Good (at) Grief

sunset11-15

There are certain compliments you really don’t want.

“You have a face for radio” or “she’s got a great personality” are the first that come to mind. I remember receiving one in middle school when my sister told me (in complete seriousness), “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, Steffi; I think you’re great.” Similarly, my dad told me that, in the army, you don’t want your annual report to say, “he/she takes criticism well.” After all, it’s better to avoid criticism by doing things correctly the first time.

Over the last two months, I have added another less-than-ideal compliment to my list: being “good at grieving.” And based on the number of times I’ve received this compliment, it would seem that I am. I’m not saying that, if grieving were a sport, I could go pro. But I apparently have a shot at the minor leagues.

What does it mean to “grieve well”?, you ask. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. But if I had to wager, I would say that it might involve A LOT of the following: crying, taking walks around my neighborhood, listening to hymns on repeat, and talking the ears off of those family members and friends who don’t mind hearing the same things over and over again.

I’d also guess that grieving well means embracing whatever you are feeling in a given moment, no matter how unpleasant or unwanted that emotion may be. It means sleeping a bit later than usual, and then needing an extra hour in the morning to muster up the courage to face the day. It means being honest when you aren’t doing well, and then taking the steps to take care of yourself. But most of all, I’ve found that grieving isn’t just puffy-eyed crying (although that’s certainly part of it). No, being good at grieving means being okay with not being okay–and then giving yourself the grace to be angry, sad, or upset until you’re ready to feel okay again.

Grieving isn’t fun, even if you’re apparently “good” at it. Because let’s be real; we’d all rather avoid the loss in the first place. If I could rewind to 10.5 weeks ago, before things fell apart and prevent that from happening, I would. Once I realized that there would be no rewind or do-over, then I just wanted this process to be over. I so badly wanted a shortcut through this suckiness. But deep down, I knew that, just as there had been no detour around this situation, there would be no shortcut through it. The only way to emerge on the other side (if there really was another side) was to put my head down and trudge through it. And then trudge, and trudge some more.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and there were days when my sadness felt like a permanent rain cloud, or like a lead apron from the dentist’s office had camped out on my heart. I couldn’t picture being happy again, let alone feeling moderately okay. Could the wounds inside me, still so deep and raw, possibly ever heal?

The pain isn’t fully gone yet, but it’s gradually becoming less intense. And while I’m not yet “better”, I am on the way to getting there. And as I look back over my shoulder at that darkness, here are few things I see. (*Caveat: Although grief is a universal process, people grieve in different ways. So feel free to take or leave my takeaways as you see fit.)

  1. Let yourself cry.
  2. Don’t grieve alone; open up and let people carry the pain with you.
  3. But while people can grieve with you, they cannot do it for you. Only you can go through the grieving process for yourself.
  4. Time is your friend. It won’t necessarily “heal all wounds”, but it can make your pain less acute.
  5. Grief is more cyclical (and circular) than linear.
  6. You may never get answers to your questions. And even if you do get them, they likely will not satisfy you in the way that you hoped. This is a hard truth, but there is freedom in accepting it.
  7. Though it may feel impossible, you will get through this season, and you will somehow know Jesus better for having experienced it.

That’s my current (still incomplete) list. I’m sure it will continue to grow as I journey further down this path. But I thought I would share it with you in the meantime because maybe you, too, are walking through a season of pain. If you are, please know that I am sorry. Keep hanging in there. And if you aren’t grieving but you know someone who is, maybe this list can provide some (meager) insight for helping them.

In the meantime, keep trudging, my friend. Someday, by God’s grace, the sun will fully shine again.

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“Where are you, Christmas?”

christmas market
The Christmas Market near Ku’damm in Berlin.

My dearest friends, acquaintances, and random people on the internet, I have some terrible news: Christmas is over. Today is December 29th, which means that we are now 361 days from our next Christmas. Thanks, Leap Year, for adding another day to our already-long Christmas wait.

We did our best to stretch it out and make it last. There were months of preparation, afternoons of shopping and crafting, hours of decorating and baking, miles put on the car or the Frequent Flyer miles compiled to visit relatives. Starting with Thanksgiving September, we listened to Christmas music, planned the decorations for our apartments and houses, and began plotting what gifts to buy our loved ones. And yet despite all of these attempts to extend our holiday season, Christmas cruelly reminded yet again us that it’s only 24 hours long, just like every other day of the year. And now here on Tuesday the 29th, the gifts have been unwrapped, the radio stations have ceased their Yuletide serenading, and many of us are already back at work, reminding us that soon—yes, very soon—life will return to its normal, everyday, often cheerless routine.

