Longtime New Orleans ministry leader shares well-learned lessons on grief

by Tobin Perry, |
Joe and Margaret McKeever | Photo provided by Joe McKeever

NEW ORLEANS (Christian Examiner)—In a preaching ministry that has stretched for more than 50 years, Joe McKeever has taught on just about every biblical topic you could imagine.

For the past 15 months, he has lived a sermon — on grief. 

"You find that He has strengthened you to prepare you for it when you didn't know that's what He was doing, You are stronger than you think you are."

It's a lesson he began teaching on the afternoon of Jan. 23, 2015.

The day began like so many others had in the previous year. A pastor for more than four decades, Joe had retired as the executive director of the New Orleans Baptist Association a few years earlier. Yet Joe stayed remarkably active—preaching regularly and using his artistic talents to make people smile by turning their likenesses into cartoons.

Still these days, mornings had been a predictable part of the day. Joe usually woke up around 4:30 a.m. to go for a mile or two walk. When he returned, he would make a pot of tea, pull out his laptop and sit in the kitchen and work on a blog post. At about 6:30 he'd hear his wife, Margaret, rustle around in the bedroom and Joe began to prepare a cup of tea just the way she liked it.

And just about every morning for the past year, like clockwork, Joe and Margaret McKeever spent an hour together. Sometimes they'd talk about the blog he was writing. Other times family or ministry issues would be the subject of the morning. Sometimes they'd just sit quietly. Margaret didn't like mornings much. She awoke slowly.

After breakfast, Joe picked up a novel he had been reading and retreated to the back bedroom. Margaret went back to bed for a bit. Recent years had been tough physically on her. She battled fibromyalgia, Crohn's disease and arthritis — leading to weight gain and depression. Doctors and endless supplies of medicines were regular parts of her life. Getting out of the house didn't happen much.

But on the morning of Jan. 23, 2015, Margaret awoke from her nap to tell her husband, "I'm going to drive myself to the nail salon to get a pedicure.

"And I'll be back."

In 53 years of marriage, after thousands upon of thousands of similar exchanges over the years, the last word Joe McKeever ever spoke to his wife was, "Okay."

Margaret collapsed in the nail salon. She never regained consciousness. Five days later she passed away.

After four decades of pastoral ministry and walking beside hundreds of grieving spouses, Joe would begin the same journey himself.

Saying goodbye

Joe knows where Margaret now resides. He never doubted that. And it gave him great peace in the days and months following his wife's passing. He remembers walking into Margaret's bedroom shortly after her death, taking a plastic bag and filling it with unused medicine.

"I said goodbye fibromyalgia, goodbye Crohn's disease, goodbye arthritis, goodbye depression, goodbye weight gain, goodbye pain," he shouted as he tossed the medicine into the bag. "The former things have passed away. All things are made new. I just sat on the floor and cried. I had a little revival. It was bad, and it was glorious."

So Margaret wasn't in pain anymore.

But Joe was.

In the past 16 months, God has taught Joe a number of things about grief — lessons he passes on whenever he can.

First, everyone goes through grief differently. "Some people want to be around others to deal with their grief," Joe said. "Others want to be alone. Some people want to read a lot. Some people don't. There is no one-size-fits-all approach."

Second, God prepares you for it. "You find that He has strengthened you to prepare you for it when you didn't know that's what He was doing," Joe said. "You are stronger than you think you are."

Third, you'll cry — a lot. "There are prayer times where you still will weep," he added.

Fourth, writing can help. Joe has been blogging for 15 years. It never crossed his mind that he wouldn't blog about his wife's passing. "If you're blogging, you write about whatever is going on in your life — especially something as monstrous as this," Joe said. "It helped, and it helped other people."

Fifth, you need other people in your life. From relatives to fellow ministry leaders who had lost spouses, Joe leaned upon others who had walked down this road before.

Sixth, grief comes to everyone — even pastors. "It's not par for the course. It's the course," he said.

For more about Joe and his ministry, visit www.joemckeever.com. To see some of his cartooning work, visit www.bpnews.net/comics.