Denise Day Spencer

June 12, 2010

Sometimes it’s just plain hard

Filed under: Devotional Life,Personal reflections — denisedayspencer @ 7:36 pm

Warning: This post contains graphic content. Still with me? Then let’s proceed.

I’ve been reading and hearing lots of death stories since Michael passed away. I’ll share a few anonymous examples.

First, one that I heard long ago but will never forget. “Jim” was dying of cancer at home and had been in a coma for days. One evening he regained consciousness. His wife was thrilled. She called the two adult daughters, who arrived with their young families. Wife, daughters and grandkids all piled up together on Jim’s bed. For a couple of hours they enjoyed a joyous time of holding one another, saying “I love you” and sharing their goodbyes. Finally Jim’s eyes closed. He sank back into a coma and died later that night. But the family will be forever grateful for that gift of precious time they were given.

Then there was “Sam.” Also dying of cancer and unresponsive, Sam suddenly opened his eyes wide and focused his gaze on a spot near the ceiling with an expression of wonder just before passing on. His daughter was there and later said to me, “I don’t know if Daddy saw Jesus or an angel, but I know he saw something.”

Another man I heard of took the guesswork out of it. Before he died he said “Jesus” three times. His wife takes comfort in her belief that “Matt” was ready to go and is now with his Lord.

“Jesse” was another man who had been unconscious as his wife watched his condition deteriorate. She at last whispered to him that she didn’t want him to suffer any more, and she told him to “run to Jesus.” He opened one eye and smiled before dying shortly thereafter.

“Dana” never opened her eyes, but before she passed she managed to reach up to touch her beloved husband’s face one last time as she had so tenderly done often before.

These are beautiful stories, one and all. Tales of hope in the midst of tragedy. Memories that bring consolation to the bereaved. And I’m getting tired of hearing them. Can I say that out loud? “Why?!” you no doubt gasp in horror. ‘Cause Michael and me, we got nuthin’.

Michael’s illness was just plain hard. I’m not complaining; it could have been a thousand times worse and I know that. Yet from the day he got sick in late November until he died on April 5, he never again had even one good day. His life became throwing up in a bucket or trying to sit perfectly still so he wouldn’t throw up. My life became driving him to medical appointments in the dead of winter through rain and sleet and snow and fog and sometimes all of the above. I’ll condense the story for your reading enjoyment. Michael got worse. Life got harder. Then he died.

As hard as his illness had been, I secretly harbored a hope that there would be some kind of tiny payback at the moment of his death. Perhaps he would see Jesus or an angel (or the Virgin Mary?) Maybe there would be some sign of his readiness, some indication of peace and joy as he passed into the next life.

But just as cancer had treated Michael harshly, death showed him no kindness. The disease had been relentless. No remission, no respite for either of us. Likewise, there was no beauty in his passing, even for a fleeting moment. Death was ugly and it claimed him unceremoniously. He struggled to breathe, and fought harder as the day wore on. After the hospice nurse administered morphine it seemed to take forever for him to grow calmer. The breaths still came in labored gasps, his jaw dropping at an odd angle. His eyes were half open but unseeing. At some point I noticed that his lips were blue and I dared to lift the sheet. His entire body was mottled as his circulatory system slowly gave out. I touched his face. I held his hand. The family gathered around. We watched as the raspy gulps of air became shallower…and slowed…and stopped.

Where were the visions? The angels? The heavenly music soundtrack? Michael fought a hard fight and he died a hard death. And that was that.

I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I was angry at God. Not only was my 53-year-old husband much too young to die in my humble opinion, but he was a Christian. Not only that, but he was a minister who had given his whole life to sharing the gospel. Not only that, but HE WAS THE INTERNET MONK, for crying out loud! Lord, are you listening?! Was it too much to ask that there be something — anything! — lovely in his death? I wanted that for him, and I wanted it for me.

Four days later I went to the funeral  home to pick up Michael’s cremains. I drove home with the box labeled, “Warning. Contains human remains” on the floorboard of the passenger side. That night I transferred the box’s contents to the lovely wooden urn I had purchased from the brothers at St. Meinrad. Have you ever seen human cremains? I was surprised at how heavy the box was when I first picked it up. People say “ashes,” but it’s more like gravel, really, or perhaps a mixture of fine gravel and sand. The cancer had so ravaged Michael’s body that I pictured him simply crumbling into this small mound of rubble.

