Lynn Divers struggles with the death of her daughter, faith, fairness and hope

Alyssa, 10, died from cancer in 2012

(Editor’s note: The Fluvanna community rallied around Lynn Divers and her daughter Alyssa for almost two years after the 10-year-old was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a bone cancer. Alyssa died on New Year’s Eve in 2012.

Divers was also a chaplain at the Fluvanna County Prison for Women who advocated against the death penalty, specifically in the case of Teresa Lewis. Lewis, who was put to death in 2010, was the first woman executed in Virginia in over 100 years.

This essay was first published online in Sanctuary of the Holy Others, a Substack newsletter from Kristin Thomas Sancken, a former Fluvanna Review reporter.)

My grief makes me so other.  Most worship services and most sermons don’t delve deep into the transformative nature of grief.  What happened to me has rippled throughout my life.  It’s hard for somebody who hasn’t been there to speak with relevance to it, because it’s too hard to imagine.

Recently, I preached just the second sermon that I wrote since Alyssa died, which is saying something because I used to write them every week. For me, wrestling with the scripture and writing a sermon was sort of how I did my own faith discipline.

I wrote the sermon about the time Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to the temple to have him dedicated. Simeon the prophet tells Mary that ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ And I am eisegeting – that is, reading into the text – that the sword is Jesus’ death. Mary may have had multiple swords and piercings but from my perspective, a sword piercing my soul is a great description of how I live my life. I have an active sword, that is actively piercing my soul all the time. And, it gets bumped by people. Sometimes unknowingly, sometimes purposefully, some people are very good at navigating around it. I’ve gotten better at navigating life with it so that I am protected a little bit better.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

– Luke 2:34-35

In this sermon, I tried to say that there is some scriptural guidance on grief. Right there in Luke, Mary gets a heads up that grief is coming. Sometimes we get a heads up that grief is coming. A sword is going to pierce your soul. Maybe it’s you who is dying. Maybe a parent is going to die. Maybe you’ve gotten the news that a child is going to die.

I don’t think the church deals with deep grief well. We jump too quickly from Good Friday to Easter and we don’t spend a long time on Holy Saturday.

Easter is still too painful for me. I can’t go to church. It’s too ‘Rah! Rah!’ He has overcome death! You know, ‘Victory! Victory is ours!’ I’m still living in Holy Saturday. My daughter is not alive again, not in any tangible way that I can reach her. I can’t brush her hair. I can’t talk to her on the phone.

I miss who she was incredibly deeply. 

I also miss who she would have been.

Before Alyssa was diagnosed, I would tell you that the wrestling with the scripture was a way that God and I talked. Occasionally in prayer, in these quiet moments, I would hear a word. It was just like, ‘relax’ or ‘enjoy’ or ‘carry on.’  A simple word for me to keep me going. 

Once Alyssa was diagnosed, I didn’t hear anything anymore. Nothing. 

Some people say I closed my ears. Maybe. But, I’d like to think I was listening more intently than ever. I certainly banged on the door. In the Christian tradition we have the parable of the unjust judge. Even the unjust judge will give you what you want if you bang on the door long enough. I certainly banged on the door for Jesus, God, or the universe, something, anything to heal my daughter in this world.

“Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

– Luke 18: 6-8

To have God be silent, like, this vortex of nothing, when I had spent my entire life in call and service, was not what I expected of prayer. I didn’t expect God to fix me. I didn’t expect God to necessarily fix Alyssa. But, I didn’t expect God to be silent in my worst suffering. 

I remember, very clearly, lying on our bellies on the floor, me and Alyssa. We were reading Psalm 22, ‘My God. My God. Why hast thou forsaken me?’

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

    Why are you so far from saving me,

    so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

by night, but I find no rest.”

– Psalm 22:1-2 

She understood that. She felt very forsaken.

We tell children, ‘If you do these right things, then fairy tale endings happen.’ Or, ‘After the storm, there’s a rainbow.’ 

But there was nothing like that. 

After the suffering, it was just more suffering. 

She endured 22 months of treatment that didn’t work.

She had 38 hospitalizations. 

She didn’t want to die. She made it clear. She didn’t want to die. She wasn’t ready to die.

This past summer, as I was prepping to give my sermon on Mary and the piercing of her soul, someone I know had found out that they didn’t have cancer. They put on Facebook that ‘God takes care of everything and everybody.’ While I was happy that they got their good news, I’m crying in the shower.

The shower is a place I learned I could cry and people won’t bother you. When I was in the hospital with Alyssa, all the time, I would take my shower and I would just cry, because I couldn’t cry in front of her. So, I still do that sometimes. This particular day in the shower, I’m full of anger. I’m like, ‘oh, maybe God does take care of everybody…everybody else! And, then I screamed at God, ‘BUT YOU DIDN’T TAKE CARE OF ALYSSA!!”

For the first time since Alyssa was diagnosed with cancer over twelve years ago,  I heard God’s voice, with a declarative inflection.

“Yes, I did! I gave her to you.”

And I remembered, before she died, we were on her Make-A-Wish trip in the Bahamas at Atlantis. She was really cold. I wrapped her up in a big towel and I carried her.

I said, “You know, Alyssa, there’s a school of thought – kind of new agey – that before you’re born, you have the opportunity to look at the general scope of what your life will be like and choose …”

She interrupted me. She said, “oh Mommy, I know I chose you.”

I told her that if God had come to me saying, “I have this most precious, amazing little girl, but her life will be hard, would you be willing to be her Mommy? I know I would have chosen her too.”

I wouldn’t trade being her mother, even if it would take away the pain that I’ve been in for the last 10 years, 8 months, and 18 days since she died.

How has my faith changed?

I used to be a chaplain at a prison. I taught a class called ‘Mending A Damaged Faith.’ It was based in large part on a book.

It was discussing the damage that we do to people on the margins – people with HIV, people that are queer, people that get divorced, people that don’t fit in this little box of what is perceived as a stand-up Christian. 

We would go back to the basics. What do you believe? You have the capacity for belief. You believe the chair would hold you. Not a one of you checked the chair to see whether it would hold you before you sat down in it. You believe in some things. What do you believe in?

I still believe there is a God and that God is love. If that God is love, then that’s the lens through which I see the world. How do I start piecing a faith back together in the midst of grief?

There is no way for my grief to end, unless I die. Even then, I don’t know. Some people say you don’t feel sorrow on the other side. I used to believe that. I don’t believe that anymore because I think God feels sorrow. The world is full of pain and suffering. God cries with me. God cries with the world. If God can cry with the world, I think those who are in the cloud of witnesses can also cry and feel the suffering.

I believe in a God that widens the tent, lengthens the table, keeps inviting love to change us. 

What is the Good News?

For me, the Good News is that there’s time. 

There is grace. 

I don’t have to figure this all out. I don’t have to get healed before I die. I don’t have to have my faith all nice and tidy. 

In my screaming match with God, I can scream as long as I need to.

Addendum: If you were touched by the story of Lynn and Alyssa, consider making a gift to The Alyssa House. The Alyssa House provides free housing to families of immunocompromised children receiving extensive care at University of Virginia Children’s Hospital.

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