Recently a friend of mine lost her younger sister in a sudden, unexpected way. Her sister had gone into the hospital for something simple. The doctors were treating her. She seemed like she was getting better. And then, for reasons still undetermined, she died. She left behind two little kids. A husband. Her thirty-four-year-old sister and best friend.
As you might know or might not know, my brother died in a car accident when I was 21. He was 20. Ever since then I've found myself the recipient of late night, early morning emails from friends or friends of friends in the throes of heart-aching grief. I'd say I've counseled three dozen or more people, usually young people, trying to make sense of what makes no sense. Sometimes I feel like an army chaplain on a battlefield, doing my best to explain, help and plant hope; meanwhile, my feet planted on charred, desolate earth, I cast heavy eyes on hurting souls, feeling their pain, confusion, and despair.
It's a beautiful burden to get a text at 2 a.m. I'm honored God has chosen me for the work. And I feel entirely too small for it. I'm so glad He enables. Sometimes I wish I hadn't had to go through what I did to be enabled. But I guess those are the terms...
Back to my friend.
She messaged me the other day and asked a question that stuck out because it's a question everyone asks in one form or another. It's a question a grieving person will ask time and time again, likely for years. She asked, "Will we ever feel like a family again?" And what she meant, I think, was what most people mean.
"Will my life ever be normal again?"
"Will I have dinner with my parents and not think about my sister not being there?"
"Will I go on vacation and not think about how much better it would be if my sister was along?"
"Will I make it through a day without reaching for my phone to text her?"
"Will I be able to look at pictures of her and not weep?"
"Will the holidays be fun again?"
"Will I ever be happy and whole?"
This is a difficult question to answer, and I've answered it a number of ways over the years. I've talked about Heaven. About how this life here on earth is a blip, a nothing compared to our full and eternal life with God. And that's true. And not always as helpful-sounding as it really is. Because it requires waiting patiently in pain and we'd prefer an immediate fix. Maybe a prescription.
Lately, I've taken to answering that question in a more here-and-now sort of way. Because there is hope before Heaven. The Kingdom lives here, too. And there's more to do than waiting patiently in pain, though the patience and pain are required and unskippable.
She asked, "Will I ever be happy?" And I said, "You will. You definitely will."
I wrote, "It will always be different--never like it was. And that will always be sad. But eventually it will be happy AND sad."
I told her her family would make new memories together. I said, "You'll love each other in new ways. You'll help each other, and slowly you'll build a new set of happy memories. And over the years those memories will mount until eventually there are more happy memories than sad ones."
That's how it worked for me. Year after year I stacked things: new friendships, fulfilling work, vacations with my parents, children, moments of worship... One day the stack was so big the scales tipped.
This past year I woke up on December 13th and launched into my daily routine. I checked on my kids, already up and eating Cheerios from the box. I made coffee. I reviewed the planner. I texted Eve's piano teacher. I wrote an email. I probably read my Bible. At some point I checked Facebook and found a few messages from friends who'd remembered it was December 13th and offered words of comfort. I had forgotten it was December 13th, the day my brother died.
For me, this was the moment I realized life had finally become "normal." For the first time in 13 years hearing that date, December 13th, didn't drop a brick on my shoulders. I didn't feel that familiar plastic bag in my stomach. I actually felt... fine. I put down the phone and helped my daughter with her math.
Looking back I realize the grief has worn off like rock on a canyon wall, eroding over time, victim to the wind and water washing it away.
Abundant life, the life offered in Jesus Christ, is the water. The Spirit of God is the wind.
God and I, my family, my friends, we all built a mountain of memories. And we're building them still. Those memories bring healing. This present, so full of people and plans, brings wholeness. And, a bonus, it distracts. So my mind is so crammed full of what God did and is doing, I don't have time or space in my brain for dwelling on the dark.
Too, over the years God had given me a handful of "brothers," an ex-student who turned into a friend, eating my food, texting weird questions, my kids flower girls in his wedding, preaching interns we have to push out the door at midnight so we can get some sleep though we wish they'd just stay and drink more of our coffee and tell us about the books they're reading, a cousin who woke up at 5 a.m. to buy the very first copy of my first book... My kids call almost a dozen people uncle. I thank God for that. For more life after death. For more to love after the loss of a loved one.
None of this eclipses the loss. Obviously I still miss my brother. But not in an always-painful way. Not in a way that makes me want to go back. Not in a way that keeps me trapped in a past I'll never move beyond. Not in a way that gets in the way of living an abundant life.
Grief doesn't have to last forever. Of course you will always miss the person you love. But the missing will fade into the background while your life--your beautiful, exciting, Jesus-shaped life--goes on.
If you choose to let grief go unchecked, if you decide to stop living because someone you loved isn't living, then grief will go on. It won't stop. It won't get better. It will only get worse. It will crush you under it's oppressive weight.
Don't let it do that.
That means you'll have to do what my friend did this year and, though suffering, choose life. For her that looked like starting new traditions with her kids and niece and nephew, making cookies and smiling through tears not because you want to make cookies but because you know making cookies through tears now is a step toward making cookies with joy later.
You'll need to do what another friend did after losing her brother and, though suffering, choose life. For her that looked like planning a trip to the beach with her best friends, not running away from her pain but countering it with something that didn't hurt so much.
You'll need to do what the angels told the apostles after Jesus left earth and, though suffering, choose life. For them that looked like launching a movement of love and light, doing the work Jesus would have been so proud to see them doing, racing ahead, forgetting what lies behind...
That day when Jesus went up to Heaven was a lot like what I experienced when my brother died. I stood on a beach with his friends, all of us telling stories, sometimes not telling stories, staring into the ocean, wondering what comes next. My brother wasn't dead. Just like Jesus he'd simply been raised to new life. But I was alone. Just like those apostles were alone. And I couldn't stop staring into the distance, wondering "Will I ever be happy and whole again?"
The angel asked the apostles, "Why do you stand here looking into the sky?"
The apostles answered by going to Jerusalem, waiting for the Wind and Water to wash away the grief.