This post is dedicated to the loving memory of my friend, Charlene Krause.

I tried to start writing this letter explaining it’s purpose, explaining my history of writing Advent letters, and the purpose of Advent itself.  I sat at my computer for an hour before abandoning my letter.  It felt like rhetoric and it felt like the right words weren’t coming.  I wanted words that would convey meaning and hope in the Advent and Christmas season. I wanted happy words for this happy season.  I was trying so hard to fit my letter into what I thought it ought to be, but that didn’t work.   So instead I will write my heart out, my messy heart whose bow is tattered and paper is ripped and content is damaged.  Yes, I will write about where the Christmas season finds me this year.  I will write about my real life.  I will write about why advent matters to me, from my gut, raw and real; because that’s how life feels right now: Raw and real.  Today, as you read this, you join me on my bumpy Christmas road.  Thank you for your company, I need it. (PS hang in there until the end, the story isn’t all dreary).

The Christian faith celebrates advent in the month of December.  I love this part of the Christmas season because it is a time to pause to reflect. It is a time to anticipate goodness. It is a time to create space. It is a time to contemplate. It is a time to assess meaning in this joyous, but busy season. It is a time to journey deeper into my connection with the Divine.  It is a time to ponder “the reason for the season”.

This year advent feels messy and I find myself asking: What is the reason for this season?  Reason = meaning therefore, I have to ask: what is the meaning of this all?

Of Christmas

Of pursuits and passions

Of life itself?

What strings meaning through my days that collectively feel like a rollercoaster?

I journey through excitement for life, the sweet blessing of my family, the purpose I feel in writing and sharing my story.  I fight for optimism and I find it.  I expect good in my life and find much of that too.  Wonderful treasures! Yet, life inevitably swings downwards.

Down into grieving. I grieve the loss of what was.  I grieve the loss of my past beloved profession as a pharmacist.  I grieve the loss of naivety of life when I felt pretty close to invincible.  I grieve what my diagnosis says about my future: that it should be over any day now.  You may say, but its not over! And I agree, it definitely is not, but even so this “truth” of my diagnosis looms overhead.  I grieve that the trauma of my diagnosis, prognosis and treatment stole my calm and it’s a hard fight to reclaim it.  I grieve the life I had planned that never came to fruition.  And this past week, I grieve the loss of my friend, a mom of twin 3 year  old boys.

I think of the verse in Ecclesiastes “everything under the sun is meaningless, like chasing the wind”.  We live, we die, we can’t take anything with us into the afterlife.  Our pursuits and acquisitions are temporal, unable to bring lasting satisfaction.

Wow! What a Debbie-Downer, you are Cheryl!  Don’t you know this is meant to be a joyous season?!  Social media calls me to make this picture pretty.  I’ve noticed how my happy pretty posts garner substantially more “likes” than the grimy real life ones.  You want to hear me say that I am doing well!  You want to hear my good MRI report!  You want to see my children smiling.  It’s easier that way.  Trust me, I like those moments best too!  But put on your wide-angle lens and the picture is fuller and more complex than that. Life is hard.  It is downright impossible at times.  And I am done with pretending, with telling you what I think you want to hear.  I just can’t anymore because I know I must not be alone.  I can’t be.  This human experience has way too many universal elements and it does not seem to take note of when the happy holidays are and pause.  No, it presses forwards in all its brutal ups and downs.

Nov. 17

I woke up early; the night before I fell asleep in my daughter’s bed when she asked me to lie down with her.  So at 6AM, before my children were stirring, my body told me it was time to get up.   In that quiet hour of the morning grief ripped me open.  There on Facebook was an update from my friend’s sister.  “Charlene has come to a point in her journey that we were all scared to reach…Palliative comfort care is the stage she is at.”

Palliative.  End of life.  My friend is dying.

My cousin introduced me to Charlene right after I was diagnosed with cancer.  We both had infant twins and cancer; an awful combination which forged a connection.  Though we had never met face to face we were dear friends.  We understood elements of each others’ lives that others could not.  She was special.  Then in June I had the opportunity to meet Charlene face to face when I was visiting Manitoba.  She was amazing.  She was spunky and fun.  She was optimistic and funny.  She was real and honest and smart.  “I really like you!” I said to her during this visit.  And it was true – not only had I grown to appreciate her friendship, mainly through messaging, I really liked Charlene, and loved her.  She was a comrade.

Initially I had a worse prognosis than Charlene.  That didn’t matter, we had a connection.  This connection deepened when her cancer metastasized.   I empathized with her new bad prognosis.  I knew what that was like.  I saw all the messages of “I’m so sorry” to her and I committed to being a voice of encouragement and hope to her.  I didn’t want her to feel sorry for herself, I wanted her to live!  But that was never an issue; we shared optimism and hope despite our diagnoses.  Furthermore, we shared the awful challenges of mothering twin babies with radiation and chemo fatigue.

Now Charlene is dying.

I was grateful for that hour, by God’s grace a quiet hour, to sit and cry and grieve for my friend Charlene.

