What a friend we have in Jesus
Surviving the holiday gauntlet, our first Mavs game, and what I'm learning
In my great wisdom, I posted a blog on thankfulness five days before Christmas. It was like I was challenging the world to test me on it. What a way to see if I could really put my money where my mouth is! All jokes aside, we made it through the holiday gauntlet. I am SO proud. And relieved. And glad to not face that again. But most of all, God has been faithful and kind. And I’m so grateful for that.
Every year my family goes to my parents’ church for the Christmas Eve service. It’s the church I grew up at and the place where I met Jesus. Many of my heroes of faith went to my church and helped me through so many struggles. You’d think that would bring up all the warm fuzzies, but it’s also the church where I spent my awkward middle and high school years. While walking in the doors reminds me of all the growth I’ve had with God and the people who have poured in my life, it also reminds me of all the insecurities I carried for many years. My childhood church is also where we held Jon’s memorial service.
Dallas is the land of the pretty and seemingly perfect. It’s like if LA decided they wanted to put a little less effort toward appearances, a little more effort toward career and education, and were also exceedingly nice to everyone—but not necessarily genuinely kind. We don’t have a whole lot of natural beauty here, so we make up for it by creating our own beauty in personal appearance, architecture, art, and food. This can be an incredibly inspiring thing! It can also be an incredibly intimidating thing. It’s all about how I frame it. Can I appreciate this type of beauty for the art that it is, or will I use it to judge myself and determine that I don’t measure up?
For so many years, I measured myself and others by things like: ‘Will people see me as put together, but not so put together that I’m vain? How do I be a “good Christian girl” but not come across as homely or prude? Will they find my discourse engaging and smart, but not so academic that it’s dry? I want to be pretty AND interesting!’ These things may not be your personal measure of success, but we all have an internal measuring stick. Whether it’s academic accolades, a successful career, looks, wealth, frugality, fame, or a wide circle of friends, we all have our list of what we think makes the ideal person. If only we had one more degree, a job at a prestigious institution, a little more money (or a little more saved), a nicer house, could land that perfect significant other, or have a child, then we’d be happy.
If I’m not careful, I can jump right back into a mindset of self-judgement when I walk in the door of my childhood church. So Christmas Eve service time rolled around, and I was not in a great headspace. I missed Jon badly. Earlier in the day I’d had a miscommunication with my mom. I was lonely and sad and sensitive and tired. I had a fleeting moment of being proud of myself for even trying to go to the service, but then I started shaming myself for being late. And then I parked, and all the memories of Jon’s service came flooding back. I walked in the door crying, and didn’t have the energy to fight off all those old insecurities. And that makes a TON of sense. I hugged my sister and Bernie and lasted about 2.5 seconds in the service before I marched myself right back out to the car and drove to Target. I bawled in the parking lot and told God about all my feelings, and then I went in to walk around and look at the pretty things. (Again, not much natural beauty here.) And God met me there. I felt his tenderness and am glad I didn’t try to power through at church.
I still had to go make things right with my mom (thanks Mom for being so gracious) and go through the evening without Jon. I was grateful for the gentle reminder that there is space for me to be who I am. God never asks us to be perfect. He loves us as we are.
I wish I could say that this sentiment carried us through Christmas Day day and that it was delightful, but it was hard too. Jackson decided he didn’t want to nap, but he desperately needed to sleep. I tried to settle him by resting with him. That was entirely unsuccessful, so I decided to leave to nap in another room and see if he’d finally lay down by himself. After I walked out, he got really upset and grabbed what was nearest and tried to throw it. It was a box filled with flowers from the last bunch Jon had gotten me. My mom had painstakingly preserved each rose. Silica powder, flowers, and vases went everywhere—all over Jackson, his crib, the floor—just everywhere. It scared the bananas out of Jackson. Poor Jackson. Poor Mom. Poor me. Bernie took care of Jackie Boy while Mom, Dad, and my sibs cleaned up the mess. I was blissfully unaware, snoozing it up in the other room.
In the end, all was well. Jackson was safe, and the flowers were salvaged. I didn’t realize it all this had happened until after I woke up from my nap, and by the grace of God I wasn’t upset by it. My little guy needs space to grieve too. His feelings are so important, so valid, and so tender. Flowers are just things, and the memories they represent won’t be destroyed if they are destroyed. Jackson’s little heart is precious. I want to tend to it well.
I have SO much love for the NBA, all Jon’s blog boy friends, and everyone in the industry. I wish I could say that I am also a really great fan and follow the games, but I’m definitely a fair weather fan. Especially when compared to Jon!
