Welcome to the House of Mourning
About the Guest
Today on the broadcast, author William Hendricks, president of The Giftedness Center, a Dallas-based consulting firm, talks honestly with Dennis Rainey about finding himself in the house of mourning after the death of his wife, Nancy.
William Hendricks talks honestly about finding himself in the house of mourning after the death of his wife.
Welcome to the House of Mourning
Bill: I would never have chosen to go through what I and my family has gone through over the last few years. Having gone through it, I would not trade it for anything, as odd as that may sound. It is not more pleasant, but it is better because you discover a whole lot more about life, about God, frankly, about yourself.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, April 30th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We are going to visit the house of mourning today with Bill Hendricks, and I think there are some things for us to learn there. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. You and I have a friend, Dennis, somebody that we've known for a number of years, and in the last couple of years she has become a widow. Her husband went to be with the Lord after a prolonged illness, and I remember talking to her not long after that, and she said, "Here I am, in my 50s, and calling myself something I never thought I would call myself – a widow. This was never on my radar as God's perfect plan for my life," and yet it has been a part of God's plan for her life, and a difficult season for her to walk through.
Dennis: Well, you know, Barbara and I have talked about this. I can't imagine saying goodbye to your soul buddy, you know, your partner in life, and especially all the things that go into starting a family, raising a family, just creating a whole new entity together, losing a spouse can be a tragic time in life, and yet it's definitely a time of great growth in our lives.
We have a guest 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 to FamilyLife Today.
Bill: Dennis, good to be with you and Bob and your listeners. Thank you very much for having me.
Dennis: Bill is 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 my life personally.
But you are a graduate of Dallas Seminary, also a graduate of Harvard and Boston University. You give leadership to the Giftedness Center, which is a Dallas-based consulting firm there working with nonprofits and also for-profit companies around leadership development and consulting.
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 that time when you just turned 39, you had a budding family with three daughters, and all was well in life until you got a phone call.
Bill: That's right. All was well, and we got a phone call from Nancy's doctor saying you need to come in right away. And that was when immediately she knew she had breast cancer.
Dennis: Now, had she been to the doctor for a physical at that point?
Bill: She had been to the doctor a couple of days before, I think. She had had some mild swelling in one of her breasts, and that wouldn't seem to indicate breast cancer, but she didn't know what was going on and so we went in and, sure enough, it was intraductal breast cancer, and she had a mastectomy, and then she had some chemo and several rounds of radiation, and for a couple of years it seemed like everything was taken care of. She was out of the woods. And then she had a relapse, and that began a long, slow spiral that just got progressively tighter until about seven years later she died, which is now six years from this day.
Dennis: Now, you had been trained at Dallas Seminary, so …
Bill: I had all the answers.
Dennis: You'd been raised in a Christian family, you had a good biblical perspective of life, so to speak; that life has its pluses and minuses, its joys and its grief.
Bill: And that Christians aren't immune from pain and struggled, I knew that, yes.
Dennis: But what went through your mind on that day when that news came, and your wife kind of melted into your arms there and began to sob?
Bill: I think the thing that went through my mind was, "Now what do I do?" I mean, I was totally at a loss, like, what do you do? What am I supposed to do? I mean, I know a lot of theology. That doesn't seem to do much good to me in this moment when your wife is saying, "I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I'm going to die." I mean, what do you say at that point?
And then almost harder was later that evening, we went, and we got the diagnosis, and I remember we didn't want to go home right away. We went, and we had dinner, but we had to tell our kids. We decided right from the beginning that we would be completely honest with our kids.
Dennis: Why did you decide to do that?
Bill: Because we felt that was the fair thing to do. We did not want them to be in the dark, and we also wanted them to know that we all, as a family, had something that we were going to have to trust God with because it was bigger than any of us.
Dennis: That was 13 years ago. How old were they then?
Bill: Let's see, the day that we go that diagnosis, our oldest was eight, and her sister was six, and the little one was probably one and a half, two, something like that.
Bob: Could they even understand?
