Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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When You Watch Others Suffer

Dannah Gresh: When you can’t see any purpose behind your suffering, it’s helpful to remember something. Here’s Holly Elliff.

Holly Elliff: When the Bible says that God’s ways are not our ways, we need to believe that. He doesn’t function on a human level. He’s not us! He’s God . . . and He knows.

Leslie Basham: This is the Revive Our Hearts podcast with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, along with Dannah Gresh, for September 25, 2019.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: There’s nothing quite like caring for a parent who’s spiraling into the darkness of dementia. If you’re there right now, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For many, part of learning to trust God to write our stories involves resting in His sovereignty even as they watch a mom or a dad slowly revert to helplessness in the months or years before the end comes.

My longtime friend, Holly Elliff, has experienced this on an intensely personal level. Both her mother-in-law and her mother slipped into that sad, confusing state. Recently, Dannah Gresh sat down with Holly to talk about it. Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off yesterday. Here’s Dannah.

Dannah: I have some practical questions, because I have a lot of friends who are struggling with this. I, myself, am not struggling with a parent who has Alzheimer’s, but I have several friends who are. Holly, maybe you can tell us how you answered this question from one of my dear friends: “Do you say ‘good-bye’ before it’s too late?”

Holly: Yes! 

Dannah: How did that look in your relationships?

Holly: It was so precious, both with Billy’s mom and with my mom. Billy’s mom would have little good moments and really crazy moments, but in the good moments we were able to have really sweet conversations where I could say to her whatever I wanted to say to her. We laughed about some things.

One Sunday I picked her up. I got all my kids ready, got them in the car, went to pick up Mom Elliff (her name was Jewel). She had laid her clothes out the night before, and I was trying to get her dressed so I could get to church. She had picked up her pantyhose but she could no longer remember (and this was different from the week before) where they went on her body. 

So she had the pantyhose over her arms and wrapped around her back! And I was, at that point, very pregnant. I started trying to get the pantyhose on Mom’s legs. 

Dannah: Oh, my.

Holly: But she no longer had the concept that they were going on her feet and up her legs. I couldn’t really bend over, so I’m sitting on the floor trying to help her. She doesn’t know where her feet are supposed to go. At one point, we just both burst into laughter! It was one of the sweetest moments that I remember from that time because we could just laugh about it.

I threw the pantyhose away. I said, “Mom, we’re wearing pants from now on Sundays!”

Dannah: Laughter is good medicine!

Holly: So there are moments like that. There were precious moments with my mom, even far into her Alzheimer’s, where (because she was a believer) when I would read Scripture or we’d put on music that was worship music or taught the truth about who God was, I could sense in her that her spirit was understanding was remembering.

So even far into her Alzheimer’s, I would just tell her the things I wanted her to know. It doesn’t have to be a final good-bye, but the hard thing is, if you wait too long, you don’t know when that final good-bye will be or if you will get to have it. So I would say to people, you say whatever’s on your heart while they’re still able to respond. 

Dannah: Do you remember the day you said “good-bye” to your mom?

Holly: Yes, I do. It was about six months before she died. I had just shared some Scripture with her. I was sitting on the floor, and she was in a chair. I just said to her, “Mom, I just want you to know if you’re here five more years, the Lord is still going to love you, and I am still going to love you.”

And I said, “We don’t know when that day is, and we don’t have to worry about when that day is, but when it gets here you will immediately be with Jesus!”

Dannah: Wow. Holly, did your mom understand what you were saying that day? 

Holly: She was smiling; she could not answer anymore. But I was looking straight in her eyes, and I knew that her spirit understood. So it’s not the weird, mystical thing. It’s just that even if your loved one is on the verge of really being in extreme need, if they’re believers, their spirit is alive. You can speak to God’s Spirit within them because you are one with Christ.

That is such a good gift. If you have a loved one who doesn’t know the Lord, just share Christ with them anyway, because you do not know what God is doing in their inner man, and so there is always that hope that at some point they will hear it.

