So I’m reading this book Grieving with Hope my friend Linda recommended when I find in it a woman whose friend has encouraged her to “lean into” grief, to “take it like waves of an ocean.” Her friend advises, “Don’t try to run from it. Don’t try to numb it. Don’t try to pretend it isn’t so. It’s part of your life, so feel everything. Smell everything. Be in all the moments.”
This sounds to me like those women who say natural childbirth is a spiritual experience. I’m skeptical.
But then my wise friend Katelyn says on Facebook, “I’m not sure grief is something to rush past. It’s not a sickness from which I need to recover.” I wonder what she means, why anyone would want to grieve for even one minute longer than is completely necessary. She says, “Maybe grief ought to be something we learn to endure and embrace.”
Endure and embrace. I hold these words in my hand, rolling them around like marbles, listening to the clink of their collision. Endurance I understand. I think of growing up in Florida on the coast, of hunkering down when the weatherman suggests evacuation. Enduring looks like staying put, braving the strong winds, mustering up courage, lighting candles when the power goes out. In grief, we hardly have a choice—we can run for a while, but eventually, endure we must.
But embrace? What does it look like to embrace a storm? And why would I ever want to?
I’m staring at this question on my computer screen when I remember the late night a few years ago when, in an especially trying season and particularly dramatic mood, I stood in the middle of my street in the middle of a downpour. Tired of running from the rain, I held my arms out wide, turned my face to the sky, and cried, “God, I don’t understand what’s happening, but I receive it. Show me what to do with it.” I said amen, and lightning like filament lit the sky.
Perhaps we embrace a storm when we realize both that we can’t outrun it and that maybe there’s something in it to receive.
A minister friend of mine, Tim, lost his wife to cancer a couple of years ago. My husband knew Tim to be a wise and courageous man, and so he asked Tim if he could talk on camera about the loss, about what he was doing to navigate grief. Tim agreed. In the video Tim sits at his kitchen table drinking coffee alone, telling the story of his wife’s brain tumor and too early death. He says,“I know that God does some of his best work in the desert, so I didn’t want to rush through it. I didn’t want to find the shortcut. I wanted to experience everything that God wanted me to experience through this.”
I stop here almost every time I watch the video, and I’ve watched it a dozen times. I wasn’t wise like Tim when my brother died in a car accident when he was 20 and I was 21. I spent too many months and years pushing grief away, hiding from it, hiding it. I looked for every shortcut. I wasn’t expecting God’s hand in grief like Tim did, but nevertheless, despite my best efforts, I did, in my grief, find something to receive.
The idea of enduring and embracing grief assumes grief has something to offer, that in it God has plans. The person who chooses to endure and embrace grief decides that God will do with this loss what he always does with insult, injury, pain, hardship, weakness, and tragedy—he’ll use it.
When my brother Bobby died, my mother couldn’t stop quoting Romans 8:28. She said it was Bobby’s favorite scripture. I couldn’t remember if it was or wasn’t, and at first, the words made me angry: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things? Really? How exactly was God going to make this death good? Good for Bobby, maybe, the hope of heaven and everything. But for me?
How could this be good for me?
Later I’d spend time reading the whole of Romans chapter 8, and I’d discover suffering like mine, worse than mine even, was the exact context of this verse. Earlier in the chapter, Paul wrote, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” His “present sufferings” included death threats and beatings, prison time, watching friends martyred for their faith. He says those sufferings are nothing compared to the transformation God is enabling in his children. Romans8:28 says it’s in the suffering that God is making things good. It’s in the suffering that God is making us good.
In the book of James, Jesus’s brother opens his letter with these words: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:2–4). Again, God accomplishes transformation through hard things. This time James identifies perseverance, enduring, and counting it joy, embracing, as the recommended path through pain. We could easily summarize James’s message with the words “endure and embrace” in order to welcome the gift of maturity and completion.
This idea, that pain is the path to something better, winds its way throughout the gospels, culminating in the cross and resurrection. Jesus dies in order to live. He dies in order that we might live and be transformed into his image. Watching Jesus hang upon the cross— bloody, tired, enduring, and embracing his mission of suffering— Jesus’s disciples would likely have remembered his words, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38). Purposeful suffering is the way to God and the way to glory. Death is a path to life.
