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Nov19ThuWhen my husband passed away, my world imploded. But I knew I was not alone. November 19, 2015 By Lt-Colonel Susan van Duinen
When I look back, it was one of the most peaceful Sundays my husband, Dirk, and I had experienced in a while. As we were not leading services elsewhere, we went to worship at Cedarbrae Community Church in Toronto. That morning, there were two cadets there, Tina and Keesom Phanthaamath. Keesom asked Dirk if he could evaluate his sermon. After that was done, Dirk went over to him, had a word of prayer and gave him some feedback. His ministry responsibility completed, we went home, had lunch, took a long, quiet walk, then went to bed.
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Little did we know that this would be his final ministry responsibility, for that night, Dirk passed away in his sleep. And everything changed.
Dirk and I first met in August 1970 at the training college in Toronto. I was starting my first year at the college while he was in his second.
Despite the fact that we were strangers, we fell madly in love and were married five weeks later. It was as if we'd always known each other, and we firmly believed the journey that brought us both together and into officership was God-led.
We duly went through our training and were commissioned. Our first appointment was in Montreal, and then we served in a variety of postings both in Europe and across the territory.
In 2011, the Army asked us if we'd be willing to consider trying a new model where the wife, not the husband, is the divisional commander, for the then Manitoba and North West Ontario Division. Commissioner Christine MacMillan, then the territorial commander, was concerned that Dirk wouldn't buy into the plan. That was the furthest thought from his mind. He sincerely believed that the right individual should be in the right spot. But to make this new paradigm work, both partners had to be engaged in the new venture. The important question she asked each of us was, “Is your marriage strong?” And there was absolutely no doubt about that.
In retrospect, I don't think we were ever as happy as we were that June Sunday in 2013 when we visited Cedarbrae.
Dirk had been in perfect health before his sudden death. Even our family doctor was dumbfounded. He contacted me a couple of days after looking through the files. “I'm mystified,” he told me. “Dirk was always full of life and energy. There was no indication that something was wrong.”
After dialing 911, I immediately called our sons, Peter, who was in Parry Sound, Ont., and Richard, who was in Winnipeg. The paramedics arrived and took over from me, but though they tried their best to resuscitate Dirk, I knew he was gone.
In that awful moment, however, I was not alone. Almost before I knew it, Major John Murray and Commissioner Brian Peddle arrived, as well as our good friends Majors Len and Heather Ballantine. They stayed with me until the coroner took Dirk away at four in the morning.
Opportunity to Witness
Dirk's passing stunned everyone at divisional headquarters, but I will never forget how they rallied around me in the days that followed. I'd get up in the morning and while my sons and I were preoccupied with the myriad funeral arrangements, people would be at the house, cooking meals, cleaning up, putting food in the fridge, even making sure there was enough toilet paper on hand—those practical pieces that no one can grapple with in their deep, unexpected grief.
In my numbness, I felt a nothingness, not even the presence of God. Yet when I most needed him, God was there, constantly shining through, and it was how those people interacted in my life that demonstrated his presence.
That's what kept me connected to God in those early days and months. It was not so much the feeling in my heart of God with me, but the knowledge in my head that he was, and the demonstration of it worked out through those practical acts of kindness.
Of course, my letter carrier knew something was up as he delivered card after card to my door, hundreds and hundreds of cards from all over the world.
One day, the letter carrier saw me from across the street and walked over.
“These are not Christmas cards I've been delivering, are they?” he asked.
“No, they're not,” I said, and I told him what had happened.
“I'm so sorry,” he said. “I can't understand how you can go through something like that.”
“I'm a person of faith,” I replied. “And I know that the Lord is with our family right now and looking after us.”
Even in my time of grief, God used that as an opportunity to witness.
Living With Hope
June is always a hard month for me to get through. Besides Dirk having passed away that month, there are a lot of anniversaries: his birthday, Father's Day, our commissioning and our wedding anniversary coming up in the fall.
Yet even now, I still receive text messages and e-mails from active and retired officers around the world with lines such as, “June the second will never be the same in our family” and “We're thinking about you on this day.”
My faith is grounded in Lamentations 3:22-23, which talks about the faithfulness of God, how his favours are not all past and done: “Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Are there still tears? Absolutely. Are there days when there are no tears? Yes. But the grief is always there.
What people don't realize is that you're always in grief. It becomes part of your life. It's not that it holds you down or makes you dreary to be around, but it's very much a part of you, the pain of who's missing, the hole that's left because there's been deep love shared for so long with another person.
Recently, somebody asked me, “What's good now about your life?”
I replied, “What's good now about my life is heaven.” Because I know that while Dirk's in the presence of God, there will come a time when we'll be reunited. That's our belief. And I know that it's possible to live with deep pain, with a gaping hole in your heart, because you can still have that promise.
There is hope for a hurting heart.
Lt-Colonel Susan van Duinen is the dean of the School for Continuing Studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.