There can be few more painful or faith-testing experiences for a man than to see his wife of 43 years being lowered in a coffin into a deep, clay-lined chasm in the ground. Such was my experience two days ago (on 6 November 2015).
My Sue had died just 10 days earlier, aged 65, less than a year after being diagnosed with a large, aggressive, high grade tumour in the front of her brain.
She was my best friend, constant companion, confidant, wise counsellor, gentle critic, lover, fellow pilgrim and heart’s delight. She was also the loving mother of our five children and an amazing grandma to thirteen doting grandchildren.
Sue and I met while second year students in Aberystwyth in the late 1960s. She was a very new Christian, having been intrigued, challenged and stirred to study the Bible by the attractive and vibrant Christianity of some of her fellow inmates at Alexandra Hall. And God’s work had penetrated deep in her heart.
One evening, after a CU meeting, she won my heart without trying, as I watched her share her newfound faith with another student. She spoke boldly, and yet with such gentleness, humility, kindness, sincerity and eagerness, out of a heart that was clearly thrilled to have been sought and found by the Son of Man, I remember thinking what a wonderful thing it would be to spend my whole life with her — and so it has proved.
Our relationship began with long walks in and around Aberystwyth. And she did not draw back from the friendship when, in my degree year, I began to respond to the encouragement of more mature believers to consider preparing for the Christian ministry.
In spite of being aware of my general immaturity and the many flaws in my character, she supported my decision to apply to study at (the now long defunct) Barry Bible College, in South Wales. Indeed, she happily agreed to fund my second year there by working as a teacher in a rough comprehensive school in Newport, during the first year of our marriage.
A year later, she showed a yet more remarkable willingness to follow my lead as, with her trembling support, I accepted a call to a tiny church plant of four members in Dewsbury in West Yorkshire.
And so, in November 1973, this dear woman, heavily pregnant with our first child, followed me and our few earthly possessions to this soot-blackened and rundown industrial town, far from both her beloved London and the sea which so captivated her all her life.
Sue was always wary of the idea that being a pastor’s wife meant she had a special role in the church. Yet, by God’s grace and wisdom, she was wonderfully fitted to be an encourager to many in the church and beyond.
She was down to earth, reliable, hard-working, outgoing, hospitable, generous, full of fun, and a genius at stretching the small family budget. She gave herself to others, little realising the blessing others found in her company, advice and practical help.
She loved to serve her family and fellow church members, the wives of other ministers, and indeed anyone who crossed her path. She understood profoundly and embraced gladly the call for followers of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, to be the servant of all. No man could have had a more devoted and precious wife.
Yet it is only in the last eleven so difficult months of her life that I have truly begun to grasp just how privileged I have been to share my life with such a lovely lady. Even though her devastating illness began only weeks before my planned retirement (to which she had long looked forward) she has shown no bitterness about her ‘death sentence’.
Indeed, through her ten weeks in hospital following her devastating operation during most of which she was constantly sick, and in the many months that have followed, she has been constantly cheerful and patient — often being more anxious about how others were coping, than about her own problems.
She has laughed at herself and rejoiced in God’s blessing to others, without showing any signs of anger or even frustration at her lot. Even when she became bedridden and unable to speak, she would beam at the arrival of friends or family and listen attentively to their news, being delighted whenever people prayed and read the Scriptures with her.
Every service done for her was thankfully received, and godly friends described her gently smiling face as being like the face of an angel.
Nowhere was God’s daily grace more clearly seen than in this: a woman, whose life had been marked all through by struggle with anxiety, lived her most difficult days in peace and free from worry.
She died at home very peacefully, as I held her hand in the early hours of a Monday morning, late in October. Thus she passed into the presence of the Lord, who made her what she had become, a woman of rare inner beauty whose face radiated both the grace of God that she had received and the joy of being his precious child.
Editor’s note: Dewsbury Evangelical Church was packed with over 250 people for Sue Heaps’ funeral service, in which the Lord Jesus Christ was clearly honoured and glorified by Sue’s family members and the preacher (Daniel Grimwade).