Now, I’m not trying to undersell Christmas or poo-poo it with a post-holiday depressed attitude. I actually had probably one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmas seasons to date. After several weeks of enjoying Germany’s Christmas markets, I came home to Kansas and had a truly wonderful time with my family. We went to my Omi’s house and decorated Christmas cookies, we drove through our favorite neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights, and we even squeezed in a trip to Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. Simple though it may seem, this Christmas with my family was truly lovely. And having been away from my parents since July—and from my sisters since far longer than that—I appreciated our time together this year even more than usual.

But now, whether I want to admit it or not, Christmas is over. In a little over a week, I’ll be flying back to Berlin, where the Christmas markets will have disappeared, the glühwein will be gone, and everyone will have settled back into their natural state of light-deprived semi-hibernation.

And now as I think about it, I can’t help but wonder: am I the only one who finds this a bit dissatisfying, if not anti-climactic? I mean, Christmas has the longest build-up of all the holidays. Can you name another holiday that has inspired so many songs (or so many covers of the same songs)? So many movies (and unnecessary sequels to those movies)? Can you think of another day of the year that is greeted with such anticipation by young and old, rich and poor, religious and agnostic alike? We go crazy for Christmas—some of us for months on end—and then before we know it, it’s over, and we’re left looking forward to this time next year, holding out the hope that maybe next Christmas will somehow last longer and be different.

I love Christmas. I truly do. But every year I experience this same discontented feeling. December 26th rolls around—talk about the most underappreciated day of the year—and I find myself wondering yet again, “Was that it?” Somehow it’s just never seemed fair to me that, after such a dramatic entrance, Christmas would just vanish so quickly without a trace. And I find this even more disappointing in light of so many of our favorite seasonal songs and movies, which remind us to have “the spirit of Christmas” and “keep Christmas in our hearts” all year long. Yes, I realize that these quotes come from cheesy, childish sources, and holiday movie specials are a poor choice for your life motto. But still for some reason, these phrases have always bothered me this year, and even more so this year. And now as I sit in my annual post-Christmas slump, I can’t seem to get them out of my head. Because it’s not just Disney who tells me these things; the Church does too, encouraging me to “live in light of Christmas” all year long. But what does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for the last several days (getting a head start by thinking about them before Christmas Day. #efficiency). And while I don’t have a perfect, 5-step formula or a catchy slogan, I think I’m at least starting to arrive at an answer: Christmas leaves us, but Jesus never does. Let me explain.

In one sense, the post-Christmas funk is natural. Experiencing an emotional low after such a significant and highly-anticipated day makes complete sense. I bet Mary and Joseph even their own version of this after the very first Christmas. After all, if your labor pains result in a sky full of angels and a room full of worshipping shepherds, the reality of late-night feedings and diaper changings must have seemed a bit anti-climactic—and they were caring for the Son of God! But you see, for them Christmas wasn’t the end of a story; Christmas was the beginning of their lifetime being Jesus’ earthly parents.

I think the same principle applies to us today 2,000-some-odd years later. Christmas reminds us that Jesus has come to us, but, just like for Mary and Joseph, His presence didn’t end when the manger had been filled with feed again and the shepherds had returned to their sheep. And it doesn’t end for us either, even when the decorations and lights have been taken down and packed away for next year. It’s no accident that Matthew’s Gospel refers to Jesus as “Immanuel” or “God with us”. John puts it so beautifully, saying that Jesus “became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

You see, Jesus’ story with us began on Christmas and continues today. And I think it’s only by remembering and believing this truth—that He came to us, He loves us, and He is present with us now—that we can keep “the Christmas spirit” and its accompanying joy, anticipation, wonder, and awe alive with us every day of the year.

So even though Cindy Lou Who was right in asking, “Where are you, Christmas? Why can’t I find you?”, her natural feeling of confusion and loss was only part of the story. Because although Christmas has already come and gone, the One whom we celebrate hasn’t left us and never will.

Well, that’s enough for one day. I’m feeling hungry. Christmas cookies, anyone? 😉

 

Cotton Bowling

When I was growing up, my family took our share of road trips. Most of these were to visit family in St. Louis or to enjoy Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. A handful were to more exotic places like Colorado, Virginia, or the Grand Canyon, but the vast majority were short and within easy driving distance of home. Overall, though, my family tends to be “home bodies,” especially during Christmas break. We enjoy lounging in our lounge pants, eating far too much chocolate, and watching the entire previous season of shows like Lost or Once Upon a Time. So when my mom told me at the beginning of December that we would be going to a bowl game, I was more than a little bit surprised; I was borderline flabbergasted!