Jon’s dad was physically present but so medicated that he was emotionally absent by the time Jon hit puberty. Jon was shy and a bookworm. He switched schools and realized that in order to relate to other guys, he’d have to learn how to play sports. He found so much joy in finally getting to connect with other men. A side benefit was moving his body and being in shape. He was offered a scholarship to play D3 ball, but decided he’d rather have a normal college experience. So he went to UT and played in all the rec leagues he could find. One time he played in a tournament for Filipino guys and they made him call his mom from the court because they didn’t believe he was a hapa.
I used to roll my eyes at guys and sports, but he changed my view and helped me appreciate them deeply. I’ve never seen someone love basketball like Jon loved basketball. When we first got married, he’d give me scouting reports in his sleep. He watched ball like an art critic views a beautiful painting. The sounds of basketball are really cool, but he watched film half of the workday and we both worked from home, so they got a little annoying. Jon figured out that I’d tolerate it longer if he watched film on mute and listened to music. Then he started to prefer to watch games that way and friends would come over and crack up at “the arteest” at work.
Many hours of Jackson’s life were spent breaking down film with Jon. Jackson would sit in Jon’s lap and Jon would explain what was happening on the court. Jackson loves watching basketball and throwing his little mini ball. He gleefully yells “get buckets!” across the house when he’s hitting the mini hoop. So it was a no brainer to take Jackie Boy to his first game and meet up with some of the guys Jon watched most often with: my dad, Kevin Palm, Willie, Bobby, and Isaac. I brought along the grandmas and Danielle Palm for moral support. The Mavericks were so generous and gifted us tickets to the game vs the Knicks on December 27. Jon’s friend Gerrson who works for the Knicks stopped by and dropped off a signed jersey from Jalen Brunson. Jalen is a former Mav and an incredible player. Jon loved him. What an incredible gift for Jackson.
Y’all. Y’ALL. Y’all. The game itself was incredible. INCREDIBLE. We were down nine points with 33 seconds left, and I shot up a prayer telling God that it would be really neat if this somehow could have a cool ending, but that I knew the chances were near impossible. I told Jon that if he could hear, we were watching with him and asked if he could put in a good word with God for me and Jackie Boy. The next 33 seconds were INSANE. A few missed shots by the Knicks and fouls on the Mavs had Luka on the line with four seconds left and a score of 115 Knicks - 112 Mavs. He made his first free throw to bring it to 115-113. Then he intentionally missed his second, miraculously rebounded his own shot, and threw it in to tie up the game with just seconds left on the clock. We went NUTS!!!! I jumped up and down so hard that I stomped open a ketchup packet. Jackson was STOKED. Pretty sure he didn’t understand what had happened on the court, but he did know that all of his people were jumping up and down and celebrating and screaming, so you know that makes a toddler’s heart fill with glee. We went on to win the game in OT, and Luka got a triple-double. MVP, can I get an amen?! The Mavs were the first team in the last 20 years to win after trailing by nine points in the last 35 seconds. That’s a 0-13,884 record over the last 20 years per ESPN Stats & Information research.
I went home and told God all about how amazing it was, and also cried some because I would have loved to see Jon’s reaction to Jackson and that incredible last minute. Now I don’t want to say that that W was because of my prayer, but I kinda feel like it was. Regardless, I walked away with a moving reminder that God hears our prayers and cares about the little things, like giving me and Jackie Boy an incredible show at his first NBA game.
On December 30 of last year, we received the news that Jon’s cancer was not in remission. We went from having hope that he might live through the year to knowing that he would die within months unless a miracle happened. It was crushing. Most of our close friends were out of town, having a blast at a ranch in the hill country. The rest were visiting family. So on NYE last year, we cried a ton and went to bed at 11pm. It didn’t feel like we could celebrate anything.
As you can imagine, I was pretty nervous for NYE this year. But it was actually so fun. I hung out with some of our close couple friends earlier in the evening, and they hugged me and laughed with me and we talked about life. These are my heart people—they just know me. I knew it would be really hard to ring in the new year being the only single person in a room of people who were with their spouse. I also didn’t want to try to keep Jackson up until midnight. So my parents took him and I hung out with my single friends later in the evening. One of the girls rented an event space and threw a banger of a party. At some point they switched the music from hits to country, and everyone started two stepping. I LOVE to two step and I knew most of the guys, so it was such a safe space to get to do that again. It was awesome and just what my heart needed. I’m thankful for that sweet evening.
Between Christmas and NYE, I had an allergic reaction and had to go to the ER. My sweet mom took me in the middle of the night. I bawled my eyes out in the waiting room because it should have been Jon by my side. I held his hand through more ER trips than I can recall. When it was finally my turn to go to the ER, he wasn’t there to hold my hand. That was really tough.
Then two days later on NYE, I woke up with a sore throat. I assumed it was just allergies and went about my business. When my sore throat didn’t get better by the next afternoon, I decided to take a look in the mirror and saw the telltale strep signs. UGH. So to the doc I went. The first type of antibiotics slightly improved my condition, but after two more days of fever and chills and feeling awful I went back to the doctor. All in, it took five days to feel normal again. My parents and Bernie were on full-time Jackson duty. Bless them. During that time, I literally slept, ate, and prayed.
