The End … or the Beginning?
About the Guest
Today on the broadcast, author William Hendricks remembers the last hours of his wife's life. William recalls how God showed up for him and his three daughters after Nancy's death.
Today on the broadcast, author William Hendricks remembers the last hours of his wife’s life.
The End … or the Beginning?
Bill: What we did was to go in the room and kind of formed a circle around the bed, and each of the girls said what they wanted to say, oldest to youngest. And, you know, for me, it was just tearing my heart out hearing these girls say goodbye to their mother and her saying goodbye to them, and it was very, very, very, very difficult, and yet one of the most important things that we ever did as a family, because it gave them closure.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. Dennis?
Dennis: Bob, it's not often I get a chance to interview a guest on FamilyLife Today who has experienced the loss of a spouse. He was married for almost 23 years to his wife, Nancy. Bill Hendricks from Dallas, Texas, joins us. Bill, welcome back.
Bill: Thank you very much for having me.
Dennis: Bill, as the son of Dr. Howard Hendricks and Jean who are good friends of FamilyLife. Their fingerprints are all over this ministry, so it's really an honor, Bill, for you to come and join us here and kind of complete the circle back toward your parents who have had such a great impact in this ministry and in my life personally.
But you're a graduate of Dallas Seminary, also a graduate of Harvard and Boston University, and you've written a book called "The Light That Never Dies," and it's the story of, I guess, the lessons learned – your journey as you said goodbye to your wife.
Can you take us back to those last hours of your wife's life? You've been sharing with us the downward spiral that took …
Bill: … seven years.
Dennis: Seven years before it finally got her.
Bill: Yes, so we had a lot of time to prepare but, in a way, you're never prepared, but she went into the hospital about 10 days before she died.
Dennis: Had you said your goodbyes?
Bill: Not yet.
Dennis: You hadn't done any of that?
Bob: And had you thought about hospice as opposed to her going to the hospital?
Bill: Yes. She anticipated that she was going to come back out of the hospital and probably go into hospice, and that was one of the chores that I took one while she was there in that 10-day period. I contacted hospice and met with them, and we began to make preparations for that. But it turned out it never really materialized that way.
Dennis: When you went to the hospital at that time, then, were you aware you were anywhere near the end?
Bill: No, this was part of the uncertainty that I've talked about before. She had been in and out of the hospital that previous summer, and I thought, "Well, here we go again." You know, you go to the hospital and that kind of throws a strain on the family, and she'll be back home in a few days, and this is just going to go on and on and on, but this particular time, this was the end, and I didn't know that until she had a problem with her breathing that supposedly they kept correcting, and it persisted, and finally I took one of the nurses aside, and I said, "Look, I don't understand. You keep correcting this problem and yet her breathing doesn't seem to get any better. What's the problem?"
And she looked at me, and she took me into a room out in the hall. She said, "Mr. Hendricks, don't you understand? Your wife is dying." And then she explained to me what I was going to start seeing happen, and it was at that point that I sort of got a wakeup call that, "Oh, my gosh, this is it." And that helped me to scramble, to begin to get people prepared that needed to come say goodbyes and begin to think myself about what I needed to do – what I needed to do to get the girls ready, and it went down pretty much the way that nurse told me it would, and a week later she died.
Bob: Were Nancy's parents still alive?
Bill: No, they were not. They had passed away.
Bob: So in terms of gathering people to say goodbye, you had friends, you had your folks.
Bill: Right, and my sister and my brother and in-laws. Nancy's sister had been at our house for – Nancy had been in the hospital. She came and stayed on after Nancy died for a while.
Bob: But probably as significant as anybody else that had to get ready for a goodbye, you had a 13-year-old …
Bill: A 15-year-old, a 13-year-old, and an 8-year-old.
Bob: How do you get girls at that age emotionally prepared to say goodbye?
Bill: On the Friday – Nancy died on a Saturday. On Friday, she had a procedure, which they had to put her under to do this procedure, and I did not think that she would survive through that procedure, but she did, and when I went home that night, the question that was wracked in my brain was why is she still alive? By rights, she should be with the Lord now.
And then it dawned on me – Bill, she hasn't gotten to say goodbye to her daughters.
