The Guilt of Leaving

At age 21, I moved from Michigan to Cape Town, South Africa, for what I thought would be five months abroad. About two months into my stay, I decided to extend my visa for an additional two years. I had already purchased a round-trip ticket, so I went home for Christmas after the first five months to visit my family and prepare for the next stint overseas.

During my few weeks at home, my 50-year-old single mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

A million questions assaulted me: Would she die? How aggressive was the cancer? Could it be stopped?

I asked the doctors questions they had no way of knowing, like, “How much longer? Will she be cured? How many chemotherapy drugs are available before you run out of options?”

To make things worse, my departure date to fly back to Cape Town drew nearer. Indecision haunted me. Stay and go collided as they beat their wings in my chest—crazed birds trapped in my rib cage, desperate to break free.

After initial tests, a team of doctors launched Mom into a rigorous treatment plan: a surgical lumpectomy just after my scheduled departure date, followed by three months of chemotherapy, then six weeks of radiation. Even though we seemed to have “a plan,” nothing was certain.

My mom, who had given everything of herself for my sister and me, languished in perhaps her most vulnerable point of need.

And I was leaving.

I squeezed her extra hard at airport security, and I left. She and her cancer waved good-bye, but they somehow boarded the plane right along with me. I couldn’t shake them off.

Reason frayed at the edges until a long thread unraveled and dangled loose in hysteria. I made for a stall in the airport bathroom and sobbed.


Every day I doubted my decision to return to South Africa.

Night after night I tossed in bed, afraid I had made the wrong choice. The melody of fear got stuck on repeat, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It became a siren song to my soul, wooing me closer to the jagged edge of despair.

Mom endured months of treatment, including an operation, recovery, chemotherapy, side effects, hair loss, radiation . . . the works. I watched from afar, getting daily updates from my sister and mom. Every time the phone rang, my heart leaped into my throat for fear of more bad news.

I wasn’t angry with God, I just felt . . . flat. Neutral. Disengaged. Worst of all, I felt hypocritical. I had moved to Cape Town with hopes of impacting lives with the gospel, and I couldn’t even bring myself to pray. I was supposed to be leading girls’ Bible studies and having one-on-one discipleship meetings with students, but I could barely open my Bible.

Telling people they could trust God felt like a lie. The words came out of habit, but my heart scoffed at them. My whole job description was to encourage students to grow in the Christian faith, yet my own growth fell stagnant.

I couldn’t see God. In my weakest moments, I wondered if trusting Christ was worth it. Did my faith even matter? My family suffered just the same as unbelievers, so what was the point? I knew God existed, but the benefits of being His follower blurred with the tears in my eyes.

As I teetered on the edge of doubt, I looked at people I knew who didn’t have Jesus. I saw their emptiness. Their complete lack of hope. I couldn’t help but compare them to my mom. Even though Mom may have feared the unknown, she was anchored by her trust in Christ. She was held.

When I considered my options—either continuing to trust Jesus even when it hurt or turning my back on Him—I knew I would rather be held. Even more, I’d rather know that my mom was safe in His grip, no matter what the cancer did to her. Even if her body did waste away in this life, she would still be held. She would be safe. She would be home.

God reminded me of a conversation in the Bible when some of Jesus’ followers had turned away from Him. Jesus asked His remaining disciples, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” Then Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” (John 6:66–68). Peter’s words sealed it for me. Even if I flirted with doubt, where else could I go? God was my only hope.

Over time, the Lord patiently rubbed gentle truths into my aching soul. He soothed me by lifting my chin to see beyond my immediate circumstances. To see that ultimately, the victory is in Christ, not in the remission of cancer. Even cancer roams on a leash. It may do significant damage, but it never spreads apart from His control.

One night, when the guilt from leaving my mom threatened to overwhelm me, the Lord whispered loud enough to penetrate the back of my mind: “You’re not the only one who can take care of her. I’ve got this.”

And He did.

How have you seen God’s grace and provision at a time when you weren’t able to be there or solve a problem? 

This post includes excerpts from the memoir, A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging.

Are you registered for Velvet Ashes’ Online Retreat? Experience an incredible, life-giving spiritual retreat right where you are. It’s coming soon! 


  1. Elizabeth April 9, 2019

    “Telling people they could trust God felt like a lie. The words came out of habit, but my heart scoffed at them. ”

    I have even been in the place where telling MYSELF I could trust God felt like a lie. Times when I thought I had forgotten everything I’d ever learned about faith and about trusting God. A wise woman told me the truths weren’t forgotten, they were just hidden right now. This was very soothing to my soul.

    “Did my faith even matter? My family suffered just the same as unbelievers, so what was the point?”

    In dark times, that is what I think. That bad things can happen even while I’m “trusting” God, so what’s the point of trusting Him?

    But it really all does come back to relationship with a mysterious God. I love what Peter says — “to whom would we go?” I know there is no other place for me to go BUT Jesus, even when I’m not particularly feeling like talking to Him! I’ve tried to quench the spiritual part of me before in hopes of being more logical and rational, and it makes me so unhappy. I need a God who is sometimes mysterious and irrational, because nothing else satisfies quite like Him.

    1. Kate Motaung April 9, 2019

      Amen, Elizabeth! Thank you for taking the time to read and share. Every blessing to you as you continue to follow hard after the only One who truly satisfies.

  2. Nancy Pfaffe January 17, 2020

    Kate thank you for your article. And I echo the comment by Elizabeth. I plan to reread it many times. I’m on the flip side of the equation..the Mom and grandma left behind dealing with the family who’s hurting and caring for my husband who has Parkingson’s and we are only in our fifty’s..We have supported and encouraged our family overseas for many years, hiding our grief so as not to be a burden cause guilt..but’s it’s catching up with me. Can you direct me to resources for help? Thank you.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.