The kids woke up and I had to tell my daughter why I was crying.  My 7 year old who doesn’t say much, but is smart enough to connect the dots.  Cancer.  Dying.  A mom.  We prayed for Charlene, what else could we do?  Then on with the day of making breakfast, packing lunches and getting kids to where they need to go.

I still had to tell my husband.  The news seemed to roll off him until the next day when his emotions plummeted.  This was much too real and much too close to home.  While I felt this grief as extreme sorrow, Ryan felt this grief as terror.  Petrifying terror.

Grief. Raw grief. An ugly mess to wade through; but wade through it we did.  My husband discussed with me his real fears of being left to raise 3 children by himself.  I feel like perhaps I’ve come to peaceful terms with my own death, whenever (hopefully a LONG time away) it happens.  But to think of Ryan alone raising our children; this is agonizing.  Another side of grief to watch my husband grieve.

You would think this is enough.

But then I see an emailed note in my inbox from our former neighbor’s daughter.  Our neighbor recently passed away.

“I’ve been going through Dad’s things and I found the beautiful book you gave Dad as a gift when Mom passed away last year.  Thank you” 

I honestly forgot I gave him that book even though I diligently hunted to find a suitable condolence gift in memory of a woman I grew to love.  His passing away has had me reflecting about and missing his wife, our neighbor of 10 years.  I’ve been thinking about how meaningful it was for me to be present with her in her last days, particularly her very last one.   

Death and grief heavy, I wonder how I’m going to press forward.

Then into the living room where I am drinking my morning coffee comes my 4 year old beauty, her long blonde hair strewn in a mess and she stops in wonder.  The day prior we put up our Christmas tree.  It is beautiful, if a bit small for our new space, but this child stops in sleepy delight to admire its beauty.

And this this is what cuts through my grief and the heaviness that being an adult is, that experiencing loss is and the heaviness weight of a cancer diagnosis in our home.

It is the wonder and delight of a child.  The simple, all consuming joy of Christmas for a 4 year old.  And I remember that scripture instructs us to have faith like a child.  To go to our childhood stance and believe.  Believe in the goodness of life.  Enjoy the simple wonders of life.  Delight in gifts and treasures – no matter how small they are.  Believe that there is beauty here.  So much beauty.

And I am thankful for this child who gives me perspective of what really matters.

I call out, “God thank you for these 3 little teachers in my home.”

I love Christmas and it is so much more wonderful with children.

This is the only way to capture the joy, love, hope, peace of this season and bring it into everyday life where grief is ripe.  Ripe.  You know what happens to ripe fruit if it is not plucked? It rots.  And so it is with grief.  So I pluck grief from my tree and mix it with the joy and delights of children, making the bitterness of grief taste sweeter and more palatable.

I choose to set forth into this season with a heart of gratitude and wonder.  Wonder for all these gifts I hold in my home.  Gifts of love, shared, never lost, always shaping me into who I am.

I choose to find wonder and gratitude everyday.  It is the only way to cut through the grief of this difficult life.  For me this season is perfect to do so.  The joy and fun of Christmas.  The season of advent – expectantly awaiting the coming goodness.  The hope of the world.  One who loves abundantly, sacrifices on my behalf and promises a living hope.

And the news comes a week later.

Charlene has passed away.  I see an update about her, not expecting this news, and I gasp, “so quick.”

HOPE. Oh how I need hope that there is more than this grief I feel today.

I process her death.  I find myself weeping in church during the music.  My emotions raw and my questions real: Why? Why, why has Charlene died?  The sermon calling us to trust in God and that peace comes from choosing to trust God.  And I can’t.  “God I don’t want to trust you in this because it hurts.  It hurts so badly.  Why is her life shortened? Why are her boys going to have to grow up motherless?  Why why why why?  And there are no answers.  And I know that I have asked these questions already.  Why why did I get cancer?  A bad cancer?  2 days after my diagnosis I asked my friend: why would God give me an extra baby then allow me to die?  Why?  Too much why.

And I know it is good to ask why.  But it is not good to sit there too long.  And I know from past experience that the only way to be okay with this grief and lack of certainty is through gratitude.  Gratitude for the years given to Charlene.  Gratitude for the supernatural love I have personally experienced and that I know is accessible to Charlene’s family in all circumstances, even this really rotten horrible wretched one.

This gratitude takes effort.  It is a good thing I have practiced gratitude, because it does not come easy.

The question hangs in the air: Do I still trust God?  I am broken.  Can I really still trust you God?  Wrestling with my faith has been a very fruitful battle in the past 3 years.  Here we are again.  But this time it is Christmas time and grief runs deep.  I wonder: What shape will this battle take?

