How to experience peace in sorrow

Not too long ago, I stumbled across an email sent in November 2014 as an update to our kids and siblings two weeks before my husband, Gary died:

“We’re home from Hospice House,” I wrote. “Gary’s still pretty sharp, his sense of humor is still intact, but there’s been quite a bit of change in the past week.”


Photo by boram kim on Unsplash


My husband came home from Hospice House on oxygen and packing a morphine pump:

“He’s now operating on only one nephrostomy tube. Summer purchased XXL pajama bottoms yesterday to fit over his swollen stomach. Gary held them up and said in typical deadpan mode, ‘Your next husband will have to be XXL.’”

My email reported how our daughter, Summer, was an indispensable help:

“Moral support. Cooking. Washing dishes. Grocery shopping. Picking up meds. Fetching Dairy Queen vanilla soft serve for her dad when the urge hits.”

Gary and I were surrounded by considerable support and love during those final weeks and days:

“We’re being well looked after by the hospice team, by Summer, and by the locals who continue to think I can’t go a day without Chai tea (I may or may not have had something to do with this).”

And then this sign-off:

“Feeling loved and blessed and at peace — Marlys”

How can that be? How can one feel loved and blessed and at peace while the most precious person on the planet is dying?

Maybe it comes down to these 4 simple things. Which means maybe we can work on them now, and not wait until a loved one is dying:

1. Strengthening our love story

Gary and I had maintained a strong marriage, but when these epic words—You have cancer—slapped us in the face, we were given the priceless gift of a wake-up call. We actually lived more fully during his dying years, as oxymoronic as that sounds. As a result, we wrote a more beautiful love story.

2. Attitude check

Hubby and I eventually checked in our crummy attitudes and learned, instead of counting our ongoing losses, to count all that was left:

One more day with Gary here beside me

These children and grands, these extended family members

These fierce, cancer-kicking friends

Chai tea left on our front porch this morning

The meal being delivered later this evening

Snow glazing the rooftops across the street

Fireplace lit

Cinnamon-scented candle flickering

So many significant gifts and simple pleasures that make up a sweet life, even as we walk through loss.

3. Leaning into community

Gary was never interested in sitting in a circle to discuss cancer woes with other men. But we stumbled upon the local DEFEAT Cancer program with its educational dinner meetings and emphasis on Diet, Exercise, Family, Education, Attitude, and Thriving (DEFEAT). And we were hooked.

Later, after I was hired on staff as Survivorship Coordinator at the St. Charles Cancer Center, our support team expanded to include not only my fabulous co-workers, but also the local community of survivors and caregivers. Blazing, compassionate, boisterous people who supported us in cancer, and now in widowhood.

4. Relationship with God

Not religion, but relationship with the God who created this wide, amazing world; who keeps our earth from colliding with the sun and moon; who numbers the legs on centipedes; who invented sunshine, and the wind that sends leaves skittering, and fluffy white snow drifting earthward, and flowers pushing up from the dark after a long, cold sleep.

Yes, cancer and death and wars and violent acts of nature happen as part of life in this broken world. But having a firsthand knowledge of God’s character—that He is love. always love. only love—and knowing that while I have life on this earth, I will experience sorrow and loss and heart pain but all the while I am wrapped in God’s strong arms of love – this, this brings peace.

* * *

And there you have it: From my experience, 4 things that brought Gary and me a sense of love and peace and blessedness during our season of unspeakable loss.

P.S. If you found this post helpful or inspirational, please share, tweet or post!


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  1. Tanya Neelon

    Beautifully written as always.

  2. Gary Bonacker

    Hello, Marlys –

    A wonderful list of things to work on during this part of cancer. I think this works well except when you have brain cancer. Everyone changes when they are DX with cancer. But when it is centered in the brain, you change in ways that are difficult to wrap your head around. You don’t make sense a lot of the time and what was told to you one day is forgotten the next day. It can drive your caregiver (my ex-wife) crazy. And I don’t blame her for giving it up.
    I try so hard to be “normal”, but it doesn’t always work.
    Please know I totally love what you are doing and helping people with your thoughts.
    Brain cancer is such a small percentage of all cancers. Keep doing what you do best.
    Gary B.

  3. Kathy Jacobson

    Marlys, I think of Gary often. I am not living with a cancer patient, but a health issue that is life threatening. I learned support and positivity from Gary, (one of the very few good things from working there). Hugs, Kathy

    • Kathy – I’m so sorry you’re dealing with a life-threatening health issue. Isn’t that just like Gary, though, to reek with support and positivity during the dying season of his life. I, too, learned so much from this good man. Blessings to you.

      • Oh, Gary – I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it’s been to deal with brain cancer. I get what you’re saying: How you change when the cancer is centered in your brain. Everyone’s battle with this disease is so different, and I think brain cancer must be the worst. And yet, Gary and I watched you through the years as you set about giving back to the local cancer community in such a large way … and how your cycling event, Tour des Chutes, has changed the lives of so many central Oregonians dealing with cancer. And you with half the brain tumor still lodged in your head. You. Are. Amazing.

  4. Peter Howe B.E.M.

    I’ve just read this before going to bed, so had to reply & say a couple of things about your 4 ways. When my Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer, we saw the specialist to find out what the next stage would be and he said to her, “I want you to come into hospital next Monday, in 4 days time”. She looked at him and said, “But I have to go to work”. He looked at her and said, “It’s more important for you to come and see me on Monday”. She obviously couldn’t think straight. On Monday, that’s when Barbara had her operation. Barbara had been a ballet dancer and as she recovered, she put all her energies into helping our two grand daughters with their dancing and she even joined the mother’s group and took up tap dancing. I must say, it was a ‘God send’ for her. And, with a personal relationship with God, we prayed and got together with other like minded cancer sufferer/survivors and set up ‘A Celebration of Life after Cancer’. Through the years this cause has seen so many sufferers come together and go out to tell the world that there is ‘life after cancer’ Our prayers were also answered when grand daughter Laura was diagnosed with leukaemia and was given a 15% chance. She had the bone marrow transplant from her then 2 & a half yr old brother Joe and she now is a nurse and takes care of children in the same wards where she was treated, she is our miracle, plus she is an ambassador for Toma Fund, so there is much to do and doing it, sharing it for others is God’s therapy. Thanks again Marlys, sharing is so important and giving is so rewarding. God Bless, Barbara & Peter & Laura.

    • I love that you and Barbara and Laura found your own meaningful and amazing ways to give back – through dance, cycling, nursing, music, and setting up a support community. Beautifully said, this: “There is much to do, and doing it for others is God’s therapy.” Thank you, Peter!

  5. Peter Howe B.E.M.

    Good Morning to you from over here,
    There is something about ‘Just doing it’, I believe it is a spiritual thing which God gives us all and sometimes we tend to ‘put it aside’ and don’t act upon it, then the thought, the act is lost and never gets done. I know from your blog, these shared words, you are moving, motivating people to ‘get up and just do it’ and the cause and effect of doing so, is reward enough, it’s like ‘opening the pages of the bible’ and the message/purpose is there before your very eyes. Thanks so much Marlys…. gotta go play some music. God Bless, B & P

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