A friend of mine died last week from Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
When I found out she died, I felt a deep sadness. Though I didn’t know this person closely before her diagnosis, we became friends not long after. She and I went to the same college, and through social media and similar groups of friends, I knew a lot about who she was and what she stood for. In college, we had a bunch of encounters with one another and she was always gracious and kind–the kind of girl that everyone (and I mean everyone) truly loved.
When I first heard the news that she had cancer, I was immediately impacted. Out of all the people we run with and know, why her? Having only graduated what seems like a few years ago, we were all in similar situations in life. Yet cancer found her. I remember asking myself over and over, how does this happen? What’s the difference between me and her? Why does she have to undertake such a trial when she should be living her best life? There were no concrete answers, only a lot of prayers.
I nervously reached out to her, just wanting to let her know that I was praying for her and that she wasn’t far from my thoughts. From then on, she and I messaged each other about every other month to catch up. Through it all, one thing became clear: she was a warrior. She endured more rounds of chemo than anyone I’d ever met, and still every time I spoke with her she remained graceful and full of hope. The cancer–from what I could tell–didn’t steal that from her. She never gave up fighting.
She messaged me after months had gone by, filling me in on some amazing news. Her screening came back clear of cancer. It was an absolute joy to hear; a prayer swiftly answered. I remember thanking God over and over again for his incredible goodness.
I ran into her not long after that and we sat down and chatted for a while. There she was, eyelashes and eyebrows gone from all the chemotherapy, indescribably beautiful. While it is undoubted that she was gorgeous before the cancer (with beautiful long brown hair, sparkling green eyes, and a Kate Middleton smile), after all she had gone through she radiated a new kind of beauty and grace. She excitedly told me about her plans to go back to doing normal things (like working, exercising, and traveling with her husband), but she knew she’d still have a while before her stamina returned and that the battle against cancer wasn’t over; she’d have to endure preventative rounds of radiation and also screenings throughout the years to come to be sure the cancer hadn’t returned. Still, she was incredibly hopeful for the future and I left feeling so happy for her.
Sadly, it was only a few months later that the cancer returned.
I heard the news from a mutual friend. I remember feeling so disheartened, upset that she’d have to fight so soon after she was cleared. Still, an overwhelming feeling of hope came through: She can do this because God is with her. She never made the news public, so I hesitated to reach out to her, but after about a month I decided to contact her. I told her I’d heard the news, and again, promised to keep her in my daily prayers. She thanked me for that, and explained that things had gotten much worse. She asked me to pray that her body could fight off illness so she could enter a clinical trial. I promised I would.
I continued praying for her throughout the next few months, and when I received word that things weren’t looking good for her, the fervency of my prayers grew. I prayed that God would heal her and I boldly asked Saint Padre Pio and Mother Mary to intercede on her behalf for a miracle. But my hope? I felt like it was being stretched thin. It wasn’t that I lost faith in God, but deep down I was coming to the realization that death just sometimes gets the last say in stories like these.
Perhaps my prayers wouldn’t bring about the desired cure.
Perhaps God had a plan of his own that superseded my understanding.
Receiving the news that she died was absolutely heartbreaking. Why does stuff like this happen? Moreover, why does it happen to wonderful, beautiful, kind people like her? Where was God’s hand in all this?
I’m still working through the answer to all these questions, and I imagine it’s one that God will have me chewing on for the rest of my life.
I do feel that God gave me a small bit of insight when he reminded me of the story of Jesus and his friend Lazarus. Though I’ve heard this story many times, something new began to resonate with me after my friend’s death.
When Jesus receives the news that his friend Lazarus was sick, he didn’t immediately go to help him. He remained where he was for two days, and it was only after his death that Jesus goes to see him. His disciples question his decision because he would be entering into a hostile territory by going back to Judea. Still, Jesus insists on going, telling them that he was going to “awaken him.” He knew from the moment Lazarus became sick that his death would be a sign to others. It wouldn’t be meaningless.
When Jesus arrives in Judea, he finds that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Jesus’s friends, Mary and Martha (who are also Lazarus’s sisters), approach him with regret. Martha says to him, “Lord if only you had been here my brother would not have died,” and Jesus gently reminds her that HE is the key to resurrection and life. Moments later, Martha’s sister Mary comes to him saying the same thing, and then she begins weeping. At her sorrow, John 11:33 says that Jesus “became perturbed and deeply troubled.”
This phrase caused me to pause. Why was Jesus upset? Was it Martha and Mary’s lack of faith?
He was upset with death itself.
The phrase “became perturbed” is a Greek phrase which literally means that he “snorted in spirit.” In the presence of death, Jesus is left with indignation. As God, he knows the unfairness of death. He hates death. Death is so far from who he is and from his plan for our life, that he snorts in anger and then he weeps.
Jesus weeps for the death of his friend Lazarus, and I think on a deeper level Jesus weeps for humanity. There is no joy in the loss that death brings.
Still, if we look at the story as a whole, we learn that Jesus allowed Lazarus’s death to occur. He didn’t intervene, but allowed his death to teach others of his powerful hand as the author of life. Through Lazarus’s death and resurrection, Jesus showed the people that he is God. Yet, as powerful as this moment was, it was merely the sign before the Sign. Soon, Jesus would show through his own death and resurrection that he would bring life to all.
The darkness that we feel when someone we care for dies is real; it hurts and it cuts deep. As being so contrary to God’s plan for our lives and our desire for everlasting life and communion, death deserves every tear, snort, and sorrowful sigh that you have to give it. But through Jesus’s death, the darkness becomes illuminated. In death, HE is the light which makes all things new and who raises the dead to new life.
It is in Jesus Christ that death fails to have the final answer.
This is why as Christians, even in all the sorrow and anguish, we can continue to look death in the face with eyes of hope.
I know my friend did.
I know it.
A friend who knew her much more closely than I relayed to me how at peace she was when she passed. I think that speaks to how she fought her cancer, striving to live in the peace and hope of Christ. I know she endured her illness with hope of healing because she knew her life was worth living; I know she wanted to spend her days with her family, friends, and especially her husband, living life to the fullest. But even though the prayer for a cure wasn’t answered, I know that overall, she continued to live her life through the eyes of faith. It’s what allowed her to remain hopeful all the way to the moment of her death, and what gave her peace.
Peace in death is the kind of peace that surpasses all understanding, but it’s the kind of peace God wants us all to come to. He wants us all to be able to say, along with Saint Paul and through Christ,
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let your perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.