Good (at) Grief

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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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Heavy Holidays

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Christmas Market at Breitscheidplatz, Berlin.

Hollywood lies.

I’m not talking about Disney princesses and Prince Charmings. My frustration is at an even more basic level of expectation versus reality. You see, according to Hollywood, bad things happen in dark and empty alleyways. And according to Hollywood, sad scenes almost exclusively take place in the rain. But if the music is in major key and the setting is bright and cheery, then, according to Hollywood, the scene should be happy. And so it follows that, according to Hollywood, German Christmas markets should be among the happiest and safest places on earth.

But the events of Monday night in Berlin laughed in the face of this cinematic logic. Because while people were chatting, shopping, and enjoying life, the unthinkable happened. Evil—heartless, senseless, and unspeakable evil—revved the engine, jumped the curb, and left death and carnage in its wake.

Two days later, my heart is aching and my insides still feel numb. Because not only am I upset by the blatant cruelty of this tragedy–I mean, how could someone attack a Christmas market?–but this hits unbelievably close to home. You see, I lived in Berlin on and off for almost a year, and in the process, this city became like home. I care deeply about the people there, and the fact that someone would murder them is nauseating. And that they would hijack the truck of a delivery man from Poland–another country I have come to love–is as infuriating as it is heartbreaking.

But I’m also upset on another, perhaps more jarring level: last year, I stood in that very Christmas market with my best friend, chatting, shopping, and enjoying life. After a late lunch at the KaDeWe, we headed down to this market, where we sipped Gluehwein, bought souvenirs, and marveled at the colorful stars for sale. Out of all the Christmas markets I frequented last winter, the one at Breitscheidplatz was by far my favorite. With its massive Christmas tree next to the glowing-blue stained glass Gedaechtniskirche, this market felt particularly magical. That this very same place became the site of such senseless violence and that the people who died there were just like me is a lot to take in. If my research year had fallen just a little later, I could have been there on Monday night with them. One of those 12 dead or 48 injured could have been me.

These are heavy thoughts, I know, and they have been weighing on me since I got the news on Monday afternoon. Now as I sit at home in Kansas, surrounded by all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas, I can’t help but feel the disconnect. Between the sorrow I feel on the inside and the joy I’m supposed to exude on the outside. Between the happiness that Hollywood tells me should accompany this season and the suffering that is happening around the world. Between the darkness sitting heavily upon me and the light I so badly want to believe that Jesus came to bring.

All Advent season and well before Monday happened, I have been wrestling with these thoughts. The Hollywood version of Christmas claims to be “merry and bright” and a season of endless joy. But this year, Christmas seems anything but happy. The civil war in Syria shows no signs of ending, and the remaining citizens in Aleppo are facing almost certain death. The families of terror victims across France and Belgium, as well as those who lost loved ones in the racial violence in the U.S. this summer, are still mourning. And then there are the countless families who still grieve those lost in more “normal” but no less tragic ways, such as cancer, car accidents, and suicide.

Taken together, there is a lot of darkness and sorrow in this world of ours. And during these last few weeks of Advent, I have felt the weight of it, perhaps more acutely than ever before. How are we supposed to be filled with “Christmas cheer” when so much of the world appears to be falling apart? Where is that joy that I’m supposed to be experiencing? I find myself resonating with that old Christmas hymn,

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Aleppo, Berlin, and countless individual sorrows seem to mock the idea of Christmas. But then again, isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? That into the darkest places of pain and the most broken parts of humanity, God comes to us.

Even as I write this, I know that answer feels Sunday-schooly, perhaps even a bit trite. Especially if you’ve grown up in the church, it’s easy to say things like “God came to us” without thinking about what that means. But these last few weeks, and especially these last few days, have turned such Christianese-esque indifference into a luxury I can’t afford. I am hurting, and I want answers. And even more than answers, I need to know–deep down in the painful places–that God has come and that He cares. That’s my prayer as this Advent season draws to a close, that His light would shine into this darkness of our world and this darkness that I feel, and that I would remember again the rest of that old song:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Please.

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Light shining into Darkness. Stars for sale at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market.

The Sting

Dr. Harrist taking us to visit the Amnesty International Headquarters in London, 2008.
Dr. Harrist taking us to visit the Amnesty International Headquarters (London, 2008).

I found out Sunday on Facebook.

I was procrastinating on some work, per usual, by scrolling through my Newsfeed when I saw that one of my OSU professors had been tagged in a photo. As I read the accompanying caption, my heart sank. After 5+ years of fighting, Dr. Steve Harrist, professor of Educational Psychology and one of the kindest and most patient people I have ever met, had lost his battle with leukemia.

