is journalism professor emeritus at Eastern Washington University and a lay minister in the Catholic Church. He and his wife shared many ministries in their life together. They served as lectors and hospitality ministers, hosting a Scripture study and prayer sharing group in their home for more than 20 years.


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