Life in the face of death

Recently, a local young mother lost her life just six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t know her personally, but our community is small enough that we have a handful of mutual friends. She was in her mid 30s, married with three young children, and so much life yet to live.

Her story left many of us shaken.

Strong, young, healthy people aren’t supposed to get sick. They aren’t supposed to be given devastating diagnoses in sterile doctor’s offices.

They’re not supposed to be robbed of the fullest, sweetest years of their lives.

Mothers should be grumbling about their lack of sleep over cups of coffee with sympathetic friends. They should be nuzzling newborns in sunlit nurseries, breathing in the downy scent of tiny heads, memorizing the feel of warm little bodies snuggled at their breast.

Mothers should be bundled up on the sidelines of soccer games on brisk fall evenings, cheering on lanky, still uncoordinated children and passing out sports drinks and granola bars after the final goal. They should be packing school lunches. Escaping with their husbands for overdue date nights. Lunching with old girlfriends.

Mothers aren’t supposed to be stolen away by cancer.IMG_8611

It’s unfair. It’s infuriating. It’s unfathomable. And as a young mother with three kids of my own, it stirs a raw fear hiding deep in my heart. If it happened to one just like me, it could just as easily happen to me.

That, self-centered as it sounds, is terrifying.

It’s chilling to imagine your little world, the lives who depend on you, the partner who sustains you, the daily tasks that require you, going on without you. It’s a thought that flits across most of our minds at one point or another as we’re busy raising our families, but we’re quick to push it aside. Those thoughts are uncomfortable and unnerving.

And, after all, that sort of thing would never happen to us.

But then, a young mother is healthy one month and gone the next. Another starts a course of rigorous treatment. Maybe you have a slight scare yourself. It brings it all back into sharp focus, the precarious, precious nature of this life.


I found myself awake with my toddler overnight, rubbing gentle, absentminded circles on her back as we sat together on the couch in the predawn stillness. As I reveled in the solid weight of my youngest child sprawled across my chest, her deep, even breaths warming my cheek, my thoughts drifted to the mother who isn’t there in the middle of the night. Why her? Why now? Why is there so much suffering, such deep, heartbreaking scars for those left behind?

A few hours later, I slipped into my first-grader’s bedroom to wake her for school. As I reached down to brush her hair from her pink cheek, she opened her eyes and grinned up at me, already awake.

“Mom,” she said. “Guess what I was thinking about?”

“What?” I asked her, warming at her early-morning exuberance.

Her face grew solemn. “’Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.’” She beamed up at me, searching for my approval. It was two verses in Psalm 23 she’d been working to memorize the past week for her Wednesday night church program, and she’d recited them flawlessly.

I closed my eyes, my throat tightening. The valley of the shadow of death. Lately it seems like death is lurking around every corner, nipping at our toes and threatening our comfortable, predictable lives.

And yet, there is hope.

I smiled at my daughter, hugged her tight, and let the words still hanging in the air fill the space around us.


It’s one of the great mysteries of human existence, I suppose—the way we grapple with our own mortality. We struggle to come to terms with it and live with it at a comfortable enough distance to go about our daily lives. But lurking just below the surface is the knowledge that our days are numbered. Most days, that thought is mercifully far from our conscience. Sometimes, it bubbles over.

That’s OK.

Grieving the tragedy of lives lost is necessary. Anxious thoughts of our own mortality are normal. Looking into the eyes of our children and feeling limitless love and simultaneous terror is what it is to be a mother, what it is to be human. We know sadness. Sorrow. Heartache. Loss.

But we also know joy. Happiness. Love. Fulfillment.

It would be easy to let what we cannot control consume our lives. To slip from feeling into fearing, drowning out the whispers of hope and truth.

Don’t let fear win.

Joy comes with pain. Happiness is coupled with sadness. Living means dying. But each day we have air in our lungs—each morning we’re greeted by the shining eyes of our children—is an opportunity to live. To love. To hope.

Despite sorrow, beautiful truth remains: life is a precious gift.

My cup overflows.

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