For five months, the Strauss family shared the story of Gloria's cancer struggle with columnist Jerry Brewer and photographer Steve Ringman...
For five months, the Strauss family shared the story of Gloria’s cancer struggle with columnist Jerry Brewer and photographer Steve Ringman. Thousands of readers here and around the country were touched by the series.
Hours after cancer killed Gloria Strauss, her parents looked at their little girl and saw a woman.
They gazed again. And again. And again. It was astonishing. She did not seem 11 anymore. The nurses had cleaned her body, a family friend had washed her hair and, goodness, there was a smile creasing her face. “She looked like a grown woman,” said Gloria’s mother, Kristen. “It was amazing. Her body seemed long and beautiful, just like a young woman.”
After more than four years fighting neuroblastoma, Gloria stopped breathing shortly after her parents fell asleep in her hospital room Friday morning. It was 6:50 a.m. when two nurses tapped Doug and Kristen. Minutes later, the parents said goodbye. They did not receive the kind of healing miracle they wanted. Instead, they believe Gloria received the “ultimate healing” — heaven.
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“I think it’s only the beginning of the miracle,” Kristen said. “I think there’s so much more to come.”
Doug and Kristen Strauss sit in a hotel room, each on a separate bed. They are eating food from Georgio’s Subs, their first meal of the day. It is 4 o’clock Friday afternoon. Over the next 75 minutes, they turn an interview into catharsis.
At times, it feels as if they are speaking to each other. Other times, it seems like they are speaking to everyone who has followed them.
“I thought we’d be ready for this moment,” Doug says, “and we’re just not.”
Doug describes the final moments he and Kristen spent with Gloria. At 4 a.m. Friday, he calls Kristen. Gloria is in tremendous pain and breathing heavily.
Dad feels something he never had before. He whispers, “God, I think it might be time to take her, but I don’t know.” That is how he knows he needs Kristen.
When she arrives at Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center in Seattle, they watch an old family video of a Catholic pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Kristen sings a song called “The Magnificat,” a Christian favorite, near the end of that trip. The parents smile and reminisce as Gloria sleeps.
A few minutes past 6 a.m., they fall asleep. When they awaken, their child is gone.
“It was so difficult,” Doug says. “There were times you felt like you could actually see her breathing again. It’s like she was coming back to us. But she didn’t.”
Their spiritual journey has been uplifting yet treacherous, confusing yet revealing. It seems like it is over. But for the Strausses, it will never end.
All along, they have prayed to God, expecting him to heal Gloria. Before this journey began, Kristen believes God told her Gloria would have an incurable cancer. She says he left her with these words: “When I heal her, I will change the lives of many.”
The family thought the healing would be a physical one. Instead, they again must rely on their faith to find meaning.
“It’s bittersweet,” Doug admits. “It’s just a melting pot of feelings — sadness, anger, happiness, wanting to ask why.
“Part of our miracle has happened. She’s in heaven. She’s probably holding court up in heaven. Everyone’s probably lined up to see her. The first thing she probably said was, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ “
Kristen is still trying to describe her daughter.
“I’ve seen many people who have died,” she says. “Nothing like this. It was almost like she was sleeping. It was beautiful.”
She corrects herself. “It is beautiful.”
They know the obvious questions: Do they feel robbed? Can their faith withstand this loss? How can they believe in one miracle so strongly and accept this detour?
Tom Curran, a family friend who runs a Catholic ministry, has helped the Strausses throughout this process. To understand their beliefs, he says, one must look at this journey as an ongoing relationship between Jesus and the family.
“The key phrase, which Doug has used before, is that Jesus isn’t just the healer,” Curran says. “He is the healing. This is an intimately and profoundly relational thing.”
To nonbelievers, it is an abstraction. To believers, it makes sense. But Doug and Kristen never demanded for God to follow through on a promise. They simply chose to trust, believe in what they hoped God meant and bend to his will.
“It’s not going to make sense to people who are not in the relationship,” Curran says. “It appears like a contradiction. It seems like, at the end, somebody just pulled a rabbit out of the hat. But that’s not how God has been involved.”
The Strausses spent about seven hours in Gloria’s room before they had her taken to a funeral home. They prayed as a family. They invited each of their six other children to have a private moment with her.
Through tears, they laughed. Much of the time, Doug and Kristen uttered praise.
“Thank God for heaven,” Doug says. “Thank God for prayers.”
Doug opens a white shoebox with “Gloria” scrawled across it. He takes out a few plastic bags with her locks of hair and drops them on his hotel bed.
“We cut some off the back of her hair,” Doug says. “Kind of like a relic. Something to remember.”
There are so many memories. As the parents retrace their daughter’s life, lessons arrive, too.
Some are simple. “Life is precious,” Kristen says. “Every life is precious.”
Some are life-changing. “She brought heaven to me,” Doug says. “She made heaven real to me.”
Most of all, Doug and Kristen are overjoyed by Gloria’s impact.
“We selfishly asked people to pray for her,” Doug says, “and she did all these selfless acts.”
She embraced other ill children, praying for them even as she struggled to breathe. She made thousands think about how to live.
Says Kristen: “She was so much more than our little girl. She was everyone’s.”
Gloria was funny, too. Doug is known as the family comedian, but he always has worked hard for his jokes. For Gloria, humor came naturally.
The impersonations. The dances. The goofy faces.
“You know what her song should be for heaven?” Doug asks.
After a brief pause, he launches into the chorus of an old song from the duo Hall & Oates: “Oh-oh, here she comes!”
Doug and Kristen are nervous to offer their next thoughts, but after a few more seconds of reflection, they let loose.
“I think she’s saint material,” Kristen says.
Doug nods and cries.
On the afternoon drive from hospital to hotel, Kristen listens to the radio. She turns to Spirit 105.3 FM. The radio jockeys are asking a question: Who is your hero?
Kristen whispers, “My hero is Gloria.”
“I just want to make sure I never forget her smell or the sound of her voice,” Kristen says.
“I could sing her praises forever,” Doug says.
But they are tired. They need rest. They need to complete funeral arrangements. Death comes so fast.
On Thursday, Gloria sang “Happy Birthday” to her father, fought until she finished every word. It was her final gift to Dad.
Doug and Kristen look at each other and smile. On Doug’s bed, there is a CD of a tribute being edited for Gloria. It is titled “Glorious Gloria.”
Gloria is gone, and the proper word escapes them.
“Is it her passing?” Doug asks.
Kristen looks up, deep in thought.
“Or do we want to say her ‘entering’?” Doug continues.
No, Kristen has a better one.
“Maybe her rising,” she says.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.