Blinding Suffering: Kelly & Tabitha Kapic
Whether you're bowled over by cancer, chronic pain, or other blinding forms of suffering, even the next step can feel bleak. But the experience of Covenant College professor Kelly Kapic and his wife Tabitha has filled them with unspeakable hope and nearness to the God who suffers alongside us. Don't miss this broadcast with the author of Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, one of Christianity Today's books of the year.
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The searing experiences of professor Kelly Kapic and his wife Tabitha have filled them with unspeakable hope in the God who suffers alongside us.
Blinding Suffering: Kelly & Tabitha Kapic
Tabitha: Every day your pain and suffering try to be your identity. Now, it is going to shape your identity, but every day is fighting to not have that be your whole identity and to rather say, “My identity is in Christ.”
Kelly: “You are beloved.”
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson.
You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: How does a person navigate suffering? The reason I ask you that is because when my little brother died of leukemia—I was seven, he was five; you know this story—but I didn’t know it was unusual. We never one time talked about it in my family.
Ann: You never talked about his death, suffering, or anything.
Dave: Never talked about it. I literally walked into the house and a priest was walking out. He said, “Your brother just passed.” There was never a conversation.
Ann: Which is crazy, too, because there is not a listener or a person that will not experience suffering on this planet.
Dave: Oh, for sure. Kelly Kapic is with us; but even better, he’s got his wife this time, Tabitha.
Kelly: That’s right.
Dave: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, especially Tabitha. You’ve never been here before.
Tabitha: Thank you. It’s beautiful.
Dave: We’re going to talk about one of your books. How many have you written, Kelly?
Kelly: A few.
Dave: Come on, Tabitha. How many? Fifteen?
Tabitha: Written, edited, yes; it’s above fifteen.
Dave: We’re on number three, so we’re rookies.
Kelly: That’s great.
Ann: Tell our listeners: what do you guys do?
Kelly: I teach at Covenant College. I’ve been teaching there since 2001, and I then write and speak and that kind of thing.
Tabitha: I am Director of Innovation at the Chalmers Center at Covenant College.
Ann: What’s that mean?
Tabitha: The Chalmers Center helps the church and Christian non-profits to truly walk alongside the poor in poverty.
Ann: You have two kids.
Tabitha: We do.
Kelly: Jonathan and Margot.
Dave: Your book, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering is something that’s not just theological; it’s personal, as well. You open the book with a story of your own marriage and your own suffering and your own life. Tell us that story.
Kelly: Tabitha and I got married in 1993, lived in different places, and didn’t have kids until 2002. Then in 2008, there were some things happening, and we discovered that she had cancer. Then she went through various surgeries, and about a year later was declared cancer-free.
Tabitha: We didn’t know if it was cancer or not. I was down the mountain, off the mountain in Chattanooga getting groceries. As I’m putting them in my car, it’s starting to rain a little and my phone rings. It’s the doctor, telling me it’s cancer.
I asked some follow-up questions, because I immediately knew I needed some information. I didn’t want to call Kelly. The kids were three and five. It’s a terrible feeling having the weight of knowing you’re going to announce something so bad to your family.
Kelly: I was up with kids and I, all of a sudden, —I don’t have these a lot—I felt a panic. I tried to call Tabitha and nothing, nothing. Finally, I grabbed the kids and said, “We’ve got to go.” I threw them in their car seats and started driving down the mountain thinking, “I’m going to see her on the side of the road.”
Tabitha: You thought I had been in an accident.
Kelly: I thought she’d been in an accident.
Ann: You just had a bad feeling?
Kelly: I just had this very bad feeling. As we’re driving down the mountain, we see her driving up. She gives a little smile and points [as if to say]—
Kelly and Tabitha: “Go back up.”
Kelly: So, I went back up, and she didn’t say anything at first.
Tabitha: I unloaded the groceries, just a little bit crying; [thinking], “I’ve got to keep it together.” I had gotten pizza. When they got back, I said, “I’m fine,” because I [thought], “Let’s just eat this meal, because it’s not going to change the outcome.” We ate. [I told the kids], “You guys get to watch videos.” So, they went and watched, and I said, “Well, it’s cancer.”
That started us on that difficult path with little, tiny kids and not really knowing. It was beautiful how our church family and Covenant College family all surrounded us. The kind of things that helped were interesting to me. One brought us flowers and maybe some fresh fruit, and there was an inchworm on one of the bouquets. I remember playing with that with the kids and being so comforted by something like that.
Ann: —by the inch worm?
Tabitha: Yes, because it was life going on outside of what we were experiencing.
Ann: It brought joy.
Tabitha: It brought joy.
