Cindy Cloninger learned many lessons as her husband struggled with brain cancer. Enjoy her 5 lessons and 14 tips learned from the death of a spouse.
5 Lessons & 14 Tips Learned from the Death of a Spouse
- 6 children who have issues ranging from cataracts, lyme disease, epilepsy, and MTHFR gene mutation (which means they don’t process folic acid).
- She is the biological mother of 5 and they adopted their youngest from China.
- She was also a foster mom.
- Her husband died of brain cancer in 2012.
Cindy’s husband, John, was in the military throughout his career, and served several tours. He became a podiatrist. One day John came home from work with the most awful headache of his life and she had a feeling things were going to change.
He was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer.
The doctors did brain surgery to remove the tumor and John was back to practicing medicine within 3 weeks, which was a miracle. He also did chemotherapy and radiation, and had brain scans every other month.
About a year after the surgery he started getting a little dizzy, which increasingly had got worse. When they did a follow-up brain scan, they found that the tumor had grown and spread throughout his brain.
His doctors said that there was nothing more they could do for him other than try to stunt the growth and try to prolong his life.
In one month John went from doing surgery on his patients, to being so dizzy he couldn’t stand and was in a wheelchair, along with partial paralysis.
For her this was crushing! She was completely broadsided because he had been doing so well. There were moments that were surreal–kind of like a movie where time slows down.
Cindy soon reached a tipping point, a moment of choice, of how she was going to act because she knew her kids would watch and follow.
John’s Last Few Months
This started the hardest, the most beautiful and the most sanctifying time of Cindy’s life.
With her husband in a wheelchair and declining rapidly, they took some of the life insurance money and went on a family trip to Mexico. There they celebrated her daughter’s 7th birthday.
Cindy’s prayers began to change. She began to beg God, “Please don’t let my husband die near any of my children’s birthdays.” This was important to her because she didn’t want them to have to associate his death with their birthday every year.
Another prayer was that they wouldn’t get very much snow that year because she didn’t want to stand in several feet of snow and bury her husband.
They both wanted him to remain in their home until he died. This presented a bit of a physical challenge because she is 5’4″ and he was 6’1.” Amazingly, she was able to have him stay with them in their home until his death.
As the lights began to bother him, Cindy brought him an umbrella he could hold to block the light. That way she was able to keep the light on and read books to him.
She came home one day to find him in their children’s bedrooms downstairs singing children’s songs with them. He said, “These are the things that I cherish.”
John finally reached the point where he couldn’t go down the stairs and having everyone in the room was too much. So, the kids rotated and each got to spend “dinner with dad” up in his room.
As he further declined, she was able to shave, bathe and help her husband care for his body. She wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Cindy found a refining joy in serving her husband.
About a year later there was a big debate about a person’s right to die, and Cindy was prompted to share her experience of her husband’s last few months on Facebook. She explained how although it was extremely hard, they are things she wouldn’t want to miss. Click here to read the blog post she wrote about his last few months.
They had a hospice nurse check on them about once per month, but Cindy all of the CNA work herself.
A Social Worker came and compiled a life history from his words. What a gift!
Another mercy from God was that years before her husband even got sick her oldest son kept asking “What is February 20?” After reassuring him over several years that it wasn’t anyone’s birthday or anything special, February 20 became significant to their family in that it was the day that John died.
That simple recurring question from their son became a witness to them that God was aware of their family’s path and situation–years before her husband’s death.
Cindy feels that God guided her and strengthened her to help her children and her husband during this difficult time. Cindy described the feeling in her home as “buoyant” leading up to and after her husband’s death. It is ironic because you would think that their home would be a heavy place instead of a sanctuary.
Lesson 1. The Power of Music
With John’s cancer, it got to a point where he wasn’t sleeping well and kept trying to get up and falling in the middle of the night. This went on for several nights and Cindy was exhausted. She was able to get some respite help so she could get some sleep.
As she was wondering what to do to help her husband sleep better, she remembered when their kids were little and would awaken that she would go in and sing to them. Her husband, John, would listen to her sing through the baby monitor. He told her then that when they were old and he couldn’t remember who he was, he wanted her to sing to him because it calmed him down.
So, Cindy started singing to John when he was agitated in the middle of the night. As she did this, he would still and be calm. This was an answer to prayer.
Cindy’s Favorite Lullaby Songs to Sing:
This taught Cindy the power of music and the mercy of God in bringing this thought to her remembrance.
Lesson 2. God is the same and has our eternal perspective in mind.
Favorite Bible Verse
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8
Cindy loves this verse because as John was diagnosed with cancer she began to think back through her life and remembered moments when she had felt God’s love. She decided that if God loved her then, He loved her now and still wanted her best good.
She knew God wasn’t trying to destroy her or her family–He was actually creating an eternal family for her. Gaining that eternal perspective was pivotal!
Before this, Cindy understood the concept of eternity, and accepted that eternity would happen, but with John’s diagnosis and decline, eternity became more real to her than it ever was before. She came to know that God had a plan for her and believed that earth life was part of God’s plan but not the entirety of God’s plan for her and her family.
“I am part of a great plan–just for my family. The time we spend on earth is just a step in that plan, but what I really want for my family extends far beyond that.”
She had to ask herself, “Do you really believe in the eternal nature of our souls? Do you really believe in God’s goodness and in His plan?”
Cindy came to trust in the process God has for gaining knowledge and experience here on earth. She feels like God has taught her several little truths first-hand about losing a spouse and now expects her to share them.
