Holding Onto God’s Unfailing Love — Even Through Terminal Illness
Days after her daughter was born in the fall of 2017, Catherine Griffin began to have pain in her side. She’s a nurse, and could feel that her liver was enlarged. Over the following weeks, tests revealed that she was not experiencing a post-pregnancy complication, but malignant tumors. She was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile duct.
As she embarked on a treatment path with her husband, Mike (and three children), they began to keep a blog to update friends and family. “We are at times overwhelmed, scared, and trying to figure out what hit us,” Mike wrote that fall. “But we for sure know we are not alone.”
From the start, Catherine and Mike knew they were facing a terminal illness. They prayed for healing and pushed for new treatments, but in the summer of 2020, Catherine died.
No one escapes the inevitability of our own death. We can distract ourselves from that truth, but death will come for us all the same. While we can walk through that door with faith and hope and love, we can’t know with absolute certainty what’s on the other side.
Catherine was a thoughtful, faithful woman, and her journey through her illness — and through death itself — can light a path for us to consider the ultimate reality we all will face one day. Her husband, Mike, gave us permission to share these excerpts from their blog.
July 27, 2018: Catherine
Thus far, I would say the trial is going smoothly. The main side effect I notice is a metallic taste in my mouth, though either it’s resolving a bit or I’m getting used to it. Otherwise I feel physically fine, for which (I remind myself) I must be grateful.
Yes, here we are, running this race, with our kick-butt cheering section of you all. I really feel loved-on by you, and reflecting on these last weeks there are many, many examples — big and small — of that love manifested.
Thomas Merton once had a moment on a busy street where he looked around and saw the inherent beauty in humanity. He said people were “walking around shining like the sun.” As awful as this cancer is, I do feel it has given ample opportunity for seeing that same beauty in you.
Sept. 18, 2018: Catherine
Today, I am feeling sad … and a little angry. In truth, the last few weeks the sufferings of this world have been hitting me hard. I have found since diagnosis that life in all its facets is often felt on a deeper, broader, higher level than before. So the joy and beauty and wonder of life can be more apparent and vivid, but so, too, the pain, the brokenness, the sorrow.
All this has given me a whole new appreciation for the beauty and genius of Christianity (though I’m also having moments of doubt like never before). We have a God who wanted to totally identify with the human condition in all its messiness. What love! That included some pretty excruciating suffering. Again, what love!
So that alone is a consolation — that God understands and is close to me in my suffering. But God goes further — through the resurrection, God turned that suffering on its head and made it into something beautiful, meaningful, salvific.
And I have to say the only way I can bear this suffering with any sort of grace and peace is when I connect my suffering to Christ and trust that, as Christ’s sufferings bore good fruit, so perhaps, in ways unseen, mine will bear good fruit, too.
Not that I think my cancer is God’s will. Nor do I think it’s the work of the devil. I think the world is imperfect, and the human condition is frail, and my cancer is one manifestation of this. My hope and prayer is that some good will come out of it.
Nov. 9, 2018: Catherine
The first day we entered into the chemo infusion center and I took my place in the recliner — in this iconic image of cancer — it was a little emotional for us. The side effects are a notch up from anything else I’ve taken. It’s also early on, and they will accumulate and worsen, so no need to complain — yet. For the moment, the ol’ body is holding up (though my hair, not so much).
As for if this is working at all, we don’t yet know. So, as we are reminded again and again, our work now is to stay in the present moment and trust, guarding against the worry that can invade and take over. It has felt important to rest in a trust of God’s goodness and care for our family.
Nov. 21, 2018: Mike
Because I know folks pray for us and think about Catherine a lot, I just wanted to share that she is running the race, just like the rest of us. In fact, that metaphor has come to mean very much to her.
While we are clear-eyed about the daunting race we are in, there is also something consoling about running it. For one, we run it with so many rooting and helping and supporting us. But also, this really is THE human race — the race that we all run. Like the first marathoner, none of us gets out of this alive. Our only hope is that something is happening in this race that goes further and deeper than steps and strides and finish lines.
