The last nineteen months have been unlike any other period of my life. During that time, my mother, my father, and my only sister passed away. Losing three family members in such rapid succession has a jarring effect.

The news of their passing (or imminent departure) came at difficult moments. I was in a green room at a men’s conference in Mississippi preparing to speak when I learned that my mother had been diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and had 3-6 months to live. That evening, I shared my heavy heart with the men and did my best to challenge them to live their lives well. Mom entered eternity on September 29, only two months later.

Seventeen months after my mom’s passing, on February 10, I had just returned to my hotel room in Cape Town, South Africa. I flipped open my laptop and was greeted with a question from my office, “How do you want us to tell people about your dad?” I hurriedly replied, “Tell them what?” In the early hours of that morning, my father’s heart had given out and he had passed away in his sleep. Apparently, Dad was found in bed, having raised himself up slightly with his hand outstretched toward his walker. I love to imagine he saw the angels coming for him and had begun to get out of bed in his eagerness to reunite with his beloved wife in heaven.

Less than three months later, on May 2, I was at Convene’s annual national gathering in San Diego about to lead an hour-long seminar on “Are you prepared for the storms that are coming?” when I received a message from my brother that Carrie, our only sister, had just died. Three family members gone in nineteen months.

While it was not entirely unexpected that my 83 and 88-year-old parents would soon reach their end, my sister was only 53. Hers was a particularly tragic tale. When she was sixteen, doctors discovered that her chest cavity was filled with cancer. Two years earlier an X-ray had revealed a small spot on her lung. Doctors never followed up with it. As a sixteen-year-old, she faced a fight for her life. The medical team held nothing back. They unleashed a devastating cocktail of chemotherapy and radiation upon her. The odds weren’t good, but she survived. It was miraculous. The doctors warned our parents that thirty years later, she would grapple with the after-effects of the treatments that saved her life.

Carrie went on to live a full and active life. She felt God calling her into missions. She went to college and then to seminary. She met and married Wendell. They had two wonderful children, Elizabeth and Joshua. Carrie and Wendell moved to Germany where they served as church planting missionaries for 17 years. They eventually returned to Atlanta, Georgia, where our parents lived to continue serving in ministry.

More than thirty years later, the ghosts of her cancerous past returned. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with double breast cancer. The medical team concluded that the heavy doses of radiation she received as a teenager caused it. After a challenging process, Carrie overcame cancer again. To make sure it didn’t return, she underwent further radiation treatments. The problem, as Carrie and Wendell knew, was that medical teams specializing in treating cancer will do anything they can to stop cancer from returning. But certain treatments, though they prevent cancer, can create new problems. Such would be the case for Carrie.

A year later, doctors discovered a tumor on the side of her face. It had become attached to her skull and required extensive surgery. In the process, her kidneys shut down and one side of her face was partially paralyzed. She was also suffering from severe shortness of breath and could only manage a few steps before stopping to rest.

It was then that our father died suddenly. He was 88, but he was not sick at that time. His heart just gave out. My siblings and I decided each of us would speak at our father’s funeral service as we had at our mother’s less than two years earlier. At first Carrie declined. She was too breathless to walk up on to the stage to speak, and one side of her face was paralyzed. We understood and told her she did not need to do that. Her four brothers could carry that load. But only a few days before the funeral, Carrie changed her mind. She texted me saying, “God told me I’m a chicken!” I responded with, “What?!” She explained that she had declined to speak at Dad’s funeral because it would be difficult and she was embarrassed to speak with half of her face drooping. But she realized that this was her last opportunity to publicly honor her father, and she would undergo any difficulty to do that.

On the day of the funeral, Carrie’s husband, Wendell, helped her get to a chair on stage before the service began. Then he led her to the podium. Her loving tribute to our father was the highlight of the service. Soon after, Carrie’s health struggles increased. She finally had to be taken to the emergency center at the hospital where she was admitted into ICU. They discovered that as a result of her extensive radiation treatments through the years, her heart had calcified and now resembled that of a 90-year-old’s. Before long it became apparent that the hospital was ill-equipped to address the numerous challenges Carrie faced, so she was airlifted to a major cardiac hospital in north Atlanta.

Carrie desperately needed a heart transplant, but the procedure was ruled out because of her history with cancer. Instead, they installed an LVAD. The right side of her heart wasn’t working well either, so an RVAD was installed externally. In the process, it became clear that the blood was not circulating properly in her right leg and blood clots had developed. Despite heroic efforts by the vascular surgeon, he ultimately had to amputate her right leg. Her kidneys shut down. Then she contracted a blood infection. Eventually the cardiac surgeon realized that the RVAD would have to be removed. The right side of her heart would have to pick up the work the machine had been doing. The surgeon believed there was a good chance it would.