These past four months, I have been asking God why Jon wasn’t healed. Not in an accusatory way. Just in an ‘I want to know what you’re up to’ way. So in my bedridden state, I had a lot of time to ask God my big questions: “Why didn’t you heal Jon? Why do you allow suffering? Do you speak to your people? Will you reveal your plans to his people, or are those some of the great mysteries you chooses to keep to yourself?” Hearing God can be a tricky business, especially when praying about matters of love, life, and death.
I have some theories on some answers to the questions above, but I’m still learning and growing and don’t want to pin down my answers just yet. As I’ve been asking God to speak, he’s brought to mind the stories of Hezekiah and Lazarus. I asked God thousands of times to heal Jon like he did these men, so it was a little painful to revisit these stories. But, I feel like he’s giving me a fresh perspective as I’ve re-read these passages. I feel like he’s reminding me that I don’t know the ending of my story, and that there’s still a lot to come. I also was reminded that even though people die in the flesh, they are alive and well with Jesus. Jon is not gone forever, his body decaying in a grave. He is with Jesus.
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25-26
Thoughts on Grief
The five stages of grief was a tool developed to describe what happened in the minds of terminal patients when facing their own death. Kübler-Ross herself notes that this tool is not meant to be linear and that the phases may be experienced in any order, multiple times, or not at all. There are many, many reliable studies that caution against using this tool alone. However, our society has collectively accepted the idea that you move through the five stages, one after the next, and then you’re done with grief. Grief is more complex than five tidy chapters and then, boom, you’re done! While it would be great if it was that clear-cut, it’s just not.
And, each grief experience is different. The grief you feel when you lose a spouse is different than the grief you feel when you lose a dear friend, child, grandparent, or a pet. It feels really different to lose a parent when you’re 12 than it does when you’re 22. Even if there were two people that had the exact same circumstances surrounding their loss, their process would likely be different.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. I have two dear friends who lost their husbands. We all work together and know each other really well—I’ve known one since sixth grade and the other for going on five years. Even though they both lost their husbands suddenly when they were in their 20s, their processes were really different. And mine is different from theirs.
Grief research is notorious for its unreliable data, especially older studies, whether the the sample size was too small or data was skewed. You can take some of those studies and construct your own narrative because the data is so wonky. A quick google gives a million different pieces of advice, many directly conflicting each other, on how to grieve and what the typical grief process looks like. It’s overwhelming. Researcher Hilda Bastian compiled data from many reliable studies on grief, and says “On average, people's acute grief after losing someone close to them begins easing within a few weeks. For a lot of people – around half – grief isn't overwhelming, at least from a month after the loss. Most people are noticeably less distressed by three months, and many more by six months or so.”
The best analogy I’ve heard for grief is the ball and the box, described here:
“There’s a box with a ball in it. And a pain button. In the beginning, the ball is huge. You can’t move the box without the ball hitting the pain button. It rattles around on its own in there and hits the button over and over. You can’t control it - it just keeps hurting. Sometimes it seems unrelenting. Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less and less but when it does, it hurts just as much. It’s better because you can function day to day more easily.”
So, here’s where I’m at in my process. Anticipatory grief, or the grief felt over an impending loss, is something that I have experienced. There are many reliable studies and articles on this phenomenon. I’ve been grappling with the idea of Jon dying, and what life would look like without him, for almost two years. When he was alive, the fear of him dying was all-consuming. I faced my greatest fear, and boy howdy that was hard. But I know the outcome now.
I’m four months postmortem, and I feel really different than I did in the weeks following Jon’s death. Does anyone really stop missing someone they love? I think the pain just lessens over time. It’s not fresh anymore and it doesn’t sting quite so much. Some days or moments are hard, but most are pretty good. I have a lot of hope for the future. I feel the sun shining again.
Jesus wants to be your friend
I love to run ideas and feelings and thoughts past my closest trusted friends. Jon was my best friend, so he was my primary sounding board. We took time at lunch each day to talk about how he should structure an articles or how I could best message a campaign. Every evening at dinner, we’d talk about how we were doing in our personal lives and walk with God. Jon’s daily dinner prompt was “tell me about your feelings”, and to this day Jackson will ask me the same thing while we both sit at the table at dinnertime. It’s precious. Then after Jackson was in bed, we’d talk about any lingering stuff from the dinner’s conversation.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, I was overcome by fear. Jon would often find me sobbing on the floor because the fear was all-consuming. I can’t tell you how many tears our kitchen floor, and ultimately God, caught; “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Psalm 56:8.
