Finding Comfort in “the Valley of Deep Shadow”
As told by Barbara Schweizer
Sometimes, when things have been going well, my life has been like pleasant “grassy pastures.” But I have also known what it is like to traverse a “valley of deep shadow.” I am convinced, however, that because Jehovah is our Shepherd, we can cope with whatever circumstances may arise.—Psalm 23:1-4.
IN 1993, when my husband and I were both nearly 70, we decided to embark on a new adventure—serving where the need for Bible teachers was greater in Ecuador. Although American by birth, we spoke Spanish and had no financial obligations. Since we knew that the ‘fishing for men’ was good in Ecuador, we planned to put down our nets in those productive waters.—Matthew 4:19.
After a few exciting days at the Ecuador branch office of the Watch Tower Society, we went to the bus station in Guayaquil, eager to travel to Machala—one of the cities where there was a particular need. While waiting for the bus, however, my husband, Fred, suddenly did not feel well, so we decided to delay our journey. I went to a phone booth to make arrangements to return to the branch while Fred sat down with our luggage. When I returned a few minutes later, my husband had disappeared!
I never saw Fred alive again. Right there in the bus station, during my brief absence, he had suffered massive heart failure. As I frantically looked for him, a bus station official came up and told me that Fred had been taken to the hospital. When I got to the hospital, I learned that he had already died.
Suddenly, I found myself alone in a strange country, with no home and no husband to lean on. I say “lean on” because Fred had always taken the lead and organized things for both of us. I don’t have a strong personality and was happy for him to do that. But now I had to make the decisions, organize my life and, at the same time, overcome my grief. It was a devastating feeling—as if I had been plunged into a “valley of deep shadow.” Would I ever learn to cope on my own?
Learning the Truth and Simplifying Our Lives
Both Fred and I had already been married and divorced when we first met each other. A good friendship blossomed into a close relationship, and we decided to get married. We were nominal churchgoers in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. But religion was not very important in our lives until Jamie, a delightful young pioneer (full-time evangelizer), called at our door. She was so pleasant that I accepted her offer to study the Bible with me.
As Fred also showed interest, Jamie’s parents took over the study, and a year later, in 1968, both of us were baptized. From the start, we were keen to put the interests of God’s Kingdom first in our lives. (Matthew 6:33) The couple who studied with us, Lorne and Rudi Knust, certainly set the example in this regard. Not long after our baptism, they moved to a town on the East Coast of the United States to serve where the need was greater. This sowed a seed in our hearts.
We had another reason for thinking about a move. Fred was manager of a large department store. His work was very absorbing, and he realized that a move elsewhere would enable him to simplify his life and give more attention to the truth and to our two children. I also had a daughter from my first marriage, who was now married, and both she and her husband had also accepted the truth, so our decision to leave Seattle was difficult. Still, they understood our motives and supported our decision.
Thus it was that in 1973 we moved to Spain, a country where, at that time, there was an enormous need for preachers of the good news and brothers to take the lead. Fred had calculated that if we lived frugally, our savings would be sufficient to pay our expenses in Spain, and we could devote most of our time to the ministry. And that is what we did. Before long, Fred was serving as an elder, and by 1983 we were both pioneers.
For 20 years we served in Spain, learning to speak the language and enjoying many fine experiences. Often Fred and I preached together and studied with married couples, several of whom are now baptized Witnesses. After some years in Spain, our two younger children, Heidi and Mike, also took up the pioneer service. Although we had little materially, this was the happiest time of my life. Our lives were simple. We could spend a lot of time together as a family, and like the widow’s oil in the Bible account, our carefully administered savings never ran out.—1 Kings 17:14-16.
Changing Countries Once Again
By 1992 we once again began thinking about a move. Our children had grown up, and the need in Spain was less than before. We knew a missionary who had served in Ecuador, and he told us about the pressing need for pioneers and elders in that country. Were we too old to think about starting again in a new country? We did not think so, since both of us had good health and loved the preaching work. So we got in touch with the Ecuador branch and began to make our plans. In fact, my daughter Heidi and her husband, Juan Manuel, who were serving in the north of Spain, were also keen to join us.
Finally, by February 1993, we had arranged all our affairs and had arrived in our new country. We were both thrilled with the prospect of pioneering in Ecuador, where so many people were eager to study the Bible. After a warm welcome at the branch, we planned to visit several cities that were recommended as places where there was a particular need. But then my husband died.
In “the Valley of Deep Shadow”
At first I felt shock, then sheer disbelief. Fred had hardly ever been ill before. What should I do? Where should I go? I just could not think.
During those worst moments of my life, I was blessed with the support of compassionate spiritual brothers and sisters, most of whom hardly even knew me. The brothers at the branch were very kind and took care of everything, including the funeral arrangements. I particularly remember the love shown to me by Brother and Sister Bonno. They made sure that I was never on my own, and Edith Bonno even slept at the foot of my bed for several nights so that I would not feel alone. In fact, the whole Bethel family showed such love and consideration that it was as if they had wrapped me up in a warm, protective blanket of love.
