Denise Spencer: Sometimes It’s Just Plain Hard

Editor’s Note: One of the things that makes the Internet Monk such a strong community is our desire to be real at all times. Sometimes that reality takes us to painful places. Denise Day Spencer, the wife of the late founder of Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, relates her experience with her husband’s death. Be forewarned: This is not an easy read. There are graphic details of a dying person’s last days. But we will not yield from our attempt to be real. After all, Jesus only deals in reality.

By Denise Day Spencer

I’ve been reading and hearing lots of death stories since Michael passed away. I’ll share a few anonymous examples.

First, one that I heard long ago but will never forget. “Jim” was dying of cancer at home and had been in a coma for days. One evening he regained consciousness. His wife was thrilled. She called the two adult daughters, who arrived with their young families. Wife, daughters and grandkids all piled up together on Jim’s bed. For a couple of hours they enjoyed a joyous time of holding one another, saying “I love you” and sharing their goodbyes. Finally Jim’s eyes closed. He sank back into a coma and died later that night. But the family will be forever grateful for that gift of precious time they were given.

Then there was “Sam.” Also dying of cancer and unresponsive, Sam suddenly opened his eyes wide and focused his gaze on a spot near the ceiling with an expression of wonder just before passing on. His daughter was there and later said to me, “I don’t know if Daddy saw Jesus or an angel, but I know he saw something.”

Another man I heard of took the guesswork out of it. Before he died he said “Jesus” three times. His wife takes comfort in her belief that “Matt” was ready to go and is now with his Lord.

“Jesse” was another man who had been unconscious as his wife watched his condition deteriorate. She at last whispered to him that she didn’t want him to suffer any more, and she told him to “run to Jesus.” He opened one eye and smiled before dying shortly thereafter.

“Dana” never opened her eyes, but before she passed she managed to reach up to touch her beloved husband’s face one last time as she had so tenderly done often before.

These are beautiful stories, one and all. Tales of hope in the midst of tragedy. Memories that bring consolation to the bereaved. And I’m getting tired of hearing them. Can I say that out loud? “Why?!” you no doubt gasp in horror. ‘Cause Michael and me, we got nuthin’.

Michael’s illness was just plain hard. I’m not complaining; it could have been a thousand times worse and I know that. Yet from the day he got sick in late November until he died on April 5, he never again had even one good day. His life became throwing up in a bucket or trying to sit perfectly still so he wouldn’t throw up. My life became driving him to medical appointments in the dead of winter through rain and sleet and snow and fog and sometimes all of the above. I’ll condense the story for your reading enjoyment. Michael got worse. Life got harder. Then he died.

As hard as his illness had been, I secretly harbored a hope that there would be some kind of tiny payback at the moment of his death. Perhaps he would see Jesus or an angel (or the Virgin Mary?). Maybe there would be some sign of his readiness, some indication of peace and joy as he passed into the next life.

But just as cancer had treated Michael harshly, death showed him no kindness. The disease had been relentless. No remission, no respite for either of us. Likewise, there was no beauty in his passing, even for a fleeting moment. Death was ugly and it claimed him unceremoniously. He struggled to breathe, and fought harder as the day wore on. After the hospice nurse administered morphine it seemed to take forever for him to grow calmer. The breaths still came in labored gasps, his jaw dropping at an odd angle. His eyes were half open but unseeing. At some point I noticed that his lips were blue and I dared to lift the sheet. His entire body was mottled as his circulatory system slowly gave out. I touched his face. I held his hand. The family gathered around. We watched as the raspy gulps of air became shallower…and slowed…and stopped.

Where were the visions? The angels? The heavenly music soundtrack? Michael fought a hard fight and he died a hard death. And that was that.

I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I was angry at God. Not only was my 53-year-old husband much too young to die in my humble opinion, but he was a Christian. Not only that, but he was a minister who had given his whole life to sharing the gospel. Not only that, but HE WAS THE INTERNET MONK , for crying out loud! Lord, are you listening?! Was it too much to ask that there be something — anything! — lovely in his death? I wanted that for him, and I wanted it for me.

Four days later I went to the funeral  home to pick up Michael’s cremains. I drove home with the box labeled, “Warning. Contains human remains” on the floorboard of the passenger side. That night I transferred the box’s contents to the lovely wooden urn I had purchased from the brothers at St. Meinrad. Have you ever seen human cremains? I was surprised at how heavy the box was when I first picked it up. People say “ashes,” but it’s more like gravel, really, or perhaps a mixture of fine gravel and sand. The cancer had so ravaged Michael’s body that I pictured him simply crumbling into this small mound of rubble.

Then I had a thought. I wish I could say I heard a loud voice in the room or a gentle whisper in my ear. But it was just a thought, a memory. “He is not here.” Well, of course not. Michael was faith and doubt, joy and anger, wonder and intelligence and fear and giftedness and insecurity and love and so, so many more things. How could all that possibly be contained in a plastic bag of  “human remains?”

That was when I remembered the second part of the verse. “He is not here. He has risen as he said…” (1)

In that moment I realized that the hardness of Michael’s death was a reminder that it is not supposed to be this way. Ever read the first three chapters of Genesis? Man was created for life, not death. But we live in a fallen world, and the cherubim still guard the tree of life with white-hot swords. Our only hope is a Redeemer who has conquered death itself and has risen as he said. He will deliver us to a new world, a world where “there shall be no more curse,” for “…on either side of the river [is] the tree of life…” (2)

In those first days and weeks after Michael left me, all I seemed to be able to recall of him was his grueling illness and his grim death. Little by little, memories of his life are returning. I want to remember him vibrantly alive, teaching and preaching and writing and podcasting. Talking and laughing and eating and studying. But whenever my thoughts turn to the starkness of his passing, I will remember: We may be born to die, but we were created to live.

Live well, Michael. Live now and forever.

(1) Matthew 28:6

(2) Revelation 22:3a & 2b

[This post was originally published on Denise’s blog. You can read it here.]

101 thoughts on “Denise Spencer: Sometimes It’s Just Plain Hard

  1. Also, my husband was not a believer so my only hope is that His wide wings of mercy somehow swept my man’s heart into His arms in those last lucid moments.