If you’ve been reading my blog for any extended period of time (or you know me personally), then you are aware that I am a proud graduate of Oklahoma State University. What you may not know, though, is that my younger sisters followed me to OSU. They are currently seniors (crazy!) and will graduate in May. Although my parents both went to KU and remain loyal Jayhawk basketball fans, they have definitely discovered their inner orange. (In fact, they might even own more orange clothing than I do!)

These combined factors—our love of Cowboy football, my sisters’ impending graduation, and the preponderance of orange in our house—prompted my family to venture outside of our chocolate-filled, lounge-pantsed, Christmas break norm. We bought tickets to the Cotton Bowl! Bright and early on January 2nd, we left in our rented SUV and headed south for Dallas. Our four-day adventure included exciting highlights such as the following:

-cheering on the OSU football team as they walked out of their meeting room and through the Gaylord Hotel (according to the Alumni Association flyer, they were supposed to board buses and leave for dinner. Instead they just reached the end of the hallway and turned around, which was a bit anticlimactic. Oh well).

-seeing a Christmas tree made entirely out of cowboy boots. #onlyinTexas

-buying discounted child-sized OSU jerseys… and having them actually fit!

-designing and creating the most clever sign in the stadium (although I’m afraid that “What does the Fox say?” may be stuck permanently in my head now. Haha, whoops.)

-meeting former OSU Heisman candidate and pro-running back Thurman Thomas. He was really nice and very amused by my sisters’ twinnyness (Yes, that is now a word, haha).

-and, of course, watching the Cowboys play their hearts out in the Cotton Bowl.

Unfortunately, though, the Cowboys did not win. While they played incredibly well and “left it all on the field,” they came up short, losing to Missouri with a final score of 41-31. I don’t want to rehash the game (as tempting as it is to decry the official review that ruled our interception for a touchdown as a pass interference), but I would like to share a few thoughts.

You see, I love Cowboy football. I’m not as avid a fan as many of my friends, but when the Pokes are playing (and I have access to cable TV), I get really into the game. The Cotton Bowl last Friday was no exception. I wanted them to win so badly that I lost my voice from cheering and was moderately sick for the next three days. But they didn’t. Whether due to poor officiating or poor playing (we may never know and I don’t care to speculate), they lost. And that loss was very disappointing.

I know that football is not the be-all-end-all-of-all, and I realize that the Cotton Bowl was just a game. A big game, yes, but still just a game. Life goes on. A year from now almost no one will remember who played, let alone who won or lost. Yet while sports aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things, I also believe that God can use anything—including football—to teach us about Him.

Right before I started graduate school, a dear friend of mine gave me the book A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie. This little-known text contains a prayer for morning and evening for every day of the month. After the Cowboys lost, a portion of one of these prayers came to mind:

“Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin. Let me use disappointment as material for patience. Let me use success as material for thankfulness. Let me use suspense as material for perseverance…”

Looking back on that game (and on the other heartbreaking losses in Cowboy football history—we’ve had plenty), I have found myself thinking a lot about disappointment. Life doesn’t always go our way. You can “give it all you’ve got” and still come up short. How do we deal with that? Do we curl up in a ball and cry? Do we give up? Do we complain and blame? Or do we “use disappointment as material for patience”, as Baillie so aptly prayed?

As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t usually handle disappointment in healthy, God-honoring ways. I tend to complain or blame (or after the pass-interference call, I’m ashamed to say that I even booed). Instead of seeing things from God’s perspective, I get caught up in my own, and I become very discouraged. I need to lift my eyes, as the psalmist says, and look to the Lord. In our lowest moments, this seems all but impossible. But when we ask Him, He helps us. Only by giving our disappointment to Him can we find peace, hope, and the courage to move forward.

Fortunately, the rest of our family road trip was far from disappointing. We reconnected with old friends, visited my collegiate stomping grounds in Stillwater, and we even stopped at Pop’s, the famous soda joint on Route 66. (I can officially check that off my bucket list. Yay!). But now that we’re back, I think I’ll change back into my lounge pants and call it a day. Can you pass the chocolate? 🙂

Small Envelope, Big Lesson

I knew the answer before I even opened the envelope. It was supposed to be 8.5×11 inches. It was supposed to be several pages thick. It was supposed to contain my contract for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant job in Germany.