With that thought, I went to bed, and I woke up the next morning, and as each of the girls got up, I took them aside, and I said, "Listen, I don't know how much longer Mom is going to be alive. We're going to go down there at lunchtime and visit her. I want you to spend this morning thinking about what you want to say to her."
Now, to some of our listeners, that may sound really cold and cruel to hand that assignment to your daughter, but it was all I could think to do. I knew that they needed to get their goodbyes, and she needed to say goodbye to them, and it was giving her permission to die.
And so that's what those girls, those brave little girls did, was think that morning about what they wanted to say, and they each got their comments ready as best they could, and we got in the car, and it was a long, quiet drive down to the hospital.
Dennis: And let me stop you there. Had you told your wife she was dying? Did she know?
Bill: She knew she was dying, by that point.
Dennis: Okay, so when you arrive at the hospital with the girls, she's not going to be surprised when they come in to say their goodbyes.
Bill: No, I think she half expected it and welcomed it. What we did was to go in the room and kind of formed a circle around the bed and sang songs, and we read Scriptures, and we prayed, and we cried, and we told memories. And then each of the girls said what they wanted to say, oldest to youngest.
And you can imagine, you know, for me, it was just tearing my heart out hearing these girls say goodbye to their mother and her saying goodbye to them, and it was very, very, very, difficult and yet one of the most important things that we ever did as a family because it gave them closure so that after she died, they didn't have to have these feelings of, "Well, I never got to say goodbye."
This is the real tragedy whose loved ones die in a car accident or something like that, where there is no opportunity to clean up anything, there's no opportunity to get closure. But they were able to do that.
Dennis: Do you remember what they said?
Bill: I don't remember off the top of my head. I know that they told her they loved her. I know that they told her they were going to miss her. I know that they told her that she was special to them, and they knew that she loved them.
Dennis: And what about her to them?
Bill: Well, she had a hard time communicating at that point, but she certainly reassured them of her love and that they were going to be okay. You know, Nancy would relate differently to each of the three of them based on their own uniqueness, and so I think, to Brittany, she kind of gave a charge of, you know, go and do something great.
And to Kristin, she said something about Kristin taking care of herself and, to Amy, you know, that she needed to – I can't remember what she told Amy. Probably "mind Daddy," I don't know.
And then by that point the girls were so emotionally spent, you know, I put them out of the room, and it was my time to say goodbye to Nancy and for her to say goodbye to me, and we kind of talked for a little while about our relationship and, you know, things that we were grateful about it; things that we had apologies for that we wanted to clean up, you know, and, by the point, she was ready to go.
And then I held her hand, and watched her die. I watched her take her last breath. I will tell you that in that moment my life changed. To see someone take their very last breath on this earth and hold their hand when they do, I mean, I don't think I can ever be quite as lighthearted about life as I perhaps was.
Dennis: Bill, I've not stood where you stood, but I have done the funeral for a 6-year-old boy. And I didn't watch him take his last breath, but to hold a memorial service with a coffin that's barely four and a half feet long, the Scripture that came to my mind and that gave me so much hope, was that death is swallowed up in victory; that this isn't the end; that Christ defeated death so whatever seems most tragic, like the death of a 6-year-old boy or a young mother, like you said goodbye to, that enemy of ours, death, has been defeated by Christ.
You took your girls into your arms and hummed them a tune.
Bill: Well, I took one of them. What happened was that within seconds of Nancy dying, they came back in the room, and I said "Mommy's just died," and "Do you want to come in?" And the two older ones came in, and the youngest one, who is now eight, Amy, is sort of standing there and not – I mean – I'm sure, in her mind, she's thinking, "Well, what does that mean, Mommy's just died? I see her body there, so what does this mean?"
And I thought I detected fear in her eyes, so I knew what I needed to do, and I let Nancy's hand go, and I went out, and I picked Amy up in my arms, and we went out in the hall, and I just held her for a minute, and we're both kind of shedding tears and, all of a sudden, out of the blue, Amy looks me right in the eye and says, "Daddy, are you going to get married again?"
I mean, my wife just died, and I hold my 8-year-old, and the last question in the world I'm thinking am I going to get remarried. And for her, of all people at all times to ask that question.
I don't know, I think it was a God thing. I had a sense that that wasn't quite the question she wanted an answer to, and I said to her, "Brittany and Kristin and Daddy are still here, and Daddy's going to take care of you, and I'm not going anywhere," because I sensed that what she really was looking for was "Who is going to take care of me now?"