  2. I am late to this dirge, but I want to let Denise know I’ve been thinking of her and praying for her. Hers and Michael’s experience mirrors that of my and my dearly departed husband, who died 49 days after his diagnosis at age 44. No angels, no choruses, no visions; nothing but the sting of illness and pain of death. I’m nearly 5 years out now, so things are better…but I never thought I’d live through those first two years.

    Thanks for telling the truth, Denise, as much as it hurts.


  3. Yes, you are right Denise. Death is Death, life is life, and we become use to hearing Cinderella stories and it hits hard. And sometimes I think people’s emotions work so overtime that they do a lot of reading into those “last moments” –
    I haven’t read all your comments here (once I saw that there were 98 of them) I just want to tell you that suffering always hurts and I am sorry for your hurt and you are not alone. I am thankful that God is known to be close, even when we don’t feel or don’t see; may your walk of grief and faith be rich and only bring you to the feet of Jesus. May we continue to compare our lives to Him and not others


  4. I don’t know how you managed to write about this with such beautiful and profound clarity so soon. It must be a God thing in you. I shall keep close to me forever your words as they relate to me and my memories of my late husband and his passing some eight years ago. IAs I read your words I wish I had been given the same courage to write them. What you have written you have written for so many I hope you know this. They are a gift. I especially want to thank you for the following: “whenever my thoughts turn to the starkness of his passing, I will remember: We may be born to die, but we were created to live.”


  5. May the presence of the Lord be near you now, Denise, in the hands & feet of Jesus through brothers, sisters and all of who live for Christ and love you and your family. Michael was that to many folks. I’m glad those memories are surfacing again. The Spirit of Christ in all of you was present to him at the time of his passing, and although you may not have sensed Michael’s awareness of the very nearness of Godself to him and to you, his very ability to let go of this mortal life for the immortal, to entrust himself into the hands of God who is Love, is truly God’s gift. As did Michael, may we all not hold on too closely to that which is temporal and go safely into the arms of our loving Lord who redeems our mortal lives from the Pit and crowns us with eternal lovingkindness! As did your family and you, may our love for and presence with those who are dying encourage them to trust in the Loving God who is eternal. Release. Redemption. Relief. Rejoice! Jesus Christ is risen, indeed! We will arise in Christ, too!


  6. You’re not that much older than me.

    Thank you for your kind words. I’m really not down on myself for feeling sad. The sadness is just fresh right now, as I lost two friends last week. Tuesday night I was sitting in my room, looking at a book written by someone who’s now deceased (Michael Spencer), listening to songs sung by someone who is now deceased (a cousin), thinking of a college friend who’s now deceased–and I just felt like I was suddenly surrounded by death. So, my words on Wednesday (probably not unexpectedly) sounded a little down.

    We do grieve, and we are to mourn with those who mourn. It’s a great comfort that sometimes God just says, “Go ahead and cry.”

    Grace and peace.


  7. Denise and Melanie,
    thanks for your very honest and clear observations. It is painful when others seem to have mystical experiences while we get, in the words of Mother Theresa – “nothing”.

    For some people, these stories of mystical experiences are ways to make sense of their suffering. They may have happened, or they may be the result of wishful thinking. But they always make me feel like the person telling the story believes they are a little more special and a little better than the rest of us. Either way, I am envious.

    But I think that real faith lives and grows best in the “nothing”, the boring, and the suffering that is not suddenly and permanently fixed by a superhero God. Thank God for hospice care and morphine, but when we feel helpless in the midst of suffering it seems like all we have is faith.


  8. Liturgical dancing, anyone?

    Not at my parish. They haven’t even used “Gather Us In” (an infamous lightweight entrance hymn) in months.


  9. Wow. That is just amazing. Thanks, HUG. What a great anecdote and a lesson that I will (hopefully) remember.


  10. i like beautiful words and
    i also like truth with Love.
    which i think this is…
    thank you for writing this letter,
    and i am thankful for the posting of it here.
    they are words from the heart that give me much to think about.


  11. I hear you, and I agree, HUG. I was just cautioning Jim not to expect a reverent service, very different from evangelical brands of silliness (such as the comedy routine he mentioned) at every single Catholic parish out there. Liturgical dancing, anyone?


  12. Years ago, I heard something about the formal state funerals of Austrian Kings. The custom went like this:

    The late King’s coffin would be carried in state procession to Vienna’s cathedral for the funeral Mass. The cathedral’s doors would be closed; the official in charge of the funeral would formally knock on the door.

    The Archbishop of Vienna and Primate of the Austrian Empire would answer: “Who seeks entry?”

    The official would answer in the name of the late King, reciting all his titles and honors.

    “Go away,” the Archbishop/Primate would answer. “I know you not.”

    The official would knock again, get the same question, and give the same answer, each time omitting one of the late King’s titles and honors. And each time, the Archbishop/Primate would answer, “Go away. I know you not.”

    Finally they were down to only the late King’s personal name:
    “Who seeks entry?”
    “Franz-Joseph, a sinner.”
    “Enter, Franz-Joseph,” the Archbishop/Primate would answer as he opened the door, let the procession in, and began the funeral Mass.


  13. However, not knowing what your church background is, I should warn you that there is plenty of cringe-worthy silliness in many modern Catholic parishes too.

    There’s “plenty of cringe-worthy silliness” everywhere.

    “Because people are people, and the world is full of tricks and twistiness yet undreamed of.”
    — one of the Whole Earth Catalogs of the ’70s


  14. Erin,

    As someone who is thirty-seven, and who has been dealing with the deaths of family members and friends since I was nine, I empathize with your sadness. It’s okay (i.e. normal and natural) to feel sad, even while knowing that you will see your loved ones again. I personally don’t have that assurance, as many of my deceased loved ones were not Christians (from what I know and could observe). I just wanted to say, don’t be down on yourself for feeling sadness. Christians grieve but not as those without hope– but we do grieve. It’s part of the human condition.


  15. Jim,

    I’m on the verge of returning to the Catholic Church (as a once-Catholic and Reformed Baptist of several years). Historic Catholic theology is, indeed, often very thoughtful and helpful on the subject of suffering.

    However, not knowing what your church background is, I should warn you that there is plenty of cringe-worthy silliness in many modern Catholic parishes too. A priest and parish that care about the teachings and practices of historic Catholicism will likely not suffer such silliness. I thank God that I have just found a faithful Catholic parish where I live.