Jan. 21, 2019: Catherine
People ask how long I’ll be on chemo, and the answer is, “As long as it’s working!” But unfortunately, none of these treatments is offering a cure. The doctors’ goal with this chemo or anything else they might prescribe is extending my life. Sorry — it’s a depressing fact, but a fact nonetheless. Though we continue to hold on to hope, the reality is that for the vast majority of people with this diagnosis, only death will finally stop the rapidly dividing tumor cells.
I’ve had people tell me God will cure me — that I must believe it, and they exhibit a certitude that this will happen. I hope it’s not some sort of failing of faith that I’m not there, or that I’m blowing a “mind over matter” opportunity to overcome the cancer. But I can’t shake the truth that God is mysterious — to a certain extent, unfathomable even — and it feels presumptuous to assume or demand a particular action of God.
No doubt Scripture gives examples of Jesus as healer, who went about “curing many who were sick.” And yet Jesus also called his followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” So, for better or worse, what my mind and heart tend towards is holding these two in tension: a God who heals and a God who suffers with us.
Either way, the root is a God who loves. So to the extent I can claim any confidence in God (Lord I believe, help my unbelief!), it is in God’s unfailing love. Ultimately, that is God’s promise: to love us and be with us. That is what I’m holding on to.
July 15, 2019: Catherine
Well, these are the updates that are no fun to write. Unfortunately, the treatment is not working for me — the tumors have grown in both size and number, and I’m feeling it.
Since we learned of this reality a few weeks ago I have admittedly thrown myself a few pity-parties (fully conscious that they are unbecoming and unhelpful). And there’s still a lot to process emotionally. But we’re gathering up the courage and strength and stamina to play this next shot.
Sept. 11, 2019: Catherine
Side effects cannot be escaped with chemo, but on the whole I’m doing okay, and the last two rounds have brought a reduction in pain, which has me looking more kindly on the regimen. My tumor marker is up, though, which isn’t exactly encouraging.
I must say the precarity of my health last month has heightened my gratitude for every day that I feel relatively well — that I have energy to accomplish tasks and care for the family, that I have an appetite and can enjoy and savor food, that I can relish the beauty of our kids growing in age and (hopefully) wisdom, that I can bask in the joy of friendship, that I can wonder at God’s great gift of creation, that I can hold Mike’s hand, hug my parents, pray for the human family, and hopefully contribute in some small way to God’s work in our world.
Feb. 1, 2020: Catherine
This past week I’ve been quite exhausted and have had more pain and am generally feeling cruddy.
As for the mental/emotional/spiritual side of things, I’m mostly okay. Two things have been said to me recently that I keep returning to. One was a question from a friend, who asked if I had made friends with death. And I answered honestly that I don’t think I have. I do have periods of times where I am accepting of death. But friends?! Um, no. As it keeps coming to my mind, though, it seems it is worth pursuing — making death a friend.
The other thing said to me that has stayed on my heart was while talking with another friend, who said, “Really, for all of us, life is about pouring as much love as we can into each day.”
I know it’s a simple concept, and many of you may be thinking “Um, yeah. Duh.” But I’m embarrassed to say that, even in my situation (when that should be crystal-clear!) I haven’t exactly approached my days like that. So it has become a focal point for me in these recent weeks. Certainly I’m FAR from living it well, but it often changes maybe one thing each day: some extra kindness I choose to do, or a way I interact with the kids that is more positive than it otherwise would have been, etc.
Feb. 12, 2020: Catherine
I just want to end with a follow-up to my last post. After writing about trying to make friends with death, the readings at Mass helped me realize that I don’t have to make friends with death. I mean, Christ himself was not exactly cozying up to death in the Garden of Gethsemane. I need to focus on being friends with Christ, and trusting Christ will shepherd me through death.