Then I had a thought. I wish I could say I heard a loud voice in the room or a gentle whisper in my ear. But it was just a thought, a memory. “He is not here.” Well, of course not. Michael was faith and doubt, joy and anger, wonder and intelligence and fear and giftedness and insecurity and love and so, so many more things. How could all that possibly be contained in a plastic bag of  “human remains?”

That was when I remembered the second part of the verse. “He is not here. He has risen as he said…” (1)

In that moment I realized that the hardness of Michael’s death was a reminder that it is not supposed to be this way. Ever read the first three chapters of Genesis? Man was created for life, not death. But we live in a fallen world, and the cherubim still guard the tree of life with white-hot swords. Our only hope is a Redeemer who has conquered death itself and has risen as he said. He will deliver us to a new world, a world where “there shall be no more curse,” for “…on either side of the river [is] the tree of life…” (2)

In those first days and weeks after Michael left me, all I seemed to be able to recall of him was his grueling illness and his grim death. Little by little, memories of his life are returning. I want to remember him vibrantly alive, teaching and preaching and writing and podcasting. Talking and laughing and eating and studying. But whenever my thoughts turn to the starkness of his passing, I will remember: We may be born to die, but we were created to live.

Live well, Michael. Live now and forever.

(1) Matthew 28:6

(2) Revelation 22:3a & 2b



  1. Hi, Denise. I am sorry that there were not some “good” days for you and Michael after he got sick. And it DOES seem so unfair that he died when and how he did…too soon and too painfully. I hope that you will be comforted by good memories of the time when he was healthy and by the hope that he is now with God in a closer way than when he walked the earth.

    Comment by JoanieD — June 12, 2010 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you, Denise, for the honesty that I have come to expect from Michael’s writings and now find in your’s. Death is brutal, the wrenching apart of body and soul. The only thing that redeems death is the fact that Jesus went there first. We have come to expect the exceptions that you cite to be the norm for a believer. Christians sentimentalize death, I think, but nothing in God’s word tells us that we will have preferential treatment until we walk through that door and realize that Jesus is on the other side.
    “90 Minutes in Heaven” sells books, but it isn’t realistic to think that it is the norm.
    Keep writing. You speak with your own voice, but I hear Michael echoing in the background.

    Comment by Kat — June 12, 2010 @ 8:34 pm | Reply

  3. Thank you Denise.

    Comment by Jeff — June 12, 2010 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks Denise. I would add John 11. People tend to remember it for a variety of reasons. The one I hear most is that Jesus wept in the face of death. And that’s important. But even more important, I think, is the fact that we are twice told that Jesus was ‘deeply groaning’, that he reacted strongly, that he was angry. I think we see in that image, the anger of God faced with the power of death over his icon. Jesus came to defeat that power and we live now in the light of resurrection. I think it’s perfectly OK to react with anger in the face of death. Jesus did. And I think we do a disservice to people when we tell them that it’s not OK.

    My life has, in a number of ways, been marked by death. I’m Christian (assuming I am, of course) because of its promise of Resurrection. I cling to that, even if it seems so many have forgotten.


    Comment by Scott Morizot — June 13, 2010 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  5. Thank you for your honest sharing.

    Comment by Wolf Paul — June 14, 2010 @ 2:40 am | Reply

  6. Thank you both.

    Comment by Dave H — June 14, 2010 @ 7:17 am | Reply

  7. Thank You…

    Comment by Rob Bressi — June 14, 2010 @ 7:39 am | Reply

  8. Thank you so very much for sharing.

    Comment by Brad — June 14, 2010 @ 9:09 am | Reply

  9. Denise: I went through pretty much the same thing with my mother in ’75 as you went through with your husband last year. Death Sucks. Cancer especially.

    I don’t know if I should say this, but:

    If anybody comes up to you all glib and flowery and Spiritual about how God did this To Take Michael Home or To Teach You Something Spiritual (five fast Bible-verse proof-texts or not) or starts prattling on about Fluffy Cloud Heaven, you have my permission to kick them in the nuts (if male; if female, punch ’em in the breast). Hard.

    Comment by Headless Unicorn Guy — June 14, 2010 @ 10:25 am | Reply

    • I am SO with you there! I am SO SICK of hearing that “God won’t put any more on you than you can handle.” I searched the Bible through and through and IT’S NOT THERE!!!!!!!!!!! Every time I point that out to someone, they react as if I am blaspheming against the Holy Spirit or something! They usually come back with I Corinthians 10:13, which says that we won’t be TEMPTED more than we can handle. It says NOTHING about God not putting more on us than we can handle!

