By Chris Hansler
Lisa and I knew each other since we were five years old because she was my best friend’s little sister. We began dating after I finished high school, got married in the summer of 1985, and were married for 36 years.
February 14, 2022, was our fortieth Valentine’s Day together; it was also the last night I would be with her. The breast cancer, which we thought she had beaten in late 2020 after aggressive treatment that included chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and radiation, had returned with a vengeance in October of 2021. That was when we received the shocking prognosis that she had maybe up to two to five years left. The sickness had shown up as a collapsed lung caused by fluid on her lungs. We then learned that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes throughout her abdomen. The decline was quick and difficult. I had to drain fluid from both of her lungs twice daily. She soon lost her ability to get around, and then she lost her appetite. She fought for her life and believed like she always had. We prayed (as did hundreds of friends and family) and the doctors did everything they could to extend her life. But on the morning of February 15, after a moment of prayer and an exchange of “I love yous” between her and me and our kids, Lisa peacefully went to be with Jesus.
The fact that the cancer had returned stunned us, but even so we thought we had a little more time. Instead, I found myself without my person. It was difficult to wrap my mind around the reality of the loss.
Everything is different: preparing and eating a meal; going for a walk; taking a work trip and not having her text or call me on the way or at the end of the day; coming home to an empty house; watching a television show; going to church; talking with our kids; discussing ideas, dreams, frustrations, funny or quirky happenings; going to bed; waking up. Everything is different.
People have assured me along the way that “it will get better.” I know what they mean by that: I will not have as many meltdowns. I will get back into a normal routine. I’ll be able to function “better” than I did earlier in the grieving process. And that is true. But the reality will not be better. Now, seven months later, it doesn’t feel any “better” without her than it did shortly after losing her because I feel even further away from her now. No, it isn’t better; it is just more familiar, though it is an unwelcome familiarity. But there have been some things that have been helpful to me:
- Journaling the journey. Writing helps me process my thoughts, so I set up a blog where I do just that. It isn’t a blog intended to inspire or teach. These are my personal psalms and lamentations.
- Seeking counseling. I have met consistently with a counselor for many years, and in this season, he has been a treasure. I am a firm believer that every pastor should have access to a counselor whom they can check in with at least once per year.
- Staying close to my family. Nobody understands or shares this season like my family. And in those relationships we can be completely ourselves – the good, the bad, and the ugly – without worrying about what the other might think.
- Accepting the genuine love of people. Psalm 34:18 (NASB) says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” I have sensed His profound, abiding presence even in the darkest and saddest moments. But one of the most prominent ways He has shown He is near is through the kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, and care of His people. We have been overwhelmed with notes, gift cards, flowers, meals, and simple quiet presence. All of this has been a beautiful testimony of Jesus to my family and me.
- Re-engaging. After I lost Lisa, I took a leave of absence from work for a few weeks. In a weird way, going back to work felt almost like betrayal – as though I were moving on without her. But going back to work, re-focusing my attention and energy, and being around people has been a helpful part of the healing process. I have also started a master’s program. There have been so many times when I haven’t felt like re-engaging or being around people. Church, and for me worship in particular, is a very emotional time. And while it would be easy to simply avoid it, instead I chose to join our worship team. At times I have stood on the stage playing my guitar with tears in my eyes, but if church isn’t a safe place for that to happen then we have misunderstood the purpose of the body of Christ.
There are also some things I am learning in this journey.
- I need to lean into my emotion. Lisa would frequently say to me, “Of course it doesn’t bother you because you have no feelings!” 😊 But oh, how the emotions have come! And while it is tempting to bury or hide the emotions, that would not be helpful either to me or to others. If the Psalms do anything, they give permission to our emotions.
- I need Jesus. Every day, more than ever, I need to be with Jesus. I have always valued solitude and getting away (often to the mountains). But now that Lisa is gone and my kids are all out on their own, I am alone frequently and the house is quiet. I know that some of you reading this with busy lives and noisy kids may think that sounds like a dream! But I’ve realized something: alone is not the same as solitude; quiet is not the same as silence; inactivity is not the same as stillness. There is an intentionality to our time with and awareness of Jesus. And more than ever I need times in solitude with Jesus, in listening silence, and to be still to know that He is God.
It is important for me to say that I am not through this. I don’t know what that even looks like. It’s been only seven months and before me are the holidays, our anniversary, and then the one-year anniversary of her death. Part of why we as evangelicals/Pentecostals are so bad at lament is because we feel that faith demands we move on. As leaders we feel pressure to put a bow on it and share a profound culminating truth. But as followers of Jesus, we are all somewhere between reality and realized hope. And while we don’t grieve as those who have no hope, we cannot rush the grieving. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that God is okay with our questions. I know that Jesus sits with us through the process. It’s tempting even now for me to wrap this up like the end of a story. But if you have lost someone and are not yet through grieving and you haven’t discovered the answer or haven’t yet realized the hope you have been waiting on, that’s okay too. Jesus will sit with you through it.
About the Author
Chris Hansler serves as the Regional Executive Director for the Pacific Region. He has diverse pastoral and other leadership experience, having served as a youth leader, church planting pastor, and as the former director of Discover Church Planting. Chris has a passion to identify, encourage, equip, and release individuals to serve the mission of Jesus through the local church. He and his late wife, Lisa, are the parents of three grown children: Robert, Johnathan, and Angela.