No Longer Alone

John's story by Jack Heimbigner

“Every night, I would ask God for a transfer. Give me the cancer. Take it away from my wife who doesn’t deserve this pain. Every morning, I would waken and realize God hadn’t taken it away from her.” John and Toni had only been married for slightly more than four years when she passed away from cancer.

John’s life changed. Even though his life had been a roller coaster ride of high peaks and low valleys, John’s morale spiraled down to an all-time low. Death had ended a true love story. The numbness crept in, leaving John feeling alone and desperate.

He also felt lost. He spent hours driving around the countryside as a photographer taking pictures, not wanting to be home alone. Loneliness and loss had once again crept into his life, yet he was never really alone. God was standing beside him and walking with him. He just never realized it.

This part of John’s story started at age 19 as a proud, young Marine. John Walker was stationed at Camp Pendleton in the early 1970s. He had become close to another soldier of Italian heritage and eventually, the friendship led to John being invited to meet his friend’s sister for a meal one weekend. “Alright, I like Italian food,” he said. It wouldn’t hurt meeting his friend’s sister and getting a meal out of it, too. He had no idea what was in store. This one Italian family meal would begin a journey of happiness followed by the most difficult times he would ever face.

In a matter of months John and his friend’s sister, Toni, were engaged. The dating and courtship moved quickly and developed into a love for each other that neither teenager had ever experienced. They had been engaged a year when John was given orders to report for duty in Adak, Alaska. He would serve as an MP on an island located between Alaska and Russia.

In a pledge of commitment to each other, John had given Toni an engagement ring and she had given John her high school ring. Toni was a student at Cal State Long Beach and they planned with anticipation to marry after she finished school.

A month after his posting, he received a package in the mail with a letter. It was the engagement ring. He wasn’t the first—or the last—soldier to receive a “Dear John” letter. Nevertheless, the devastation was overwhelming. Rejection brought on feelings of intense loneliness. Eventually, it led him to a cliff on the edge of the little island.

While he thought he was standing on the cliff alone, he wasn’t. Jesus, though invisible to John, was with him.

As the wind whipped over the cliff, he stood peering at the ocean. Feeling alone, heartbroken, and angry he looked down at the rings in his hand. Closing his hand, he reached back and flung the rings into the sea. A love lost, never to be seen again.

It would take years for this to dawn on him when another dark moment would force him to cry out to the Lord. Jesus was right there with him, reaching out his hand and placing it on John’s shoulder to remind him of his presence.

Life went on for John after Alaska. He would marry and have children—four to be exact. He would draw close to the Lord at times, and then as if on a see-saw, he’d tilt away from God at other times. John’s marriage fell apart, ending in divorce and a split family. Once again he felt alone.

“Toni!” his mind screamed at him from the dead of sleep. He peeked over at the alarm clock. It was three in the morning. He shouldn’t be awake, but his mind began filling with thoughts of Toni. He hadn’t thought about her for many years. But suddenly, she was all he could think about.

Jumping out of bed in the dark of his home, he walked over to his computer and fired it up. “What had happened to Toni?” he thought to himself.

John boldly hit “send” on his email. Within just a few hours, Toni responded to him. Among other details of life, he learned that she had had a successful career overseeing financial aid programs for students throughout the U.S. As their conversation progressed. John and Toni discovered that both their marriages had sadly ended in divorce. These emails turned into phone conversations, and phone calls turned into dating. In a beautiful way, they fell in love again.

Months later, standing in Toni’s sister’s backyard, John’s heart beat fast. Some 35 years ago, he had asked Toni to marry him. Finally, his proposal came to fruition. Standing at the head of their family and friends, Toni came walking toward him as his new bride. As with every wedding, it was a blur. He smiled knowing he was married to the girl whose high school ring is still buried at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

John was no longer alone and felt elated in life with his new bride. And then it happened. Toni was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer. Suddenly, John’s entire life centered on taking care of his wife. They both drew more closely to the comfort that abounds in God, where John felt embraced, yet still scared.

Every night he would go to bed asking God to give him Toni’s cancer. Every morning it was the same story. Nothing would change. Toni remained ill and was struggling even more through her treatment. Just twenty days before she would turn 60, she went to be with the Lord, and John’s world came crumbling down.

John moved from the home he and Toni had made together. His life evolved into driving miles and miles throughout the various regions of Oregon seeking relief from his deep personal grief. The feelings of loneliness returned as if he were back on the cliff on Adak, though they were even more fierce this time. Heartbroken, angry, sad, and worn out he immersed himself into photography.

He was searching deeply for something and simultaneously running from his grief. God, however, was at work — the God who loved him and wanted healing and wholeness for him.

One day while driving down Walker Road he spotted Beaverton Foursquare. He had always been curious about the church and decided to attend. Pulling into the parking lot he was unaware his journey was about to take a different turn. The road of much mourning was about to turn into joy. Within the first couple of weeks at the church, he finally asked about a grief ministry to help him cope with Toni’s passing. He knew he wasn’t doing well. The small, still voice of the Holy Spirit gave him the courage
to decide he wanted to step out of his grief and into healing.

He was pointed in the direction of the GriefShare Ministry. This 13-week cycle of meetings provides a place to seek healing, to find peace and joy again. What John found was much more. He was not alone in this group. Everyone was experiencing similar pain in their lives—loss accompanied by depression and numbness. And as time went on, he was able to find the comfort he was seeking amidst the community of others.

During two cycles of GriefShare, John discovered the greatness of God. He experienced healing and peace in ways he never understood before. Not only was he healing from his loss of Toni, but also other relationships in his life that required healing and peace of mind. Sitting among others and sharing his story brought out his inner struggles. Each story he told moved him closer to healing. God was becoming first in his life and he wanted to be in the middle of God’s will.

Today, John is re-married to a wonderful wife who loves him and knows him well. Further, he’s the healthiest he has ever been, and his relationship with the Lord continues to deepen. While he still experiences grief for his loss of Toni, he knows he serves a God who loves us and is always with us. It is clear to him that he has never been alone. “God stands beside us through the worst parts of our lives and provides the blanket of comfort.”

Now, as a grandfather of 16, John deposits this joy and his rich history with God to those he loves most. The healing he experienced from his lost and numb heart has reached the deepest part of his soul, laying a new foundation for the generations behind him. John repeatedly expresses to his savior: “Thanks to God’s unfailing love I am whole again.”

If you've suffered the loss of a loved one and need help healing, please consider connecting with the Griefshare ministry.

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