      Denise, your honesty in this post will probably give a multitude of people out there the “right” to feel anger at God. Contrary to what we were taught growing up, God WILL NOT strike us dead for being angry with him! He gave us the ability to feel that emotion. Why would he punish us for experiencing it? It’s what we DO with our emotions — anger included — that can cause problems if not handled correctly.

      Comment by Cynthia Jones — June 14, 2010 @ 5:50 pm | Reply

  10. Denise,

    I can’t imagine what you are going through now, but I’m so sorry you and Michael had to suffer as you did. There is so much we (human beings)don’t understand, but I know this. So many loved your husband and his sharing of his heart with us. He left a wonderful legacy, and not all of us will be able to say this at the end of our lives. Those of us who miss Michael will continue to pray that Jesus’ healing touch will comfort your heart. God’s peace be with you.

    Comment by Barbara U. — June 14, 2010 @ 11:55 am | Reply

  11. thank you ..may God bless and comfort as only He can..

    Comment by wayne — June 15, 2010 @ 5:20 am | Reply

  12. Thank you, Denise.

    Comment by Bill Kinnon — June 15, 2010 @ 8:30 am | Reply

  13. Thank you, Denise. I have appreciated Michael’s writings and yours.

    Comment by Kathy — June 15, 2010 @ 8:49 am | Reply

  14. Thank you for being honest. I buried a daughter, son, and husband by the time I was age 40 (three separate events). I suffered indignity and pain only from the hands of believers, never unbelievers. Hangeth thou in there, dear lady.

    Comment by Susan — June 15, 2010 @ 10:07 am | Reply

  15. Denise, you don’t know me, but I knew your husband. This post was ironically wonderfully refreshing. Thanks for having the courage to write it.

    Comment by Michael Patton — June 15, 2010 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

  16. […] Spencer has written about this speaking to the atypical “Christian” experience she had with Michael …. It does not get any more real than […]

    Pingback by “Still Waiting for Something Good to Come Out of It” or Here in the Real World — June 15, 2010 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

  17. Thank you, Denise.

    Death is horrible…but even death can point us back to the promise of our Redeemer that He has conquered sin and death and thereby given all who believe in Him victory over death, and life throughout eternity.

    Comment by BrianD — June 15, 2010 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  18. Thank you Denise for being so honest with your feelings. I am so sorry for your loss & pain. My own father went quickly & without much pain….but my mother lingered for weeks in anquish. I did question God as to “why”…she was a wonderful Christian woman who loved the Lord & fought a valiant fight for years with sickness & pain, so why such a painful end? All I know is, she is with Jesus & so is Michael….that’s all I know.

    Comment by Katie — June 16, 2010 @ 7:26 am | Reply

  19. Thanks for this honest and touching post Denise. I read this right before heading home for the night and was greeted at the door with a box from Amazon with my pre-ordered copy of Mere Churchianity in it…perfect timing. You will remain in my prayers.

    Comment by MikeL — June 16, 2010 @ 10:16 am | Reply

  20. One thing I always remind people at a funeral … the Bible refers to death as THE LAST ENEMY… death is not our friend …we were not, as she reminds us ‘created to die.’ Death is our enemy and God’s enemy … and he has promised to destroy this enemy.

    Denise has told us why this matters… God bless her.

    Comment by Babylon's Dread — June 16, 2010 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  21. Continuing to think of you and remember you in my prayers, Denise. I’m so sorry for this wretched ordeal and horrific loss. Thank you for writing this post.

    Comment by paigemom — June 16, 2010 @ 10:38 pm | Reply

  22. […] is hard June 17, 2010 by John Meunier Denise Day Spencer recounts the death of her husband, Michael, who was also known as The Internet Monk. She writes of the ugly and hard […]

    Pingback by Death is hard « John Meunier's blog — June 17, 2010 @ 7:20 am | Reply

  23. Denise,

    I’m so sorry you and Michael had to go through all of this. Thank you for telling us your story. May God richly bless you and use you the rest of your days upon the earth!!!