Bill: Well, that's the problem, is how do you explain to kids that their mother has this terrible disease, and so when we got home that night, we pulled the kids onto the bed, and we started in and, of course, Nancy's crying, and it kind of falls to me to tell them what's going on. They can see something's wrong, and they start crying because they're upset because their mommy's upset, and we're trying to explain that Mommy has this disease, but that she's going to have some surgery and get some medicine, and we didn't think it was fair to say it was all going to be all right, when we didn't know whether it was going to be all right. We'd just kind of tell them what we knew.
And then of them, I think it was my oldest, Brittany, turns to me and says, "Daddy, is Mommy going to die?"
Bill: Now, you know, seminary education and lifelong history of reading the Word and memorizing it and studying theology and so forth, nothing had prepared me to answer that question at that moment.
By God's grace, I think He gave me an answer, which was, "Brittany, we're all going to die. Sooner or later, we're all going to die, and we don't know when. Right now, Mommy is sick, but we don't know whether she is going to die. We're going to take steps to ensure that she doesn't die, but what we're going to do more than anything else is ask God to be with us, and we're going to get through this as a family."
Dennis: What were you feeling emotionally? I mean, you described your wife crying, your daughters are picking up on that, and they're crying. What was going on in you at that moment?
Bill: Well, by nature, I kind of rise to crises, that's just who I am. So, in a way, as odd as it sounds, it was almost a moment made for me, because I sort of took charge of the situation to try to bring both some calm and some reassurance and some perspective. I think what I was feeling was scared, confused, very apprehensive as to what I was getting into, and not real confident that I knew that I was saying all the right things.
I mean, that's one of the things you feel, is what's the right thing to say when somebody is diagnosed with cancer, or when your friend tells you that their son was just killed in an automobile crash or, you know, when somebody says their husband has just left them? What do you say?
And the truth is, there is nothing to say, and yet you've got to come up with words, and so that's the quandary you find yourself in in a moment like that.
Bob: There were really two issues here for Nancy – one was the possibility that this cancer would be invasive and might take her life, but even if that didn't happen, she was facing a mastectomy, which is – that's traumatic for a woman.
Bill: Oh, it's a wound to the woman's body. It's brutal, it's invasive, it's destructive, it's unfair. And that really was a lot of what Nancy was feeling, is this feels so unfair, you know, I mean, she'd lived a clean life. She didn't smoke, she didn't overeat, she didn't do a lot of the things that people do that then get into medical problems. I mean, she was a specimen of health, you know – why me? was kind of her question.
Bob: And was she asking – was she articulating that?
Bill: Oh, yes, all the way through her illness she kind of had that feeling – why me?
Bob: And what does her husband say to her in those moments?
Bill: There was a lot of ignorance, I'll tell you that. I'll be very honest, I would say, "I don't know why. It does seem very unfair." I will tell you that I asked that question, too. Oddly enough, I still ask that question. I mean, as recently as yesterday I was pondering, "Why was Nancy taken and not me?" I'm a single-parent dad now, and I sort of think about, "You've got a mommy, and you've got a daddy, and you've got three little girls, you know, and let's just say somebody up in heaven decided one of them's got to be taken. So should we take the mommy or should we take the daddy?"
Well, I look at Nancy, I look at me, I was the obvious choice to go, because Nancy was so good as a mother and so competent to raise these kids, yet she's the one that's taken, and I'm, like, what are you thinking? Why me? Why am I left, you know, why is Nancy gone, and I'm left?
So I kind of asked that question from a different perspective.
Dennis: And, you know, I mentioned earlier that your parents are good friends of ours, and although you and I didn't talk during this period of time of what was going on in your life, I heard about, and I knew about it, and I asked, "Why her? and why would you, God, take a mother?"
Here's three little girls, and you just think they need that model, they need a mother's love, and yet, you know, as I've lived life now, I'm 59 years old, and I look back on it, life is not just cut and dried where everything makes 100-percent sense. It's messy.
Bill: Very messy.
Dennis: God is in the midst of the mess. Whatever we're facing, wherever we are, He's there. That's the promise of Scripture. It's not that everything is going to be okay, you know, like, you wanted to tell your daughters, but it's the God of heaven meets us in these dramatic moments that are life-and-death moments that humanly don't make a lot of sense.
Bob: I taught last night the high school group at church out of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3 – "There is a season for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven ordained by God, and the very first thing that He juxtaposes Solomon" …
Bill: Life and death.