    One thing that I have learned in my searching: if they don’t take the Catechism seriously, and they don’t like the current Pope (or John Paul II), you may be dealing with a “Protestantized” parish that resembles the worst aspects of contemporary evangelicalism more than historic Catholicism. Blessings to you on your journey (didn’t mean to alarm you too much– just be careful) .


  16. I’m haven’t read the other comments. This is in response to Denise’s post, only.

    As I read Denise’s words, beginning with “Michael’s illness was just plain hard,” I found myself nodding the entire time.

    When I read my dad’s obituary (age 59) in the newspaper, I was surprised. The family friend who had written it up, who had been present when dad finally passed, had written that he had “died peacefully.”

    I angrily thought, “How was that peaceful?” Struggling for breath is not peaceful. Short gasps that grow further and further apart is not peaceful. Thinking he’s gone only to have him start breathing again a whole 30 seconds later isn’t peaceful. It was a lie.

    Death is an ugly enemy, and for the first time I really understood why Christ came to destroy it.

    Over the past couple years the list of my personal “cloud of witnesses” has been growing, and while I *want* to view that fact hopefully, I just feel sad. I *know* and trust and believe that I will see them again at the resurrection, if not before upon my death, but I remain sad at their loss. I can only presume that the feeling is a reminder of the horridness of death, and an encouragement to constantly call those who remain here to accept eternal life so that death isn’t the final end for them. We all die. I’d rather have them be in my cloud of witnesses, than not.


  17. I hate cancer. However, let me just give you this:
    I pray for you, for your family and for the pain in your heart. May God bless you and your family, may He bring the healing that only He can give. He will.


  18. Listen all: Internet Monk is a place where real people can discuss real things in a real way. More importantly, it is for those who are seeking the REAL God–the One who knows Himself and He is, not as we like to picture Him to be.

    We like to keep the discourse civil and, as much as possible, polite. But there is nothing civil or polite about death, especially as Michael and many others you all know have suffered it.

    If the reality of these posts bother you, don’t get out of bed tomorrow. Life is real, and it ain’t always pretty. But you can always come back here and be welcomed by other travelers who have been punched in the gut by real life.

    And even if you are offended, I trust you will still pray for Denise and your other brothers and sisters who have expressed their grief in the comments to this post.


  19. Denise — your words are much needed. Whether we admit it or not, I’m afraid that the prosperity gospel has infiltrated alot of the broader evangelical world. I’ve been to two mega church type funerals recently, and they were so cliche ridden and artificial!

    We just don’t suffer well in the evangelical world. This past Sunday, we were treated to a comedy routine in church that was just plain embarrasing. I couldn’t help but wondering how someone who was had showed up in a state of grief might feel by watching everyone laughing at all the silliness.

    This is one of the main reasons I’m inquiring about becoming Catholic. They seem to know how to suffer in a more dignified and real way.


  20. Thank you for this honest and candid post. May Michael’s memory be eternal. I do not understand the compassion and comfort of God. Most of the time when I hurt the most, the only place I can see Christ is on the Cross. But He’s always faithful to present Himself upon the Cross when I hurt most. Christ our God tramples down death by death; He continues His radical and transfiguring identification with our humanity to the bitter, bitter end where He could only join with us in our cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

    And sometimes when it hurts most, I do find comfort in the awareness that I can rest in the prayers of others praying for me when I can no longer pray for myself. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.


  21. Denise,

    Thank you for honestly sharing this hard truth. My wife’s grandmother died in a very similar manner. “We watched as the raspy gulps of air became shallower…and slowed…and stopped.” I won’t pretend to have words of “comfort” but I will share some thoughts.

    As I understand it, Jesus death was much the same – death by crucifixion is ultimately by suffocation. Fr. Robert Barron talks about why Jesus had to die in such a hard way. ( Echoing Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, he says, “The Father sent the Son *all the way out* to the furthest limit of God-forsakeness. Why? To bring to those places divine light. … It’s this journey of the divine light into our worst darkness. The point of it is to divinize us even in those places, even in those conditions.”

    God was with Michael in his worst and darkest place because of Jesus; Michael was with Jesus in his death just as we all knew He was in his life. You have shared something of the light AND the darkness with us, and so Michael has carried us “there and back again” on the path God Himself traversed in flesh. There is simply no way to think him or you enough.


  22. “It’s over.”

    That’s how I got the final news on my mother back in ’75. Word-for-word.

    Only she was down to 60lbs, with metastasized tumors the size of tennis balls bulging through all the lymph nodes on the right side of her neck.

    Cancer Sucks.


  23. Welcome to the real world. Where everything isn’t Bible-verse proof texts and Thomas Kincade paintings.

    The Christian Sack Tap is for those who:
    * Hand out those fake $100 bill tracts as tips to underpaid waitresses.
    * Give Jack Chick Tracts to kids at Halloween (the original application, according to
    * Say “I’ll Pray For You (TM)” to someone suffering then take care to always pass them on the other side of the road.
    * Blow off & belittle the suffering of someone who’s gone through what Denise went through with saccharine-pious platitudes.


  24. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most miserable (pitiful)” (1 Cor. 15:19)

    I’d like to suggest the other side of 1 Cor. 15:19 — “If in THAT life only (Heaven) we have hope in Christ, we are of all people, most pitiful…”

