Eileen Benthal’s week brought lessons in responding with grace, as her youngest child underwent three brain surgeries at NYU medical center in Manhattan, where she is recovering in pediatric ICU.
I spent last weekend away on a women’s retreat. I was leading the worship for 80 women who took time away from their busy lives and their families to commune with God and fellowship with each other. It was a beautiful retreat, filled with inspiration, laughter, tears and prayer.
The presenter, Kathleen McCarthy, was excellent. She is a mother of twelve and a grandmother of fifty. If I thought that my life was complicated; compared to her life, mine is a walk in the park. When her children were younger, their house burned to the ground and they lost everything. When her youngest was just 18 months old, her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and died. A few years after that, Kathleen was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.
Through all of these trials, her mantra was and is, “What evil planned for our destruction, the Lord will use for our greater good.” Kathleen is a phenomenal story teller. Throughout all these stories of extreme trials and the joys of raising 12 kids on your own, she reaffirmed her belief that God always has a greater good and a future full of hope planned for us. Another theme in Kathleen’s sharing that spoke to my heart was the need to learn not to react, but respond to the situations and circumstances that come our way.
As I came home on Sunday, I thought I would try to apply this lesson of responding to life’s situations rather than reacting to circumstances. I just wasn’t sure quite how to do this. You see, I definitely have faith that God is going to use everything in our lives for good, but by the time I see the good, I have most certainly exerted a lot of energy reacting. My adrenals are a bit taxed from the fight or flight response I find myself in on any given day. Nonetheless, I asked the Lord to teach me how to choose to respond with grace.
The week ahead would prove to be fertile ground for growth. Monday morning as I began my day with prayer, I was acutely aware that we were going to NYU for more testing for my daughter. She had been struggling on and off for months with headaches, lethargy and vomiting; all signs of increase pressure in the brain. As I offered the day to the Lord, I decided to pack a suitcase just in case she was admitted to the hospital. In fact, that is what happened. By Monday night, she was admitted to the hospital with a shunt malfunction and scheduled for the first of three surgeries this week.
While these surgeries brought her total to 84, I never quite get used to her going into the operating room. Thankfully the anesthia team was comfortable with our “routine.” I bring her into the operating room, lay her on the table and sing and pray with her until she goes to sleep. While she is in surgery, we wait and pray. My husband goes into the recovery room as Johanna is waking from surgery.
The day after the first surgery, Johanna began to decline again with symptoms of increased pressure. Being hit with another stressful outcome and the grave possibility of another surgery in 24 hours was overwhelming. I worked very hard both to care for my daughter and to communicate her needs to the doctors and nurses. As I did, I felt that old familiar fight/flight reaction kicking in. Flight is never an option in these situations, so I began the fight. While I maintained my cool with the professionals, my frustration came out sideways to my husband and my kids and to other people who were simply annoying me. I asked the Lord to help me not to react to this stressful time but to respond with grace.
As we were rushed back for more diagnostic tests to determine if the shunt was still blocked, I felt like I couldn’t breathe under the pressure. It was then that the words came to me, “Surrender; Thy will be done.” At that moment, as Johanna lay in pain on a gurney, I realized that the key to responding lies in surrender. There is a freedom that comes in realizing that I am powerless over many situations in my life; especially when it comes to caring for my daughter.
The best response is in those simple words, “Thy will be done.” Those words were good enough for Mary at the angel’s announcement that the Savior was to be born in her womb and for Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane as He contemplated his impending death. “Thy will be done” releases us from the overwhelming pressure to fix the things in our lives that can and will go wrong. Far from being a passive response, surrendering to the will of God requires us to consciously respond to life by letting go and letting God be God.
This week has been a test of wills — mine and the Lord’s. As I write this, Johanna is recovering from her third surgery in five days. She is currently being monitored in the pediatric ICU at NYU, in hopes that the new programmable valve in her brain will function properly and she will be able to come home.
Until then I plan to practice my new skill of responding to stress by surrendering to God: “Thy will be done.”
Photo captions, from top: (1) Eileen and Johanna Benthal at NYU medical center on Monday afternoon, after learning Johanna would be admitted for surgery.RiverheadLOCAL photo by Katie Blasl; (2) After her third surgery this week brought relief from pain, Johanna and her sister Anna mug for the camera. RiverheadLOCAL courtesy photo.
Eileen Benthal has a B.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer, speaker and wellness coach at 40DaysToFocus.com and NOFO Wellness Center. She works with clients locally and around the U.S. who are excited about balancing their health in body, mind and spirit.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, 16-year-old Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org andfacebook.com/40DaysToFocus.