Bob: "A time to be born and a time to die," and you get through that whole list of that juxtaposition, and Solomon says "He makes all things beautiful in His time."
Bill: "In his time."
Bob: I talked to these kids, and I said, "There are some things that will happen in life, and you'll go 'What is God up to?'" Much like we're asking the question here today. And you look back on that from the perspective of years, and you begin to see little glimpses – oh, God did have something – I can see what His master plan was, but I said, "There are some things you won't know – you'll get to heaven, and you'll say 'Okay, God, what were you up to with that, because I never saw it," and I said, "When you see it then, you'll go, 'Well, that makes perfect sense. Of course, that was why.'"
And we have to have the confidence that God is in control, and the puzzle pieces, He may have some of them off to the side. We can't see them yet, but He'll bring them out at the right time and say, "See this piece? Watch." He puts it in, and you go, "That's perfect."
And that's what I said. I started off teaching the high school kids. I said, "How many of you had a good week this week?" About a third of them raised their hands. I said, "How many of you had an okay week this week." They raised their hands. "How many of you had a really bad week?" About a third raised their hands.
I said, "Do you want to know from God's perspective what kind of week you've just had? It's been a perfect week. No matter what has gone on, it's been perfect, and you may go, "What I just went through God calls perfect? I don't like God." I said, "If you knew what God knew, you'd say, 'Okay, that is perfect. It's painful, but it's perfect.'"
Bill: Well, that's the trick, though, isn't it – to have that confidence in the midst of that circumstance. When things aren't going well, and they're not to your liking – in fact, they're not only not to your liking, they're disastrous, and they're creating all kinds of problems and emotions, to hang onto – so where is God in the midst of this?
Dennis: Yes, that's right, in the midst of the mess.
Bill: In the midst of the mess, where is God, because you can't always see Him.
Dennis: No, but, where you can see Him is in Scripture.
Bill: In the Scripture, sure.
Dennis: Now, this is what I really want our audience to hear to make sense out of what you're going through, you've got to get in the Bible, you've got to let God speak, because, as you said, Bill, the words of human beings go about two or three inches out of the mouth and lips, and they fall to the floor.
But the Scriptures pierce the heart, and one of the verses that you quote frequently throughout your book is, frankly, one of the most life-giving perspective verses that I quote, and it's a passage that's quoted at funerals frequently – Ecclesiastes 7:2 – "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting," because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.
Why did you build your book around this verse?
Bill: Because I discovered that that verse is absolutely true. I would never have chosen to go through what I and my family has gone through over the last few years. Having gone through it, I would not trade it for anything, as odd as that may sound.
Dennis: You're saying it is better to go to the house of mourning?
Bill: It is. It is not more pleasant, but it is better, because you discover a whole lot more about life, about God, frankly, about yourself there than you do going to parties. I love parties. I love to celebrate, I love to be with people when they're happy, and I love to rejoice with them, and I think God wants us to do that.
If our whole life is filled with that, and let me just say that in our culture, in our American culture, we basically have constructed a culture that is built around doing that as much as we can because we don't want to face what the Scripture says as a reality, and that is that evil is real.
And what Nancy's death smacked me in the face with was how evil evil really is. It personalized it for me. The good news on that is that it showed me something else out of Scripture, which was that if what the Bible says about evil is real, and I could experience that, that was no question about that – but if what the Bible says about evil is real, then what it says about God must be just as real, even if I don't experience it all the time.
And so going to the house of mourning caused me to pause and reflect – a lot of reflection in the days not only after Nancy died but the days before she died. What does all this mean? What do I do with this? And I collected up the things that I learned in the book as sort of a story not so much of Nancy's loss, although I do talk about that.
As much as anything, it's the story of God showing up. You know, where is God in the midst of all this? Well, I tell the story of how He showed up for us and, believe me, He showed up, no question in my mind about that.
Dennis: I have to ask you, as a husband, as you got the news of the relapse, and you undoubtedly held her in your arms a second time, did the words come any easier that time?
Bill: Oh, they were much harder, if anything. It's one thing to sort of reassure somebody the first time around, "You know, we're going to get through this, and it's going to be okay," but the second time almost is sort of like a defeat of what you said the first time. It's proven you wrong.