    Comment by JimB — June 17, 2010 @ 7:47 am | Reply

  24. Today is the one year anniversary of my beloved husbands’ death. This post was linked to me through a friend and I knew I had to finally read it today. How I needed this. My dear Jim was much like Michael–incredibly gifted and loving. He died a miserable, painful death from cancer in 18 months. When he was diagnosed, it’s as if we entered blackness. His days grew more and more difficult, and I watched him die. There was nothing beautiful, nothing of comfort in his passing. He desperately did not want to leave me and his children, yet his confidence in heaven was unshakable. I was furiously angry with God and could not speak to Him for a while. I couldn’t believe he would allow such a horrible conclusion. I chafed (and often had difficultly remaining civil) with Christians who would say, “God is in control of everything”. If God was in control, that just made HIm a monster for not stopping the pernicious spread of Jim’s cancer that slowly consumed him. It is so hard for Christians not to have neat answers, to make sense of our lives. Yet Jim’s suffering and death were nonsense. Though this post and my own painful journey (God and I are speaking again), I have come to understand (more accurately, to accept) that death, disease and tragedy are the byproducts of this world that has gone off track from God’s original intent and that One Day it will all be vanquished. Heaven is so much more desirable to me and I am so much freer to live in this world and to love. I will see my beautiful and radiant husband again. THANK YOU, Denise for your honesty, I share your pain.

    Comment by ValryL — June 18, 2010 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

    • thank you for sharing this…your words of honesty are refreshing and have blessed me as I have read them. I am so sorry for your loss. My husband & I still have each other, but I have been very sick for most of our marriage (27 yrs. now). We, too, have questioned God and struggled…not understanding why we are having to endure something so cruel. I can no longer bear to be around most Christians because of the those “neat” answers or because they write me off because my situation does not change. Just grateful for people such as yourself and Denise. Again, thank you.

      Comment by Susan — August 18, 2010 @ 7:42 pm | Reply

  25. […] Denise Spencer: Sometimes life is just hard. […]

    Pingback by June Linkathons « BrianD blog — June 23, 2010 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  26. Denise,

    The strength you have shown through this tragedy is nothing short of amazing. Steve and I have had a few talks, remembering our lives with you and Mike. Wonderful experiences that shaped us and made us who we are. Mike’s passing and your experience continue to influence us and help to bring about perspective and peace. If you get back to the big O, please look us up.


    Comment by Tim Hicks — June 24, 2010 @ 6:05 pm | Reply

  27. Denise, thanks for posting this. My husband and I had a similar experience: his mom, who was a sweet, gentle, kind person, died a somewhat premature and extremely painful death from esophageal cancer, while his dad, who was a difficult, angry, moody man, died peacefully and much less painfully four years later. Both of them were Christians and she had suffered uncomplaining for years through a difficult life with him. It was hard to accept that God’s ways are not our ways and that we only see a small fraction of what is actually happening.

    We have no way of knowing what our unconscious loved ones are experiencing at the moment of death and we have to accept entirely on faith that they are being loved and held by God, even as we watch their earthly dissolution. It’s one of the biggest tests of faith we ever go through. I think of you often and remember you in my prayers.

    Comment by suze — June 29, 2010 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  28. Denise,

    I was a longtime reader of Michael’s blogs and occasionally also of yours, but got so caught up in my work on the one hand and my dad’s own fight with cancer on the other, over the last 9 months, that I didn’t hear about his passing until tonight: I’m so sorry, and very much thankful to you for posting; your family’s in my prayers …

    Comment by chris — July 1, 2010 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

  29. Denise, thank you for your pure honesty. My husband and I have struggled severely for many years because of a chronic illness that I have. We have missed out on much and often have not understood why our lives must be this way. It is a blessing to just “hear” someone speak so plainly about the hard things of this life. I always enjoy reading your entries. Thank you.

    Comment by Susan — August 18, 2010 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

  30. I’m not sure who you are, or where you are from but I fully agree with “We may be born to die, but we were created to live.” I just had a friend of mine pass away from cancer earlier today and a friend of mine told me that we were not created to know anything about death. So all ways that we handle it are man-made. We were certainly created for life and to live.

    Bless you.

    Comment by Brandon — November 17, 2010 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  31. Hi Denise,

    Just read this again, I think you ended your post with the best perspective any of us could have! I’m praying for you guys this season, Merry Christmas!!!

    Comment by Bobby Grow — December 22, 2010 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

  32. I’m reading “How We Die” by Sherwin Nuland and it is changing my expectations about my own death.

    Comment by Kevin T. — October 3, 2011 @ 11:55 pm | Reply

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