From the inner tension that comes with an eating disorder, we go to terminal illness. A life taken from us is deeply painful, and our guest today also watched her husband physically suffer for several months before saying goodbye.
I’m grateful for Susan’s honesty regarding questioning God, being angry, and finally surrendering. She ends her interview today with advice for those who know someone suffering from cancer. Join us as our Series on Suffering continues…
Christan: Susan, thanks for your willingness to wrap up our series on suffering. Tell us what your first husband was like.
Susan: I met Brian when I was 30 years old when I had just moved here from Los Angeles. We were both teachers, and we connected over writing and education and teaching kids how to write. We became instant best friends and were married eleven months later. From the first time I met him, I felt as though Brian and God had this “secret room” or something where they’d go and talk about life. He was so in tune with what God wanted for him, for us. That wasn’t my relationship with God. I struggled with being sure of what He wanted. Brian also preached grace everywhere. I think my understanding of grace deepened by knowing Brian.
Christan: How soon did you start your family?
Susan: Because we were a bit older when we got married, we wanted to start our family soon. Max was born two-and-a-half years into our marriage, and Briggs followed two years later. Much of our experience looked like the norm — falling in love, getting married, having children. I think, though, we were in a different place emotionally because of our age and life experiences before marriage. We had struggles, but our marriage was truly a partnership.
Christan: How soon did cancer enter your family?
Susan: Between July and December of 2004, Brian lost ten pounds… and this was with him eating a bowl of ice cream most nights. We really couldn’t understand where the ten pounds went. We assumed it was because of stress caused by a new baby and Brian’s new job. In December, he began coughing, and it lasted a couple months. I remember him walking up the stairs in March 2005 — he paused like an old man, out of breath, and said, “There’s really something wrong with me. I can’t even make it up the stairs without stopping to catch my breath.”
Christan: How old was he?
Susan: He was 34 with no health issues except allergies. It all happened very fast. After going to the doctor, they put him in the hospital and did several tests to rule things out. They discovered a massive dark spot in Brian’s pulmonary artery. It was right next to his heart, kind of right where everything happens. They didn’t know what the mass was so they immediately put him on blood thinners, thinking it could be a blood clot. Nothing changed. Then they moved him to a larger hospital followed by more blood thinners and more discussions with additional doctors. Some tests showed Brian was living on only ten percent of his lung capacity. Because he was so thin, he hadn’t dropped dead.
When he had surgery on a Monday, I was convinced all would be fine. But when the doctor came out of the surgery, he said, “Yeah, it was malignant.”
I didn’t sleep for 24-48 hours after surgery. Because I had babies at home, I couldn’t stay at the hospital all night. I remember picking up a magazine at home, trying to distract myself. I opened it, shut it, and thought, “This just doesn’t matter.” It was if the reality of the Gospel and heaven enveloped me. This life was suddenly not as tangible as I wanted to think it was. It was clear there was something so much deeper than what what staring at me in the magazine pages.
From March to November, we were on the cancer roller coaster. We danced back and forth from hope to reality. I tried my best to navigate the medical world while potty training a three year old and convincing the world we were okay. I remember pleading with God to fix this situation. From debilitating treatments to helping my husband walk around our house — through it all, I just didn’t get it. But soon after he died, I often reflected, “Might it really be a gift to have watched that type of suffering?”
Christan: How so?
Susan: For one, I began to understand the mortality of our bodies. When Brian died, he took nothing with him… not his books, his paintings, nor his writings. What he left was his impact on others.
About five days before Brian died, I had finally reached my limit and was mad at God… really, really upset.
“Why won’t you fix this, God?” I dove into Job and came to those verses when God says, “Where were you when I made the world?”
I felt as though He pulled me into that “secret room” He had with Brian and gently said, “That’s enough, Susan. You are not going to get what you want.” I think I knew at that point that Brian was going to die, but I also knew God was never, ever going to leave me.
After that conversation with God, I decided we were done with chemo, for it was so painful to watch someone go through that. I told Brian we were finished. His eyes got really big and then I noticed great relief. God was pressing on our hearts to prepare for his passing. I now think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asking if there was another way to save the world. God the Father was telling the two of us in that moment, “No, this is the only way.” We couldn’t see past tomorrow, and it was terrifying. But I believe God wants all of our trust in what He’s designing. Even Jesus in his humanity struggled with that sort of anticipation, with surrender. Brian died a few days later.