    I’m a minister of well over 35 years. I’ve dealt with life/death issues for greater part of my life. My brother, who loved the Lord, rotted from the inside out with cancer two years ago — five months later, my mother, who also trusted in Christ, succumbed to heart failure and cancer. Sure, I know life in this “fallen world” sucks at times. I know that we all eventually get sick and die. Yes, I’ve stood with, wept with, pleaded to God with, etc, etc, countless parishoners and family who sought some relief during horrendous suffering, only to watch those they loved waste away without reprieve.
    I can quote all the quick and ready Bible verses that most everyone turns to when suffering is relentless and relief seems distant. Still, does no one else ever struggle with this issue: “If it is only in THAT life — heaven/glory, that we have hope in Christ — that our faith has substance, isn’t faith, at times, a rather pathetic struggle?” I know many who have braved suffering and death valiantly and who have set an example for us to trust, even when the way is dark. But, God, please.
    Why, if your love is equalled by your power, why are those examples of dignity and joy in death always the exception, rather than the rule? (and yes, I went to seminary up to the doctoral level – I understand the concept of Theodicy).
    It gets more and more difficult to offer encouragement to families who (whether they should or not, is another matter) look to me, and others who proclaim the love of God, as one who can assure them that God is compassionate and caring, while their child, mother, spouse, stuggles to gasp for a breath.
    The late Ron Dunn said it well: “Faith can be an awful burden.” That is, because faith teaches us that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and, that Jesus, on various occasions, taught: “Ask, believe, receive…” – and Paul, “…able to do exceeding, abundantly above all we can ask or think…” and a host of other verses — faith, in the face of inexplicable suffering, leaves a gaping hole in the heart.
    I do love God – as much as I, in my limited faith can. I want to love Him more. But, I can’t continue acting as if all is well when I deal with people on a regular basis who continue to hold out hope that God is good and will heal, or at least, provide some relief, when He most often doesn’t.


  25. And, may I add, romanticizing death and treating it as a beautiful and natural thing also minimizes the horrible curse of sin that results in horrible death. We live so much within that curse that death has become a natural thing in our eyes when, in fact, it is the most unnatural and horrifying thing for image-bearers who have been made for eternal LIFE! When we actually grasp some of the true horror of the first death, escape from the second death through the work of Christ becomes even more precious and astounding.

    When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
    “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
    But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:54-57


  26. Denise,

    Thank you for your honest witness to grief. I will think on it longer and more often than a hundred of the “beautiful death” stories.

    Michael Spencer, live forever.


  27. If I ever find out I have a terminal illness I’m going to go to Iraq and die charging a machine gun nest or something.

    I don’t want to go out like that.


  28. “Kick in the nuts?”

    “Christian sack tap?”

    “One-finger salute?”

    I guess I’m in the wrong Christian forum.


  29. Yes, you are correct.

    It always grieves me to read about someone who has died and there will be not be a service. As you said, here “is a unique human being, created in God’s image and given gifts to share with the world.”


  30. For sure, I just want someone mainly who will tell the simple gospel, and I certainly hope they know me.


  31. Oh, David, I don’t want a priest who didn’t know me very well stumbling over trite phrases to try and make it sound like I’m peacefully passed on to an eternity of sitting on a fluffy cloud strumming my harp.

    I want reminders that I was (am) a miserable sinner clinging to the mercy of God and demanding the suffrages of you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.



  32. It’s unfair that Michael died so young, but it sounds like he did everything with character, integrity, honesty, humility, and class. Reflecting on the recent iMonk posts regarding second chances, Michael didn’t need one. In the end, Michael accomplished so much more and touched so many more lives than a mega-church pastor could ever imagine. I wish he had more time, but what a legacy! And no mia copa’s, no public disclosures, denials and awkward apologies.


  33. Denise,
    I am sorry for your loss and for your pain. Having lost too many of my loved ones I can remember the hurt and anger as if it was just yesterday. Although having lost some that loved our Savior I can also remember thinking they are where I long to be and I take some solice knowing that even though I grieve the absence of their presence my only joy is anticipating seeing them again.
    I pray for God to hold you when you need Him. John


  34. June 14, 2010


    Thanks much for the honesty and for being couragous in saying what some deem and will deem horrid statements to make and I completely understand and glad you said it and can say it. Back in
    2004 when it seemed everyone around me was dying – my wife’s mother in Jan 04, my mother in March 04, a very, very close best friend May 04 followed in the fall, winter by my wife’s oldest sister loosing her husband and oldest son and about a year after that her youngest son. Our world was crumbling down around us and, except for the grace of God, I don’t know that my wife and I would have made it – death was not kind in anyway during those dark, dark months of 04 and 05.

    My mother had liver failure that I believe was the result of many years of taking Tylenol 4s for cronic back pain and migraines and from years of rather strong meds for bi-polar illness (manic/depressive) and death from that is no pretty site and the toll on family and friends is beyond
    words to describe. The night my mother passed I was in the hospital chapel early that evening and I was angry, no – just plain mad, at God for this situation and I’m not so sure at times that I’m still having a twinge of that anger when I think back on it. I was tired, my wife was tired, dad was tired, my sister was tired and other family that had come in were tired and I said to God that evening that I could not, dad could not – none of us could stand one more night of this pain and horror – mother most of all could not take it anymore and if he was not going to raise her up healed that night then please take her on out of the pain and misery and not let any of us have to spend one more night at that place. About 3- 4 hours after that it was over and I found myself relieved and mad all at the same time – she didn’t deserve to die like this after growing up in hell on earth and living in that a good part of her adult life – more below.

    My mother had a very hard childhood – both parents abusive alcoholics – her mother died early in life of alcohol induced liver failure and her father didn’t want her and passed her around to other family who were just as abusive and eventually she ended up, basically, a ward of the state and then some family here took her in for a short period before she ended up back in the custody of the state. In her high school years a wonderful family took her in as a foster and they treated her as their own and helped her through school where her and my dad met and eventually married. Following their marriage and after myself and my sister came along she began to have serious bi-polar issues, cronic back pain and migraine headaches and eventually the liver failure which resulted in her suffering from hepatic encephalopathy which is an altered, confused state of conscience where she would talk out of her mind, not know people or where she was at and other times she was in a near coma state – it was horrifingly bad for her and for those of us trying to deal with things. All that said to say this – after all she had been through in life my thought and question to God was….. “this is the best you could do??!!”

    Yes, Denise I understand and I asked the same hard questions of God and made similar statements as well during that time and since only mine was from the standpoint of loosing a parent rather than a spouse yet, there are very real similarities. Life and death were brutally cruel
    to my mother and to this day I have issues thinking back on those days and it’s been 6 years now.

    I know God has and will see me and my family through all this but I would be less than honest if I said other than what I put in the above paragraphs and there’s more that could be told but, I’ve already written and exceedingly long comment. Do know that Janis and I have you in our prayers and thoughs and several times in any given week you and your family are in mind as to how things are going and, by the way, having read your post I understand even more why it was necessary to see this at a distance if you will rather than to have come by – it’s not the way Michael would have ever wanted our first/only meeting to be and I know it’s not what you would have wanted for us either though I’ve seen the worst that can be thrown at a person healthwise. Thank you – it was better this way – better to have known Michael via I-Monk and there is insight about him and who he was contained in all the writing here and in the book that’s coming in the mail in the next week or so – I think I know just what was for me to know and I treasure it.