I didn’t study Educational Psychology, but I had the good fortune of taking a summer course with Dr. Harrist after my freshman year. Although the class only lasted two weeks, the final project extended well into the fall, with each student writing an original research paper. Because I was only a sophomore, I had never written a substantial college-level research paper. And so, even though summer had long since ended, my visits to Dr. Harrist’s office continued, as he patiently guided me through the process of brainstorming a project, asking good questions, sorting through sources, and articulating my findings. With his help, I later applied for a Wentz research grant to fund a follow-up study, which I would then complete with a history professor during my junior year. When I look back on my college career and think about my trajectory into graduate school, Dr. Harrist’s class stands out. Because even though he wasn’t a history professor, he taught me how to ask valuable questions and discover the answers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up with Dr. Harrist very well the last few years. I knew his cancer had relapsed, but I had no idea how sick he was until he was already gone. And now my heart hurts. For his wife, for his kids, for his extended family, and all his friends. For his students, for his colleagues, and for all the countless other people whose lives this kind man touched. I am sad, and I am angry. Because Dr. Harrist was an incredible person, and he of all people should have lived a long and happy life. But he didn’t, and that feels wrong. So very, very wrong.

And although I’m not an expert on death and grief, I would hazard to guess that loss always feels that way, at least to an extent. Even when people live to old age and die peacefully in their sleep, we who are left behind still feel the injustice and tragedy of it. My mother’s parents passed away several years ago, both at fairly old ages and having lived fairly happy lives. But that knowledge, though helpful, falls short in comforting me. Because even though they both died long ago, I still miss them. My heart aches because they are not here, and I feel like they should be.

I’m fortunate in that, apart from my Nana and Opa, death has largely not left its mark on my family or my close circle of friends. But I don’t have to look very far to find friends or acquaintances for whom this is not the case. Since my cohort began grad school three years ago, 2 of our 7 students have lost their fathers. In my Kansas neighborhood, two children died tragically in freak accidents in 2013. I can name several people who have lost children, siblings, or parents in head-on collisions. The list goes on, and it will only continue to grow. Because as much as it sucks, death truly is a part of life on this earth. And, try as we might, there’s nothing we can ultimately do to prevent it.

But even though death has become normal in this “circle of life”, death was not part of God’s original plan. And I think that’s why naturally feel so angry, confused, and broken by death when it touches those around us—we know deep down that this isn’t right; this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Jesus even experienced this when his dear friend Lazarus died. If you’ve hung around the Bible trivia circuit long enough, this story probably makes you think of the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” But if you’re like me until recently, you probably never noticed that, before Jesus wept, he became livid. Most English Bibles translate this as “moved” or “deeply troubled”, but the more accurate translation is that He “snorted with anger”, like a war horse charging into battle. Yes, Jesus wept, but He wasn’t just sad. He was ticked. Death was not part of how His Father’s good creation was supposed to operate. Jesus not only knew in the sense that He is God and knows everything, but He acutely felt it when He lost His friend—even though He would bring Lazarus back to life just a few minutes later.

So if the world isn’t as it should be, why doesn’t God just fix it right now? I don’t have a good answer. The problem of evil and suffering is complicated, and theologians have spent thousands of pages and (literally) tons of ink to try to explain it. And while I too have attempted to tackle this question before, my reason for writing today is different. You see, I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately, not just because of Dr. Harrist’s passing, but also because of Easter. Let me explain.

In Atlanta, I attend an Anglican Church, and we follow the liturgical calendar. That’s Christianese for saying that we have special names for different times of the year or “seasons” in the church. For instance, during February and March, we were in Lent. Right now, we’re in Pentecost. And for the 50 days before Pentecost, we were celebrating Easter. And during Easter, we talked a lot about the Resurrection of Jesus and what this means for us as Christians and for the rest of the world. In the process, I ended up reading a book by NT Wright called Surprised by Hope.

While I don’t know if I would recommend this book from a pleasure-reading standpoint (Dr. Wright’s writing can be a bit dense at times), the former Bishop of Durham has helped me to rethink the idea of heaven and resurrection. Using a lot of Scripture as well as information about orthodox Judaism and first-century paganism, Wright argues that Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection not only happened, but was a complete game-changer. By coming back to life, Jesus inaugurated a whole new world, a whole new type of existence in which God’s future Kingdom is already begun here in the present. And moreover, just as Jesus was raised to life—physically, literally, bodily raised to life—so too will we be raised. Although I don’t know how this will work or what it will look like, I do know this: death is not the end of our story. Paul refers to the resurrected Jesus as “the first fruit”, the beginning or the down payment on this new world He is creating. And someday, though I have no idea when, God will finish what He started with Jesus 2,000 years ago. He will raise all believers to new, unending, and perfected physical life, in which we will never experience pain, decay, or death again.

