RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — During the last few weeks before she died, my wife asked me to leave the bedside lamp on at night. She didn’t want to wake up in the dark, even with me close beside her.
So I left the light on. It eased her anxiety a bit, and helped us both focus on Jesus, “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). Sometimes when I walked my neighborhood’s streets at night for air, I searched for that light in the corner window as I neared home.
Hwa Chong Bridges — my beloved wife, best friend, inspiration, sister in Christ and mother of our children — found a lump in her left breast in 2014. It was aggressive “triple negative” breast cancer, and already had spread to lymph nodes in her arm.
She did well through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, resuming a relatively normal life for a year or so. But the cancer returned in 2016, first in her colon (another surgery) and later raging through her abdomen. No effective treatment remained. Hwa was tired, and ready to behold the Lord face to face. She began home hospice care in early January 2017.
She died a little more than a month later, on Feb. 12, nearly 33 years after our wedding — and two days before Valentine’s Day.
Church folks, friends and family members surrounded us during and after the final days, helping care for Hwa, cooking meals, comforting me and my adult son and daughter. Their love, and the blessing of numbness, salved the pain for a while.
But real “grief work,” as the counselors call it, begins after the initial shock subsides — when the house grows quiet and friends go on with their lives.
The knives of darkness carved up what was left of my wounded heart: despair, depression, self-pity, guilt for the ways I failed as a husband, regret for things I didn’t say or do. Most of all, aching emptiness. Nights were bad; mornings were worse.
I walked from room to silent room, like a ghost. I drifted alone through the places we had once enjoyed together. Did I even exist anymore?
Pastor-author Jim Conway confessed that after his wife died, “it was as if someone took a giant samurai sword and cut me right down the middle. I kept asking myself and God, ‘How am I supposed to go on with one leg, with one arm, with half a brain?'”
Long-married couples become one person in many ways. When one dies, the other must rebuild identity from scratch. I soon discovered I wasn’t the only one struggling.
“Who am I?” was the first question Bob McEachern asked me when we had lunch a few weeks after Hwa died.
Bob’s wife of 53 years, Judy, had died three days before Hwa. Bob and Judy met in high school, married after graduation, served as missionaries in South Korea, worked together in ministry, parented together, suffered together during Judy’s years of illness. Then she was gone.
Bob and I have become “grief buddies.” We are members of what our fellow widower, retired IMB President Tom Elliff, called the fraternity no one wants to join, for which the dues are too high — and payable hourly. But at least we can encourage each other. We meet weekly.
In addition to Bob, other grief buddies appeared. Bill and Frank, whose wives died a few years ago, took me under their wing. They told me what to expect and how to endure it. I joined a local “GriefShare” support group and learned from others coping with loss. Too many men try to do it alone.
I now understood the meaning of “weep with those who weep.” The Lord has begun to bring others experiencing loss across my path. I try to comfort them as I have been comforted.
The first birthdays, anniversaries and holidays without Hwa have come and gone. The one-year mark falls just before Valentine’s Day. Counselors say the second year of grief is sometimes harder than the first. I hope not, but God is with me either way.
I have learned how weak my faith was, how much I depended on Hwa for things only God can provide. I have learned anew how strong His love and grace are. His Spirit sustains me. His Word is life itself; I couldn’t go on without it. He is the Shepherd who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Hwa entered His eternal presence in that valley. But He is still walking with me, day by day, until He leads me home.
One Sunday last summer, I listened to my friend James Hering preach about the wedding at Cana, where Jesus quietly changed the water to wine (John 2). The wedding guests thought the bridegroom had saved the best wine for last, not realizing the Kingdom of God had come upon them. I felt tears on my cheeks, and imagined the heavenly wedding feast in heaven, where Hwa glorifies the Lord even now.
I look forward to joining her there one day for the celebration.