He lost his twenty-two-year-old son to cancer. His wife has a debilitating illness. Suffering, Randall believes, can teach compassion

Randy Gauger

Randall Gauger 1954 –

Randall, a pastor, and his wife, Linda, were living in Australia in November 1999 when they received the news that their twenty-two-year-old son, Matt, who was living at a Bruderhof in Pennsylvania, had been diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma. Within the week the Gaugers were on their way to the United States, a flight of twenty-one hours. “Once in the air, we talked very little,” Randall remembers. “We mostly held hands, and cried. I felt numb.”

By Christmas, Matt seemed to be responding to chemotherapy; in January, he married his fiancée Cynthia, who insisted that no amount of uncertainty or sickness would destroy their love. In mid-March, Matt was doing so well that Randall and Linda returned to Australia. But by the end of the month, the cancer was back, and the Gaugers left Sydney once more, this time with the unspoken certainty that it was to say goodbye.

Twenty years after Matt’s death, Randall reflects:

It is unnatural to see your child die. There is something inside that simply says that it should not be like that. With Matt, dreams also died.

But to be in that room when Matt left us, and to hear him speak of things he was seeing and feeling – things of heaven and eternity – that changed us forever. You cannot be in that situation and not be changed. Matt saw things we could not see, and for a few hours, we got a little glimpse, through him, of what is on the other side of that door that we will all have to go through some day.

The issue of pain and suffering is as old as humanity itself, and the worst thing you can do for the person you are trying to help is to come up with some answer, even if it’s a Bible verse.

I drag myself back to that experience from time to time, because it gives me an important perspective: the thought that life is rooted in eternity and not so much in this world.

When cancer struck our son, I was stopped in my tracks. Everything changed in a moment, and the things I thought were important suddenly weren’t. I was driven to prayer. I suddenly realized how shallow my life was, how little time I actually spent focusing on the important things. All of a sudden it hit me that life is actually very short.

How do you make use of the one day before you – this one day you’ve been given? That question became so important to me and Linda. I am not saying that we always make the best use of our days, but I’d like to think that our experience with Matt sharpened that desire in us.

Matt’s early death is not the only cross the Gaugers have had to carry. Around the time of his illness Linda, too, began to suffer, from what has since been diagnosed as a rare and crippling autoimmune disease. As Randall describes it:

This disease is characterized by fatigue, nerve pain, and an array of other symptoms. It moves around the body. The treatment is long-term steroids and immune suppressants, but ­naturally, they present their own challenges, especially in terms of side effects. For example, due to long-term steroid use, Linda has had three major back surgeries just since 2015.

View from the gallery down into the Great Hall of Beech Grove Academy

Sometimes the pain simply cannot be ­controlled, and keeps her in bed. Those times are the most difficult, because the pain is so intense and unrelenting.

Another challenge is the way it just goes on and on, year after year, with numerous doctor’s appointments every month. There are times when it really wears us both down.

Musing on the way living with illness has changed him and Linda, Randall says that even when it has cost them a fight, they have learned to look for blessings along the way.

First and foremost, it has slowed us way down. That has been tough to accept, especially for Linda, because she has always loved working. Now she can’t do the things, even little things, that she used to do. So we have had to change priorities. Our focus has had to change from doing things to being – to spending time with others, and realizing how important that is: how important people are.

The other thing that comes to mind is how illness – any kind of suffering – reveals your helplessness. When Linda is fighting an especially tough bout of pain, for instance, and neither of us can really do anything about it, it can be very frustrating. You find yourself turning more to other people for support, and to prayer. That’s an important lesson we’ve learned: when you can’t help yourself, you can always turn to other people. Often you’ll find help there.

As a pastor who has counseled countless fellow Bruderhof members over the years, Randall finds himself drawing on the trials that have shaped him and Linda. Reflecting on the struggle to make sense of illness – in particular, on that thorny question, “Why me?” – he says:

The issue of pain and suffering is as old as humanity itself, and the worst thing you can do for the person you are trying to help is to come up with some answer, even if it’s a Bible verse.

I often think of the story of Job. Everything is taken away from him: material possessions, family, and health. Then his friends come along. They see his suffering and are deeply moved by it. They weep with him; they sit down in the dirt with him in silence for a whole week. But then they start talking and mess everything up!

The apostle Paul has some simple and good advice for us: he says we ought to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Again, we don’t have to have answers, but we can be present to a person and love them.

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