I cannot recall a time in life that has covered the full range of human experiences as much as this month has.
Tremendous joy and blessings and excitement about the future have found themselves clashing against news of great sadness and heartbreak and death, and it’s all happening right in front of me to people I know and love. Babies and job offers and big trips, cancer diagnoses, lost jobs and missed chances.
The faith I believe in, the old story I embrace as part of my own, writes that we are to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. These days, it’s hard to figure out who to turn to first, what to say, how to make sense of it all. What words to say? What sentiments to share? Words I was taught as a child echo through my head, but this time, the reality of them stings. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.
The older I get, the more I realize the melody of this life does not play out in a major key; there is dissonance and discomfort and despair. The messiness, the tears, the joyful celebrations, the happy phone calls, the greeting cards, the obituaries, the baby showers, the text you didn’t want to get, the diagnoses you were dreading – this is all a part of it.
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course, it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes: “We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course, it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” But honestly, right now it seems unfair that in this time that we bargained that we’d be dancing, we find ourselves physically and spiritually stranded, unsure of what to say, unsure of where to go, how to get there, how to help, unsure if we ever can help, unsure of how to live with the program we are a part of our lives.
No matter how much I see it around me, I never expect my friends’ lives change in a way that I only ever thought would happen to other people’s friends, other people’s families, parents, siblings. Not to my people. This isn’t what me, they, we bargained for. This is not the program we signed up for.
During seasons like this when I’m seeing the people I love in pain, it’s sometimes easiest to numb myself to the situation, to ignore it, to shrink back and not interfere. It’s also easy to ignore the joy, stave off the celebration because it feels wrong. But this way of living—of compartmentalizing and assuming—is not the way we are called to love, the way we are called to live.
Friendship during times of grief can be frustrating, awkward, confusing, difficult. But as I first learned in college, this life I have been given is not a buffet meal where I get to choose the circumstances in life that will bring me the greatest satisfaction, maximum pleasure, minimal pain, the most freedom. If we had the opportunity to live life this way, to pick and choose what we think would satisfy our palate, we would be like children: choosing all sugar, all the time—Pixie Stix, blue raspberry slushies, and Fun Dip — the “pure” sugar treats that satisfy our cravings for sweetness. But this kind of diet is sickening, empty, dizzying, artificial, insubstantial. As we become adults, our taste buds must change, and we must recognize that the true sweetness of the Passover lamb cannot be experienced before the bitter herbs are consumed.
This way of living—of compartmentalizing and assuming—is not the way we are called to love, not the way we are called to live.
But man, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. I do not like the taste. I am not sure it’s an acquired taste…What I am sure of is that the God who I call Father does not demand we chew and swallow these bitter herbs of life with a smile. “’Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.‘” Joel 2:12.
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In the fall of 2015, I attended a concert with an artist named Sufjan Stevens. It was part of a tour for an album he wrote about the death of his mother, a woman whom he had a complicated and difficult relationship with throughout his entire life. He sang through the whole album, and when the concert was done, he quietly exited the stage not saying a single word.
But then he came back out.
After a couple of minutes, he came onto the stage, the house lights slightly raised. He looked out into the crowd, some fans still whooping and cheering. He thanked us for being there, for listening to an album that is mostly about him working through the weight of grief and the weight of his own existence. He talked about living with “open eyes and open hearts,” about sharing the burden of our doubts and struggles with others, and about the beauty of the concert as a shared experience between the artist and the listener. We left that concert with fresh eyes and a new perspective on the burdens each of us brings and carries in life, with a new found hope of the encore to follow.
Over the year following that concert, I learned firsthand the power of bearing the weight of grief and the weight of existence alongside the people we go through life with…and the importance of celebrating in the midst. I learned that I am not called to turn my face away, not to avoid the discomfort, not to put blinders on in order protect myself, not to just ignore the grief my friends are experiencing. I am called to fully engage with reality: messy, raw reality.
And some days it won’t be easy.
I’ll sit at a table and struggle to find the right words, and instead, I can only just sit there. But I feel like that just sitting there is more than just sitting there. Sitting in grief with another person makes me feel small, insignificant, powerless, but in the best kind of way. Sometimes we need to realize that this world is so much bigger than us and our problems, so much bigger than our current circumstances. Sometimes we need to feel small so we run into the protection of the great Protector, the comforter, the Passover lamb whose sacrifice was made sweeter because of the bitter wine that touched his holy lips in his hours of suffering. Sometimes we need to stop, to be still, and know.
I am called to fully engage with reality: messy, raw reality. And some days it won’t be easy…We will do our best to carry each other through the seasons, and we will fail. But we will carry on. We are not alone.
And some days, we still sit there and laugh. We’ll look at baby pictures. Celebrate engagements. Open a bottle of champagne. Make plans for trips to new cities. Swap recipes and share photographs from exciting trips. We will sit there together, bringing out complicated selves, our complicated lives, our grief and our joy.
We will do our best to carry each other through the seasons, and we will fail. But we will carry on. We are not alone.
This season is a strange one, one filled with mourning and weeping but alongside great joy. But it has shown me that while pain plays out, so does joy, so does friendship, so does hope. Right there in the quiet moments of sitting, of questioning, of searching and scattering, God is forging our hearts, crafting us into his masterpieces, taking us through the furnace to be refined, purified, made more like his son. In this season, with the grief at hand and the reality to recognize, I’m seeing that there truly is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens. Right now it may be weeping, mourning, searching, scattering. But I know that grief does not get the last word.
Death will not have its sting.
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Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.— Matthew 11:28