    Denise, Jan I and love you and your family and you will continue to be in our prayers and thoughts and sometime when we are going to be coming up that way I’ll let you know ahead of time – we would enjoy stopping in to see you – maybe we can take you to lunch or dinner too.

    Closing a Michael always did – Peace.

    The Guy from Knoxville and his wife (Randall & Janis)


  35. Amen. Death sucks. Death is the great intruder. Death is ugly. Death is the great enemy. Only on the day Christ returns and casts death itself into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14) will this change. I have a hard time believing that those recounting loved ones blissfully drifting off to glory are telling the whole story. It sounds like Michael fought death to the bitter end. That’s the way I want to go out: giving death the ol’ one-finger salute.


  36. When I got the phone call that “it was time” for my dad to go, I spent the entire five hour drive envisioning walking into his hospital room, having a beautiful “last moment” with Daddy, and then him saying something like, “I can go home now.” When I arrived at the hospital, there was no such moment, for he had “gone home” hours before I got there.
    I had just been with my mom for Mother’s Day 2006 when she died. I had just arrived home and put my four-year-old daughter to bed when I got the phone call that the dr had told my brother to call us all in. Mom was adamantly opposed to life support, but had asked for it until we could all get there. Again, I spent the four hour drive envisioning the four of us children gathering around her bed to be with her for her last moments. Again, I was wrong. I was about halfway there when I got the call that she was already gone.
    I spent a lot of time being upset that I hadn’t been there when either of them died. I have since come to believe that maybe God was protecting me from that, knowing I could not have handled it. I still hate that I wasn’t there with either of them — especially my mom, because she held it to be highly important that a person “should” be surrounded by family when they died — and I still cry over that sometimes, but I have come to accept it. What else CAN I do?
    Denise, your painful honesty just echoes the fact that death is not romantic. I DO love your last statement that, “We may be born to die, but we were created to live.”


  37. I am SO with you there! I am SO SICK of hearing that “God won’t put any more on you than you can handle.” I searched the Bible through and through and IT’S NOT THERE!!!!!!!!!!! Every time I point that out to someone, they react as if I am blaspheming against the Holy Spirit or something! They usually come back with I Corinthians 10:13, which says that we won’t be TEMPTED more than we can handle. It says NOTHING about God not putting more on us than we can handle!

    Denise, your honesty in this post will probably give a multitude of people out there the “right” to feel anger at God. Contrary to what we were taught growing up, God WILL NOT strike us dead for being angry with him! He gave us the ability to feel that emotion. Why would he punish us for experiencing it? It’s what we DO with our emotions — anger included — that can cause problems if not handled correctly.


  38. (not the other Kat)
    Thank you, Denise, for the honesty that I have come to expect from Michael’s writings and now find in your’s. Death is brutal, the wrenching apart of body and soul. The only thing that redeems death is the fact that Jesus went there first. We have come to expect the exceptions that you cite to be the norm for a believer. Christians sentimentalize death, I think, but nothing in God’s word tells us that we will have preferential treatment until we walk through that door and realize that Jesus is on the other side.
    “90 Minutes in Heaven” sells books, but it isn’t realistic to think that it is the norm.
    Keep writing. You speak with your own voice, but I hear Michael echoing in the background.


  39. We also celebrate a person’s life because he/she is a unique human being, created in God’s image and given gifts to share with the world.

    I do a great number of funerals for folks, and I have no idea about the faith status of many of them. However, I do know that one day a young woman heard the word, “You’re going to have a baby!” and she rejoiced. And the gracious mystery of human life began, to be lived out over however many years. That in itself is such a magnificent gift from God’s hand, that some sort of celebration is warranted in every case.


  40. Thank you,
    My sister has a very rare and hard cancer and I’m so angry. I miss her. Our lives have been going from hospitals and doctors for almost a year’s worth of months. When the little snow cone place opened for the summer I was very ticked off because she would have taken my children the first day. She can’t she can’t so much of anything it seems and our talks are lost. Thank you for expressing the truth. I know that God is with us and them and understands our anger.


  41. Peggy, Thank you. I especially enjoyed your mention of Lewis’ “severe mercy.” I just finished re-reading Sheldon Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy.” Michael loved that book and introduced me to it when we were very young.


  42. That third-to-last sentence should read, ” by pointing me,” not “by pointing *to* me. It ain’t about me. 🙂


  43. Dear Denise,

    Thank you for writing this very honest post. I have never, ever experienced the “comforting” death of a loved one that many other Christians seem to have experienced. I’ve had family members and friends die by their own hands, from terrible illnesses, and suddenly, unexpectedly. I don’t even have the comfort of knowing that any of them were Christians and are (or will be) with God in eternity. When other believers try to comfort me about their deaths, it often makes the pain worse.

    As I wrote to Joanie above, Saint Paul is right– if Christ is not risen, then our faith is futile. Life is meaningless, and we might as well grab as much pleasure as we can while we’re here, and then, possibly, check out once the pleasure seems to be diminishing too much.

    Very honestly, I have felt the “pull” of the latter. At 37, I currently have no career (meaning, job), I have a physical disability, I live with daily pain, I can’t drive a car, I’m currently “between churches,” and due to all of these factors, I spend most of my time (far more than I would like) at home, alone (other than God), without regular human contact. If God isn’t real, my life is a painful, absurd joke.

    However, the above bleak scenario is not the final truth about my life or life itself. I believe that as much as I believe anything. I will even say that I *know* it with what Scripture describes as the certainty of faith. Christ is real, and He is risen. Those facts change *everything*. Life still hurts, very much at times, but as Bishop Fulton Sheen would say, life is worth living. It is hard, but God is good. He is even better than having a less painful life.

    I write these words, not glibly and not as platitudes, but as truths which keep me alive– and wanting to live, even amidst the pains of life *and* of death. Maybe they will help someone else as your post has helped me– by pointing to me to ultimate truths, ultimate realities. Thank you, Denise. God bless you.