May 12, 2020: Catherine
At this point, my body is pretty battered, and I feel it. Each time there’s a downturn, I wonder if it will be of the transient, intermittent, or permanent variety. I actually marvel at how, despite it all, the body really keeps trying to chug along. But I am getting tired. I’m reading the boys The Fellowship of the Ring, and early on Bilbo describes feeling “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” I can relate.
In my general circumstances I do still feel a connection to God and humanity, at least some of the time. But once I hit a certain level of misery and suffering, it’s as if my vision narrows and a veil is placed over my eyes (most likely due to my selfishness and weakness), so that these connections are not evident. Praying, if I can muster prayer at all, is an act of the will. There is little heart nor solace in it. As for gratitude for my suffering, well, refer back to my selfish and weak assessment, because I’m not even in the same zip code as that.
I promise I’m really not beating myself up about my failings. It’s part of being human. What it gives space for, actually, is a recognition of dependence on God and a trust in God’s care and ample ability to make up the difference. It’s what Jesus emphasized over and over throughout his life: in the parable of the Good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep; in encountering Zaccheus and wanting to eat with him; in calling disciples who, by any rational calculus would be lousy, inept choices to spread His message; in speaking forgiveness until the very end. God certainly does not wait for us to pull it together on our own.
As St. Therese said, Jesus is like a mother who does not berate her child for not being able to walk on her own; rather, she scoops up her child and carries her. And that is what I need and ask for right now. To be carried. And our good God obliges.
June 24, 2020: Mike
Over the last three weeks, Catherine has been facing a brutal bombardment of multiple symptoms. Because some were connected to the treatment, we stopped that almost two weeks ago. But some, no doubt, are simply caused by the cancer. Thus, a week ago, we made the call to begin hospice.
This evening, it is clear that Catherine is losing strength. She is having difficulty keeping food down, and if we can’t resolve that, then death may be drawing near. But, God willing, we can gain a little traction with palliative meds to allow her to enjoy eating, and with that will come the chance to see to completion some of the beautiful — so beautiful — things she is walking the kids and me through.
My prayer this evening is for time — the time to see through these tangible gifts of love from Catherine to the kids. Even just now, on this stormy night, I went up to make sure Catherine is still with us, and she is. But that’s how fragile this moment feels.
On Saturday, Catherine will be anointed with the holy oil of the sick. We take great solace in joining the countless women and men through the centuries who have been anointed — as even Christ was anointed — in the hope of all hopes, truly the only hope for any of us and for all of us: that God can raise us up to the health of eternal life.
So that is where we are, it seems. At the threshold.
July 12, 2020: Mike
Catherine continues to sleep peacefully and without pain. But there is what I might even call a beautiful reluctance to leave us. Of course, I don’t know that — and it surely is also just how much I and we do not want her to leave. Yet, as ever, beautiful moments along the way.
July 13, 2020: Mike
This morning, our dear Catherine completed what is best called a holy death — with all senses of that grace: peaceful, purposeful, awful, and beautiful. That holy death is part of her holy life, begun in baptism, continued among us, now among the saints of God, resting in the hope of the resurrection.
July 15, 2020: Mike
In the Catholic funeral Mass, the priest proclaims, “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.”
Certainly these words, proclaimed for so many for so long, bring hope. But I think of Catherine when I say that just when someone is tempted to see some deep truth of the faith as akin to a sugary sweet hallmark card — look again. And indeed today the sting of these words is very real for me and the kids and Catherine’s family and so many of you. It’s not the beginning or the end of the phrase, but the middle: life is changed.
Life is changed. Really, at this moment, it seems almost unimaginable, unreal, how life has changed. It is filling me with sorrow, with tears, with fear.
But we find hope in the ancient phrase. Birth and death really cannot delimit all of the meaning and love and depth of a life. Often, I think of the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it. Himself no stranger to sorrow or death, he wrote that “death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance.”
Amen to that.