The moment he passed, I remember thinking, “Wow, I just watched him go into Heaven” instead of being overwhelmed by the loss of his mortal body. I had watched his body die for months, and it was a great gift to understand that none of us are home here on earth. In the midst of daily life, it’s difficult to remember this world here is not eternal. I think the suffering taught me the reality of eternity and the reality of Heaven. If I hadn’t seen or felt death in this life, I’m not sure Heaven would be as real to me now. I think for us to live boldly, Heaven has to be real to us.
Christan: During those seven months of suffering, what did your other relationships look like?
Susan: I’m a doer. And Brian was really ill. I do have regrets… part of me wishes I had been around more. But for me to be fully with him, I had to have service elsewhere. During the last three months of Brian’s life, I was tutoring a student… that really helped me. It wasn’t a lot, but it did help.
In terms of our marriage, it was hard because he couldn’t give much to it. I like to think I’m so independent, but you need somebody. We sought counsel from friends. There were times that I needed help with daily things, but Brian was fighting for his life. We needed people who were right there with us, walking alongside us, helping us while we were literally falling apart.
Christan: Did you feel that cancer and losing Brian was a punishment from God?
Susan: Overall, I knew God was calling us to walk through what we did. Between surgery and radiation, I remember thinking, “This is what I get for marrying a Maynor.” (Brian had three brothers.) The Maynor boys live their lives so gracefully and faithfully, and Brian was all about making things more beautiful — rehabbing a broken house, serving in community, giving to those in need. He did whatever he could do to help others. I believed God was calling us to navigate cancer. But I also thought Brian would suffer, get healed, and then go help people with his story. I put it in a little box because that felt safe.
But in my darkest moments, at night especially, I remember battling through my thoughts. I reflected on sin patterns in my life, as well as actions I had done years ago in my youth. I faced irrational fears and choking guilt. I forced myself to disengage from that dark place because I knew that wasn’t how the Gospel works. But in my brokenness and fear, that’s the place I was in. And it is part of the story. God reminded me that what He did on the cross was enough. I had to get to that dark spot of suffering before I could really see.
Christan: Seven years later, do you ever go back to that spot?
Susan: Not really. I can see growth in my life. When God puts something in my life that I question, I try and embrace it and know that God is going to teach me something. I understand why He gives us hard things. In those moments, I feel like God breaks idols in my life and replaces them with Him.
Christan: How did you heal? You seem like you’re whole again.
Susan: Even though there’s healing, there are always scars. And those scars are good because they’re reminders of how the story is so much bigger than our story alone. They remind me of why the cross had to happen. If the cross didn’t happen, where would Brian be? Would I be walking around wondering where my husband is now? Would he just be dust? There’s so much of the resurrection story woven through my own story. If the emotional pain flairs, the resurrection is always a reminder of the greatness and redemption. Jesus had his scars. Scars are a reminder of my growth, my perseverance, my maturity in knowing God deeper because I really think that’s all this life is about… It’s all about getting to know God, walking with Him and giving Him my heart. It’s really not about whether or not we have a beautiful house or where our kids go to school. Even though that’s directly in front of us, suffering allows us to step back and remember this life is all about knowing Jesus more, about being more Christ-like in all that I do, and being part of His redemption story.
I think brokenness and suffering have to happen because we need to come to grips with our fragility. We have to. It’s too easy in this life — if we never suffer – to miss seeing and knowing God as He truly is. We see God’s greatest strength and power through when He Himself was the most broken—the cross.
It took a while to heal. It was about three years before I felt as though my feet were firmly on the ground again. When I looked back on my life prior to Brian’s death, I realized I no longer fit where I did before. God had changed me. The reality of knowing my former husband is whole again in Heaven changed the way I think about my life, my world, and the people with whom I engaged. I think there comes a point when there is no more oozing from the wound, but the scar is there. And it will always be there. The scar points to God, not Brian.
Christan: What advice would you give to those who know someone suffering from cancer?
Susan: I think the community of believers and the Church struggle with being authentic. We don’t want to step on toes, we want to be proper, we don’t want to invade privacy, we want to respect boundaries, we follow rules. But when a person or family is facing extreme crisis, the navigation is overwhelming and almost impossible alone. Looking back, in the midst of the diagnosis and all that followed, I felt as if I was in a cloud. When you’re in grief like that — denial, anger, fear – the cloud is present all the time. Because of that cloud, it’s important to help those suffering navigate through their circumstances.