  44. Joanie,

    As a once-atheist and now Christian with a physical disability (Cerebral Palsy), ongoing physical pains, and more than a few other trials/challenges in life, I can truly understand, on a visceral level, how your husband feels about Christianity. Sometimes, I do still think to myself, “Is this all a sham? Am I denying myself the pleasures of the world for nothing? If God is real and good, why is there so much terrible pain in the world?”

    Of course, in a way, Saint Paul already answered those questions. If Christ is not risen, our faith *is* futile– and by implication, we might as well just become hedonists, and finally, commit suicide if life becomes *too* much more painful than “pleasurable.”

    Christ is risen. He died for us, and He rose again. He loves me personally. He is committed to making me more like Himself, even when that process causes me great personal pain. It’s a tough love, but it is real. These are the truths to which I cling for life itself.

    Life can seem very long, death is hard, but God is good. His perfect love doesn’t always feel good, but it is good. If a once incredibly stubborn atheist (such as I was) can be brought to these conclusions, there is hope for your husband and everyone else. 🙂 I’ll be praying. Take care, and God bless.


  45. Denise,

    Thank you for gently placing that important bookend here.

    Michael’s special power was in bring the truth as it was experienced. With the loss of that ability, the Internet Monk community missed the final chapter.

    Thank you for having the courage to carry on and share the severe mercy that death always represents: as severe as death, as merciful as love (so, C.S. Lewis) .

    You and Michael are participants in what I have come to call The Purple Martyrdom — and Job is our patron saint, as it were. For whatever reason, we are called to walk The Way in pain and suffering — so that we can give words to those around us whose days are difficult, and yet see the love of God, the grace of the Spirit and the mercy of Jesus along the way.

    Life is a mystery. Death is a mystery. Thank you for embracing the mystery. And may each memory of Michael that returns to you be even more precious … until we all meet again.


  46. Thank you Denise for your raw and honest words. You and Michael both remind us that we must live our lives honestly if we are to live at all. Blessings to you in this difficult time. As someone who has struggled with depression throughout my life (especially now) as well as addiction issues, I too know all too well how ugly life can be. And yet I still hold onto the goodness of God through Christ. As difficult as your words are, they offer comfort in their brutal honesty. Again, thank you.


  47. I’m with you. My dad wasted away to 120lbs., not from cancer but a bone marrow issue. The thing was, all that suffering made his actual death a relief. When my mom called to tell me, her words were, “It’s over.” No kidding, mom. Cremation would have been better than that stupid open casket.


  48. It made him angry as he wants God, if there is one, to bestow health and happiness on his followers.

    “Remember those who died in that tower collapse in Siloam? Do you think they were more guilty than anyone else, that this should happen?” — Luke 13:4, free paraphrase

    Even more free paraphrase: Even Christ said, “Sometimes, sh** happens.”


  49. For Christians I am often amazed at how many honestly believe that their faith somehow magically prevents them from suffering.

    It didn’t magically prevent IMonk from suffering those last few months. It didn’t magically prevent Denise when IMonk died. It didn’t magically prevent me when Mom died in ’75. In two words:


    And two more:


    And if anybody comes over with their Bible open and a glib and fluffy “God Took Him Home” or “God Must Be Teaching You Something” or “Christians Are Supposed To Be Joyful Joyful Joyful” — whether they quore proff-texts or not — kick em one in the nuts. Talk is cheap, especially when you’re hurting, and cotton candy talk is the cheapest, straight off an Egyptian River Cruise. Never mind “that Christian Side Hug” — if they twist the knife like that, Give ’em that Christian Sack Tap. HARD.


  50. Denise,
    I can’t imagine what it was like for you to write this, much less, to live it. Thank you, though, for sharing this with us. I came along late to the Internet Monk phenomenon, but I developed an immense respect for Michael and the struggle he so willingly, and openly, shared with us all. I remember my shock when, after I emailed him a question one night, he responded that he would answer it on his next podcast! He never pulled punches, and he shared what he was going through with us all, right up until he couldn’t share any more. I miss him.


  51. Denise– your story was stirring and shows your love for God. Bless you!

    MW– I agree, Christianity does not protect us from the slings and arrows of life. However, I do think that it does give us a rubric of behavior that can help us to navigate the world. Now, of course we are fallen and can never achieve perfect obedience to the law. But in those discrete moments we are able to glean some value from the law, we are better for it. Also, the hope that Christ provides changes our perspective. Suddenly worldly concerns like careers, relationships, take on a different tenor. It isn’t that they aren’t important, but that they are important in a different way than they are for someone who is not religious. The rubric by which we “judge” life is totally different. I find life far more satisfactory in Christ, although materially my situation is not much better. And of course there is the hope of eternal life, which cannot help but color every element of our perspective.


  52. The most redemptive perspective on the horrible ugliness of death I have ever read. Thank you. We need people like you to reject Christian platitudes and niceties. Thank you for your bravery.


  53. Don’t let the word “foetus” startle you as cold and impersonal. In Latin, foetus means “little one.”



  54. This is a meaningful post … because you ‘said out loud’ what you were thinking. Glad you were brave enough to.
    Durning times of pain, hearing about someone else’s pain/troubles (You know, the stories that we like to tell about so-and-so’s-uncle’s-niece’s-brother-etc. that helps us connect, but does nothing for the listener) usually only adds pain to the already overflowing ‘bucket’.
    And hearing about other’s ‘beautiful moments and/or success’ bring expectations that may or may not be met.
    I’ve been trying to retrain myself to listen to the person in pain and acknowledge the pain/grief they are in without adding to it.

    Love your closing line … “We may be born to die, but we were created to live.”


  55. Denise, thank you for sharing your innermost thoughts. Everyone needs to see the reality of living, without the (sometimes) too tinted glasses of Christian cliches.

    “Michael got worse. Life got harder. Then he died.”

    “Death was ugly and it claimed him unceremoniously.”

    This is exactly why I love worshipping a God who would send His One and Only Son to die, just as Michael died. Just as it was for Michael, for Jesus life got harder, then He died. Death for Him was ugly, claimed Him unceremoniously…hanging on a cross. Betrayed by a friend, no less, denied three times by another friend, and left to die alone. Thank you God, for letting us know YOU know exactly how it feels.


