February has become a humdinger of a month for me.
In February 2018, I’d had the flu for a month with no sign of full healing in sight. On February 9, I celebrated the birthday of my big brother, Trey (Robert to many of you) from my bed. Oh, to hear, “SiiiiiiiiIIIIIS!” from him again… On February 14, we celebrated and worshiped together on Ash Wednesday. That same week, my friend, Tim, disappeared. February 16 is the anniversary of the birth of my cousin, Joyce, who died in 2016 after an epic fight with cancer. She was my person… [She won, by the way!] On February 19, one year ago today, Trey died… and my world was never the same… again.
Again? Yes, again! It seems that the pain of grief and loss has been my constant companion. One of the great gifts of God in this world is that God has given me friends that become family and family that become friends that “stick closer than a brother.” Year after year, month after month, I find myself in a hospital, hospice, funeral home, chapel or sanctuary standing in front of a corpse or a casket or an urn – and wondering how I will make it this time.
And to add insult to injury, now the church that has raised me gathers at the end of the week to see what we will be. Many are already proclaiming the funeral words over my beloved United Methodist Church. I refuse to do so! And yet, I am very clear that whatever happens in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church as I know it will die in some way or another. It will be forever changed.
Over the last two years, I’ve lost respect for people that I have loved and respected since my days in the cradle. Lost respect. Not love. Love remains. Jesus has an expectation and a hope and a promise that love always remains.
I have gained respect and love for new friends and leaders – whether we agree or not. It’s the behavior that garnishes or diminishes respect; not position.
And every day, there is some tiny loss or situation that triggers the reminder of my constant companion – grief. A pain in my body; a reminder that I am not who I once was or who I will be; a lost pen or plug; a friend that I used to talk to every day who seems so far away now; a person in my congregation whose anger is overwhelming and pointed; a chronic or fatal disease diagnosis; and then, yes, another person dies.
Grief can either consume you or teach you. It is a journey; not an event. It is a grace upon grace upon grace because it teaches you to cherish and not to harm. Grief is everlasting and unpredictable. It lends itself to beams of sunshine and the crud of the overcast day. Grief is a constant companion- the friend that sticks closer than a brother.
Grieving is a learned way of living. Dr. Rodney Smothers once described it as a journey from grief to grace to gratitude that you have to lean in and live through. If we let it, grief can prepare us and teach us on the journey called life. Here is what I’m learning:
- Pre-acceptance will not soften loss, but it will allow you to keep standing. Death is a part of the journey and the job. It is inevitable. You can‘t have life without death. You can’t have resurrection without death. You can’t have new life without resurrection. We are resurrection people. That means we have to be death people too.
- The Valley of the Shadow of Death is inevitable. The Psalmist promises us that we, at some point in this life, will be residents of the valley of the shadow of death. And because we know God, we shall fear no evil. We will have to navigate it, but we are not to fear it. God is our ever-present help in the time of trouble. God keeps proving it over and over again. So, take the time that you need in the valley. People will try to pull you out prematurely. Resist them. Cling to the people who will go into the valley with you. (If you don’t have those people – and even if you do, seek the help of a therapist or pastoral counselor. It will help.) You need the time in the valley so that when you come out, you are ready to live again.
- Some days, you will want to die. Live anyway. Our default as human beings is comfort and familiarity. This means that when we lose our people, our place, or our stuff, we lose our footing and we will do just about anything to get back to the place from which we came. The hardest part of that realization for me has been that God never intended us to go back. Just look at the Israelites! They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years because they kept trying to go back. Grief will propel us forward if we let it. Acknowledge that this is hard and it would indeed be easier to die. And then remember, that “in this life, there will be trouble;” your job is to live forward.
- Grief is cumulative. Grief begets grief begets grief begets grief! One day you will wake up with tears streaming down your face, and you will not be sure to whom the tears belong. If we avoid the long, sticky, sneaky process of grieving, if we try to pretend like we’re ok after all, if we put one foot in front of another one day too many – we will be so bogged down in grief that we could not see the sun shining if we were standing in the sun itself. In describing my grief to my father one day, I used the analogy of a snowball knocking me over as it rolls downhill and picks up more snow to add to its arsenal. His response: “What happens to a snowball when the sun gets a hold of it?” The sun will get a hold of your snowball. It will melt faster if you deal with the snowballs as they come.
- Joy comes in the mourning. I’ve known for as long as I can remember the scripture, “weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” I just did not understand until recently that morning does not come unless you engage in mourning. A therapist taught me a grieving exercise: put aside ten to fifteen minutes every day just to grieve. Write down all the things that you miss about a person or situation that you are grieving. Write down all the things you wanted to say. Write down what they’re missing. In essence, grieve “out loud” for a time-bound period every day. I never thought it would work. But it helps. At first, it was a tearful quest. As time goes by, I find myself smiling and laughing as I grieve each day. Joy really does come in the mourning.
- You will never be the same. And it’s ok. You’re not supposed to be. Press on. See what God has in store. Breathe. Wake up. Get dressed all the way down to your shoes. A new season and fresh anointing await you. You will always feel a hole deep down in your soul for your person. And, you can use that hole to fuel the next season of your life with God. That’s the challenge and the purpose of our constant companion. Eventually, this grief will produce in you a sense of grace and that grace will lead you to gratitude. Let it fuel you. Let it embolden you. Let it compel you on…
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah reminds us of God’s plans to give us a future with hope. No matter what you have lost or what you anticipate losing, God’s promises remain true! The future with hope comes after the wilderness wandering. Not before.
February is overwhelming to me. AND God is the Alpha and the Omega. The First and the Last. The master teacher. The promise-keeper. The grief navigator. The hope and strength for days to come.
And one day, we too will return to dust and ash. So while we’re on this journey, let’s teach our people how to grieve by watching us do the hard work of grief and allowing them to join us on the journey.
From death to shock to denial to anger to numbness to grief to grace to gratitude to life to resurrection… let it be so, Holy Spirit!