Within a few days, my three children were with me as well, and their support was invaluable. Still, although I had many loving people surrounding me during the day, getting through the long nights was more difficult. That was when Jehovah sustained me. Whenever terrible loneliness swept over me, I turned to him in prayer, and he comforted me.
After the funeral the question arose, What should I do with my life? I wanted to stay in Ecuador because that had been our joint decision, but I did not feel I could do it alone. So Heidi and Juan Manuel, who had been planning to move to Ecuador in the near future, adjusted their plans so that they could come right away and we could all serve together.
Within a month, we found a house in Loja, one of the cities the branch had recommended. I was soon busy organizing things, getting settled in a new home, and starting to preach in a new country. All that activity alleviated my grief somewhat. Moreover, I could cry with my daughter, who had been very close to Fred, and that helped me release my feelings.
After a couple of months, however, when I had settled into my new routine, the realization of my terrible loss became more acute. I found that I could not think about the happy times Fred and I had shared, since it upset me so much. I shut out the past and lived from one day to the next, unable to think much about the future. But I did try to fill each day with something meaningful, especially my preaching activity. That is what kept me going.
I have always loved preaching and teaching the Bible, and in Ecuador the people were so receptive that this work was a delight. One of the first times I went out in the house-to-house work there, I met a young married woman who said: “Yes, I would like to learn about the Bible!” She was the first Bible study I started in Ecuador. That kind of experience absorbed my attention and prevented me from thinking too much about my own sorrow. Jehovah richly blessed my field service. It seemed that almost every time I went out preaching the good news, I had a fine experience.
Without doubt, continuing to serve as a pioneer was a blessing. It gave me an obligation to live up to and provided something positive to do every day. Within a short time, I was conducting six Bible studies.
To illustrate the satisfaction that I receive from my ministry, let me mention a middle-aged lady who has recently shown real appreciation for Bible teachings. When I show her a scripture, she first wants to understand it thoroughly, and then she is willing to put its counsel into practice. Although she lived an immoral life in the past, when recently propositioned by a man who wanted her to live with him, she staunchly rejected his proposal. She told me how happy she was to stand firm for Scriptural standards, since she now enjoys a peace of mind she never knew before. Such studies warm my heart and make me feel useful.
Keeping My Joy
While the disciple-making work brings me much joy, my grief did not quickly disappear. In my case, sadness is something that comes and goes. My daughter and son-in-law have given me wonderful support, but sometimes when I see them sharing special moments together, I feel my loss more keenly. I miss my husband very much, not only because we were so close but also because I depended on him for so many things. There are times when not being able to talk to him, to ask him for advice, or to share a field-service experience with him brings a sadness and emptiness that is by no means easy to deal with.
What helps me on such occasions? I pray earnestly to Jehovah and ask him to help me to think about something else, something positive. (Philippians 4:6-8) And he really does help me. After some years, I am able to talk about some of the good times Fred and I enjoyed together. So, evidently the healing process is slowly having its effect. Like the psalmist David, I feel that I have walked in a “valley of deep shadow.” But Jehovah was there to comfort me, and faithful brothers kindly guided me in the right direction.
Lessons I Have Learned
With Fred having always taken the lead, I never thought that I would ever be able to go ahead and do things on my own. But with the help of Jehovah, my family, and the brothers, I have managed. In some ways I am stronger than before. I turn to Jehovah more often than I did, and I am learning to make decisions by myself.
I am so glad that Fred and I had those 20 years in Spain, serving together where the need was greater. In this system of things, we never know what will happen from one day to another, so I think it is very important to do the best we can for Jehovah and for our family while we have the opportunity. Those years greatly enriched our lives and our marriage, and I am convinced that they prepared me to cope with my loss. Since pioneering had already become a way of life before Fred’s death, it gave me a sense of purpose when I was struggling to come to terms with the new reality.
When Fred died, it seemed at first as if my life had ended also. But, of course, this was not the case. I had work to do in Jehovah’s service, and I had people to help. In view of the fact that so many around me still needed the truth, how could I quit? Helping others was good for me, as Jesus said it would be. (Acts 20:35) My experiences in the field ministry gave me things to look forward to, things to plan for.
A few days ago, a familiar feeling of loneliness again swept over me. But when I left the house to go on a Bible study, I immediately felt my spirits lifting. Two hours later I returned home satisfied and upbuilt. As the psalmist said, we may sometimes ‘sow seed with tears,’ but then Jehovah blesses our efforts, and we ‘reap with a joyful cry.’—Psalm 126:5, 6.
Recently, because of high blood pressure, I have had to readjust my schedule a little, and I am now a regular auxiliary pioneer. I am living a satisfying life, although I do not think I will ever in this system of things completely get over my loss. It brings me joy to see my three children in full-time service. Above all, I look forward to seeing Fred again in the new world. I am sure he will be thrilled to know about the work I have been able to do in Ecuador—that our plans did bear fruit.
I pray that the words of the psalmist may continue to prove true in my case. “Surely goodness and loving-kindness themselves will pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of Jehovah to the length of days.”—Psalm 23:6.
[Picture on page 23]
In the ministry in San Lucas, Loja, Ecuador