Connections: Wes Bynum
January 20, 2013
A Season to Receive
Wes M. Bynum is an Assemblies of God chaplain who serves as bereavement coordinator for The Hospice of East Texas, based in Tyler. He has been in the ministry for three decades. Bynum spoke recently with Pentecostal Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy.
evangel: Why did you become involved in hospice care initially?
BYNUM: I began volunteering for hospice on the local level 15 years ago, when my dad contracted lung cancer. From the day he was diagnosed until the day he died it was a month. My wife, Bee, was a registered nurse and knew about the hospice philosophy, and was volunteering before me. I felt I found my niche specializing in bereavement follow-up and grief support.
evangel: Why is hospice care a right-to-life issue?
BYNUM: A lot of people have a misconception about hospice. They think it’s all about giving up and hastening death. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s about changing the treatment option for someone who has a life-limiting illness. It transfers the focus from curing to caring.
We offer support to families on the spiritual level. Many of our patients get better in the short term. We take the burden off the caregiver as far as making the medical decisions, and this allows them to focus their attention on love for that individual.
evangel: You have firsthand experience receiving hospice care for your late wife.
BYNUM: Yes I do. In the fall of 2009, Bee found a lump in her breast. By the time she had a double mastectomy a month later, the lump had tripled in size. In 2010 we went through 10 surgeries in eight months. We fought infection. She had chemotherapy. The cancer metastasized to the brain. She had three brain tumors. We went to the brink of death and back three times. Radiation wasn’t effective and we ran out of options. We chose to go on hospice care at that point.
She as a nurse and I as a minister had talked openly about this possibility our entire 30-year marriage. We accepted the fact she was sick. If God wanted to heal her, He was well able to do that. We had a lot of people praying for us.
However, for the first eight months I struggled, trying to get the right formula to get the Lord to heal. Finally, I just said, “Lord, I don’t know what You’re going to do, but I love You and I trust You.” At that moment I had the faith to let God be God, and I didn’t have to try to figure out telling Him what to do. If Bee was to die, we were OK with that as well. She was in hospice care for two months, until she died Sept. 4, 2011. She was 51 years old.
evangel: Did serving as an AG pastor for 25 years help prepare you for the long, suffering process Bee endured?
BYNUM: Yes and no. I liken it to preparing for a hurricane. I’d prayed. I’d read the books. I had a lot of professional support. I did a lot of anticipatory grieving. But you can know all about grieving, and when the storm hits you still have to experience it. Information helps us, but only love heals us. Because grief originates in our hearts, the only way to receive healing is to experience God’s love through people.
evangel: Did you have trouble being on the receiving end?
BYNUM: I think so. It really took awhile to flip the switch. I knew what it was like to give care, but I really didn’t feel comfortable receiving care, laying my life out there in front of my peers and minister friends.
I knew what it was like to sit for hours with people in the hospital waiting room. I knew what it was like to be called out in the middle of the night to hold someone’s hand who was grieving. I knew what it was like to give care to folks with broken hearts. Now it was my turn to receive care. It’s important to receive. It’s a learned behavior.
evangel: Why did you make the transition to full-time hospice care chaplain from pastor in the midst of the crisis?
BYNUM: I had worked in the hospice care bereavement department as a volunteer. I had a passion for it, but I didn’t want to take a year out of my life to pursue chaplaincy.
But when Bee went through what she did, I realized life is too short to put off something I had a passion for. I was accepted into the chaplaincy certification program at a local hospital and began working full time in chaplaincy training.
evangel: Is just being present for someone going through grief sometimes better than saying something that might be the wrong thing?
BYNUM: Presence is really better. There is a long list of clichés people say. At the top of the list is, “I know how you feel,” or “It’s been six months; it’s time to move on with your life.” People also shouldn’t say, “God wanted him [or her] more than you do.” These sayings don’t fill the need for comfort for people who are hurting.
We must really be careful about speaking for God. The best thing to do — and it’s really the hardest thing to do — is to just be quiet. Eighty percent of what I do as a bereavement counselor is listen. Job’s comforters did a wonderful job for two days — and then they started talking.
People who are grieving need an opportunity to tell their stories. When we lose someone we love, our cup is empty. But it begins to fill up again with all sorts of feelings, emotions and thoughts, whether it’s anger or sickness or guilt. If we don’t have a way of emptying that cup as we go — whether it’s talking to somebody or journaling — it just takes the least little jostle of that full cup and the contents will spill out. That’s why people fall apart when something triggers their grief.
evangel: How have you dealt with your grief?
BYNUM: Even though I didn’t choose to lose my wife, I still retain the choice of how to respond when grief comes. I’m not at the mercy of my feelings and emotions when I cry or feel sad. Grief is not an emotion; it’s a reaction to the loss.
A lot of people grieve by physical labor — by doing. One of the ways I worked through grief was by being busy. The caution is, people can be busy and delay their grief. If, at the end of the day, you feel better after being busy, then you’ve probably been grieving. Grieving starts at diagnosis. The two days after Bee’s diagnosis I cut down trees in the woods with a chainsaw.
evangel: Now you have embarked on a new phase of life.
BYNUM: I have remarried. Betty’s husband died in 2009 of early-onset Alzheimer’s at 57. I had ministered to Betty as a pastor at her husband’s death. We have a lot in common.
My life is completely different. At 51, I lost a wife of 30 years, plus I lost a vocation of 30 years. I realize I will never be able to live the same way again. But God can make this new life just as wonderful as the other life. Even the sickness and death of my first wife prepared me for what I’m doing today. It has opened access to minister to people I never could have talked to before.