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.