When Words Fail: Living and Lamenting through Dementia

It’s a common experience:  the brain goes in search of a word that just will not materialize. Finally, eventually, the elusive word does come, even if it takes a thesaurus to prime the pump, and we rejoice because in conversation and in writing, finding and savoring the just-right-word to frame a thought is supremely satisfying.

Therefore, it was a searing loss for Douglas and Becky Groothuis when Becky began experiencing the symptoms of a uniquely devastating form of dementia (primary progressive aphasia) which robs the patient first of words, then of all executive function, and eventually of life. As writers, speakers, and teachers, Douglas and Becky’s life together and their livelihoods, their humor and their recreation, had revolved around words. Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness-A Philosopher’s Lament traces the tragedy of their loss from the caregiver’s perspective as, slowly, Groothuis’s beloved wife and companion begins slipping away.

The Language of Lament

Borrowing words from Moses and a soundtrack from Pink Floyd, Groothuis sings a lament in the key of faith, describing a slow suffering in a book that no one would want to write. He expressed lament with Buechner-esque accuracy:

Lament is the place “where our deep sadness meets the world’s deep wounds.”  (55, 56)

Christian lament should not be silenced or hurried along, for it is a sorrow mingled with hope, and those who mourn are “aching visionaries” (57) who lead us in expressing our own broken hearts in a context of healing and purpose found only in the knowledge of God. The worry and the despair of Becky’s gradual slippage wore on Douglas’s spirit, and he related with candor his season of misotheism–“hatred of God” (41)–in which it seemed that God (whose existence Groothuis never questioned) just was not listening and would not relieve their suffering.

Becky’s aphasia and loss of executive function rendered normal routines of life–tying shoes, brushing teeth, using a phone–inscrutable. With both caregiver and patient, efficiency is just a memory, but rendering lemonade from this sour mess, Groothuis observed, “Uni-tasking is often more important than multitasking.”  Leaning into the beauty and the gift of becoming the caring person in his wife’s days, his focus became the embodiment of “unmediated presence,” which comes as close to expressing the image of God as we can hope for on this planet.

Walking Through Twilight Together

As both a philosopher and a lover of God, the author plumbs the depths of his suffering and emerges with wisdom for the body of Christ both to lend purpose to our personal experiences of suffering and to sharpen our skill in coming alongside others as we enter fully and most helpfully into the brokenness of others.

Because it is a unique and long-term loss, our hearts so often do not know how to help a family that is struggling with some form of dementia. Cards and letters are a thoughtful way to express concern because they can be read in quiet moments.

Both tenderness and respect are crucial to communication and help to eliminate the tendency to talk down to dementia patients, to raise one’s voice, and to condescend. Becky Groothuis appreciated visitors and medical personnel who included her in conversations, who spoke directly to her and not merely about her.

Beware of Mere Optimism

As a caregiver, Douglas eventually begin to dread the question, “How is Becky?” A truthful answer would have been too hard for most casual inquirers to handle:  “She’s not doing well, and she will never get better.” Instead of inflicting the burden of vague questions, he suggests that we avoid trying to cheer caregivers up or to move them forward in their grief. Better instead:  grant them time and space to grieve. He urges believers to “pray for wisdom before speaking or communicating with someone under the pressure of loss.”

When offering help, be sure to follow through with action. Providing meals, transportation, or assistance with mundane tasks speaks love. Pronouncements shaped around Romans 8:28 and “I know how you feel” are presumptuous and not helpful, particularly in the earliest days of grief.

“Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on a wound,
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”  (Proverbs 25:20)

When words fail, when things fall apart, and the twilight signals that darkness is on its way in your own small world, God is present there in the twilight.

Even when words fail, the Word Himself is present and He will never fail.


And this update will enable you to pray with knowledge for the author as he journeys through grief:

At 6:45 a.m. on July 6, 2018, Becky Groothuis peacefully entered the presence of her Lord. Douglas shared these thoughts on Facebook shortly after her passing:

“Her long, long struggle is over. I don’t have to worry about her any more. . . Becky’s body is upstairs and will soon leave this house and all earthly houses forever. She has already risen from her body into God’s realm of angels and saints.

I don’t believe this for sentimental reasons. I worked hard for my worldview. We are more than our bodies. We have souls. The soul leaves the body at death to go into God’s presence. Christ’s resurrection is the down payment for our resurrection after the intermediate state. These beliefs hold me as God holds me, and Becky.


Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness-A Philosopher’s Lament, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you, as always, for reading and for your continual encouragement,

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Leaning into the Risk of Motherhood

I can remember when I used to be an advocate for early demise. My fondest hope was to fulfill the biblical quotient for old age as well as I could, and then to exit stage left with as little drama as possible to make room for the next wave.

Then I became a mother, and motherhood changes your mind.

Now, one of my fondest hopes is to see my sons in their prime and beyond, to bear witness to the salt-and-pepper, the graying temples, and the receding hairlines. I want to appreciate the deepening of laugh lines around eyes the color of the sea and to chuckle over the unruly eyebrows and the persistence of strength and muscle tone in a middle-aged runner’s scrawny legs.

It’s in the Blood

Motherhood has changed my mind and more, and Rachel Marie Stone suggests a physiological reason for the alterations that come with motherhood. Apparently, a woman’s body acquires cells from every pregnancy. Each baby she carries leaves behind a few cells that join with hers, so when we take the plunge into motherhood, we do not surface unchanged.

Birth is the metaphor that runs throughout Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light as it binds memoir to meditation and bears witness to the journey that has left its mark on the author. When Stone and her husband packed up baggage and boys and relocated to Malawi, they had not an inkling of what it would cost them to serve university students in one of the poorest countries in the world. Whether it was her training as a doula or her tendency since childhood to be drawn toward the things that scare her, she was drawn to serve in a hospital where maternal death was commonplace–even unremarkable.

When Rachel’s bare hands plucked a baby from a pool of its mother’s HIV-infected blood, she tried not to think about the consequences to her own personal health or to her family. Even so, as she waited for the test results to reveal the impact on her own HIV status, she had plenty of opportunity to ponder the fleeting nature of life and her persistent fears for the safety of her husband and her children. She expressed the angst with borrowed words from Kathleen Norris:

“One of the most astonishing and precious things about motherhood is the brave way in which women consent to give birth to creatures who will one day die.” (74)

An Earthen Vessel in Zomba

Living as a white woman in a Malawian city, Stone “wore shame like a scarf” because of her comparative wealth, her education, her access to medical care, and the fact that she was there in the country voluntarily and could leave at any time. In the city of Zomba they called home, she taught English with a cringe, wishing her students did not need to learn it.

She shared the lives, the meals, and the routines of Malawian women who became friends, all the while learning that “every act of eating and drinking in Malawi was preceded by strategic harm reduction acts” such as washing raw vegetables and fruit in a bleach solution and filtering water. Learning to fashion pottery from the clay taken from termite mounds (Yes, it was accumulated termite droppings . . .), Rachel savored the image of God as the Potter who fashioned her own vessel out of humble clay.

Beautiful Incarnation

One of the highlights of Birthing Hope is the theological ponderings that flow out of the narrative arc. For instance, so many of our anxieties are tied to our mortality and physicality, and yet the truth of the incarnation that anchors our hearts in hope for these frail bodies has been challenged, messed with, and diluted throughout history. This is tragic, because the reality that a Palestinian teenager gave birth to God in a body, that Mary was given the option to bend and break over scandal and risk around a fully human pregnancy gives meaning and purpose and fosters fellowship around our own human struggles that are firmly rooted in our feeble flesh.

From God’s perspective, the incarnation was a huge unshielding of His own heart as He brought into being the possibility of a Suffering Servant and the Perfect Sacrifice. What a precise picture of the mothering life! Starting with birth, and growing by leaps and bounds as small bodies grow into large and independent selves, the mothering journey is one huge unshielding process! And it is fraught with risk.

Birthing Hope is an invitation to enter fully into that risk, trusting that there is no contamination or sorrow that is not gathered up into the collective groaning that will be turned inside out and will one day weigh like feathers in the balance against the overwhelming weight of glory which comes from a life in which love is allowed to have the last word.


Many thanks to IVP Books for providing this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with complete honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light, simply click on the title within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you for joining me today on the path of hope,

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

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The Work of Home

Most days on this country hill are a blur.  With every line in my planner filled, there’s also the background music of laundry and continual cleaning.  In the winter, there’s a voracious wood stove; in the summer there’s a garden that needs constant attention.  Of course, at the far right side of this equation of work and home, there’s a family that knows they’re loved and a home that is well-lived in.