Dennis: Did you feel like, at points, even felt like you would be lying to yourself to be saying what you're saying because you're saying, "I'm not sure I believe this."
Bill: Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely. I mean, you're trying to be reassuring, you're trying to be comforting, you're just trying to get through it, you're just trying, "Oh, you know, let's just get through this day, you know, it's going to be okay, let's fight it, I'm with you."
It was hard. I really want folks that are listening to realize that cancer affects every area of your life. It's not just physical. Your whole marriage, your whole relationship, it puts stress on it. It puts stress on it financially, spiritually, relationally, sexually, emotionally – just every way you can imagine – parentally – it just invades, and it – the cancer itself almost becomes more important than the marriage. That's a real danger. You can focus so much on the cancer you're no longer focusing on the relationship, and we had to fight that a lot, and I don't know that we always won that fight.
Dennis: And, Bob, back to your question that you asked those teenagers at that Bible study – how many of you had a bad week, a good week, or a so-so week? I couldn't help but think as you said that, if we asked our audience right now to lift their hands – how is your life right now? Is your life good? Is your life challenging, or is your life in the valley of the shadow?
And your point is well taken there, Bob, back to the Scripture that it's the perfect life. It's the life where God wants to meet you in the midst of the mess, and He wants to be real to you – this God of love and kindness that we're talking about is pursuing you and wants a relationship with you.
Bob: And I think the writer of Ecclesiastes, I think Solomon is saying there, you can look at the circumstances of your life and scratch your head and say, "This doesn't make any sense," and if there is no God, you're right, it doesn't make any sense. But if there is a God, then there's hope, and that's ultimately what the Gospel brings, is hope that there is sense to what seems not to make sense.
I don't understand how people without that hope keep from going crazy, frankly, and that's what's at the center of the book that you've written. It's ultimately a book about hope. In fact, the subtitle of the book, "A Story of Hope in the Shadows of Grief." And that's what the Gospel produces in our lives – hope in the shadows of grief.
We've got copies of Bill's book, "The Light That Never Dies" in our FamilyLife Resource Center. Again, our website if FamilyLife.com, and you can click on the red button that says "Go," that's in the middle of the home page, and that will take you to an area of our site where you can get more information about Bill Hendricks' book, "The Light That Never Dies."
And then there's another resource I want to mention by our friend, Randy Alcorn. He has written a 50-day devotional called "Fifty Days of Heaven," and this is a book that helps you think, rightly, about eternity and about what God has in store for those who know Him.
It's available in our FamilyLife Resource Center as well. Again, go to the website and click the red button that says "Go," and that will take you right to the area of the site where you can get more information about both of these resources, and if you're interested in a copy of both of them, we'll send along at no additional cost, the CD audio of our conversation with Bill Hendricks this week.
Again, the website is FamilyLife.com. You can also request these resources by calling 1-800-FLTODAY. That's 1-800-358-6329, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY. Some one our team can answer any questions you might have about these resources or make arrangements to have the books sent out to you.
Speaking of resources, there is a book that I think would be very helpful for a listener who might be in this circumstance or for any listener who wants to make sense of what God's doing. It's a book by Dr. Bill Bright called "The Joy of Trusting God," and especially in times when we wonder what God is up to in our lives. We need to come back to His character, to His attributes, to understand who He is.
There is a song that we sing sometimes at our church that says, "When you can't see His plan, trust His heart," and if you're going to do that, you have to know the heart of God. You have to understand more about who He is. Dr. Bill Bright has written a helpful book called "The Joy of Trusting God, Character you can Count on," and we'd like to send a copy to you this month if you are able to help FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount.
You can go to our website to make a donation online at FamilyLife.com, or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation over the phone. If you are making your donation online, and you'd like a copy of Bill Bright's book, "The Joy of Trusting God," simply type the word "joy" in the keycode box.
Or if you're calling 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation, just mention you'd like the book on trusting God or the book by Dr. Bill Bright and, again, we'll send it to you as our way of saying thank you when you make a donation of any amount for the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We just appreciate your partnership with us, and we're grateful for your financial support.
Tomorrow we are going to continue our journey down the path with Bill Hendricks as we hear about your wife's ongoing battle with her breast cancer and the events that led up to her home-going. I hope our listeners can be with us for that.
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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