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.

Free “Fall”-ing

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I love autumn.

Yes, I know that today is December 1st. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and Christmas trees are already bedecked with lights and ornaments. Starbucks has transitioned out of its “Pumpkin Spice everything” phase and is now advertising its winter drink menu. Radio stations have their holiday playlists (which I swear only contain 17 songs max) playing on repeat. And everyone is bustling about trying to stock up on some more holiday cheer.

But here in Atlanta, where summer reigns supreme and winter only comes once every few years, autumn isn’t quite ready to let go. The trees, though slightly less full, still boast a fair number of persistently colorful leaves. Although we reached the low fifties last week, the temperatures continue to hang out in the upper-60s range. And yesterday, as if in a deliberate attempt to stick it to winter, the weather forecast included a tornado warning. Don’t let the lights and décor fool you; Atlanta does not yet feel or look a lot like Christmas.

But honestly, I’m okay with that. Partially because I know that in a few weeks I will return to the Midwest—the real land of tornadoes—where I will get to break out my winter coat and fluffy scarves. And partially because I don’t think I’m quite ready to let go of fall. You see, I’ve always loved fall. For as long as I can remember, it’s been my favorite season. I love all the leaves and how they turn colors, especially on maple trees. I’m a sucker for flannel shirts and bonfire s’mores. And I can think of few things more satisfying than that first Saturday morning when the air is finally crisp enough for a hoodie and my favorite pair of jeans.

Last year, I didn’t get to experience much of a fall. In Berlin, the seasons change almost overnight from summer to winter, with barely a breath in between. The leaves had barely turned and then they were gone, replaced by 6+ months of colorless winter. It was miserable.

Maybe that’s why this year, like the dry brown leaves of an oak tree, I find myself clinging to fall, as if this would help it last longer. Or maybe I’m not ready for fall to end because I’m simply not ready for another transition. Maybe this year, perhaps more than all other years, I find myself identifying with fall, that perpetually in-between season, more acutely than ever before.

The last year and a half, and especially the last two months, have been filled to the brim with transitions. I’ve hopped from city to city, continent to continent, and now state to state with barely a moment to catch my breath. While that time has been good and I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything, it’s also been difficult. Apart from the obvious things, like missing my friends, Berlin, and European public transit, I also feel homesick in a way that I can’t quite pinpoint or articulate. Everything feels so transitory, as if I’m stuck in a place I can’t fully identify, lost somewhere in between. And to make things worse, even as I am reunited with family and friends, I find myself missing them too, or missing that sense of home that I once felt with them. And all that to say that, in this moment, I’m not quite sure where I belong anymore; all I know is that, like fall, I am stuck somewhere in-between.

And even in this feeble attempt to put my thoughts on paper, I can’t help but wonder if this feeling of displacement is somehow at the core of the human experience. If perhaps this sense of loneliness, this deep but elusive feeling of homesickness isn’t part of what makes us alive. After all, if we didn’t feel an emptiness inside of us, we wouldn’t turn to other people to fill it. If we didn’t desire something greater than ourselves, we would never seek after God. Maybe seasons of transition, with all their unsettling and reshuffling, are actually a backwards sort of gift, a “severe mercy”, a blessing in disguise. Not only do such times remind us that “this world is not our home”, but they can also stir up a longing for the One who is constant. Like a child asleep in its mother’s lap, we can find refuge in His unchanging and everlasting arms.

That’s what I’m trying to remember right now, in these moments when all these transitions and uncertainties leave me feeling lonely or sad. I knew this was coming—in fact, my very first blog post here dealt with reverse culture shock—and I know this too shall pass. So in the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to do the next thing, embracing all the emotions that come with it, and turning to the God who has been with me all along. And to my fellow homesick transitioners, keep hanging in there and don’t lose heart. Autumn may be over, but winter won’t last forever, and spring will come again. It’s okay to grieve the fallen leaves, but don’t forget that new ones will be here soon.

… and if all other mood-boosting attempts fail, at least Starbucks still has their Pumpkin Spice Lattes. 😉

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Photographed on November 30th. Autumn in Atlanta really does last forever. 

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.