Ann: For the kids for a minute and a distraction from, probably, the pain possibly?
Tabitha: At this point, the pain was acutely emotional.
We watched The Sound of Music, I think, (the musical) before surgery day. I just tried to be normal with the kids. I think we might have set off some Roman candles, which is something I like to do.
Kelly: That doesn’t sound like you. [Laughter]
Tabitha: Then my mom came from California. The kids; I remember, we had picked out toys at our aquarium in Chattanooga, so that when they came to see me in the hospital, they got these things. Then my mom took them to California so that we could have recovery time.
Kelly: I do remember being in the hospital and Grandma and a dear friend, I watched them walk across this bridge at the hospital. When I watched them walk away, I just lost it. Then I was in the hospital, she was asleep; and we had a pastor come, a dear friend. He came in and sat down. I tried to say something, and I was starting to lose it, so we [said], “Let’s go in another room.”
Literally for about 25 minutes, every time I tried to say something, I couldn’t. I just lost it. I was just bawling. He did great. Finally, he put his hand around me, hugged me, prayed for me, and then let me be. I needed him to show up and pray, but I really could not get it together.
Tabitha: He didn’t need you to, and he didn’t need to say anything. That was important.
Kelly: Yes; that’s one of the things we learned—just presence matters.
Tabitha: It makes me remember something I didn’t handle well. I was trying to keep it together myself, walking through this, and I told him, which I regret, I said, “Kelly, I need you to keep it together. If you need to go break down with Jay—” his best friend, “—or someone else, that’s fine. But I need you to keep it together.”
I wish I hadn’t done that.
Ann: Why do you wish that?
Tabitha: Because we were in this together. He had cancer, too.
I still think, you still work to recover from that, because I got through the processing of cancer. I don’t think you ever can process it, but I was done, and I felt like it took you so much longer. I think it’s because, not only were you a watcher, which we came to learn is such a difficult role, but because you were [thinking], “Okay, I have got to keep it together.”
Dave: Do you feel like you had to keep it together because she said that?
Kelly: I don’t know if that was a sign like “Okay, she’s carrying enough. She doesn’t need me to lose it in front of her.” But yes, that’s an interesting complexity where, in marriage you value vulnerability—
Kelly: —but there are times when you love one another by protecting one another. That can go sideways and be a problem, but friends were very important. Let’s just say that.
Ann: When you said that Kelly was the watcher, when you said you were the watcher; what does that mean, Kelly?
Kelly: One of the difficult things that I’ve experienced through this and learned and have heard from a lot of others is, we rightly focus on the victim—the person who’s going through these things—and they are the center of it, but caregivers are in this very difficult space, whether they are caring for an elderly parent, a spouse, a child. It’s not the same as the person going through these things, but they have leukemia; they have cancer. Not literally, but that has really made us pretty empathetic for those watchers, because no one is watching you in that sense, and the church tries to step up. But that’s what we mean.
Tabitha: It has given us eyes to look for those people, the people who are beside the ones who are suffering or in pain, because they have a heavy load to bear.
Dave: What do you say to a married couple who is listening right now and maybe struggling with—it could be cancer, it could be a different diagnosis. You’ve walked through it as a married couple. What’s your advice to a married couple? Either to the spouse that has cancer or the watcher?
Kelly: For us, one of the big things—we can circle around to this later with a different conversation—but we do sometimes think the whole conversation needs to be about healing, physical healing. But actually, one of the things that we would say is one of the things about marriage, or just a deep friendship if you’re single going through these things, is you’re actually struggling with faith. You’re struggling with, “Is God good? Does God give a rip? Does He care? Is He absent or is He present? What is that like?”
I do think, in a marriage, as you are thinking about all that goes with cancer or whatever it is, you also are wrestling with your faith. I think you need to be there for one another, because sometimes the person who is suffering is actually the person who has the faith and the caregiver doesn’t, and sometimes it’s the opposite.
It’s not always the caregiver who is strong. That’s a misconception.
Tabitha: Yes, and I would say, oftentimes, I hear from people going through cancer, specifically, being encouraged to fight and to be in the battle. There’s a lot of encouragement to do that, and I never—that did not resonate with me. I just wanted the doctors to do their job. I felt like—I even wrote a poem about it. I felt like a battlefield over which a battle was being fought—
Kelly: —your body was a battlefield, yes.
Tabitha: —between cancer and doctors and medical professionals. I just felt like I had to submit to it. That was not a great feeling either; but I never was able to be comforted by that warrior language, because I knew I couldn’t fight it.
For me, the care of the church, because we couldn’t pray very effectively. If anyone out there is going through the diagnosis part, this is the most chaotic, terrible space to be living in, because until you know what you’re dealing with, it could be anything. It’s almost impossible for your heart to live in that kind of condition in any healthy way.
