What You Lose (or, grief still feels like fear.)

“And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen…”–C.S. Lewis

Some feelings strike all at once, like being suddenly slugged in the face. There is no denying the impact, no gnawing anticipation for the pain you know is coming sooner or later. The pain is there, throbbing and ever-present, always calling you back to the moment of collision.

But other expressions of emotion take time to fully form, like a sickness that you know is there, but takes a long time to show any side effects. Grief is one of those expressions for me. I have seen it take so much from me and from those I love that sometimes the part of me where doubts and fears run rampant wants to respond to Paul’s admonition of death in 1 Corinthians 15 (O, Death where is your sting?) with a biting, “It is here. And boy does it sting!” And I still do not understand nor can I articulate the depths of pain grief brings.

If you know me personally or have followed this blog for very long, you probably know that I started it back in 2012 as an outlet for me to deal with losing one of my best friends. I stand firm on the belief that the pain of loss is one thing about this world that shows you that all is not as it should be. As much as I may or may not be adjusting to life without Jordan, over 2 and a half years later, and as much as I stand firmly convinced that God’s mercy and grace is overwhelming in the face of all that overwhelms me, I cannot shake the thought that a 21 year old dying in a freak accident is an atrocity, a tragedy that cannot just be explained away as an act of God that would make more sense to us if we were only spiritual enough.

All that said, it is with a heavy heart that I add a chapter to the story of how I personally have interacted with the closeness of tragedy.

It was a normal Sunday morning. I went to church as usual and sat in my pew. I felt a staggering peace come over me that morning. Let’s call it gratefulness. And I remember praising God for blessing me with this job, this church family, for relationships in my life that truly meant something, for teaching me even when my stubborn self did not want to be taught, the whole nine yards.

I drove the church van that morning. As I dropped off the remaining teens, my cell phone started ringing. My friend DeMarcus and I sat at the stop sign for a minute for me to answer. It was my Dad.

“Hey, Dad. What’s Up?” I said, as if everything was normal. It wasn’t.

“Hey son,” he replied. Something was off. “Where are you?”

“I’m driving the van, on my way to drop DeMarcus off and then back to the church.” Silence. Odd silence.

“Oh. Call me when you’re done…we need to talk.”

We needed to talk? Was this a father-son conversation or was I being dumped?

“What do you mean? Is everything okay?” I stammered.

“No. It’s not.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

He sighed, “Charlene passed away this morning.”

Tears welling up. Heart hammering. My mind full of questions, doubts…fear.

“I’ll call you back.” I barely got the words out before I hung up. I apologized to DeMarcus and told him in what probably sounded like broken English what was wrong and that I needed a minute. He graciously gave me all the time I needed.

There at the stop sign, right outside of two of my teenagers’ house, I wanted to unbuckle my seatbelt, jump out of the van and beat the ground until it broke. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I couldn’t stop shaking. I wanted to get out and run as fast and as far away as my legs could carry me. I wanted to run from Kannapolis to Belmont and hug my Mom, who just lost one of her closest friends. I wanted to embrace her and let her cry on my  chest until the tears couldn’t come anymore, like she did for me when I lost Jordan.

I wanted to take the pain of Charlene’s kids, her husband, her brothers and sisters, and throw it into the ocean. I wanted to reverse time, or pretend it never happened.

There are so many questions.

So many unanswered questions.

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I’ll never forget how she made people feel loved. How she, in my entire army of “second moms”, always took the role of the one who would remind me that everyone could see my underwear and I needed to pull up my pants…NOW.

How she always gave me the most creative (and hilarious) birthday cards.

And, most importantly, how she (and all my parents’ other friends) showed me the importance of surrounding yourself with good people, with loyal people who loved you and supported you. They modeled what healthy friendships looked like, and that has made all the difference in my own friendships.

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I guess I say all that to say this:

I am 24 years old, and I have lost so many people, gone way too soon. And it’s sometimes hard to balance what I believe about heaven and the afterlife with the gnawing emptiness that comes after experiencing a loss.

After Jordan died, I always felt bad that I felt bad, if that makes sense. I believed he was in heaven. I believed he was free from pain and from suffering. I believed he was with God and met Christ, the object of his affections, face to face.

But the gnawing emptiness did not leave. On some days, it still resurfaces. And I miss him. I miss him like I miss my friend Jennifer, who also died young due to complications from surgery. And Ariane, a friend from college who fought a terminal disease to the very end. She died on her birthday. And like I miss Charlene.

I want to make a few things abundantly clear:

1.) Fellow Christians, never minimize anyone’s grief. You may think you’re doing them a favor by reminding them that they are not God and do not know the big picture, but I promise you they have a crushing awareness of that already. If you invalidate their grief and dismiss it, you are not helping, you are damaging what is already damaged. You are kicking them while they are down. This is the most un-Christlike thing you could ever do.

2.) To those experiencing the kind of grief I’m writing about, you are not alone. Your feelings are normal and you have no reason to feel wrong or stupid. I promise you that God is a big boy, and he can handle your sadness, your depression, your darkest thoughts, and your most cruel indictments of his Character. I pray for you. That you would let him hold you close, let him heal those wounds and let you grieve how you need to grieve. He is a God who loves you as you are, not as you need to be. But God’s love is a transformative love, one that changes you, one that embraces you and leads you to embrace others.

The thing about loss…it isn’t the initial loss that hurts. It is the pervading absence.

It is the thought of living day after day after day without hearing the sweet voices of those you love again.

It’s those torturous moments where you think you see them in a crowd and you hold your breath. You know it is too wonderful to be true, but a part of you hopes the rumors of their death were greatly exaggerated.

It is the crushing defeat the day you finally have to delete their telephone numbers because you’ve accidentally called them more than you’d like to admit.

And it is the embarrassment and wave of nausea that hits when you accidentally call your other friends and family by the name of the one you’ve lost.

Grief is the sickness that leaves you guessing when it will rear its ugly head. I’ve had moments in the past two years (and two days) where I just start crying with no provocation. Where did that even come from? I think to myself. But it is there.

I have grown significantly in my walk with Christ in the past several years. My orientation towards grief is daily becoming less one of fear, and more of acceptance. That I don’t have all the answers to life’s injustices, and frankly, I don’t need them.

I am learning to rest in God.

I am learning that when Paul writes those bold words to death in 1 Corinthians, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” He is referring to the encompassing victory of Christ over our damnation. His proclamation that death is not the end. That there is peace, overwhelming peace to be found in Him alone, and nothing can overcome his furious mercy.

So I have hope. I have peace, like I felt Sunday morning, I know that I will grieve and I personally don’t fear it anymore, I know it is coming and I welcome it, trusting that Christ who bore all of my burdens bears them still.

When Jordan died, I raged against the very God who knit me together, who held me close to his chest as I soaked him with tears and curses and voiced all of my grievances, believing they were falling on deaf ears.

And though I am at a place in my life and my faith where I do not need answers to be sure of God’s well, God-ness, he has so graciously given some of the answers my heart has asked for in groans and hushed sighs.

The main one: Where are you in all of this, God?

His response was simple: Stephen, I am right here. With you.

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If you’ve made it this far, thanks. These are unfiltered thoughts, they may not make a whole lot of sense all jammed together. But I’d ask that if you are a believer, please pray for the family of Charlene. And please pray for my Mother. My heart breaks for her as I have lost a best friend. I know what that’s like and it isn’t something I would wish on my worst enemy. May God bless you all.

Here’s a song that came on my iPod as I drove to my hometown yesterday. I thought it was appropriate: