{character} · {soundtrack} · {vulnerability}

{ punctuate : grief }

Last week I posted the announcement that my Aunt Nancy had died. I then took the rest of the day to let the grief be what it was going to be. Nancy was incredibly special and precious to me. We both knew what it was to be broken, whether from our own choices or those of others, and what it was like to try and live in the aftermath of irrevocable breaking. We only talked about those things a couple of times in the years since we became family (she is my step-aunt), but it was always a current of understanding that existed under the surface. She was a vibrant, boisterous, take-me-as-I-am-and-if-you-don’t-I-don’t-care kind of personality force in this world, and adjusting my mind to the reality that her force isn’t in the world anymore, is a head trip sometimes.

The grief was brief this time, though, not because I didn’t love Nancy but because we were not close in a relational way. My heart hurts for those who were close with her relationally—Nanna (her mother, who has now lost two of her six daughters), her sisters, and my cousins and siblings, not to mention her boyfriend and friends—who now have to figure out how to continue living life around the gaping abyss her departure has left in the middle of their lives.

I know that grief. That is a life-long grief; maybe its intensity fades over time, but the feeling of loss never really does. The abyss doesn’t ever close and disappear; you just learn to manage life around it. You learn to stop resisting the pangs of sadness and the heartaches stirred up from time to time, to move with that current when it sweeps your feet out from under you, until it ebbs back into its abyss and lets you get back to what you were doing before the tide rushed in.

I’ve grieved like that. Every day. For my grandmother, who died in 2009 and who was the rock and surrogate parent I needed after my mother left and during the years of abuse and struggle following my dad’s remarriage. For the loss of those pieces of myself that should have been but never were, losses caused by sin and brokenness that I had no power to stop or avoid but that ravaged my heart and my life in ways I’ll never fully get to the bottom of. For dreams that have never materialized into reality and that I daily hope for and daily watch slip farther and father away.

When my youngest brother died tragically in 2007, I was still living as a full-time missionary in Mexico. When I left for his memorial service, we were in the middle of hosting a short-term missions team from the U.S., and when I returned it was back to life and ministry as usual. I tried to process the grief and sadness and endless questions as well as I could on my own, but that was the first time I’d been hit with shattering grief, and I was far from anyone who could have helped me. No one in my family handled that loss very well—understandably!—which made it that much harder for me to journey through it effectively, because they weren’t realistic support resources. And talking about it meant talking about things we just don’t talk about—still!—so even if they had been more successful at navigating that grief for themselves, I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference for me. I knew I’d never have the answers to my questions until I got to Heaven one day, so eventually I think I just decided to power on and distract myself with life and ministry and the people around me. It was easier, and honestly, I didn’t have the luxury of being useless or shattered while I was there. So, I bucked up and got on with living, hoping that leaving it with God was the right choice.

When my grandmother died, I learned to grieve in a totally different way. We lost her only 10 months before I moved back to the U.S. permanently, and her death, while also sudden, was not tragic in the traditional sense of the word. So, it was easier to talk about it and be sad together; people in Mexico were familiar with the grief of losing an elderly parent or grandparent, so I think it was easier for them to understand my grief and how to comfort me in that loss than in the tragedy surrounding the loss of my brother. But I was also several years older and wiser than my first time around the block of grief, and I knew more about my God that second time. As I grieved my grandmother (and as I continue to grieve her from time to time), I learned how to let grief happen rather than ignore it or resist it. I learned how to trust Pops with my pain and tears as much as with my victories and joys, even if when the tears finally stopped, I still couldn’t understand the pain or explain it away.

That experience certainly helped me when a few years later I would find myself in my thirties and living alone in Missouri being asked by God to answer honestly if I was willing to be okay with a future life that might never hold the dreams-come-true I’d always expected or hoped for. He wasn’t actually telling me, “Those dreams aren’t going to happen, and it’s time to let them go and find new ones.” Instead He was asking me,

“What if they don’t happen? Ever. Am I enough? I am not going to tell you that they will or they won’t, but what if?”

And every day I have to answer that question all over again as if it were the first time, because every day dawns with the potential of being the day—the one on which a cosmic shift happens and those dreams finally start coming true, even if I don’t realize it yet—and ends with me falling to sleep no closer to dreams coming true than when I awoke. At least as far as my finite awareness is concerned, anyway. And I have to ask myself when I start the day, “Is He enough for me today, if they come true and if they don’t? Do I choose new hope today, even though I know it might die by the end of the day?” And I go to bed each night, offering up that sacrifice of grief that comes from choosing to live hopeful despite the death that comes with another setting sun.