Lesson 3. Postcards from Heaven & Gone but not Taken
“One of the phrases or truths that I have is that he is gone but not taken.” John was gone from them physically, but God had not taken John from them at all–not ever.
Cindy then described an example of this concept: She had a week of sick kids, and was exhausted. Then her 12-year-old daughter had a riddle math story problem she couldn’t figure out–and Cindy was too worn out to help her. She went to the couch and bawled “I can’t be both parents–I don’t have the capacity. You’re going to have to help her John.”
Immediately after a picture opened up in her mind and she knew exactly how to solve the riddle math problem. She jumped up from the couch and ran over to her daughter and helped her solve the problem and saying, “I’m brilliant.”
The next day she had a little “come to Jesus” moment and later told her kids that she wasn’t the brilliant one, but that their dad was helping out.
This type of situation has been repeated many times where her husband has helped her parent in the way he would, or helped her children in very real ways.
She can vividly remember feeling her husband beside her as she watched her son do Karate one day. John is still there, and is still their dad and wants to be a part of their lives.
Different people have different experiences with loved ones who have passed on. Although she has never “seen” her husband, she has felt him many times. Cindy has felt a direct correlation between how close she is to God and how near she feels to her departed husband.
When she feels John close to her she calls it “postcards from heaven” from those who have gone on.
Lesson 4. Write down your truths
After John died she would wake up feeling heavy, try to build herself up during the day and then go to sleep only to wake up feeling heavy again. It was too hard to keep doing that.
Cindy got notebooks and put one in her car, bedside table, and in her purse. This way she was able to write down her truths, mantras, or other inspirations she learned along the way. Here are some examples of some of the truths Cindy found and wrote down:
- “God is not destroying my family, he is creating an eternal one”
- “Despite the forecast, I can live like it is Spring.”
- “I’m not moving on, I’m not moving forward, I’m not getting over it–I’m moving toward.”
- She intentionally doesn’t track time of how long it has been since her husband died. And when she accidentally stumbles upon it she tries to look at it differently. Instead of saying, “It has been 6 years since John died, she says, I am 6 years closer to seeing John again.”
Lesson 5. Growth Happens in the Valleys
When her husband first got sick and then died, Cindy mistakenly thought that once you had gone through one trial you were good and done. She believed it was, “One and done.” But she has found this to be untrue. Here are some of the challenges she has faced since her husband died:
- The son they adopted from China had several surgeries to fix his club feet, including being in a wheelchair for 6 months.
- .Their youngest daughter developed severe epilepsy
- Their oldest son got hemorrhagic dengue fever.
“I’ve taken ownership of my trials, and I see their value. They are not things I would ask for, but they are not things I would trade.”
“In the refiners fire, you want all the unimportant things burned out of your life.”
If you look at a mountain you will notice that there is no growth on the tops of the mountains, the growth all happens in the valleys. And so it is with life–we all want to be on the tops of the mountains because of the view, but we grow the most when we are in the valleys of life.
Story of Caleb in Old Testament where he asked for the hardest part, “Give me this mountain.” Joshua [14:12]
“The trials that we have…they are extremely beautiful. I have come to a place where I treasure them because of how they have changed us and what they have taught us and how they have helped us grow stronger together with each other and with our Father in Heaven.”
Lessons Cindy’s Children Have Learned in Hard Times
- They have learned the benefit of trials,
- And have learned they can do hard things.
- They know how to offer encouragement to others,
- And they know life isn’t going to be easy.
- They know who to turn to in their hard times–God. And they know that with His strength they will be able to do hard things.
- They also learned the importance of a good sense of humor and how to joke about trials.
Tip to helping children with the death of a parent
Each night as they gathered for family prayer, she would ask them if they had any questions or things they didn’t understand and wanted to talk about.
Cindy found that often other people would ask questions to her kids that they wouldn’t ask her. An example of this is, “Is your mom dating yet?” By asking if her children had any questions, it gave them a chance to talk about questions these crazy things that would come up.
Things Not to Say or Ask
- Hang in there (like there is any other choice)
- You got this because you were stronger (her brother made the mistake of telling her this once and she told him that was pretty stupid to say because it doesn’t comfort anyone).
- God doesn’t give you more than you can handle (of course He does–or else how would we ever grow and get stronger?)
- Don’t ask what they are going to do in the future (they often are not even processing the next 5 minutes).
- Don’t ask “How are you doing today?” to someone who is in the depths of despair. Instead say statements like: “It is really good to see you,” “I’m glad you are here,” or “We love you so much, I’m glad you came.”
14 Tips to Those in Hard Times
Trust the journey and the process.
You learn step by step a piece at a time.
Sometimes we want to skip to the end of the journey and learn the lessons, but it is a winding road and you need to trust the insight and tools you gain along the way.
Write your truths and the evidence of God in your life and share them with others.
Give yourself permission to feel but don’t get stuck in your feelings.
Go outside for 15 minutes to get sunshine EVERY DAY!
It is okay to cry–even ugly cry–at the grocery store (or anywhere else).
When you are in your valley, find a way to get to the top of the mountain where you can feel renewed and strengthened.
There is purpose in our climb
Get good sleep so you’re not so exhausted.
Be easy on yourself–don’t push yourself to be further along the path than you already are. Where you are is okay.
The challenges change you. You are not going to be the same person you were before.
Share your challenges, and help others along their paths. (Cindy shared the example of the geese flying in a “V” formation and honking their encouragement to those facing the headwind).
Succeed today–do your 3 most important things and call it a success.
This is some advice from a widow friend of Cindy’s that she also applied in her own life. “I want to live my life so that if my husband ever walked back through those doors, he would recognize our family.”
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