So I went down to the end of the hall, and we sat down, because the sun was setting, and there was a little lullaby that I used to sing to the girls when they were going to sleep, and I just hummed that lullaby through a couple or three times, sort of as a soothing thing, and we just sat there for a while, and it was just a father-daughter moment, and just very fitting to have some peace in the midst of all this.
Bob: We've talked this week about the fact that sometimes we walk through the valley, and years later we can look back and say, "Oh, I see God's hand." We couldn't see it when we were in the valley, but we can see it from a distance.
Other times, we'll go through a whole lifetime and look back and never know what God was up to. We'll see that on the other side. Can you look back now, can your girls look back now, and say, "I see at least some of what God was up to. I see what He's done, I see how He's brought beauty from ashes. I see how He has redeemed what the locusts had eaten." Do you see any of that?
Bill: I do. I think that's an ongoing process for us, and certainly for my girls. I can tell you one story, I think, from my oldest daughter, Brittany's life that I talk about in the book, and it's a picture of God showing up for us, I think, and it really factors into Brittany's life.
Brittany plays the trumpet. In 5th grade she started playing the trumpet, and she loves the trumpet, and she's very good at it, and she wanted to buy a very expensive trumpet the year before Nancy died. And, I mean, this was like a $2,000 trumpet, okay? It was a lot of money, and I said, "Well, we'll split the cost. You earn some, you earn a third, or whatever it was, and I'll pay two-thirds, but you've got to earn it."
That was about the time that Nancy discovered – learned, in a scan – the doctor told her that her cancer had spread to her liver, her lungs, and her bone. And when she found that out, she was terrified. She thought, "This is it. My life is over," and she called me up and was just absolutely beside herself.
And she said, "I just can't tell the girls," and I said, "Well, that's okay, I'll tell them." So we called the girls together, and we put them on the couch and, you know, they're used by now to every time Mommy and Daddy call us in, it must be bad news, okay? So they're expecting the worst, and Nancy starts in trying to explain, and she bursts into tears, and then, you know, they get, again, apprehensive, and they're scared, and finally I'm trying to explain what's going on.
And we're all crying, and the situation is melting down, and I'm thinking, "I am completely out of my depth here. I don't know what to say, I don't know if we can all hold it together. I'm scared. God, where are you? I mean, where are you?" That's exactly what I was praying.
And, to make matters worse, Brittany, right in the middle of this, suddenly jumps up and leaves the room, and I'm thinking, "Oh, my gosh, this has been too much of a strain for her. She's bailing. I need to go take care of Brittany," and so I start to get up. And just as I'm getting to the door to go get her, she comes back through, and she's got this amazing peace about her.
And in her hand is this envelope, which was the envelope that she'd been collecting all this money for this trumpet, and she says to Nancy, "Mommy, I know that when people are dying they often want to go back to places that have been very special to them, and I know that you and Daddy lived in New England, and that's always been a special place for you. And so if you need to go there, here's the money."
You know, it's Abraham and Isaac, it's Abraham giving up his Isaac, and here is Brittany, who wants this trumpet more than anything in the world, giving up this money to her mom, if she needs it, to be of a comfort.
And I think, "This is God showing up for us," because it was such an act of lovingkindness in the midst of a horrific situation, here is this unbelievable expression of selfless love to bring comfort, to bring presence, to bring hope and, of course, we didn't need Brittany's money to do that, that's not the point. It's that God showed up there, and I talk about what that means in the book.
The rest of the story is that through essentially a miracle, Brittany actually got the rest of the money she needed, and she ended up getting that trumpet and today Brittany is one step shy of becoming a professional symphony trumpet player, which is her dream. A year or two ago, I actually went to her music school and listened to her sophomore recital, and there's Brittany onstage with this whole ensemble, playing this wonderful music that she's trying so hard to play, and the trumpet that she's playing it on is the very trumpet that she bought with that money that she was willing to give up.
And I thought, "You know, God, you have been so faithful to her, but then she was faithful to You, and You've used this whole experience to minister to Nancy, to the family, to challenge me on my faith, and you've really honored Brittany's faith, and you've shown Brittany that you will show up for her. And that's just one example of how God will do something like that.