It didn’t.

No, instead it held a single-page, typed letter with these fateful words, “You have been designated as an alternate for the U.S. Student Fulbright Program. Thus you would receive an award only in the event someone withdraws.” And with those words, my future dramatically shifted, and a metaphorical door swung emphatically, suddenly—and likely permanently—shut.

Since returning last July from my exchange semester in Graz, Austria, I had planned on applying for the Fulbright. I researched my different options, talked to friends who had received the grant in previous years, and decided that an English Teaching Assistantship would be the best fit for me. Throughout the fall, I spent countless hours laboring over my application, writing, editing, and revising draft after draft of my essays. Then in January and February, I painstakingly rewrote those same essays in German, working hours on end (and likely driving my German professor crazy with all my emails). I’d never worked so hard for something in my entire life, and I had never wanted something so badly. Although I wouldn’t say that the Fulbright became an “obsession,” it did consume a significant portion of my time, energy, and thoughts. I poured my heart and soul into that application, and I wanted the Fulbright more than anything. (Pause. But hold that thought).

This last weekend, I attended an event called “Passion” in Fort Worth, Texas. Founded in 1997, Passion is a global movement to unite college students with the desire to live for Jesus and make Him known. (For more information and a much better description, check out 268generation.com). I had registered for it almost a year before, and although I was looking forward to it, I had no idea what God had in store.

The first breakthrough came on Friday night.

“How much do you love Me, Steffi?” God seemed to ask (Note: God didn’t speak to me audibly. But I knew He was talking to me. I know it probably sounds crazy, but it’s true. I promise. Even if you think I am whacky, please humor me and keep reading). “Do you love me more than your own desires, your family, your health, your dreams, your life?”

I wanted the answer to be yes. I wanted to be able to say that I loved Him more than anything. But when I looked at my life, I knew that I didn’t. (Lying to God is a bad idea, generally speaking. Just fyi.). You see, I wanted my desires to be fulfilled, I wanted my family to stay safe, I wanted to be healthy, and most of all I wanted my life to turn out according to my plan. I loved myself too much. I didn’t want to lose anything.

“How much do you love Me?” I heard Him whisper again. “Whoever wants to save His life with lose it, but whoever loses His life for My sake will find it.”

“But, Lord,” I protested, “I love my life. I like how things are going; I don’t want anything to change. I don’t want to lose things.”

“Whoever wants to save His life will lose it. How much do you love Me?”

And that’s when it hit me like a bucket of cold water on a hot summer afternoon, or better yet, like the time I accidentally touched an electric fence at my friend’s farm. (Luckily, no one dumped cold water on me at the same time; that would have been very bad). If I tried to hold onto my life with white-knuckled grip, I would definitely lose it. I wouldn’t necessarily die sooner, per se, but I wouldn’t truly enjoy my life because I would be constantly worrying about how to best preserve it. Furthermore, that meant that I loved my own life more than I loved Jesus. He wanted all of me, not just the few odds and ends I was willing to loan him. He wanted my whole heart. Nothing short of everything.

Having finally understood that truth, I bowed my head and prayed. I asked Jesus to help me to love Him more than anything else. I told Him to do whatever He needed to do to change my heart. Even if that meant losing the things that I loved or wanted the most. Including the Fulbright. “Be my one desire, Lord,” I prayed. “Do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

This afternoon at 5:03 p.m. He answered that prayer.

Yes, my heart hurts. Yes, I am extremely disappointed. I’ve broken down crying several times (and my eyelids are now puffy). I don’t think that that the reality of it has entirely sunk in yet, and I know that I’ll be sorting through many difficult emotions in the weeks and months to come. But at the same time and in the midst of all that, I have a deep sense of peace. I know beyond all shadow of doubt that my God is good, He is bigger, and that He is working out everything—including this—as He sees best. And most importantly, He is helping me love Him more than anything. That alone makes this heartache worthwhile.

After reading the letter, a Bible verse immediately came into my head. “As for me, I will always have hope. I will praise You more and more” (Psalm 71:14). It was quickly followed by lyrics of a song from Passion, “Oh, I’m running to Your arms. The riches of Your love will always be enough.” (“Forever Reign” by Kristian Stanfill). I write those words from the bottom of my heart, and I’m praying that God will help me mean them even more sincerely with every passing day. No matter what happens, I will always have hope in Jesus. Even when I am hurting, I will praise Him. Nothing on this earth can compare to Him, and His love will always be enough for me, no matter what happens. Even when the envelope is too small.