I have a good friend right now whose father is dying and she wasn’t sure that he was a believer. But in the last few months, she has seen him responding to things that were not important to him earlier. He also has dementia. It’s been a sweet gift to my friend that her father is responding to the things of Christ . . . and she never thought she would see that happen.

Dannah: I read recently that the last sense that we lose is our hearing. So a person may not be able to talk, they may not be able to see clearly, they may not be able to taste and eat, they may not be able to move and function, but their ears are hearing. There are always some things in their brains still firing. So share the truth.

Holly: Billy’s mom, at the end of her life, was in a coma for eight weeks. They told us she would not make it through the first weekend but she did live for eight weeks after that.

Dannah: That’s a long time. Can I ask you a hard question about that? 

Holly: Yes. 

Dannah: You don’t like to see your loved ones in that condition. It’s excruciating, and you know that they can be in discomfort. Did you ever find yourself praying, “Lord, be merciful. Take her.”

Holly: We did pray that. She looked terrible. It was hard to understand why the Lord was allowing her to stay, because she was not receiving physically anything that would have helped her continue to live. But halfway through that eight weeks, Billy’s dad showed up and asked her forgiveness at that bedside.

Dannah: How beautiful!

Holly: He had already married another woman and was no longer her husband, but the next day, Billy’s mom was awake for about half a day. We cannot explain that; the doctors could not explain that. In her room, as different family members were in there for weeks and weeks, we were able to lead people to Christ.

My sister-in-law led Mom’s nurse to Christ in that room, and then later got a letter from her that she had led her husband to Christ. So God had purposes that were not even things we would have imagined or dreamed of, that happened during that longtime period.

Dannah: So even when it looked like, “This is over. She’s in a coma. What purpose could this life possibly have on this earth?” I mean, that’s the mentality that we have in our culture. 

Holly: Right.

Dannah: And still, God was using her and even completing some healing in her as she had that sweet moment of restoration with her ex-husband.

Holly: Yes. So when the Bible says that God’s ways are not our ways (from Isaiah 55:8–9), we need to believe that. He doesn’t function on a human level. He’s not us! He’s God . . . and He knows. 

Dannah: That’s why we can trust Him, because His plan is good, and He is working all things together for good, even when we’re sad and we’re lonely and we’re in the valley of the shadow of death—and our mom is in a coma and we’re waiting—He is working. He is doing something good.

Holly, what advice would you give to a woman who is nursing her mother, nursing her father, through those last few days in terms of, how does she really just look for Jesus to show up, and trust Him in circumstances like that?

Holly: Well, honestly, I don’t think you can survive those times very well if you don’t become a student of God’s Word. If you are not, what happens when you’re a caregiver is you get so depleted: emotionally, physically, mentally. You just get worn out; you get so tired!

Dannah: Is it okay to take breaks and let somebody else take that position?

Holly: Oh, yes!

Dannah: I think sometimes I feel like I have to be the one to do this. I’m exhausted, I’m worn out.

Holly: And there are moments when you feel that you have to be there, but there are other moments when somebody else can be there.

Dannah: And it might be wise to let somebody else be there.

Holly: Yes. We moved my mom six times during the ten years that she was here, because as her Alzheimer’s progressed she could only be in this facility for so long. When she could no longer walk without falling, we had to move her. When she could no longer feed herself, we moved her.

Dannah: That was a lot of decisions!

Holly: And so, it was always changing. There were a lot of unknowns. 

Dannah: And you were having to trust God with the finances as well, I would imagine.

Holly: Well, fortunately, my mom was able to take care of her own needs financially. That was a huge blessing because I don’t know how we could have done it. And that was amazing, because she was able to get good care. We could put in her a place that was designed for Alzheimer’s patients. We could put her in a place where she was safe and had what she needed as an Alzheimer’s patient.

Dannah: How are those facilities different from other facilities we might consider for our aging parents?

Holly: There are different types. Normally, there is a care facility that is just a place to live, a senior adult home or whatever, that doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of nursing care. So you can go there. Then there’s an assisted living facility, where you get more help. Then there’s one that is specifically for dementia, that has sometimes progressive care.