Still, nothing prepared me for the grief I experienced last year—and that may still be yet to come. The circumstances that forced me into therapy also forced me to dig much deeper than I had ever realized was needed into the losses of my younger years. Losses I didn’t even realize were losses until last year. Losses I didn’t even know existed until last year. I’m still daily groping for language to articulate the things coming to the surface and how I feel about them or what conclusions are forming or at least percolating. It’s a tedious and exhausting internal journey, and it doesn’t stop—though it may appear on the surface that it has. But never judge a book by its cover, right?

Anyway, just before my world shattered—like, literally one week before that fateful jury selection experience—my friend Jenni and I decided to leave after church and drive five hours to a little town in Chicagoland to see Christa Wells in a show she was doing that afternoon. She never comes this far west, and both of us adore her music so much that the 10-hour round trip drive was a treat if it meant getting to see her live—and maybe even meet her! (Which we did by the way—meet her, that is! And it was glorious!) One of the songs she played that day was from her album Feed Your Soul (the most recent, at that time). It is called “Come Close Now;” it is sung from the perspective of someone who loves a person experiencing deep, unimaginable grief, and it expresses the difficult place we find ourselves in when someone we love is hurting deeply and we want to help but have no idea how to do so well. Before singing the song, she told us about what inspired the song; it was something she read in the book To Make a Life, by Daniel Walser. At one point in the book he describes what it feels like to be a person grieving. He says that that it feels like being strapped to a chair in a room on the second floor of a house that’s burning down, and outside there are tons of people running around with hoses and ladders trying to put the fire out while he’s still stuck there in that room; then eventually one or two people make their way up the front walk, open the door, and find their way to that room, where they pull up a chair and just sit with him in the burn.

See, this is the thing about grief: it hits us suddenly and with catastrophic force, shattering realities, turning worlds upside down, and forever changing the landscape of our lives and selves. Usually, when our bodies get hurt or sick, we go to a doctor and we get fixed. But when our hearts and souls and minds get hurt, folks, we can’t just fix it. We want to fix it, and everyone who loves us desperately wants to find the way to make us feel better, because they love us and hate to see us in so much pain and sorrow. But the thing is,

The house has to burn until there’s nothing left to burn. And we have to let it.

Sometimes we are cognizant enough from the get-go to choose how to respond to that burn; other times we come to that realization in the middle of it. And still other times, we don’t know what hit us until it’s all over and we’re dazedly looking around wondering where the hell we are all of a sudden and how we got there. But one way or another, the house has to burn. Only after the burn is done, are we released from the chair to go sifting through the ashes and figure out how to live the life we find ourselves with on the other side.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to offer words and songs to those who are grieving, to remind them of what they have heard before, of what they know but may not feel. But usually, the best thing is to just pull up a chair and brave the burn with them. More than likely, it won’t burn you, and you have nothing to fear. And even if you do get a little singed, trust me when I tell you it’s nothing compared to the third-degree burns that person is going to walk away with. Just like that person has to choose whether to fight the grief process or to receive it in faith and face it honestly, doubts, fears, questions, and all, so too the rest of us have to choose how we will respond to them and their grief: will we face the fear and pride of “I don’t know what to do” or “I have nothing to offer,” walk in the house, pull up a chair and just sit with them until the burn is done? Or will we be the ones outside convinced we know how to save them?

You cannot save people from grief. You can only be there with them while they walk through it.

I have so many thoughts and conversations on this topic that I never had until I walked through my own suffering last year. These things will probably punctuate the landscape of this blog from time to time. For now, I’ll leave you with this video of Christa explaining the background for “Come Close Now” and then singing it. Enjoy!

I’m afraid of the space where you suffer
Where you sit in the smoke and the burn
I can’t handle the choke or the danger
Of my own foolish, inadequate words
I’ll be right outside if you need me
Right outside

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher?
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now?
Can I come close now?

So we left you to fight your own battle
And you buried your hope with your faith
’Cause you heard no song of deliverance
There on the nights that followed the wake
We never though to go with you
Afraid to ask

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher?
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now?
Can I come close now?

Lay down our plans
Lay down the sure-fire fix
Grief’s gonna stay awhile
There is no cure for this
We watch for return
We speak what we’ve heard
We sit together, in the burn

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher?
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now?
Can I come close now?

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