  56. Denise,
    Thank you for sharing the brutal honesty of Michael’s last days. We all wants signs of resurrection in the dying days of our loved ones, especially those who are in Christ. But we don’t always get them. And afterward, faith, hope and love remind us that as Christ has risend indeed, so also now Michael is living in the life to come. As the Lord leads, may you and your family begin entering again into resurrection life as well.

    I’m also 53 and could relate to much of Michael’s journey. His death has been a loss and a challenge for me to live more faith-fully, in the way, truth and life that is in Jesus.


  57. I would argue that while, as Christians, we are not necessarily insulated from the myriad slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we do come out of it ahead of the atheists. Don’t minimize the value of faith, hope, and love in mitigating some of the despair, hopelessness, and pain that is part and parcel to living in this world. Dying might hurt me physically just as much as it hurts a random unbeliever, but I would far rather die with my eye on Christ’s reward than die fearing the great unknown.


  58. Denise – Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. I am so sorry for the pain that Michael endured in his last days and I am sorry for the suffering you had to endure as you shared his suffering. But you have told the truth here and it needs to be heard – we live in a fallen world and we Christians, though redeemed are not exempt from many of the effects of the fall.
    As you know I have a condition similar to Michael’s and I almost feel guilty in saying that I do get to enjoy some good days and I am sorry that Michael didn’t. But I have many difficult days and I also have the prognosis of many more difficult days ahead. I don’t like it but I accept it. I have come to understand the theology of the cross – that God is with me in suffering and will be with me as the suffering increases. Sadly, very few of my Christian friends can accept that. Almost every conversation ends with something along the lines of “we’re expecting a miracle for you.”
    Just as you keep hearing and reading stories about the “good death,” my friends keep telling me stories about the miraculous healing and pressuring me to try this diet or that alternative or to have greater faith. I am so thankful for what you said here and I hope that people get what you said – those stories of the “blessed death” and the miraculous healing are a very, very small minority, even amongst the most faithful Christians. Very, very few faithful Christians with diseases like Michael’s get healed and as you say, probably very few have that peaceful death that is so idealized. The truth is that God promised us great suffering in this world and promised that He would be with us in the midst of the suffering, not always or necessarily in deliverance from suffering.


  59. I have a “dead list” of names to have Masses said for them every year or half-year. (It just gets longer every year.)

    I’m adding Internet Monk to it this time around: Michael “Internet Monk” Spencer. A blogger who had his head screwed on straight.


  60. Denise,
    Your honesty is a treasure to those of us who have experienced our own versions of life’s (and death’s) brutality.

    I’ve walked through the deaths of my husband’s teenage brother, who died of complications from pneumonia and a blood infection, my husband’s 46 year-old mother, who died of pancreatic cancer, and my grandfather. I was present for most of the final weeks for all of them, as well as their final breaths. None of them were romantic, “spiritual” experiences. All of their passings were messy, tragic, ugly, and raw. My mother-in-law’s death was the worst because of how much she suffered. There was no relief until she became unconscious.

    I guess all this to say, I appreciate your transparency. I found it very alienating after each of these deaths to try to share with fellow Christians, because most of them wanted me to wrap up the grimness of death with a bow and a smile. I just couldn’t do it. Still, I too believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. This is not the way its supposed to be. And, when its all said and done, that does give me hope.


  61. As Denice says in the comment quoted above, we’re trained to expect something lovely — but the reality is different.

    My mother died thjis past Friday evening. She was in hospice care, so the family was administering the palliative drugs. Earlier in the week my sisters and I kept discussing whether we oughtn’t to leave the morphine off for a while, to give our mother a chance to rise up to consciousness one last time. We assumes there was something more to be said.

    But the reality was that she couldn’t breath without wretching and there was no kindness at all in what we were doing. So we eventually agreed to keep her as sedated as we could, and to give up on the expectation for what Denice describes as the “payback.” There wasn’t any.


  62. As hard as his illness had been, I secretly harbored a hope that there would be some kind of tiny payback at the moment of his death. Perhaps he would see Jesus or an angel (or the Virgin Mary?). Maybe there would be some sign of his readiness, some indication of peace and joy as he passed into the next life.


  63. Denise,

    Thank you for you candor; it gives metal to your words of faith and hope.

    I was thinking today how much I miss your husband, even though I only new him as the “Internet Monk”, when I think of him I say a short prayer for you and his other family still here.

    I can only add that I watched my Momma die a hard death too, it’s been some three years and I still miss her. I am a follower as was she, but as you say, death was not pretty even with morphine, and that’s hard to take when it’s one you love.

    I may never know you, or even meet you, but my heart aches with yours for the losses and also for the hope of the age to come when both soul and body reunite and live.

    Peace, John


  64. Denise,

    Thank you for your candor and honesty. It has encouraged my heart. That is exactly why Michael touched so many, and why he was so beloved. And you have continued to bring that to us with your words. Many around here have said how they miss Michael and his posts, and for the first time since his passing, it’s felt like he was here, posting about life, and God, and us, and everything that is true. So thank you.


  65. Thank you Denise for sharing your last moments with Mike. When we are together I always want to ask how it went but I knew from the little things said it was terrible. But knowing the details here in my living room where I can react in privacy was a good thing. Thanks! I was with Gary when he passed and there were no angels, and it wasn’t pretty either.


  66. It sounds as though Michael did not die – rather, life was snatched from him, dragged away inch by inch as he struggled to hold on. Maybe that was because he was so young, and still so strong, having had a relatively short illness. Maybe it was because that’s what Michael did – he lived well, and he fought hard.

    Seems to me, he died a battlefield death, a soldier’s death; and his words live on to do battle over and again. I am so grateful that I have been able to encounter those words while Michael, the writer, was still alive.

    Denise, my sympathies and prayers are with you and the family. You are right, Michael was the Internet Monk and that did make him special. Death may not have respected that – but Death knows nothing of what life truly is, and cannot even appreciate its own ultimate defeat.

    Sally D
    South Africa


  67. Joanie,

    Yes! One thing I didn’t think to mention in my essay is the Apostle’s Creed. I love that line that says, “I believe in…the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Specifically the resurrection of the BODY — even those that crumbled away from a horrible disease. What a blessed hope!


