My friend and I were having lunch; and as we always do, we revisited our slow journey through the stages of grief following the loss of our friend Matt, who died at age 35 of a brain tumor.
While remembering Matt, we also recalled the suicide of a student from my youth group. He jumped from a well-known bridge in our area the year before Matt’s death.
Two instances of grief in a one-year span would be plenty for most folks; but sadly, those tragedies were only the tip of the iceberg for me during a span of time that brought death and tragedy in many forms.
A month before Matt’s death, a group of junior high kids from my youth group lost their 12-year-old friend who was hit by a car while riding his bike to school. Meanwhile, my high school students looked on for 10 months as a wondrously gifted 15-year-old classmate succumbed to brain cancer. Kids this young should not be seeing their friends die.
Two college students I had known and loved during their six years in my youth ministry also experienced grief during this time, losing their fathers—one to a heart attack at age 53 and another to a plane crash at age 62.
Then my sweet friend Claire died of a brain tumor after a valiant 10-year battle. This loss was particularly poignant for me because she had lingered and fought for so long.
Did I mention the wildfires? It was during this season of grief that our area suffered a calamitous wildfire that burned several homes of church families to the ground, including the family that had lost its 15-year-old daughter to the brain tumor.
Cancer. Suicide. Heart attacks. Wildfires. Fatal Crashes. It’s like a bad TV movie, where the writers go over the top with special effects and maudlin storylines to pull on our heartstrings, but this wasn’t a movie. This was real life, and this dizzying array of tragedies still takes my breath away.
In the span of five years, I shepherded students, friends and families through seven cataclysmic deaths. Every time I would start doing a little better, the next loss would cut me off at the knees—again.
Needless to say, this took a remarkable toll on me. In fact, I still have some blue days around certain special dates; and at times I lay awake at night with irrational fears borne of being blindsided too many times by unexpected phone calls, wondering when something traumatic will happen again.
Moving on and Reaching Out
At lunch that day, my friend asked me a question that troubles those who grieve: How do you move on from these sorts of things? Sure, he had carried on in many ways, but he still found himself unnecessarily angry with certain people and sometimes quick to cut someone off emotionally.
My journey was different and reflects one of the insights I have gained from this dreadful odyssey of sorrow: Once you experience death and deep suffering, you are able to go there with others in their pain.
The ability to feel and identify with the pain of others at is a blessing, though bittersweet. Once you’ve nearly drowned in the mire of despair that swirls around grief, you are not as daunted by the pain of others as they encounter the horror of unimaginable loss, because you already have felt the edges of the knife as it pierced your heart.
Prior to my season of grief, my attempts to comfort others were shallow and simplistic. That’s because you can’t take anyone further than you have gone yourself. However, things are different now that I have become more closely acquainted with grief.
That’s why my friend’s questions about moving on did not worry me. I understood his concerns, because they were the same concerns my students had raised with me when we were limping together through our pain.
During our lunch that day, I listened as he expressed his sense of loss. Listening is important. I also reflected to him some of the things he said. Then I shared three lessons with him that I have learned as I have walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
1) It’s OK to get angry. The Psalms took on a whole new meaning once I started down the road of grieving. Lines such as, “How long, Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (
Christ’s anguish from the cross, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned Me?” (
In a gorgeous 17th century poem called Prayer (I), Anglican priest George Herbert describes some of the mysteries of prayer. Herbert calls angry grief prayers reversed thunder. In other words, just as things rain down on us, in our desperation we thunder back at God.
You know what? God can handle it. He would much rather have you yell at Him face to face than walk away in denial and despair. In Jacob’s wrestling in Genesis
2) Get used to grieving. This might sound crazy, but I consider grief an important relationship in my life. What do I mean by that? Should I not want to move on from grief and make it go away? Of course, but I don’t think it is realistic to expect that will happen.
As with any significant friend or family member, if you do not spend regular time with them they will feel neglected and hurt and often lash out in pain and frustration. I am not encouraging anyone to seek after feelings of grief. Nevertheless, these feelings exist; and if they are neglected long enough, they will manifest themselves in difficult and dangerous ways.
When I thought the best way to move on from grief was to pretend it was not there, I started experiencing classic signs of stress: My jaw ached from clenching it all day; I had heartburn and the beginnings of an ulcer; and my sleep patterns became sporadic at best.
Instead of trying the route of avoidance, tend to your grief, which comes and goes unexpectedly. I found it helpful to get professional counseling and coupled this with regular prayer, journaling and consistent conversation with trusted friends. This is where you really can help students by helping them get the right support.
My lunch friend and I still were working through losses we had experienced years ago. One might think we should have worked through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ classic list of the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Denial, Acceptance) by then, right? Nevertheless, the feelings of loss remained powerful. Although I had passed through Kübler-Ross’ five stages, I experienced them as repeating cycles rather than a progression.
Holidays, special dates, certain emotional triggers, photographs, sights and sounds all have sent me back into those familiar feelings of despondency and gloom; but I I move out of those dark places more quickly with less fallout. For this, I am grateful.
3) Get ready for a new normal. Once anyone loses someone near and dear or experiences something physically or emotionally shattering, life never will go back to the way it was. Sadly, I have seen some people never recover from deep wounding. In fact, they find their identity in this experience. This is dangerous.
While we never should deny the pains of our past, we can move on and add the highs and lows to our story. As I tell others, we will walk with a limp, but we can’t use our past as a crutch.
In other words, I now have new lenses through which I view life, faith and relationships. Expectations have changed, as have some important relationships; but I am also careful to not use my experiences as excuses. God still has a plan for my life, and He is calling me to show up and live it out with His help.
Kelly has taught religious studies at the high school level and currently teaches at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships. She blogs at KellySoifer.blogspot.com. Find her on Twitter.com@kellysoif.