We had to do the tasks of everyday life, process what was to come, and make practical shifts like living off of my income alone so that we wouldn’t be in a financial bind if and when Jon died. I quickly realized that if I didn’t come up with a healthy coping mechanism, the burden of carrying all these things and fear of Jon’s coming death would paralyze me. So, I started to talk to God constantly. The alternative was to wallow in despair and create very negative long-term consequences for myself and Jackson, so let’s not be too impressed with my choice there. It was a no-brainer.
I never quite understood the concept of “pray without ceasing” until it was practically forced on me. And what a MASSIVE difference it’s made in my life. I cannot emphasize enough how much it’s shifted the way I view the world in the most positive way. And when Jon died, I wasn’t stranded without a sounding board. Those first few weeks, I’d lay in bed and talk out loud to God just like I would have talked to Jon. As my life has returned to more of my normal rhythms and routines, God and I have kept the conversation going. He’s teaching me a lot, and I’m learning that he is the best friend I could ever have.
This journey has been pretty lonely, especially without Jon to process and understand. I have so many phenomenal, kind, and encouraging friends, but they can only understand to a degree. I’ve actually not yet met a widow younger than 40 who has lost a husband to cancer and has children. I’ve certainly tried to reach out to the ones I’ve heard of! But I haven’t heard back from any yet. It can be tempting to sit in that loneliness and feel like no one in the world really understands. And then despair sets in. I have to make the choice not to pity myself daily.
Hebrews 4:15 says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Earlier this week I was talking to Jesus, telling him I didn’t quite think he fully understood my loss. He had been separated from God for only three days between his death and resurrection. I’ve been separated from Jon for four months. He was a single man who didn’t have to raise a kid alone. Sure he could empathize, but did he really understand?
Then my amazing counselor gave me this gentle reminder: Jesus was in perfect union with God from the beginning of time. Then he chose to leave that perfection and peace and union to come to earth for us. He was fully God and fully man. So his fully God self came and was trapped in a baby’s body, dependent on humans to meet his every need. AND he didn’t get to be face-to-face with God. AND he had experienced heaven, so he intimately knew what he was missing out on.
Can you imagine being the God of the universe and being trapped in a baby’s body, thinking ‘can one of y’all just change my diap please?!’ Or knowing all the delightful foods of heaven and then having to subsist on just milk?! What humility. And then, when he finally had the freedoms that this life does afford, he gave up his job to have a traveling ministry with 12 dudes. I used to think that their friendships had to be so rich and deep and sweet. And I’m sure they were! But I think they were also very frustrating. Can you imagine being God and spending every day breaking up arguments between the “sons of thunder” and being gentle to a man who you knew would eventually sell your life for a few pieces of silver? He had to constantly parent grown men. OMG. How frustrating. Thirty-three YEARS of separation from his best friend and first love, pouring out his life for those around him with little thanks. Constantly caring for and correcting and loving these knuckle-headed oafs. And he did it anyway, without sin. What incredible love. He loves us so much more than we can imagine.
Oh, does Jesus understand my plight. My four months without Jon, parenting Jackson alone, and two years of fear is small compared to what he faced. The reality of what he suffered made me feel more known and understood than I ever have before.
Christianity is so often associated with political agendas. Quickly the whole religion becomes a list of “shalts” and “shalt nots.” No one wants more shame and judgement in their life; we all have enough of that already. The politicization of religion and twisting of Jesus’ words for personal gain grieves God deeply. James 1:26-27 says “Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” Micah 6:8 says “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”
So, set religion and all the connotations that come along with it aside for a moment. If you need a friend, Jesus is the ultimate friend. He understands your sufferings. He is in the trenches with you, and has experienced the pain you’re experiencing. He is the great counselor. He brings comfort and peace. Talk to him about it and see what happens.
It brings to mind the words of that old hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus:
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Reading // Listening
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who was interred in four Nazi death camps from 1942-1945. The book is a memoir that details his time in the camps and also his theory on suffering and the meaning of life. He argues that when we are stripped of everything in life—our belongings, our relationships, our identity, and our fundamental human rights—the one thing that can’t be stolen is our attitude and the choice in how we respond to suffering. Now, I would never dare to suggest that my suffering is anywhere near Frankl’s suffering. However, I do find many of the points he makes ring true in my experience. Highly recommend.
Walking with God by John Eldredge. Another Eldredge book and oh man, this one was SO good. Such a good, practical manual on how to hear God’s voice and how to talk to him. If you want to learn how to have open conversation with God, this book is such a helpful tool.
It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay by Megan Devine. I wanted to love this book because it has a great title. I just didn’t love it. I kept trying to pick it up and get into it, but I couldn’t.
There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
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I love you. Keep writing! I care what you have to say
Love you so much sweet friend! You are amazing! And your counselor, wow! Such a powerful insight!! That really got to me. Thank you for sharing!