I was at the hospital the day they removed the RVAD. I held her hand and told her I loved her. Soon after, I departed for San Diego. The next morning, I received a message that Carrie’s heart was not keeping up with the work it needed to do. There was no “Plan B.” A few hours later, I was notified that she had died. She left behind a devoted husband and two children in university. Her funeral will be held this weekend. Once again, my brothers and I will gather to say goodbye.

My thoughts and feelings are still raw. I have much to process. But a few things have become clear over the last 19 months:

1. Every family is on a unique journey. Through the years, many people have told me they envied my family.My parents were strong, well-known Christians. Our family tree is filled with pastors, missionaries, and deacons on both sides. My siblings and I all serve in Christian ministry. Because of our father’s fame, we have been granted some unique opportunities.

Nevertheless, I’m keenly aware of how ordinary my family is. While we were fortunate to have supportive and loving parents who lived into their eighties, we have certainly faced challenges. For some families, tragedy strikes much sooner. My wife was twelve when she lost a sister in a car accident. She lost her parents when she was a young mother. Many families have been struck by severe tragedies as well as divorce. I have learned that it’s not a question of whether we will face tragedy but when. Every family will.

It’s futile to compare your family’s experience with that of others. If you grew up in a non-Christian home, there’s no point in envying someone who was taken to church every week as a child. If your parents divorced, it’s unprofitable to envy those whose parents remain together. What we can do is make the best of the family we have. It might not be like other families, but it is ours. Hopefully you can find joy and contentment in it.

2. Crises provide opportunities. Some people become bitter when they encounter tragedy. Their response is understandable. Sometimes unkind and thoughtless words are uttered during difficult moments. People may disappoint you by what they do or don’t do. At times, people become disillusioned with God for allowing loved ones to die, especially when their death seems premature.

But crises also provide opportunities for beautiful moments. Family can unite and support one another in powerful and meaningful ways. Grieving together creates a deeper bond than laughing together. I have been touched by various friends who went to special lengths to minister to me as I grieved. It is often people who have suffered greatly themselves who best recognize how to comfort others. Such occasions also provide unique opportunities for the Prince of Peace to minister to us in ways we cannot fully understand. I have experienced profound moments with God as he personally comforted me in my loss.

3. Crises provide perspective. Ironically, death can jar us from our daily routines and provide a unique perspective on life. Sometimes it is not until we lose something that we recognize how precious it was. Losing a loved one and knowing that, this side of heaven, we will not see them again should make us highly prize the relationships we still enjoy.

After I lost my mom, I was reminded what a blessing it was to have my dad. Every time I got ready to leave him, I would tell him I loved him. I didn’t do that when I was younger. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my dad. It’s just that I wasn’t in the habit of telling him so. But after I was bereft of my mother, I realized what a joy it could be to remind my dad frequently how special he was to me and how proud I was to be his son. The smile he gave me when I did delighted my soul.

I confess that I had not been in the habit of expressing my love to my siblings. Again, it’s not that I didn’t love them. It’s just that brothers often feel uncomfortable saying so.

4. Crises create a sense of urgency. Every time I attend a funeral, I’m reminded that one day the person in the casket will be me. Every day brings me closer to that time. Rather than morbidly dreading that day, it makes me want to be sure I’m ready when it comes. Will people want to express their gratitude for how my life blessed theirs?  Will family and friends regale each other with funny stories about me that still make them smile? Will people feel a large vacancy in their world when I am no longer present to fill it? I once read the musings of someone who claimed his goal in life was to have one person at his funeral who didn’t look at their watch once during the service.

Each funeral I attend reminds me that time is a precious, non-renewable resource. Don’t squander it! Several years ago, I was undergoing some health challenges. There were some signs that I might be suffering from a severe, perhaps fatal illness. As I waited to see specialists and learn test results, I reflected on the disturbing reality that I had a lot of unfinished business. There were financial issues I needed to square away. Several matters at work needed to be addressed. I had not yet completed some projects. I realized that I would leave several important things undone if my funeral came up soon. God, in his grace, spared me. As a result, I became much more intentional about finishing whatever God told me to start. I don’t want my heirs to have to clean up what I started.

I’m currently preparing to attend my little sister’s funeral. No one likes to think about funerals, but they are an inevitable part of our human experience. Difficult moments can teach us some of life’s most important lessons. I refuse to allow the loss of my beloved parents and sister to be merely a tragic story. I want to learn and grow from the last nineteen months. I want to be better and wiser because of what I learned.

  1. June 25

    Thank you Richard for sharing your heart with us! The Lord bless you and your brothers!

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