Southern Story-Blessing the bereaved: JANE KRATZ TURNED HER GRIEF INTO MINISTRY

Originally published in Southern Seminary’s Towers –

In December 2001, Jane Kratz said “yes” to the man she would marry. His name was Stephan. Before their marriage, her pastor’s wife, Annemarie Lombard, asked, “Jane are you sure this is what you want?” She didn’t ask this question because of a f law in Stephan’s character or concerns that they were incompatible. Lombard asked her this question because she knew that Stephan could die at any moment.

“He is my best friend and I am going to have to deal with his death one way or another. Yes, I am sure I want to marry him,” was Jane’s reply. She knew that Stephan had cystic fibrosis, an incurable, genetic disease that progressively worsens throughout a person’s lifetime. But since her conversion when she was about 30, Jane had prayed for the Lord to send her a godly husband.

Jane and Stephan, both from South Africa, met after she had only been a believer for a short time. Within months, she started attending his church and developed a relationship with his mother as well, who helped encourage her in her faith.

Jane was no stranger to overcoming disability to live a full life. She was born with no thumb on her left hand, her left arm is shorter than her right, she has fused vertebrae in her neck, and is unable to bear children. When she and Stephan were dating, she sat beside him at the funeral of one of his friends who also had cystic fibrosis. The friend and her husband had only been married for one year when she passed away. Jane knew that could be her and Stephan’s story, too. But she also knew she was supposed to marry him.

Although his illness meant that he had to live every day with permanent lung infection, diabetes, asthma, chronic pancreatitis, and in his case, also cirrhosis of the liver, the first seven years of their marriage he was “relatively healthy,” Jane recounted. However, he still took pills daily to help his food digest, as well as multiple other medications. He spent several hours nebulizing each day and his pain-free days were few and far between. But his illness didn’t keep him from working, co-owning a campus bookstore with Jane, and going for hikes. The two even considered adoption or foster care from time to time, but God continually closed those doors, she said.

While he was still alive, the Kratz family was no stranger to grief. Jane’s mother became terminally ill with cancer in 2002. In 2004 Stephan’s dad died suddenly of a stroke. Her mother passed away later that year, as well as five other friends.

“All those deaths heightened my anxiety and fears about whether I would be able to cope with Stephan’s death one day. Nevertheless, we both lived with the awareness that every sunrise together was a precious gift of life from God,” Jane said. “Our mutual faith in Christ and in the promise of resurrection life, strengthened our gratitude to God for the gift of ‘life.’ God graciously granted Stephan and me ten-and-a-half years of marriage.”

The last three years of Stephan’s life were challenging, as he was in and out of the hospital five separate times in each of those years. However, Jane was encouraged by the generosity of her church family during that time, she said.

Eventually, Stephan took a turn for the worse. Jane stayed faithfully by his side, juggling his care and work. He slipped into a coma, and a week later, Stephan passed away.

“In spite of being ‘prepared’ for death in the sense of expecting it, ultimately one cannot be fully prepared for it. I had no idea how deep the anguish of searing loss would be,” Jane said. “Though my faith was strong and I never doubted my faith and union in Christ, I found it difficult on an experiential and emotional level to reconcile God’s sovereignty and his goodness with my experience of suffering. I found it difficult to understand and make sense of the suffering that I had not only witnessed Stephan endure, but the suffering I had endured in watching his journey of dying. Having been united to my husband in marriage as one flesh, I felt as though a part of me had died with him.

“While I knew without a shadow of doubt that I will see him again because of the promise of resurrection from the dead for those who are in Christ, that truth did not diminish the initial feelings of loneliness, of loss, and of sorrow,” she said.

But Jane, who always had a love of a new adventure, resolved to channel her grief into something greater. Although her church family was supportive, she saw firsthand a need for a better approach to grief counseling in the church.

Having studied psychology as an undergraduate and earned a postgraduate diploma in theology, she knew she wanted to continue her studies in grief counseling. Jane became acquainted with the biblical counseling concentration at Southern Seminary and moved to the United States, enrolled at the school, and began work on her Th.M. in summer 2016. Her Th.M. research seeks “to move the bereaved person to a place where he or she experiences deeper communion with God in the midst of suffering so that the bereaved will find peace from the God of all comfort.”

This is not only the goal of her research, but seeing this implemented practically is a focus of her time in Louisville, as she is involved in the care ministry at Sojourn Community Church Midtown.

“I’ve seen Jane grow, first of all, with her growing understanding of what’s offered in the field regarding grief,” said Robert Cheong, pastor of care at Sojourn Community Church and Jane’s Th.M. advisor. “I think that in her studies at Southern and her experience at Sojourn, she was able to better understand the deficits in the field of grief. I think she’s not only grown in a biblical/theological understanding of the dynamics of the heart, but also that through her ministry experience and the theology of care that we have at Sojourn she has a better understanding of how grief is part of the experience of living in a fallen world. That’s given her perspective.”

Jane hopes not only to use her training to work with women in a church setting, but maybe to develop a Sunday School curriculum for dealing with grief in her home country. “There’s such a need in South Africa,” she said. “I’d love to be able to take what I’m learning back and share it with them.”