We did not know my grandpa had Alzheimer’s disease until he tried to take his own life.
He should have died from his injuries, but God spared his life — and not just once. Grandpa was not a believer, so with no hope in the face of such a diagnosis, he attempted suicide again and again. Death seemed better to him than losing control over his life and faculties.
My mother-in-law was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease shortly before I married my husband. Over the past several years, we have watched her go from being the bright hub of the family to becoming a ghost of her former self. We are losing her memory by memory, function by function, pound by pound.
Alzheimer’s disease goes for the jugular of a person’s earthly identity and relationships. I have heard many family members and friends question God’s presence. And I have quietly wondered this myself. Where is God in this thick darkness? Where is God as a person’s body and personality is ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease?
Journey Through Darkness
If a person with Alzheimer’s disease could write a psalm, I think Psalm 88 would be it. The psalmist, Heman the Ezrahite, despairs as he travels through unending darkness: “I am shut in so that I cannot escape” (Psalm 88:8). And the last thought is “darkness” (Psalm 88:18). No memory of godly hope lifts the spirit at the end of this psalm.
Here, the place of the dead is a place of forgetfulness. Sheol and the pit (Psalm 88:3–4), the grave and Abaddon (Psalm 88:11), darkness and the land of forgetfulness (Psalm 88:12) — all refer to the same place in Psalm 88. It is where “the dead know nothing, and . . . the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Isn’t this what Alzheimer’s disease looks like? A journey through the land of forgetfulness, from diagnosis into oblivion? An incurable darkness?
God Is There
For the sake of those terminally ill with Alzheimer’s, and for the sake of those who love and care for them, I am thankful that God includes this terminal psalm in Scripture. This life is not a fairy tale. Not everything finds a bright resolution on this side of eternity. And God can seem chillingly absent when circumstances are darkest.
Psalm 88 does not include God’s response to Heman, but as one of King David’s head musicians (1 Chronicles 25:1), Heman must have been well acquainted with Psalm 139:8, “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” and Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” So Heman likely wrote Psalm 88 not to confirm God’s absence, but to affirm the human experience of feeling as though he were.
God can certainly feel absent in the Alzheimer’s experience, but he is near even then. And even in the land of forgetfulness, he leads us and holds us (Psalm 139:10).
God Does Not Forget
My grandpa did everything he could to resist God before and after his diagnosis, but God did not forget him. Irresistible grace found him, even in the shadow of his disease, and rescued him from a darkness greater than Alzheimer’s (Colossians 1:13).
The year before Grandpa passed away, on one of his last clear days, he gushed about God’s saving work in his life. This salvation was so sweet to him that even while bedridden and immobile, he felt so much joy knowing that God loved and forgave him as a son. He felt so much joy knowing he could commune with God from his hospital bed through prayer. God’s nearness was his good in a way that penetrated real darkness (Psalm 73:28).
His clear days slowly dissipated to complete oblivion. But even though Alzheimer’s stole away everything else, it could never take his portion in Christ (Psalm 73:26), and it could never take his promise of resurrection (John 11:25), because God’s gospel promises have no exception clause for Alzheimer’s disease. God does not say he will sustain you unless you develop Alzheimer’s and forget me.
Once we are God’s, not even a grueling disease that strips a person of health and personality can snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28), because God’s gifts of salvation and sonship do not “depend on what we do, including our ability to remember,” as Benjamin Mast writes (Second Forgetting, 26). Flesh may forget, but not the sovereign God (Isaiah 49:15).
God remembered Grandpa and carried him through the land of forgetfulness. Even as Grandpa’s outward body wasted away, his inner man was renewed day by day, being prepared by the light and momentary affliction of Alzheimer’s for an eternal weight of glory to come (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)
And Alzheimer’s, where is yours?
Light Still Shines
The land of forgetfulness and deep darkness is not our lasting city — thank God! In our lasting city, “night will be no more,” for God himself will be our light and the Lamb our lamp (Revelation 21:23; 22:5).
My grandpa has already reached his lasting city. My mother-in-law, not yet. But in the land of forgetfulness, we affirm with eyes of faith that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Because for those in Christ Jesus, the last word will be light.