A Grief Sanctified: How Reformed Theology Helps Deal with Death

In June 2018 my wife Paulette died, aged just 65, after an eight-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease; she is in heaven, but I am her 63-year-old widower here on earth.

As I enter widowerhood, knowing Reformed theology doesn’t bring Paulette back—this article is my first without her—but the theology of God that comes with such a view helps me live in the present. One day I shall see Paulette again, but first there might be many years of life on earth to survive. The doctrine of God’s sovereign love—and the fact that nothing is outside his control—will help keep me going through whatever lies ahead.

 

In June 2018 my wife Paulette died, aged just 65, after an eight-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease and many other related conditions. She lived longer than expected—she inherited powerful genes from her pioneer ancestors—but her death, though anticipated, was a deep shock nonetheless. Paulette had a powerful Christian faith: she attended and contributed to our church’s small group Bible study the day before she died, and she took part in evangelistic Bible studies in her care home right to the very end. We know she is with the Lord whom she served so well in her all too few decades of life.

Paulette is in heaven, but I am her 63-year-old widower here on earth. With most people now living into their 80s and 90s, her passing so young is a mystery.

I tell people that for those of my theological perspective—Paulette and I attended the Puritan William Perkins’s old church most happily for quarter of a century—the grief is absolutely as bad but the perspective is different. I used to show her everything I wrote before sending it off to the appropriate editor, and the fact that now I’m not able to solicit her help is very strange. A belief in God’s sovereignty doesn’t lessen the pain, even though it puts it in a radically different context. I may never know why God took Paulette comparatively early, or why he allowed so godly a woman to have a disease like Parkinson’s at all (she was the lady in Proverbs 31 personified!). But I know that God knows.

Mysteries in Life

Many things have been a puzzle to me. Paulette and I couldn’t have children of our own—I will never know the reason in my lifetime. But other things have become clear with perspective.

In 1982 I was examined for a doctorate in history at Cambridge University. My internal examiner was an academic of utmost probity; my external examiner (no longer alive) was a notorious plagiarist. He asked me to do a year’s extra work on an obscure part of my thesis before he could pass it. My internal examiner was horrified! But he couldn’t overrule the more eminent examiner, so I was awarded an M.Litt degree as compensation. My academic career appeared to be over.

But in 1991 I married Paulette. She believed God had given me academic gifts. In 1997 I went to see my old internal examiner, still at Cambridge. He then phoned the director of a Wake Forest/Tulane study abroad program, who that very day was looking for someone to teach 20th-century historyAnd in 2006 I was awarded a doctorate by the five-star-rated history department of the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Twenty-four years later, I was Dr. Catherwood at last.

Read More