The Card at the Top of the Stairs

Tom grieved for years over his wife's death, but a divine greeting card gave him hope.

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- Posted on Jan 23, 2015

An artist's rendering of a greeting card at the top of a flight of stairs

The men’s grief-support group met one evening a week at a hospice facility, sometimes just one or two guys, rarely more than four or five. My job was to help the chaplain keep the conversation going when things got too quiet. Sharing their feelings doesn’t come naturally to most men. Some guys, their pain forms a shield and they hide behind it.

Right away I pegged Tom as one of those guys. The first night he shuffled through the doors, I recognized him. I was surprised to see him. Years earlier we’d gone to the same church. He would come with his wife and two daughters.

I didn’t know him well, but I’d heard he’d had some rocky times in his marriage. It seemed he and his wife had put that behind them when she was battling cancer. A battle she lost two years before. I hadn’t seen Tom at church since.

Our eyes met. He nodded to me. He sat down in one of the six metal folding chairs the chaplain and I had arranged in a circle, and stared at the floor.

“Welcome,” the chaplain began when everyone had arrived. “We appreciate you coming out. Everything you say here is confidential. There’s no pressure to talk at all. Whatever you feel comfortable with. To start out, let’s go around the circle and introduce ourselves and say why we’ve come here tonight.”

I shared how I’d lost my father suddenly when I was only 23. Then it was Tom’s turn. He never looked up. His voice was barely a whisper. “My name is Tom. My wife died. I can’t stand it.”

That was all he said. A few of the men talked about how they were having trouble sleeping, the loneliness they felt. The other men nodded, except for Tom. It was like he was frozen in place. Three years was a long time to be in pain.

When we were finished, the chaplain said a prayer. I looked up. Tom was already at the door. He didn’t even say goodbye.

It took two more sessions for Tom to open up about why he’d come.

“My wife and I,” he finally started, “I guess you could say we had our ups and downs. I’m not the easiest person. For a while we were separated, and man, that was awful. I didn’t think she’d ever come back. But then she did. She said we were soul mates and that she would always be there for me. A year later she died.”

I looked at Tom. There were deep shadows under his eyes. His face was drawn, hollow. His hair was greasy and unkempt. It looked as if it hadn’t been washed in days. I nodded sympathetically, hoping to keep him talking. Tom, lost in thought, didn’t seem to notice.

“It’s been two years. I know I have to move on,” he continued. “I decided to sell the house and I’ve been getting rid of a lot of stuff. In her closet were these four boxes, filled with every card anyone had ever sent her. Birthday cards. Valentines. Christmas cards. She’d saved them all. A lot of nights I’d sit and read through those cards. But it got so I couldn’t do it anymore. It was just too painful.”

He paused. As though the words were trapped inside of him with all those feelings. “About a month ago I threw away all those boxes. Every one of them. I thought I was okay, but ever since it’s just been eating at me. When we had our trial separation, I always believed we could get back together. Now? She’s gone. I can’t get her back.”

He bent his head. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, his body trembling.

“Thank you, Tom,” I said. “Thank you for sharing that.”

I felt like I should say something more. Something about heaven and the hope that he and his wife would find each other again. But I knew those words would hardly be a comfort.

I worried about Tom all week. I considered calling him but thought that that might be too intrusive. I prayed. I’d seen these kinds of situations before, men overwhelmed by guilt or sorrow. Those were the guys who just never came back. Would we ever see Tom again?

The following Wednesday, when Tom walked through the door, I felt a rush of relief, then something else. His appearance nearly floored me. His hair was combed. His posture was straight. The tension was gone from his face, as if some great weight had been lifted.

The chaplain opened the meeting, then said, “Tom, you look as if you have something you would like to share.” We couldn’t help it. We were all staring at him.

“Yesterday I didn’t want to get out of bed,” Tom said. “I didn’t care about anything, least of all myself. Finally I got up. I pulled on my robe and was about to go down to the kitchen to make coffee. Just barely moving. I stopped short at the top of the stairs.

"There was something on the landing, a folded piece of paper. Like a little tent. How did that get there? I bent down and picked it up. It was a single card. No way had it been there the night before or any other time.”

Tom recognized it immediately—the card his wife had given him when they got back together after their separation years before. He read the words his wife had written: “I love you, Tom, and I’ll always be there for you. No matter what.”

His face shone with amazement, With…transformation.

“Her warmth. Her love. I could feel it all around me. I still can.”

Tom did not come back to our support group after that. It didn’t worry me. If you had seen his face too, you’d have known. He’d been reached by the ultimate support group, who healed a pain no group on earth could heal alone.

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