Supporting people through diagnosis—I think that’s a time, often, when we’re not sharing with others, because we’re waiting to find out what it is. I would push back on that to say, “You can’t do this alone. Don’t try. Find people to walk with you through that terrible part.”
Ann: —the waiting period.
Tabitha: The diagnosis part is so rough, and it can stretch out for a long time; years for some.
Dave: How did it affect—you talked about it, Kelly—the faith part? How did that—and you write about it in your book—the longing and the lament part?
Dave: Walk us into that valley a little bit.
Kelly: It’s interesting to me; I’m thankful that, in the last 10 to 15 years, evangelicals are finally starting to talk about lament, but it’s not been an area that we’ve been good about.
Dave: Right, right.
Kelly: We’re very uncomfortable with this idea of asking God questions, crying out, and being frustrated.
Ann: Why do you think we’re uncomfortable with it?
Kelly: Honestly, some of it’s—I think, in the evangelical world it’s: “Happy, clappy; upwards; onward; stronger; better.”
Tabitha: —in the Western world, certainly.
Kelly: Even the language—there’s something to this fight of cancer. There’s something true about that, and then there’s something that’s very painful that people haven’t thought of, because when you’re going through it, if it’s not going well, then are you just not trying hard enough? Right? Some of that.
The Psalms—40 percent of the Psalms—are laments. They have questions like: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is pretty stunning, which listeners will realize: that’s on the mouth of Jesus.
Kelly: He cries that lament. So, because our songs in corporate worship don’t tend to—we don’t include laments. Imagine if 40 percent of the time in church, we’re singing lament songs. But what happens is, they’re not like that. So, when pain and suffering come to your home or to you as an individual, we don’t have the spiritual muscles for it. We haven’t developed those.
People say, “Why should I sing a song of lament when I don’t feel sad or when I’m not as—it’s the same reason you praise God when you don’t feel like you should praise God. There’s something to that kind of thing. So, really learning what it means to lament; to ask God, “Where were You? Why do the wicked prosper?” Those kinds of honest questions are all over in the Bible, but we’re uncomfortable with them.
Ann: Tabitha, what did it look like for you? to lament?
Tabitha: It felt more like survival. It was just surviving. Some of the things I said to God at those times. I remember I had a biopsy, so this is before we knew the diagnosis. I had this little roadster—a Mazda Miata—top down, driving the back of the mountain [on] this beautiful windy, ribbony road, but I laid on a rock, and I was watching the clouds go over. I said, “Hey, if You think I can’t handle this, God, you are absolutely right.” [Laughter] “I can tell You right now: ‘I cannot do this’.”
Ann: Did you always have your kids, three- and five-year-old, in your mind?
Tabitha: Yes. I had never felt so weak in my life. Just being so physically weak through that and through the surgeries and treatments. That, at the time, was something that I could not get comfortable with and cried out to God about. I didn’t learn my lesson. [Laughter]
Kelly: I don’t think that’s the lesson, actually, but you should explain because—
Ann: —yes, what’s that mean?
Kelly: —in 2010, she had gotten through cancer and was declared cancer-free—
Tabitha: —by the end of ’08, yes.
Kelly: —and we were [saying], “Praise God. Okay, that was really hard. We had the relational, emotional; all this stuff.
Dave: -—down in the valley.
Tabitha: Yes, “we got through it.”
Kelly: Then she called, and her leg wasn’t working. Basically, in the summer of 2010 to this day, she deals with chronic pain and fatigue. That took six years to get a diagnosis from the Mayo Clinic.
Dave: Yes, I read the diagnosis, but I can’t even say the words.
Ann: Can we share the kind of cancer that you had?
Tabitha: Yes, it was the rarest form of breast cancer that exists. Normally women who are in their 70’s and 80’s will get it. For me, I was in my 30’s.
Ann: What was the leg complication?
Tabitha: Do you remember the horrible earthquake in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince?
Tabitha: My organization I was with at the time, Medair, is a humanitarian organization, and we responded in Haiti.
Starting in January of that year, I was doing 14- to 16-hour days, trying to get people and supplies in and out of a destroyed country. Fast forward to May: I am downtown meeting with pastors, trying to beg these pastors to plant a church in this city where we were working, because there was no church in Jacmel, Haiti at the time.
Then I met with someone from Liberia. I was trying to get her to be on my board, so that we could, you know, “be more effective.” I’m noticing the whole left side of my body is feeling weird; arm and leg. I’m leaning through these talks. I thought, “Am I having a stroke? What’s happening?” I just kept going through them, and it was growing all day.
