Those who shake their family tree may be pelted with details they’d rather not know. The blight I encountered in my particular grove was cancer—multiple varieties, hereditary strains. Suddenly I feel a deep kinship with the unending parade of friends and acquaintances who are hearing the word cancer breathed into the air of clinical spaces. I’m thankful that God has hand-picked a few writers who have suffered the effects of cancer to speak from their experience, for while it is true that no two cancer journeys are identical, it is also true that shared grief is lightened.  

A journey through cancer and a journey of joy would seem to be two very divergent paths, particularly if the cancer is terminal and strikes in the midst of a season of health and productivity. However, Steve and Sharol Hayner have invited readers into their experience of Joy in the Journeya hard pilgrimage through pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy infusions, side effects, intense pain, and loss. They pull back the curtain on grace lessons from their day-to-day struggle to live their way into acceptance and peace.

Joy in the Journey avoids sentimentality, instead singing in the key of biblical lament. Abounding in grace, Steve writes through days in which he “prays his goodbyes” to the people he loves and to his career as president of Columbia Seminary. Sharol walks her own grieving with traveling mercies that allow her to wait through the weeks of unanswered questions and the months of serial unknowns.

Disappointing test results, a galloping malignancy, and nine short months of living and dying with a terminal disease demonstrate on a macro scale what those of us who believingly follow Christ know well:  life is fraught with—even characterized by—tumultuous days. Able-bodies and good health make daily adjustments to circumstances and changing relationships a bit easier, but in all the unmet expectations that are part of “every normal, mundane day,” it is clear we are being prepared—through our daily disciplines and laborious attempts to follow Jesus—for darker seasons and deeper following. 

It is our response to suffering of all types that determines the impact the suffering will have on our souls, and Steve’s thoughtful reflections from the valley of the shadow yield helpful reinforcement toward a right response:

  • When Jesus is all you have, you soon discover that Jesus is all you really need.
  • As long as you have life on this earth, you have a call.
  • God will never give up in his work to transform you into the likeness of Jesus.
  • Joy is not about your circumstances, but rather about being held and sustained by God’s love.

Obviously, there is no “right way” to transition out of this life, nor is there a “best way” to grieve, but this stunning memoir and tribute to a godly man puts a spotlight on a melding of grief and gratitude that is both reassuring and motivational. For those who are trusting God’s faithfulness, it is possible to claim the gift of joy even in the darkest days.

In Just Show Up, Kara Tippetts and Jill Lynn Buteyn are standing in the door together, and this record of their conversation is raw and real. Kara, author of The Hardest Peace, writes from the perspective of a cancer patient in her final days. (Kara passed away in March 2015 shortly after the book’s completion.) Jill speaks as a close friend who has offered her hands and her heart in service to Kara and her family. What emerges from their shared writing is a chronicle of the painful, long good-bye called cancer; of the agony and the awkwardness of a friendship in which cancer is the unwanted third wheel; and of the need for both parties to put all pretense aside and fall into the rhythm of God’s choreography.

This pouring out of words about friendship and suffering would be enough if that was all that lived between the covers of Just Show Up—but it’s not, for, in the “showing up” life, Jill and Kara learned valuable and practical lessons about loving and saying goodbye:

  • The uncomfortable dance of giving and receiving help can be relieved somewhat by clear communication. For example, rather than vague call-me-if-you-need-anything statements, offer to grocery shop, to provide transportation to appointments, to assist children with school projects.
  • Put your giftedness at the family’s disposal. If you are a skilled photographer, offer to take pictures of the family. Put your organizational skills to work managing their mail or other details.
  • Don’t become overwhelmed or neglect your own family responsibilities. If you add a caring role to your life, subtract something else to make room for it.
  • Mourn the loss of your relationship as it used to be, but then find a new normal.

Just Show Up is a devastatingly practical book on the theology of suffering and the sovereignty of God.  Mourning the brevity of Kara’s life, both friends assert the truth that “suffering is not the absence of God’s goodness.” Kara’s hard process of dying was cause for mourning, but also for finding “the smallest good and expand[ing] on it.” Kara made the choice to be transparent about her suffering and to live her final days in a community that wrapped her in love.  Just Show Up is the story of suffering being redeemed, “of God showing up in the midst of community here on earth.”

A cancer diagnosis launches a family into the unknown, but four words link the heart to the anchor of God’s steadfast love: No matter what happens.