  68. Melanie,

    Thank you so much for your words, and for the truth of their coming from experience.


  69. I think we celebrate the person’s life in the light of the hope we have in the Resurrection. The entire service should reflect this hope. This is where the real celebration comes in. Without hope in the Resurrection there isn’t much left. The sting of death remains.


  70. Denise,

    I wish to thank you for baring your soul to share this account. I’m deeply sorry for your loss. I only discovered InternetMonk within the last year and have been constantly drawn back by Michael’s insights.

    Death is awful- there’s no other way to get around this, and we all shall face it, sometimes in the death of loved ones before it is our turn. Death is no respecter of persons, and I am convinced everyone needs to fully understand this. Your story is so honest and timely, and I hope many will find it.

    I take some comfort in Jesus’ words to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

    Thank you again for sharing your story with us; may God bless you.


  71. My mother died of lung cancer four years ago. It was very hard. She didn’t want to die, that was practically the last thing she said when she was still coherent enough. Cancer is a terrible disease.

    Everything you say here, Denise, is true. But that is why the funeral was a consolation. I don’t like the modern trend of ‘celebration’ of a person’s life; I think that helps to plaster over the reality of death and suffering, even though it’s meant well.

    Like AnneG says, every time I pray for the souls in Purgatory, I think of Michael and pray for him along with my parents.


  72. Denise, I loved Michael, he gave much and I love you and am praying for God to comfort you and your family.


  73. MWPeak, I don’t think it is cynical at all. I sometimes think that it is magical thinking on our part that leads us to think that we are somehow exempt from the full experience of the human condition. Death is part of this, as is suffering. Hope is what we have not only in our resurrection but that our Saviour is no stranger to our suffering. He will be with us.

    While I understand why we at times revert to this type of thinking, especially in the face of trauma and loss, it is a precarious way to live our faith and it certainly drives a wedge between Christians and others. I have close atheist friends who frequently ask me why bad things happen to Christians. They don’t ask why they happen to people, but Christians. They have sadly listened to those who claim that Christians are somehow exempt from the suffering of humanity (maybe having cherry picked and misunderstood Biblical text).

    Lets face it the Bible, particularly the New Testament shows very clearly that Christians are in no way exempt from peril or suffering.


  74. Dear Denise, Ever since I heard of Michael’s death, I’ve been praying for the repose of his soul, for a shortening of his time in purgatory and for comfort and consolation for you. aad iesum per mariam.


  75. Forgive me for posting twice in a row.

    One issue I have long struggled with is whether believing in Christ holds some sort of advantage for a person in this world. I often some to the conclusion that, despite the well-meaning praises of my more enthusiastic brethren, no, the atheist and the Christian are no different and having Christ gains a man nothing over the man the who has the world and forfeits his soul.

    We are born, we live, we die and that’s that. Believing in Christ offers only the hope of the resurrection afterward. Yet, it is no small hope.

    I’m sorry for the cynicism.


  76. “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” – Job 40:4-5


  77. You’re right, Denise. Death is not beautiful. It is the ultimate offense. It is from death, and the sin that leads to death, that Jesus died to save us. Romaniticizing death or treating it as a beautiful natural passing distracts us from the magnitude of what God has done for us.

    Bless you, my sister.


  78. “Michael got worse. Life got harder. Then he died.”

    “Death was ugly and it claimed him unceremoniously. ”

    Denise, I so appreciate your straightforwardness and honesty. My husband heard from me how impressed I was with Michael’s writings, though he would never let me read anything to him. (He’s not Christian and finds Christianity…silly.) So, when he heard Michael was dying from cancer, his comment was something like, “Where’s your God now? If Christianity is real, this would not be happening to Michael.” It made him angry as he wants God, if there is one, to bestow health and happiness on his followers. I told him that we all die, even Jesus, and the deaths are not pretty. But I also reminded him that Jesus rose from the dead with a new type of body and Christians have that as a hope. And you know what…even if that is NOT what happens to us, I am happy to know that when we die, we are with God, but amazingly Jesus has blessed all of creation by becoming God in the flesh and if he wants to make all of creation anew someday, I will accept that it is so. And I know that Michael will be a wonderfully-made creature!


  79. I would agree with melanie,I was a nurse too,caring for the elderly. Death is no respector of persons. I understand so much,your comment about “human remains”, when my daughter was still born I had to sign the cremation papers and written at the top in big block letters was FOETUS FLANDERS, she was a child to me,and I have never forgotten it.

    I can not dull your pain but the old cliche says ..with time.. and the unpleasant memories do pass ,but sometimes if I am feeling vulnerable,Satan throws them out for me and I have to remember not to chew on them, they are past and my little girl is with God,along with my husband and father.

    You are in my prayers.


  80. Denise … If I could hold your hand I would do so without words.

    However I am here, a million times removed from you and your personal loss. You are right. There is nothing ‘right’ in your loss. This is not how it is meant to be. This pain is evidence that all of creation has been fractured. It also very starkly shows the enormity of what Christ has done for us.

    As a palliative care nurse I can offer some comment on all of the more hopeful stories that you are seeing about the peaceful deaths that others apparently witness. Yes, they do happen, occasionally. They are not the norm. In my experience these accounts are told because generally it is taboo to tell tales otherwise. People rarely want to hear the painful truth, and the grieving soon realize this. They realize that they are often isolated when others cannot face the grief in their eyes. Remembering these fleeting moments and extrapolating them to the whole experience of the dying process gives the grieving and those around them comfort and reassurance while preserving social relationships and the support they offer at a desperate, severing time.

    Another observation is that these stories become, to some, the new memories for the living. This takes time. Sometimes a very long time. Sometimes they are constructed for survival. I often see the families of those I have cared for years later. More often than not the recollections have grown and changed from what I witnessed. A similar thing happens with recollections of childbirth.

    For Christians I am often amazed at how many honestly believe that their faith somehow magically prevents them from suffering. They then assume that when a follower of Christ dies it is the culmination of faith that will result in a peaceful, kind death. When this does not happen they are sometimes immobilized with the double shock of loss and what seems pointless suffering for a believer.

    Each journey is unique and cannot really be judged looking in from the outside. I don’t want to sound trite or intellectual about what you are going through. I am deeply sorry for your loss and praying for your journey.


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