Through the Valley of Shadows...
So 2021 didn’t offer us the clean fresh break from disappointment that we had hoped. Just like I woke up with the same middle-aged body on January 1st, we woke with the same hurting and broken world.
I had to learn something early on in my faith that has helped me. I didn’t look for it, but it came to me and I think it has come back to me and all of us--the requirement of grief. Life takes, life hurts and life doesn’t appear to be very fair. In the early days of my faith in college, I was forced to deal with the loss of my mother to cancer and the subsequent melt down of my family around her loss. I can’t say that I handled it very well but over the years the emotions that leaked around it forced me to manage myself and my emotions in a way that I was never taught growing up.
Each decade of my faith has had an increasingly impactful loss, saying goodbye to my father in 2006 and then to my 17-year-old niece just three years ago. These major losses and the hundreds of smaller losses, defeats, and personal failures have taught me about how to grieve, heal, and grow stronger through loss. Others have lost more and likely have greater wisdom, though I want to share a few lessons that I have learned with you.
There is a difference between trying to control our emotional pain and manage them. I remember a mentor of mine, after the loss of my father, told me that grief would come in waves and to not fight it. Escapism through work, play, numbing out was the temptation in those moments to control the pain and find a way to not feel it. I found that when the grief came, the moment felt sacred in some ways, and to allow it to come and go was a way of honoring my father and sitting with the implications of the loss of my niece honored her. It didn’t feel good, but strangely, it seemed to strengthen and heal me.
I learned that my emotions were not my enemy but they neither were they truth-tellers. My emotions pointed to real experiences in my heart that needed the work of my mind to engage. Learning to manage my emotions meant finding safe places to articulate with words for what was going on in my heart.
For decades now my personal prayer journal has been a place where I have expressed my emotions and let my mind catch up with my heart, letting them talk each other into a more whole perspective.
Along the way, I have found that there are safe people who can handle my struggles to talk to. Having someone whom I didn’t need to give the back story to and didn’t need to fix me helped me not dump on the next available listener or allow my emotions to cook me into a false reality where my anger and loss tell me stories that aren’t true.
I have come to learn that my emotions don’t give me a picture of reality--they aren’t truth-tellers--but they do serve as dashboard warning lights that require me to pay attention to true problems, that if not dealt with, can hurt me and the people I love most. Managing emotions has meant noticing the warning light and then activating my relationships to offer the support my rational brain needs to understand what is wrong. Then, from there--take personal responsibility for the healing of my heart.
God lives in community and I die without it. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is one and yet three distinct persons in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Oneness and distinction is normal for them. You and I are made in the image of God, we are made to go through life with others, yet distinct from them. We see this in Jesus’ life as he prioritizes his communion with the Father--for that is when life is most normal for him. This has two things that have implications for the way we get through the most challenging things in life.
We were made to live in communion with others who are also image-bearers of God. Relationships are God’s way of healing. Work, substances, shopping, media don’t heal what’s broken, but rather mask the pain, increase the pain and delay and obscure the need for healing. In fact, isolating with sadness does not heal but rather ferments the sadness into our being--we were never meant to suffer alone.
We were meant to live as Jesus did, in communion with God, strengthened in Him, commissioned with purpose into our lives by Him. We heal in communion with the one who made us.
Grieving gives us wisdom. Ecclesiastes says that is “better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting” (Ecc 7:4). Seeing, reflecting upon, and understanding the losses of life give us wisdom, both enabling us to enjoy the goodness of life more and the limitations that all of us must live with. Stepping into loss and not avoiding it doesn’t extend the pain, but rather addresses it. The pain of some losses will never entirely go away, but peace can come, wisdom can follow and joy and pain can dwell in the same heart together--if we allow grief to expand our hearts and our emotional experience of the world. Escaping pain will slowly shrink our hearts. Learning from it grows it and our emotional agility.
We can grieve, grow, and go at the same time. Grief can feel paralyzing and overwhelming. Here are a few practical ways I have learned to handle grief and life at the same time.
Name the grief and its accompanying emotions that go with it. “I was really looking forward to seeing people at church again. I am frustrated and bummed at the same time.”
Attend moments of closure. Memorial services and remembrance events enable us to look at the loss in the safety, with the direction and comfort of others, advancing our grieving process.
Give it space. Embracing silence, deliberately choosing moments to be alone (not isolating), and also to be with people enables us to address the acute nature of the pain and relieve it without reacting to it.
Keep going. Go back to work, to school, and let our hearts heal over time. We can’t accomplish our grieving just like I can’t accomplish a healed broken bone. We stabilize a broken bone, move on with life with a limp or with crutches, and give it time. Over time the crutches are needed. We can apply the same pattern with our heart.
Trust in the hope that lies underneath all healing.
“Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.” Psalm 126. People who move forward in hope (planting seeds), not in denial can expect to reap a harvest of wholeness, impact, and maturity in this life.
There is a fullness to our healing that words from this life cannot explain. “I consider our present sufferings as not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.” The true fullness and meaning of our lives will never be understood on this side of eternity. We all live with “eternity in our hearts.” That means that the grief we experience in life is much more pervasive than any of us realize as daily we live tremendously far from the glory we have been made for.
“Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us a glory that far outweighs them all. Therefore, we focus not on what is seen but on what is unseen for what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18. Grief allows you and me to look at what our troubles are achieving for us. Yes, you achievers out there--grief, if we allow it to will achieve for us--what? A glory that far outweighs all of our losses. Let grief do its work and let’s not miss out on that.
Let’s face it. Our world is upset, angry, confused frustrated and scared. Underneath that pain is the grief that life has changed, again. We miss loved ones, the way things used to be and the way we used to be. Yet, we are not those who grieve without hope. We know that we live inside the history of the renewal of all things. As we grieve well, we will not be reactive to the the sadness of the world around us, but more importantly, we can be present for the world We will know how to to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.