Giving thanks—no matter what happens—was the challenge facing Lauren Chandler as she rode the daily waves of parenting and ministry in the storm of her husband’s battle with cancer. Gratitude is a current that runs through Steadfast Love, Lauren’s lifeline to her readers.

A navigational map as well as a ship’s log, the truth of Psalm 107 fills the sails of a tale that, like the psalm, is also about worship in the desert, a chain-shattering God, and finding sea legs on a storm-tossed ship. Lauren connects the dots from Psalm 107 to passages that demonstrate the richness and depth, the commitment and jealous devotion of hesed, the Hebrew word for God’s steadfast love.

Another current running through Steadfast Love is the saving gift of community. Lauren speaks of the faithful wounds of a friend saying, “[She] valued my good more than she valued her standing with me.” She relates how the web of relationships in a community “made God tangible . . . put flesh on the unseen.”

Like the psalmist, we are invited to find hope in the process of praising God for his continual deliverance and in remembering his faithfulness in the past. Although we know the words of Scripture are God’s message of hope for the darkest of days, there’s a tendency, when we read about women in the Bible, to flatten them out into cardboard characters, one-dimensional and distant. Kate Merrick was in that camp as well, intimidated by the fabulous woman of Proverbs 31, judging Bathsheba, missing the depth of Mary’s sacrifice in saying yes to God, and brushing Sarah off as “that old lady who had a baby.”

Then, her nine-year-old daughter died of cancer.

Desperate for moorings in an ocean of loss, Kate looked to the truth of Scripture and found there a community of women who had suffered as she was suffering. When she delved into their stories, her collision course with bitterness and despair slowly turned toward joy and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.  And Still She Laughs is Kate Merrick’s missive from that liminal place between tangible grief and the new normal.

Ultimately, Kate realized, in her suffering, Jesus was suffering with her. In the midst of our own Romans 8 groaning, we need to hear, again and again, that we are foreigners on this planet, but we do not grieve without hope. We are citizens of Heaven and live in anticipation of a day in which death will be swallowed up in life, the empty arms of grieving mums will be filled, and the laughter our hearts long for will never end.

For most of our lives, we are living on Holy Saturday, and Broken Hallelujahs by Beth Slevcove looks squarely at the reality of waiting for resurrection and walking in a hope that feels, at times, beyond hope. Beth’s poignant memoir of grief begins with her brother’s diagnosis with brain cancer and moves alongside a parallel narrative of spiritual formation.  

“God, are you kidding?” became Beth’s prayer and anthem of loss, sung as she groped toward enough light to stay on the way of faith. Disappointment and unmet expectations led, eventually, to a howling lament, and, like the psalmists who poured out their sad hearts before God, she found that the “answer” to her cry was not an answer at all but a Person.  At the end of each chapter, Beth challenges her readers to dig deeper in a “here’s what worked for me” tone through exercises that require three healing behaviors:

  • Listen to your body
  • Engage through projects that foster creativity
  • Connect with God through heightened awareness of his love and trustworthiness

There is a tendency in Christian circles to soldier through grief and to minimize feelings of loss “as if each of us is only allotted a small amount of grief and we had better put it to good use on something really important.” Allowing ourselves to feel authentically opens our hearts to “see the beauty, feel the joy, hear the laughter, and be touched by God’s innumerable graces that course through our veins and sneak into our circumstances.”

We are constantly being called upon to hold simultaneously in our mind and heart two irreconcilable conditions:  the way things should be and the way things are on this fallen planet. In Broken Hallelujahs, Beth Slevcove concludes that transformation and wholeness will come, but not through giving up on the beauty and order that we long for, nor by stuffing our disappointment.  

Our hearts long for a depth of spiritual discernment that will enable us to hear the voice of God and to follow with certainty. We dread the hurt and disappointment at the end of rabbit trails that we thought were “The Way Home.”  The broken hallelujahs, sung by and with the suffering during these days of shadow and longing, will one day find their way to a full-throated, “grief-enriched” hallelujah—not in spite of our suffering, but because of it.

Michele Morin
Michele Morin is a teacher, reader, writer, and gardener who blogs at Living Our Days. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. She is active in educational ministries with her local church and her writing has appeared at SheLoves Magazine, The Mudroom, (in)courage, and elsewhere. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy, finds joy in sitting around a table surrounded by women with open Bibles, and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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  1. Sounds like a great collection of books- I’m sure these will be an encouragement to many. It’s always helpful to learn from the insights of those who have walked the road ahead of us.

    1. Yes, and for people like me who are walking alongside, experiencing things from a distance, these books have given me a bit of insight to the real pressures and daily disappointments that are part of the cancer patient’s new normal.

  2. Thank you for sharing the reading list and your encouraging words. You are so right, cancer journeys are as individual as each of us. I pray for the comfort and peace of each cancer patient, cancer survivor, and caregiver. May we each be guided by God through our journeys!

    1. So happy, Robin, that you’ve mentioned prayer as the common denominator that each participant in a cancer diagnosis really needs — and its so comforting to know that we can enter into another soul’s pain in this way.

  3. How sad, yet how beautiful. How God uses our grief for His glory is always like witnessing a miracle. There’s something precious about a testimony of pain that points to (ultimate) victory. Thank you for sharing these reviews, friend. — And, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this site before; looks like a lovely place. ((xoxo))

  4. Michele,
    Thank you for sharing these resources and these testimonies. My life has intersected with cancer twice now…one with cancer and one that it turned out it was not cancer after all. I think the hardest part is in the waiting and not knowing. It is one more avenue that God has given me to begin to understand or try to understand the journey of those who don’t recover, but who journey home. Thank you for sharing.
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

    1. Thanks, Bev — You’ve had quite a journey in these past few months, a time of waiting and wondering and trusting God’s good plans. We learn so much in that process. And it is so hard. Thanks for reading!

  5. It is amazing how God folds in all the rough edges and creates beauty from the rags. It’s good to meet with you here, Brenda, and the Redbud Post is something you can subscribe to for free — it will show up in your email once a month with encouraging posts written by God-following women like yourself.

  6. Michele,
    Thanks for writing such a thorough, heartfelt description of what others have gone through. I lead a Cancer support group at our church and just lost our first lady yesterday. She was precious and I fell in love with her. We do need to allow others to grieve through their losses. Even God gave the Israelites 30 days to mourn Moses. Right?

    1. Char, I am speechless at your commitment to such a heart-wrenching ministry. I just read this description of a character in a book: she was “the keeper and protector of the grief by which she cherished what she had lost.” I had never thought of grief before as a cherishing, but I see that it is, and when we give people space in which to feel their loss, we encourage them to cherish and honor the person they miss. We say to them, “Yes, your loss is worth this much sadness.”

      Blessings, Char.

  7. Thank you for these suggestions Michele. I have not experienced cancer in my own body but have been alongside both my mother and father in their journey and ultimate death from cancer. I love this thought from Steve Hayner ” Joy is not about your circumstances, but rather about being held and sustained by God’s love”. It reminds me of something my dad would have said! Thank you for sharing at The Blogger’s Pit Stop!

    1. It does seem to be true that we realize and appreciate the great love of God when it becomes clear that this is all we have left to fall back on. I appreciate your shared insights, Roseann.

  8. Great post, Michele, and these are truly worthy books.

    Dealing with pancreatic cancer (something I have in common with Patrick Swayze!) and being, as my doctor says, too vicious to die, I’d add this:

    1) You have a mission as long as you have the will to manufacture one.

    2) Each sunrise you see is a win, and an ugly win is STILL a win.

    3) Accept no sympathy, especially from yourself. Ruthlessness is strength, and ruthlessness has to begin at home.

    https://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com/2017/10/your-dying-spouse-376-caregiver-you.html

  9. These all sound like great resources! I still have a difficult time reading cancer books because of my own journey–mostly becuase I relate too closely and end up in tears throughout the entire book. Which probably tells me that I have more grieving to do ;).

    1. I think you are wise to assess your situation as well as you have. I wondered specifically about you and Andrew when I began sharing this compilation of books. Thanks for your input.

  10. Thank you for the resources and the testimonies. These will be great in the future to be able to give to family, friends, and therapy clients if the need ever arises.

  11. Great suggestions, Michele. I can relate as my 57 year old “healthy” husband died of lung cancer in 2015 less than 6 months after his diagnosis. I cant tell you how many times we said the exact phrase, “Are you kidding, God?” but at the same time those last six months were the best of our married life. Thanks you for your work on this!

    1. What an incredible story of God’s faithfulness in the dark. It does seem that cancer does it’s worst, and somehow God is able to bring about His best in His beloved, but suffering, followers and their families. Thanks so much for you input.

    1. I’ve been so thankful for those who have written about (and allowed themselves to relive!) their cancer journey. Their learning is one of the ways God sheds light on our path in advance of the need, and it’s a great gift to be able to share them with friends.

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