Try to be intentional. And try to have no expectations. If God is pushing on your heart, just do it. Give, show up, serve that family — just do it. Don’t wait for someone to say it’s okay. We all struggle as humans with needing validation. Try to have zero expectations and don’t expect the person in crisis to give you anything back — even validating your service to them. We have to step past your own egos and self-interest and do what God asks us to do for them.
One family gifted our family with money so I didn’t have to go back to work right away. A group of Brian’s college friends hired a nanny for a year… they didn’t ask permission because the need was so glaring. Another friend came over to just be with me, so I wouldn’t have to be alone. Someone else anonymously mailed me a gift each month after the first anniversary of Brian’s passing. For twelve months, I received things like a Starbucks gift card, a book, a picture frame — they were all very intentional items. It blessed me so much, for I felt alone and scared. To this day, I don’t know who that gift giver was. So, even if it feels a bit scary, just do it. Trust God’s leading.
Christan: And what advice would you give someone who is watching his or her spouse suffer with cancer?
Susan: Every journey is personal. I wish I could tell people how things will unfold. My advice is to accept that you are not in control. You aren’t in control of the healing. You aren’t in control of anything. I learned that God is in control as I walked through suffering. Regardless of how much I yelled and fussed at Him, God was going to unfold His story the way He designed it to be… for Brian, for me, for our kids.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I didn’t want to be needy, but it became impossible to not ask for help. When things were intense, there were emotional chasms between Brian and I because I simply couldn’t reach Brian. He felt like a million miles away. We went to friends and asked them to pray with us and be with us. We were so scared — but not too scared to ask for help.
When it comes to cancer, always hope, always hope for healing. But in that hope, we must surrender to the truth that God is going to do what He’s going to do. And with surrendering comes the call to persevere, cling to hope, and believe we’re absolutely in the hand of God (even if it doesn’t feel like that). In retrospect, I know there was not a moment I wasn’t in God’s hand, even in the pain, even in the fear. I remember coming home from the hospital after Brian had passed and sitting on my bed with my door shut. “Now what?” I thought. “I’m alone with two babies. What am I going to do?” But I was never alone. God is always constant, and He’s true to His faithfulness. Seek that. Understand that.
Christan: What advice do you have for widows and widowers who also have children?
Susan: Again, everybody has his or her own journey. As a parent, I have to honor that with my children. I made an intentional decision to never put my children in a position where they had to be more than my children to me. Meaning, they aren’t my husband. They aren’t my mother or my brother. And they shouldn’t have to relate like more than my children to me. Their needs came before mine because they were three and one years old. They were so little when Brian passed, so their grief has come a little later in their lives when certain realities hit them. I’ve tried to pay attention. I’ve sought the help of a counselor for my kids. Children are unique individuals, and their walk through grief will look different than your own. I often hear that kids are resilient. That’s true, but they also feel. Communication is huge. When questions are asked, answer your children honestly and promote more dialogue. Children absorb everything, no matter how old they are.
Christan: Finally, how has God redeemed your suffering?
Susan: I believe redemption began right in the middle of it all. God has given me opportunities to directly embrace His work in ways I never imagined—as a mother, as an educator, as a visual storyteller—work that I couldn’t possibly do without the Lord’s strength and help. He’s given me work I may not have entertained if I had been married because of the scope and timing. I’ve been part of things that are so much bigger than me.
God’s also transformed me. I’m willing to be uncomfortable now. I almost pursue uncomfortable situations because I know I’m going to see God in them. Also, God’s given us a family far beyond our dreams. He’s brought someone into my life and given me a second partner in this life. He’s brought an earthly father for my children. Not having expectations has brought me to a point where I surrender to God’s timing. And in God’s timing, He brought the right man to make us a family of four.
Suffering has changed the way I walk through life. When you live without the boxes you used to put in place, when you live without having to control, you experience inexplicable fulfillment and peace and a life far more than we could ever imagine.
Accept we are not in control. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Always hope.
Yes, we gain so much through losing. We are changed creatures when we finally face and embrace the story God has written for us — the story that is often painfully bitter. We find freedom when we surrender. We find healing when we admit our wounds. We help others when we look back on our own helpless pain. It’s all so ironic.
Join me tomorrow as Susan shares an update on where she is in 2016.
photo source | Jen Palmer