If they can still talk and feed themselves, they’re in this wing. If they can’t or they’re disabled in another way, they might be in this wing. If they need total care, where somebody literally has to be with them a whole lot, then they might be in wing number three. 

So, there are really good facilities now, but even with that you have to be there to know that they’re getting the care that they need.

Dannah: You have to be vigilant.

Holly: You have to be vigilant. You have to be “on.” It’s okay to take breaks, but the thing is, if you do not feed your spirit, if you do not allow the Lord to interact with you every day . . . Billy, my husband, has written a book called Prayer Without Ceasing.

What happened to me in those years that were so intense and so long—especially with my mom—was that I literally realized that I was praying all the time. I was praying about what was coming next, about the decisions I had to make, about what to do. Because my mom was not eating, and we just found out she has this other issue.

And it became such a pattern in my life that even in the midst of the other things—taking care of my kids, doing school, whatever—my heart was toward the Lord, because I needed to hear Him all the time! It made other things less important; it made communication with Him excruciatingly vital! So it was necessary for my survival.

Dannah: It’s like this circumstance, this time frame in your life, was a tether to God. The verse that I’m thinking about is, “[Your] word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (KJV). When I’ve been in times that are very painful, I cry out to God, and I want Him to give me a big plan. I want to see, from A to Z, “How does this work, and what’s the end-game?”

But His promise is not that; He’s not giving us a stadium light, or the sunlight. He’s giving us a lamp. A lamp generally only lights the next few steps, and it sounds to me, Holly, like you trusted the Lord in that kind of way, where you were like, “What’s the next step, Lord?”

Holly: I really think you don’t have a choice much when you’re dealing with medical issues and mental issues and emotional issues. It’s so big, and you cannot see the end of it. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

One of our staff members at church had a husband who had Louie Body Dementia (LBD), which is a type of disease where it’s not progressive. They’re just going along on one level, and then they dive off a cliff and suddenly they can’t walk, talk, anything. And so there were big, huge gaps. She never knew when those were coming.

So, honestly, it is essential to stay in the presence of the Lord. You can’t plan too far ahead, because you do not know and you probably won’t know until you get there.

Dannah: I find, at times like that, I need a daily dose of God—maybe an hourly dose—on the really hard days.

Holly: And, you know, an hour a day is hard if you’re a caregiver. You may not get an hour to sit down with the Lord, but what you do is (like I said I carried this Bible with me all the time), you sit down if you have fifteen minutes. You don’t flip through your cell phone. You get in the Word, because you have fifteen minutes.

Dannah: And you need it.

Holly: And you need it. So over the course of the night or day, you get time with the Lord. It may be in little pockets where you can run to Him for what you need in that moment. 

Dannah: What do you think is the big moment where Jesus really showed up for you in the final days as you were saying “good-bye” to your mom?

Holly: One day I was with Mother and she had been having some breathing issues. We had been to the doctor. The doctor came to facility and met with me and said, “She’s beginning to have some issues with her heart, and they’re affecting her breathing. I can’t tell you how long she’ll live. You know, at this point you wouldn’t go do anything, because you can’t really fix that. But at some point you’ll have to make some hard decisions probably.” 

I walked out and got in my car in the parking lot and just sat there. I said to the Lord, “Okay, You know, we’ve kind of been through this one time already with Billy’s mom where we were faced with having to make some hard decisions.”

I said to the Lord, “I would really love not to do that again.” I knew that it was not my will that was going to be done; it was God’s will that was going to be done, but I was at a point where I just didn’t know if I could go through that again. I said to the Lord, “If there’s any way we can do this without me having to make all those hard decisions, I would really appreciate it.” And I drove home. 

Three months later my mom died in her sleep. I knew where she was the next morning. 

Dannah: How comforting!

Holly: It was a gift from the Lord. I felt like that day when I was sitting in my car just saying to the Lord, “I’m not sure I can do this,” that God said, “Okay, we’ll do it differently.”

Dannah: How tender. 

Holly: It was a good gift. 