I had the privilege of listening to Sean Brandow, chaplain of the Humboldt Broncos speak this summer at our family camp.  In April 2018 Sean lost his dear friend, the coach of this hockey team, in this bus tragedy that killed 16 people.  As chaplain, he was called to speak at a Vigil for the team.  At that vigil he spoke hope.  An impossible task.  It was truly an honor to connect with this man.  Our camp is quite small at 100 people, so it felt like we got to know the man behind this voice of hope.  He was real.  He desperately misses his friend.  He had to wrestle with the question of the goodness of God, the ability to trust God in such tragedy, and God’s worthiness.  This was difficult.  Difficult for him and difficult for me to listen to.  As he spoke this last message at our camp I was a sobbing mess.  It hit home.  The brokenness.  The “unfairness”.  The devastation.  I knew those things.  Stage 4 Glioblastoma. Survival 12-18 months.  Two babies still nursing.  One older not yet 5.  Is God still good? Do I still trust God?

Sean.  Charlene.  Me.  You?

Do I still trust God?

I know the “right” answer; but that doesn’t matter to me anymore.  I’m through with platitudes and pat answers.   I’m done with religiosity.  I need to know MY answer.  This is a BIG question that I approach with intention.  I weigh the options.  I sift through my experience. I lean on my academically trained mind. I listen to my rationale. I search my heart.  I know that this is a black and white answer.  At this point it has to be.  Gray doesn’t work anymore.  Either I trust God or I don’t.

I ponder what I have learned these past 3 years.  I have learned:

  • I need an anchor— the storms of life get nasty and rough, I need an anchor to keep me from being lost at sea.
  • I need a purpose — I need a reason to get out of bed to face one more day and step into it and really live, not just survive.
  • I need meaning – what is this all for? At times, it all seems very meaningless, this life cycle of living then dying and eventually being erased by the waves of time.  What is my meaning in all of this?  (because the reality of death is smacking me in the face and even though most of my peers act invincible, I clearly know that I am not!)\
  • I need something bigger than myself. Bigger than my own ideas, ambitions, and dreams.  I need something that will touch my brokenness, and the pain of my life-experience, trauma, and grief.  I need something bigger than the love I have within me to heal my wounds — my self-love fails me, it is not big enough for the hurts of my world.
  • I need grace. I need the kindness that grace is.  I need a release from my try-hard, never measure up life.  I need the fresh breath of life that grace is.  You know like the kind of grace I give my kid by hugging and kissing him when he’s hurt himself doing something I’ve told him not to. (not that I’m good at dishing out that kind of grace, but I think that should help you get the picture….love even if I’ve messed up, and no matter what)

Do I still trust God?

In these moments I muster just enough faith to say:


Yes, I still trust God; because not trusting Him is a dismal proposition for me.  In each hardship, with each question, with each impossibility I keep wrestling and I keep coming back to my faith.  I come back to my faith that gives me everything that brain cancer, watching my friend lose her life, facing losing my life, contemplating my children losing their mother, my husband losing his lover- tries to steal.

Through my faith I find purpose, I find meaning, I find something bigger than this fragile human body I’m housed in, I find an anchor and I find grace.  So much gracious love that is a salve for my wounds.

And for me, most of all I find HOPE.  I find a way to keep waking up each day with the ability to claim joy and peace in the hours ahead.  Hope that what feels and seems impossible can be possible.  I find hope that maybe, just maybe I can keep living, like really living — thriving— when death stares me angrily in the face and grief is a heavy cloak on my shoulders.

So, this is how I celebrate the Christmas season this year – with brilliant joy (children anticipating delights, decorations, and ornaments, enjoying lights and baking favorite cookies…) interrupted by grief. Deep grief.  Real Grief. Real life. Pressing forward on this bumpy road.

If advent was a bumpy road for Mary traveling to Bethlehem, for me it’s like riding a rollercoaster up and down.  Like the rollercoaster Ryan and I rode at Busch Gardens in Florida.  We went there one year that was freezing so we were front of the line, everytime.  There we sat in the “best seats” of this ride: front row, feet dangling, unable to see the track we were apparently attached to.  A terrifying thrill. This advent, I think I hear Jesus whisper in my ear with a wink in his eye, his hand grasping mine, “I love a wild ride” then as he climbs in next to me and pulls his harness over his chest, “we got this” and with a smile, “lets see who screams louder.”

I cry, not sure if I am happy or sad, probably both.  Usually I hold my harness with a death grip on rides, today I hold Jesus’ hand.  Hard.  He turns to me, “I won’t let go Cheryl, I won’t let go.”  And the ride drops into seemingly freefall and I scream and squeeze; delight and terror.

I think just maybe we zoomed past Charlene cheering me on with all her hoots and hollers, her body that no longer worked now fixed, spunky as ever.

Then down we drop and loop around.

This is my life.  It is terrifying. It is grief laden.  It is full of beauty and celebration and  childhood joys.  It is more and better life than I could have ever imagined.

This advent, this Christmas season, I hope you reach out and take hold of the gifts right in front of you.  The joy that can always be found.  And I invite you into an engaged life – filled with interruption and gratitude, joy and grief, purpose and meaning, anchored in hope and love.

This advent, whether you’re biting the head off a gingerbread man or sinking your teeth deep into the ripe fruit of grief, my hope is that advent blesses you with her promise: more and better life than you could ever have imagined.