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:

Self from Self (and that sinking feeling)

“Absence from those we love is self from self – a deadly banishment.”

William Shakespeare

The swing set scrapes,

Chains on chains on chains,

Building, growing, ever growling out its heavy reproof

Against the selfish, the proud, the aloof.

A reminder of what has been lost,

As if I needed a reminder.

God is faithful,

Burning, burning, always burning

Down the barriers that kept us apart.

Eternal hope and temporary sorrow,

Why do I find myself stretched between the two?

Force this will from my hands,

Fight back the sadness and cleanse the shame.

Unholy tongues lifted to the refiner’s fire,

But a mind full of the ashes from a funeral pyre.

Lord, the sadness is tinged with overwhelming  joy

But reignited at the words his parents say

“we miss our boy”

Your will be done,

Not my own, Your kingdom come.

But please come quick,

I’m feeling sick with longing.

You ran life’s race and hit the finish line early.

But the sadness is not quenched by trite words,

The loneliness is not overcome by technicalities

Or even the glorious hope that I will see you again.

Christ, grant me the peace I so desperately need.

Mend the broken hearts left in the wake of a life,

A life well lived but nonetheless

Gone too early.

I know that I’ve blogged and blogged and blogged about this. But I cannot help it. The past two days I’ve been crippled under the weight of an awful sadness that it seems I can’t escape. I do not question God’s faithfulness one bit. I believe God is good, beyond good, infact. I believe His will is perfect and good and wonderful and always seeks out the best for those who love him.

I know this.

But my heart is still broken. The healing process is slow and steady. And, as much as I try to run from the fact that I am sad, I cannot. I cannot escape that I lost one of my best friends. The best of the best. That sticks with you. I went to see his parents a couple days ago. They are incredibly strong people and I love them very much. Pray for them. They need it. Being in his house, hearing his mom and dad speak, it made my heart ache and rejoice at the same time. That’s the overwhelming thing for me in all of this, wrestling exuberant joy and crushing despair at the same time. I don’t understand my emotions.

But God does. And in Christ, I have hope. If I could encourage you to do anything, it’s this: please, do not miss an opportunity. Don’t count on tomorrow, because it may not come for you. Live today for God, who beyond a shadow of a doubt knows what you need. Do good to others. Love people relentlessly. Don’t occupy yourself with being on top of the political landscape because that does not matter. Don’t let your mind be filled with boycotts and laws and presidents and scandal. Don’t let it be inundated with who culture tells you to be. Let your life be filled with Christ. He is the only thing worth holding onto. None of us are promised tomorrow, and that’s something I am sure of.

There are a million things on my mind. My heart aches for the youth I’ve been privileged to work with for the past few years, my heart aches for Jordan’s parents and all our friend and his family. My heart aches for my family, for all those to come after me. I want the world to know Jesus. I desperately want that because you can’t put stock in anything else.

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” -James 4:13-17

Churches! Stop your grumbling! Quit holding on to dead tradition and take hold of the LIFE that is found in Christ!

Teenagers, love your parents and trash the lies you’ve been told about what to do with your life! Take hold of Jesus, he is the only good and true thing!

Parents! Love your children, you never know when you will lose them! Teach them Jesus and please let go of everything else that DOESN’T MATTER!

Children! Listen to your parents, obey them, love them!

May we all throw away the sins that drag us to the bottom of our sorrow like an anchor to the sea. Look to Christ, look at the man on the cross who paid our debt. Let him raise us from our inhibited state of sinfulness. Throw off the dead body of drugs, alcohol, pride, greed, porn, lies, gossip, anger, fear, judgement, and whatever else that weighs you down and keeps you in the grave. DO IT NOW BECAUSE YOU ARE NEVER SURE YOU HAVE TOMORROW. I MEAN IT.

YOU DO NOT HAVE TIME

I DO NOT HAVE TIME

TO LIVE MY LIFE INVESTING IN ANYTHING BUT JESUS. 

That was unexpected, but I won’t censor it. I won’t cut it down.

I am grieving and i’ve finally accepted that. But the fire burning inside me is authentic. I don’t plan on letting it die.

I want to finish by saying this: Sorrow lasts for the night. Joy comes in the morning.