Dannah: As I’m listening to your story, and I had the privilege of watching you walk some of it out, I just keep hearing the words in my head: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” You loved your mom well! 

Holly: Thank you, Dannah.

Dannah: Thanks for encouraging, challenging us to trust the Lord when we’re caring for our parents as they age. The bottom line is that we can trust God when we lose someone we love, even when it’s a slow and hard path.

Holly: Yes. I think the thing that I didn’t know at twenty, that I know now is . . . When I heard Elisabeth Elliot tell her story about trusting God with the death of her husband and going back and sharing the gospel with the very people that murdered him, I thought, How in the world could anybody do that?!

But what I’ve realized over the decades now since I heard that is that if we are in the constant state of following the Lord . . . When Jesus is teaching His disciples how to pray, basically He’s saying, “Follow Me; listen to Me; learn from Me.” And so, if we are in that posture, then regardless of what’s going on in our life, we are learning, we are following, we’re understanding the character and the nature of God. And that’s not something you learn by reading books. 

It is something you learn by understanding what it’s like to be in His presence—in all types of situations. I mean, as a pastor’s wife, I meet with so many women who are in tough, tough places, and some of those circumstances I’ve never been in.

But the truth that is genuine is that God is the same in every one of those circumstances. Whether they’ve been through abuse or losing a child or not being able to have children or their hopes being dashed because they’ve never been married . . . there are just so many circumstances that are so difficult!

But if they will learn to be a woman who desires to be in the presence of God, and that is her heart cry, then regardless of what happens in her life, she will be a woman who understands what life really is about. Our world is so jaded that you post your notifications on where you are for lunch, and what’s happening on social media is determining your life sometimes. 

We just need to be so cautious! If you look at things the Pilgrims wrote or old, old hymns, they’re all about heaven; they’re all about the presence of God. They’re all about struggling in this world, but understanding the purposes of it. We lose that a lot of times in our culture.

Dannah: Yes, you know what, Holly? I find it’s really important to sometimes just slow down and hear stories like yours and how women like you have walked through it with faith in God and with trust. That’s why I’m so excited about this book Nancy and Robert have written, You Can Trust God to Write Your Story: Embracing the Mysteries of Providence.

Holly: Absolutely.

Dannah: I find that when I’m facing those difficult times that you’re talking about, no matter what they are, that I just need a daily dose of encouragement, a reminder that others have walked where I’m walking—whether it’s caring for a dying parent or a parent struggling with Alzheimer’s or something else deeply painful. I need to be reminded that I can trust God to write that story.

The book that Nancy and Robert have written has an entire chapter on trusting God when you lose a loved one. I think it really encouraged some of our listeners today.

Nancy: Thank you, Dannah. Again, the title of that book is You Can Trust God to Write Your Story. We’ll be glad to send you a copy as our way of saying “thank you” for your gift of any size to support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

To make your donation just visit us at, then click on the word “donate.” Or you can give us a call at 1–800–569–5959. Now, you and I aren’t the only ones who have ever had to learn to trust God’s providence.

Tomorrow we’ll look at two characters from the Old Testament who learned to trust God in the midst of some extremely difficult and unexpected circumstances. Be sure and be back with us for Revive Our Hearts.

Remember to share your story with #TrustGodToWriteYourStory. Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.


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About the Teachers

Holly Elliff

Holly Elliff

Holly has been married to her high school sweetheart for nearly fifty years. She has been a pastor's wife since she was twenty, has eight married children and twenty-two grandkids that are fourteen and under (and counting). Her life experiences have enabled her to share with women of all ages the reality of God’s sufficient grace for every step of their journey.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love for Christ and His Word is infectious, and permeates her online outreaches, conference messages, books, and two daily nationally syndicated radio programs—Revive Our Hearts and Seeking Him.

She has authored twenty-two books, including Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free, Seeking Him (coauthored), Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together, and You Can Trust God to Write Your Story (coauthored with her husband). Her books have sold more than five million copies and are reaching the hearts of women around the world. Nancy and her husband, Robert, live in Michigan.