How do we return to normal life after life-altering loss? Today’s question is from a broken woman named Andrea. “Dear Pastor John,” she writes, “my husband went home to be with the Lord two months ago after a four-month battle with pancreatic cancer. We were both divorcees who met in October of 2019. God restored our lives, and we married in October 2020. I’m very thankful to have been married to my late husband. The Lord had restored our lives and relationship. There was so much joy to live with someone who loves you so much. My late husband had a son, now twenty years old. We expected to spend the rest of our lives as a family unit.
“But our blissful days together were short, and our worlds came crashing down. We held on to the word of God, expecting a miraculous healing right to the end. He was not healed and didn’t recover. In fact, he suffered a lot of pain in the end. Many of our friends supported and prayed for us. But now, after my husband’s passing, I can’t find any purpose in life. Is it normal to feel this way? Friends ask me how I am, if I’m returning to work. I can only say, ‘I’m okay.’ But deep in my heart I’m not okay. How do I continue to live my life? My heart feels very heavy. I try to listen to sermons and read the Bible, but nothing seems to be getting into my heart. Thank you, and God bless.”
Andrea asks, “Is it normal to feel this way?” — namely, not being able to find purpose in life after her husband passed away. There are so many factors that affect how we function after a major loss that it’s hard to say what is normal. Everybody’s situation is so different: age differences, employment differences, health differences, family differences, wider relationships, church, location, gifting, maturity, faith, and on and on. There are so many differences.
But I think I can say, with some degree of certainty, that the more your life is embedded in or intertwined with what or whom you’ve lost — whether it’s your spouse, job, health, home, or child — then the more normal it is to feel disoriented and aimless. That’s true. So, I think the answer will be closer to “yes, it is normal,” than to “no, it’s not normal.”
Andrea’s real question, it seems to me, is not so much “Am I normal?” but “What do I do?” As she puts it, “How do I continue to live my life?” Here are some thoughts from Scripture, because God is the one we have to turn to ultimately, isn’t he?
1. Wait for the Lord.
The first thing I would say is to wait for the Lord. Don’t assume that the way you feel today is the way it will always be. In time, the Lord will change things. He will, which means that this is a God-appointed season of waiting.
I’ve learned this over years and years of watching my own heart and counseling lots of people. Americans, or maybe you could say modern people in general, want quick solutions to our problems. We don’t like waiting, but God is seldom in a hurry. It’s amazing. God is simply seldom in a hurry. It’s almost as if he prefers the slow pace of healing and strengthening.
Early in my ministry — in fact, six weeks after starting my pastorate in the summer of 1980 — I preached a sermon about waiting from Psalm 40. It’s called “In the Pits with a King” because David says in Psalm 40, “I waited patiently for the Lord.” That’s the key sentence.
He doesn’t say how long he waited, and I’m glad he doesn’t tell us it was a week or a month or a year. Instead, he says, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry” (Psalm 40:1). Yes, eventually God does. David goes on:
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:2–3)
David is looking back on a season of misery. He calls it “the pit” and “the miry bog.” In this situation, he tells us his strategy: “I waited” and “I cried to the Lord.” Again, he doesn’t tell us how long, whether a week, a month, or a year. This is the calling of all Christians in various degrees, at various times in this life. Nobody escapes it. We all will find ourselves in seasons where we have no choice but to wait for the Lord — unless we’re going to rebel and throw in the towel, which would be very foolish.
David even gives us an explanation of what God was doing in this appointed season of waiting. He says that God eventually comes, sets his feet on solid ground, and puts a song in his mouth. The promised result? “Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” In other words, this is evangelism, and sometimes it happens in our own lives. God draws people to trust in him as they watch us pass through the pits that we have to wait in.
David’s waiting and eventual deliverance was, in effect, for the good of other people’s faith. They trust the Lord because David’s patient waiting moved them to trust the Lord. One of my favorite hymns puts it like this:
He knows the time for joy
And truly will send it when he sees it meet,
When he has tried and purged thee, duly,
And finds thee free from all deceit.
So, Andrea, God has his purposes for your season of loss, sorrow, and even aimlessness. Trust him in it. Wait patiently for the Lord. He will come. Psalm 23:3 says, “He restores my soul.” Right now, your soul feels numb, maybe even dead and unresponsive. That’s why you must wait. God promises, “I will restore,” and the word restore means “cause to return your soul.” It’s as if the soul is languishing. It’s numb. It’s dead. God says, “I will restore your soul.”
2. Dwell on the preciousness of Christ.
Second, I would say to think much about the preciousness of Christ alongside of the preciousness of your husband. When your memory calls up sweet and wonderful experiences with your husband, let the power of those affections intensify your love for Christ — because Ephesians 5 says that your marriage had that aim in the first place. Marriage is meant to be a portrayal, a drama of Christ’s love for the church and the church’s commitment to Christ. It was meant to help us feel the wonder and pleasure of what a relationship with Christ is like.
As your memory brings to your mind and to your heart how much you and your husband loved each other, how committed you were to each other, translate those affections. You also could use the musical analogy of transposing those affections into another key, so that husband-love is translated into, transposed into, the music of Christ-love.
“God has his purposes for your season of loss. Trust him in it. Wait patiently for the Lord.”
Say something like this to your husband: “I miss you so much. You were very, very precious to me. There is a huge hole in my life where you were.” Then turn to Christ: “Jesus, I know you are even more precious than that. If I did not have you, Jesus, I would miss my very life. There would be a great, unfillable hole in my soul. But I do have you, Jesus, and you are my true husband. I pray that you would help me feel for you and more the intensity of what I feel for the man I have lost.”
I think the reason God gives us so much pleasure in our spouse is to give us a taste of the pleasure that there is in belonging to Jesus. It follows that the pain we feel with the loss of our spouse can be another intensification of what it means to belong to Christ.
3. Pray for God to search your heart.
Third, I would say to pray Psalm 139:23–24:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
The reason I say this is because we should always honestly reckon with the possibility that our love for our spouse could be a disordered love, meaning it might be encroaching on our love for Jesus.
Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother [in other words, family members] more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). We should regularly go before the Lord and ask him to reveal our hearts: “Lord, is there anything, is there anyone who is competing with you for my supreme affections?” If this has happened, it will almost certainly make the loss of that person more disabling than it ought to be.
4. Learn from this season.
Finally, while you’re waiting for the Lord to restore your joy and purposefulness, ask him to reveal what he aims to teach you in this season that you could learn from him and from the Christian life in no other way.
The reason I say that is because of Psalm 119:67–71. These verses are amazing. Verse 67 says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” Then there’s verse 71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”
In other words, don’t waste your sorrow, Andrea. Don’t waste this season of loss. In it, God has gifts for you and, through you, for others. Ask him what they are, and then take hold of them. Perhaps write them in a journal, and then let him use you in the lives of others. He will set your feet on a rock. He will put a new song in your mouth. Many will see and fear — and put their trust in the Lord.