Dennis: Bill, we started out our conversation with you quoting Ecclesiastes 7 – "It's better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting." It's better to go to a place where there's sorrow and grief than to go to a party. And the Scripture says because the living takes it to heart, and in a very real way, through your story here this week on FamilyLife Today, you've taken us through the front door into the house of mourning, and in the process I think you've probably helped some people begin to refocus back on what's most important and to not lose sight and run after the party but to realize that it's God who bring purpose, it's God who shows up in the mess, it's God who meets us at our point of need, and a life lived outside of Him and His favor and His presence is a wasted life, and I just want to thank you for sharing your story here.
Bill: Well, thank you for letting me tell that story. I do want to offer hope to people. You know, I feel like that cancer was a tremendous blow that evil hit our family with but, you know, Romans 12 says, "Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good," and what I wanted this book to do was to be a blow for good, a counter-punch, if you will, and say, "Well, yeah, that can happen in this fallen world, but let me give you the bigger picture," and the bigger picture is if evil is real God is just as real, and His lovingkindness is everlasting, and there is hope in that – He's not going to leave us.
Bob: He is with us. I have to tell you, as you were recounting for us that last day at Nancy's bedside, I thought, "What do people without hope do at a moment like that? What do you do if there is no conviction that there is a God and that there is …
Dennis: There's life after death.
Bob: That's right, and that you can be welcomed home as a son or as a daughter because of what Christ did. What do you do if you're facing the unknown, what do you do if your conviction is there's nothing there? There is nothing beyond this life. How do you live without hope? And that's, again, where I think the message of the Gospel winds up being central to all of this, because the Gospel is a message of forgiveness, of transformation, and of hope. It's a message that says the past has been dealt with, today God is at work transforming your life, and tomorrow there is hope if you know Christ.
That's why the subtitle of your book is it's "A Story of Hope in the Shadows of Grief." Most people wouldn't pick up a book about the death of a spouse and call it a story of hope, but it is because of Christ.
We've got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and I hope our listeners will contact us to get a copy. You can go online at FamilyLife.com and click the red button you see in the middle of our home page that says "Go," and that will take you to the area of the site where there is more information about Bill's book.
We also have a book by Randy Alcorn called "Fifty Days of Heaven." One of the reasons we have hope, as Christians, is because God tells us a lot about what is in store for us in the Bible, and Randy's book helps us understand heaven, it helps us understand the promise of God for the future, and that life does not end at the grave but there is a life beyond the grave.
If any of our listeners are interested in getting a copy of both of these books, we'll be happy to send along at no additional cost, the CD audio of our conversation with Bill Hendricks this week, and you may want to get this for yourself, or you may want to pass it along to someone you know who has recently lost a spouse or a loved one.
Again, our website is FamilyLife.com, and if you click the red button that says "Go" in the middle of the screen, it will take you to an area of the site where you can order these resources from us online. Or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY, that's 1-800-358-6329, and we can make arrangements to have these resources sent out to you.
I want to add a quick word of thanks here, Dennis, if I can, to the listeners who help support this ministry. We really do appreciate your partnership with us and your financial support of this ministry. In fact, it's what keeps us on the air in this city and in other cities all across the country, and over the last several weeks, we've been offering a book as a thank you gift for a donation of any amount to the ministry of FamilyLife Today, and it's an appropriate book for what we've been talking about today.
It's called "The Joy of Trusting God," written by the late Dr. Bill Bright. It's a book that explores the attributes of God, His character, a book that helps you get to know Him better, and that's ultimately where we find our hope as we walk down these difficult paths that we've talked about today.
We'd love to send you a copy of this book when you make a donation today of any amount for the ministry of FamilyLife Today. You can donate online, or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY to donate. If you call, just mention you'd like a copy of Dr. Bill Bright's book or the book called "The Joy of Trusting God." We're happy to send it out to you.
If you make your donation online, when you come to the keycode box on the donation form, type the word "Joy" in there so that we know that you'd like a copy of this book and, again, let me say thank you for your financial support of the ministry. We appreciate your partnership with us.
Well, tomorrow we are going to be joined by Michelle Ricket. We're going to be hearing about difficult circumstances in which women all around the world find themselves these days and what we can do to help out those women. I hope you can join us for that conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.
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