The steady thrum of activity is the glue that holds a home together, and it is one of the most startling discoveries of my life that it is possible to find a fulfilled and meaningful existence in the midst of mind-numbing routine.  It turns out that it’s not what you’re doing that makes a life.  It’s why you’re doing it.

The importance of home and the words of Scripture that shape a right understanding of home are reason enough to spend two weeks pondering Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place.  Last week in Part I, we laid the foundation of God as Homemaker and the Bible as a story of homecoming, welcome, and longings fulfilled.  In Part II, Jen lifts her eyes from her own lunch-packing duties and makes this stunningly succinct observation:

“To love is to labor.”

She goes on to trace the connection between the routines of domesticity and the “quotidian mysteries” of spiritual practice.  Just as the swiping of crumbs off the dining room table will never be a once and done affair (at least at my house!), neither are the practices of spiritual formation.  In tending to the health and wholeness of our souls, every day there will be “crumbs” that need brushing away, and this is a good thing, for it keeps us mindful of our creaturely dependence on God.

In the parlance of Keeping Place, “housekeeping” corresponds to a term found in the Hebrew Scriptures:  ‘avodah.  It shows up in the contexts of “work, service, labor, duties, ceremony, [and] ministry . . . It is also the word that signifies the priestly work of the tabernacle and temple.  ‘Avodah reminds us that worship — and its attendant calls to vocation — can share the banality and ordinariness of everyday work.” (116)

Labors of Love

It is, therefore, possible to draw important conclusions about the nature of worship and the importance that hands-on housekeeping plays in the ebb and flow of a well-balanced Christian life:

1.  Just as Jesus is portrayed as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, the believer is called to a life of “two -dimensional” servanthood, directed toward God and offered to our neighbors.

2.  The “yawning attention” (131) paid to the details of tabernacle construction in Exodus also points toward care and provision for worship — a house for God.  In referring to my “home church” for the past twenty years,  I have spoken truer than I realized.  The welcome and belonging that my family has appreciated there has strengthened us, and, furthermore, we do our fellow parents a huge favor when we reinforce the same messages that they are speaking to their young charges at home.  In fact, research is revealing that “the most important predictor of whether children from Christian families keep their faith into adulthood is the number of multigenerational connections they enjoy at church.”  This statistic should be on a billboard at planning meetings for youth ministries.

3.  Housekeeping is an act of generosity.  In the early church, one sure sign of a conversion to Christianity was a commitment to generosity and mission.  When Jesus put the spotlight on acts of service performed by the Good Samaritan, He underscored the truth that “a neighbor is the one who takes up the housekeeping.” (142)

4.  With marriage rates in the U.S. falling (In 2015, only 50.5% of adults were married), it’s time to look at the reasons why people marry and to equip prospective brides and grooms with tools for doing the routine work of marriage — frequent application of the words “I’m sorry” alongside the daily willingness to “keep choosing love’s bearing, love’s believing, love’s hoping, and love’s enduring all things.” (155)

5.  Keeping Place is a matter of being willing to welcome others into “our place.”  Gathered around the welcome of a prepared meal, no matter how simple, “the table is a burning bush.  Around the feast we are enflamed with the presence of God.” (163)  And is it not God’s way to spread a feast before His people?  We meet around a table and “the feast preaches” the gospel to our hungry and thirsty heart.

6.  The idea of Sabbath precedes the Ten Commandments in Scripture, and is connected from the outset with housekeeping: the provision of manna in Exodus 16 is scheduled to make room for Sabbath rest.  As the Author and Finisher of Home whose Son bore our homelessness, God has instituted practices of housekeeping that draw His children into the hands-on love.  Mercy, justice, and sandwich-making hold equal real estate in the values system of heaven, for the God who works and has worked on our behalf invites us to join Him in the Great Work:

“Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us,
yes, establish the work of our hands.”  (Psalm 90:16,17)

Let the work of housekeeping continue, and may we find fulfillment in the smallest task performed for the greatest worship of God.
Amen.

//

This book was provided by InterVarsity Press in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Last week I spent time interacting with Part I of Keeping Place (click here to catch up) in which Jen laid a foundation with the history of home and the place home plays in Scripture and in our understanding of the gospel. I’ve so enjoyed Jen’s robust theology and elegant prose that it’s been a delight to linger over her words for two weeks.

If you are interested in hearing Jen’s voice and more of her story, check out this Q+A with Ashley Hales or this twenty-minute interview.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.