I got in my car, which was this little car with five-speed, and I’m not able to use my limbs like normal. I went to text Kelly, and I had to think really hard to get my hands to do what I wanted them [to do]. I had shooting pains up one leg. I thought, “How am I going to press on this clutch?”
I texted you [Kelly], “I don’t know how I’m going to get home.” I just figured it out, drove home, and, by the weekend, it had spread to the other side, and it has never stopped. We were in a diagnosis time then for six years that time.
Ann: Here you were waiting again for six years.
Kelly: I would say—what would you say is worse, the chronic pain or the cancer?
Tabitha: I said this instantly that cancer was, for us, (because it was non-terminal) easier to walk through than—
Kelly: —chronic pain.
Tabitha: It’s been 13 years now.
Tabitha: It’s not going anywhere.
Kelly: This morning, to get here, to be honest with you, it’s been a hard morning.
Kelly: Oh, yes. I can hear it in your voice—
Tabitha: Yes, my voice is a little bit peppier usually.
Kelly: You look great, but the truth is—part of what’s interesting is she looks great and people would never know.
Dave: You’d never know.
Kelly: Sometimes, I’ll say, “How do you feel about that?” because it frustrates me. She says, “I don’t want to look broken down,” but she’ll—
Tabitha: —I don’t want to look how I feel.
Kelly: —she’ll get out of the car with a handicapped thing on, and people will look at her [as if to say], “What are you doing?”
Kelly: All that to say, the chronic pain has been massive in terms of wrestling with God and thinking through this thing.
Tabitha: Yes, much more challenging to my faith, challenging to the way we wanted to parent and do life together.
Kelly: Tabitha was a hiking mom and all that, and then became the reading mom.
Tabitha: We would go get lost in the woods, the kids and I. All of a sudden, that just went away. That’s how I thought I was going to raise my kids. We were going to be outdoors together. They just went without us, which is fine. [Laughter] But I became the reading and bed mom.
Ann: In your heart, you didn’t want to be that mom. You felt like, “That’s not who I am.”
Tabitha: Yes, I wanted to be that other mom.
Kelly: It was two years of intense—that was when you were in bed the whole time. I mean, it’s always been pain, but—
Tabitha: —yes, I was working with Medair still, but I did a lot of two years from bed. I knew there was this moment when I could turn my face to the wall and be done. I could get some doctor to give me some drugs and be out of here. I knew I didn’t want that for my kids.
Kelly: Because it would numb you to everything.
Tabitha: There is a point at which, I think, you can’t help but do that. I’ve told Kelly, there have been times where I’m just writhing in pain. Those still happen. That’s a different kind of way to live.
Dave: How do you walk through that?
Tabitha: Every day, your pain and suffering tries to be your identity. Now, it is going to shape your identity, but every day is fighting to not have that be your whole identity and to rather say, “My identity is in Christ.”
Kelly: “You are beloved.”
Tabitha: Yes. Sometimes, I just need people to speak kind words to me, because pain—emotional pain and physical pain—travel the same routes in our body; the same nerves.
I think when you’re in a lot of pain, you feel like you’ve done something wrong, because it feels like a physical punishment. I think that people in chronic pain, which 25 percent of adults have some kind of chronic pain, there is a lot of pressure feeling like, “This is my fault; it’s something I’ve done. If I change my diet; change this.”
I think it’s a fight to hold onto, “I’m a person. God loves me. I can still do things. I can pray for people. I can write notes, or I can do whatever.” But, yes, fighting for your identity apart from the pain you’re feeling. It’s a tough fight. It’s going to be different for everybody.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott. You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Kelly and Tabitha Kapic on FamilyLife Today.
As someone who suffers from chronic pain myself—I have chronic sciatic nerve pain because of degenerative disc disease, I really understand what Tabitha is talking about. In fact, I got emotional listening to her, because it’s true. I really appreciate her words of empathy. I feel seen and cared for in something as simple as that. [I’m] really, really grateful for her and for Kelly’s ministry, as well.
Kelly has written a book called Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. In that book, Kelly helps us to understand suffering and how it can be turned into the image of Jesus, bringing us renewal and understanding, participating in our hope, which is our King Jesus. You can get a copy of Kelly’s book, Embodied Hope, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
It’s always good to get perspective on why we do what we do. So, here’s the President of FamilyLife, David Robbins, to help you and me with that:
David: Isn’t it interesting that when problems surface in our families, the enemy makes us believe that we are all alone. We think that we’re the only ones with this problem.
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Now tomorrow, Kelly and Tabitha Kapic are going to be back with Dave and Ann Wilson to explore the theology of suffering, chronic pain, and finding our identity in Christ. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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