There’s hope here if we have the stomach for it. Though we rarely return to normal after a loss and though we never completely recover, we do have the chance to let our grief achieve “for us an eternal glory” (2 Cor 4:17). In grief, we find the potential for gain, an opportunity to grow and build. While what’s after loss will never be the same as what came before loss, what’s after may very well be better. That’s God’s promise.
Can I be frank and human for a moment? For me, that’s been hard to swallow. We read passages like the ones above and wonder, “Is God saying,‘Get over it; your pain is good for you’? Or ‘Drink your cup, and don’t complain’?”
I don’t think so, because when I see God interact with the grieving in scripture, he’s the one crying. Jesus resurrects three people in his time on earth: the son of a widow, the daughter of a Jewish leader, and one of his best friends. No one asks Jesus to resurrect the boy, but Jesus interrupts a funeral procession anyway because he’s moved by the mother’s grief. Luke the evangelist describes the scene: “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her” (Luke 7:13). With the Jewish leader’s daughter, Jesus tells the gathered crowd of mourners to stop crying because the girl isn’t dead but asleep (Luke 8:52). The assumption in his words is that grieving for the dead is right and good. When Jesus raises his friend Lazarus, he famously weeps (John 11:35). He weeps not for Lazarus who he will soon bring back to life; he weeps upon encountering the grief of Lazarus’s friends and family. When Jesus’s own cousin dies at the hand of Herod, he withdraws to be alone and pray (Matt 14:13). Even God feels the sting and bears the sadness of loss.
God doesn’t applaud when people die, already anticipating the good work of grief to come. He doesn’t expect you to be happy when your loved ones die, excited about the potential of your loss. No, God mourns with you. Death, after all, is God’s enemy. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (15:26). In the new creation described in Revelation 21, John of Patmos hears a declaration from heaven, a sort of mission statement for the New Jerusalem. Jesus, speaking from the throne, says two important things about what this new world will be like. He says (1) God’s dwelling is now among the people. And (2) “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
God doesn’t like loss any more than you do. Grief is the shrapnel of enemy fire, lodging itself deep in our hearts. But God, always stubborn in the face of his enemies, refuses to hand over the victory to death; so he examines the fragments of the enemy’s weapon and repurposes them. He looks at grief and says,“I can do something with that.”
If we’ll let him, God will make something good out of our grief. He won’t tell us to stop crying. He’ll simply ask us to let our tears water the soil of our lives, soil pregnant with potential.
In Psalm 126 I read,
Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
It sounds too good to be true, but I do carry sheaves and sing songs. I have gone out weeping, and I have seen a harvest of wisdom and transformation, of new life. In my grief I am less, robbed of my person. And in my grief I am made more, receiving God’s gifts of grace, growth, healing, and abundant life.
I’m not glad my brother died. I’m sad—still sad fifteen years later. Just this week I was giving my husband advice on how to love his sister better and realized halfway through that I have zero experience loving an adult sibling. I burst into tears, and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m talking about.” It still hurts. I still miss my brother on family vacations and on holidays. I still go to text him and remember I can’t.
And yet, it’s not all loss; there’s gain here, too. There are gifts to be found in the valley of the shadow of death. Though loss will make you less, it can also make you more.
****Today is the LAUNCH of JL Gerhardt’s new book A Grief Received: What to Do When Loss Leave You Empty Handed (Living with Hope). (side note: the book is square. and that in and of itself should make you buy it. add that on top of the fact that if you are not in a season of grieving, you know someone who is. go buy the book.)
To win: 1) SHARE THIS POST ON FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM OR TWITTER 2) INCLUDE THE HASHTAG #agriefreceived OR #joyhopeandchaos. But hurry- the winner will be chosen February 5, 2019! Check out JL Gerhardt- her work, speaking schedule, and more at www.godscout.com!****
JL Gerhardt is a writer, speaker, and storytelling minister who lives in Austin, TX with her husband, Justin, and two daughters. Her books include A Grief Received, Swallowed Up: A Story about How My Brother Died. And I Didn’t, and Think Good: How To Get Rid of Anxiety, Guilt, Despair & the Like to Finally Find Peace of Mind. She is an INFJ, lover of chai tea lattes, recreational swimmer, and believer in the power of white paint.