In high school, I toured New England with an acting troupe that performed a reader’s theatre production called Bridge of Blood. The play told the story of five missionaries — Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming — who were martyred in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956. Their deaths made international news and ignited North American missionary enthusiasm in the 20th century. As a teenager, I read Jim Elliot’s published journals and devoured the stories of his life written by his wife, Elisabeth Elliot, after his death. Something about Jim’s story struck a chord within, and because of my participation in this play, the story engraved itself on my heart.
Each night, I performed as the lead character, Jim’s wife, Elisabeth, a gutsy young mother and wife. Over the course of 90 minutes, I became a widow in every performance. I remember discussing missionary plans with Jim and, later, urgently trying to make radio contact with him from the Shell Mera station. I remember the heavy silence that filled the auditoriums when I learned my husband was dead. My seventeen year old self could never have imagined I was rehearsing a story that would someday be my own. I was memorizing the script of my own widowhood.
I know Elisabeth Elliot’s story by heart. I reenacted her widowhood 25 years ago, and I have come to live my own version of her story. I know the shock of sudden loss, the sorrow of losing your life partner, the responsibility of raising a child alone, the determination to cling to life and purpose in the face of death. I have thought of her many times in the last seven months and marveled at the ways her story has informed the course my own will take.
A week after Rob’s death, I discovered he had placed Elisabeth’s new posthumously published book, Suffering is Never for Nothing, in his Amazon cart. The book was a recommendation, it turns out, from his dear friend, a son of one of the martyred missionaries. Taking this as a sign, I ordered the book right away. I sensed God through Rob had given these words to me.
I tried to read Suffering is Never for Nothing within weeks of Rob’s death, but Elisabeth’s words were too painfully intimate. “I was saying, but Lord, You’re with me all the time. What I want is Jim. I want my husband,” Elisabeth said of the day she learned of her husband’s death. I know the sorrow in those words. I know that heartbroken, desperate prayer. I’ve said it too. Even though it is short, the book took me months to finish.
As I read it again recently, I saw Elisabeth’s words with new eyes. The eyes of a widow seven months in. My grief is less raw now. A deeper, heavier ache. In this reading, I found particular comfort to see that, more than 20 years after his death, Elisabeth still talked about Jim. A lot. His name, his story, their life together — it was all still there. In her thoughts. In her heart. In the books she wrote and words she spoke. For the rest of her life, Elisabeth could not talk about suffering or faith or purpose or love without mentioning the man she’d loved and lost. All of her writing, from her early days of recounting his story to her final words on suffering — all of her life was marked by her love for Jim. Time changed her grief, but it never took it away.
As the days and months pass, I see my life beginning to take new shape. I wear my grief differently now than I did seven months ago. I know I’ll wear it differently seven months, seven years hence. I am learning that I will carry my loss afresh in each season. Elisabeth, my comrade in grief, reminds me that whatever time passes, whatever life brings, I will carry this love and grief with me forever. I need not worry it will fade — that “time will heal all wounds.” Rob’s story will always be woven together with mine. I will never be able to talk about suffering or love without talking about him. As the years pass and my life grows around my grief, I will carry the loss of Rob with me in a way that remains precious and intimate until I rejoice to see his face again in the new creation.
Elisabeth Elliot died in 2015, almost fifty years after her husband Jim was speared to death on a sandbar in the jungles of Ecuador. In the years after Jim’s death, Elisabeth remarried, was widowed a second time, and married again. She published more than 20 books. She enjoyed watching eight grandchildren grow. Elisabeth grew a rich, full life from the soil of the suffering she had endured. I often tell my children that God has good plans in store for us, His beloved children. I have no idea what His plans are, what course our life will take in years to come. I’m sure Elisabeth could not have imagined hers either. Whatever is in store, I know that my love for Rob will remain a powerful force that shapes my life for good. Because in God’s hands, suffering is never for nothing.