That’s why Paul proclaims boldly that death will be “swallowed up in victory” and asks provocatively, “Death, where is your sting?” Yes, death does sting very painfully for those facing it and those touched by it. But its victory is only temporary, for as John Donne so perfectly wrote,

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me
[…]
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!

For those who are in Christ, this is our hope. Yes, death is horrible, tragic, and heartbreaking, but it is not our end. For those of us who know Christ will also be raised with Him into a new world and a wholly remade creation. And in this place, He will “wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more.” So while we grieve, suffer from, and mourn over the loss of those we love, we do not have to lose hope. For as bleak and tragic as this world may be and our lives may become, our story will not end in sorrow. The hero will win, and the happy ending—or according to CS Lewis, the “happy beginning”—will be ours through Jesus Christ, who already defeated death. Amen.

Ten Years Today

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Ten years. Ten years today.

Ten years ago today I woke up earlier than usual, excited to celebrate my younger sisters’ tenth birthday. Ten years ago today my dad drove my sisters and me to school, dodging traffic and getting us there just in time. Ten years ago I sat in Mrs. Kinnan’s literature class, kidding around with my 7th grade classmates about how many times Homer used the word “sprang” in The Illiad. Ten years ago today, I wondered why our teacher had left the room so suddenly. When she came back, we knew: Ten years ago today was the day that would change everything.

For at least 2,985 people, September 11th became the second date on their headstone, the end of their passage here on earth. For 1,609 people, September 11th was the day they lost their spouse or partner. For 3,501 children, September 11th meant growing up without their mommy or daddy or both. And for countless people around the globe, September 11th embarked them on a journey down a road of grief and pain. The Twin Towers collapsed, and the world as we knew it came crashing down with it. The collective heart of humanity broke. America wept, and the world wept with her.

September 11th was a day of opposites, of striking juxtapositions: Fear and courage, cruelty and compassion, hate and love, good and evil, life and death, despair and hope. Since that Tuesday morning, vats of ink have been spilled as people commemorate heroes, vent their anger, and ponder the “what ifs” as they ask over and over again that eternally nagging question: Why?

Why did this happen? If God is all-powerful, if God is so good, if God is actually as loving as He claims to be, then why didn’t He stop it?

A few months ago, I found myself wrestling with these age-old questions. Then I stumbled upon a sermon entitled “Riding the Storm” by British philosopher and theologian Os Guinness. Here in his 45-minute talk, I finally found some answers that made sense. (Note: Only after listening to the sermon did I discover the date he delivered it: September 10, 2001. Coincidence? Of course not.) Here is what Guinness says…

1) “It should have been otherwise.” –God created the world in perfection and beauty. Joy, peace, love, fulfillment, and satisfaction flowed freely in Eden, as mankind lived in total harmony with their Creator. But when Adam and Eve chose to disobey and rebel against God, humanity died and the rest of creation with it. The “Fall,” as it is termed, ruined God’s plan for the world and for us, and all the brokenness we see and the pain we experience is a direct consequence of that critical day in Eden. But this is not what God intended for His creation, and it grieves Him even more acutely than it hurts us.

2) “No other god has wounds.”—Jesus died for us. He willingly endured the most humiliating, degrading and painful death known to mankind in order to save us. His blood poured out; His heart broke. Other religions may claim to have gods or a god who cares, but no other god died to save his people. Jesus understands, relates to, and feels our pain because He experienced the ultimate pain. And because of this, He hurts when we hurt; our pain is His pain.

3) “The resistance leader knows what He’s doing.”—Imagine you are living in Fascist Germany in 1941. You meet up with the leader of an underground movement to resist Hitler. He knows you are opposed to the Nazis, and he asks you to join with him in the resistance. But he warns you: “If you join me, you will have to trust me. After tonight, we will never speak again face-to-face. Sometimes you’ll see me in Nazi uniform, arresting one of our friends. But you don’t know that I am actually setting them free. Other times, I will send you messages, telling you to do something that makes no sense. And oftentimes, it will seem like we are losing and our efforts are futile. But you will have to trust me, because I am in control, and I know what I am doing.” Jesus, our Resistance Leader, says the same thing to us, and He wants us to trust Him too. He is omniscient, and He knows what He is doing, even when things make no sense.

So whatever happens—when tragedy strikes, when terror seems to have the upper hand, and when evil appears in control—we must remember the truth: our God is good and will never fail. In the past, in the present, and forevermore.

Including ten years ago today.