This weekend our church held a Service of Remembrance to give a space for grief, and remember those we have lost. I was asked to speak, and this is what I shared. Passing it along, in case it benefits anyone. Heads up: it is Jesus’y. That’s kind of my thing.

When I was 25, my mom was diagnosed with leukemia.  The odds were consistently against her, but time and again she beat them.  Chemo, radiation, and a successful bone marrow transplant.  She was sent home from Johns Hopkins to recover and get stronger.  Her prognosis was excellent.  The procedures and treatments were over. She met my new boyfriend, Russ.  A couple of weeks later she got an infection and died.   

This was my induction into grief.  Into a crappy club that no one wants to join.  I want to tell you about my experience because- if you are here- you have also joined this crappy club.  Welcome.  It is awful and intimate and raw and- because Jesus moves toward our pain unreservedly- it is sometimes glorious.

Two months after my Mom died, I moved here to Charlottesville to start my counseling degree at UVA.  My mom would have been so excited.  She met my dad here in the 60’s.  She knew I was coming to school here, but did not live to help me move.  She didn’t buy me sheets for my bed or take me to Target for a spare trash can and some shampoo.  

For a long time after she died, her absence was the veil that everything had to pass through.  Her loss was everywhere.  It touched everything.  I met my new cohort at UVA.  I felt like there were two things that everyone needed to know, in order to know me.  1.  My name.  2.  That my mom had just died.  You cannot know me, and not know that. 

Joining this club gave me a crash course in a topic I had never learned about, much less experienced.  Grief.  I learned that my feelings would come in waves.  Sometimes they took me under, and sometimes they just reached my knees.  I learned that grief was not linear, and not always predictable.  Sometimes I cried for no apparent reason, and sometimes I had every reason but just didn’t have any tears at that moment.  That is grief. 

For quite a while, the pain of her death would grab me.  Once I was walking on the Corner by LittleJohns and an ambulance came tearing by and it took my breath with it.  That siren carried me back to the one that came to our house three months prior, to take my mom to the hospital.  It was awful.  I could not breathe. There was also this day, months later, when I just felt sad.  Couldn’t seem to feel anything but sad.  I finally realized it was the first spring day without her.  She missed it.  And I missed her. Grief found me everywhere- even in the changing of the seasons. For the longest time, it was just an open wound.   

I learned that there is complicated grief and uncomplicated grief.  My mom’s death was devastating, but there was something clean and simple about my sadness.  She was loving and kind and I felt that from her.  There was not a ton unspoken between us.  My grief was uncomplicated and simple, even as it hurt like hell.

I learned about complicated grief.  That one has ragged edges to it.  That’s the grief of a child missing her Dad, who is alive and healthy but just opts out of a relationship with her.  Complicated grief.  Or grieving a sibling who was cruel and hurtful and who- frankly- you do not miss, now that she is gone.  That is complicated grief.   

Just as I had the breath knocked out of me, I also had life preservers thrown my way.  For me, this often took the form of someone talking to me about my mom.  My friend Heather would call me and say “Hey Katherine!  It’s been four months today and I can’t believe it…Your mom was my second mom.  I miss her.”.  Or when I would see my friend Anna on grounds.  We had lived together for 3 years at JMU and she would remind me of how my mom would call our house phone and leave a message on the answering machine that was so long that the tape would run out and cut her off.  No matter; she would just call back and start over.  I loved hearing that memory of my mom, and laughing with Anna about how my mom could carry on a one-sided conversation.  What a gift that was to me.  

Why am I telling you all of these things?  To make you sad?  Sad for me, sad for you?

I want you to hear these things about my grief because grief can- often- feel lonely.  People are afraid to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing.  And we can feel alone in our sadness.   

But this aloneness is not the truth.  We know this, even if the aloneness feels true.  Jesus does not leave his children alone to weep and cry and rage and grieve.  He keeps us company there.  It is a place he knows well, and never does he leave or forsake us. (Hebrews) 

Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his son in a climbing accident when he- his son- was 25.  He wrote a book called “Lament for a Son” and it is the truest book I’ve ever read on the topic.  He wrote, of his friends: “What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.  I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.  To comfort me, you have to come close.  Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”  

I so appreciated the friends who were not afraid to sit with me on my mourning bench.  They were the embodiment of the Lord to me.  

Jesus doesn’t always fix things.  Can I get an amen?  My mom was better, and then she quickly was gone.  I do not know why God allowed for this, but I do know that he never left me.  She is gone, and He is here.  Both/and.  There are children who you have waited for and prayed over and named, but never gotten to hold.  Marriages that feel more alone than when you were single.  Cancers.  Estrangement.  Covid. Death.  

Wolterstorff also said “I shall look at the world through tears.  Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.”  I do see how the Lord has allowed my grief to form a bridge between me and others.  I am less scared of the mourning bench.  I think I see things through tears that I could not with my dry eyes. 

To close; He sees you. He sees me.  He has not forgotten you.  He knows your pain- Isaiah reminds us that “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain”.  He sits with you on the mourning bench. He knows the pain of loss. Of silence from friends. Of the turning away of those who were supposed to draw near. None of this is foreign to him. In these places- in your life- He can be found.

Mother’s Day

Until I was 24, all I knew of parents was that they live, and live, and live some more.  Like Nana and Grandpop, like Parky and Grandaddy.  

My parents would one day require that I raise my voice when we talk on the phone, so they could hear me.  Their hair would gradually turn from salt and pepper, to gray, to white.  My parents would, one day, be a mixture of familiar and strange to my kids as they reacclimate to each other after time apart.  They would gradually move slower and more tentatively.  My parents’ clothes would start to fit more loosely.  They would grow stooped.  This- via my grandparents- is all I knew parents to do.  My mom still had roughly three decades ahead of her to live, and live, and live some more.  

If she was still here, would she have made peace with her body?  Would leukemia have taught her that great lesson of blessing it for its existence; would she have accepted those spare pounds once and for all?  If she was still here, what would she say about bikinis and crop tops on her granddaughters?  What about CRT protests in the school system her kids went through?  What would her opinion be?  Would my parents still live in their house in the country, with four empty bedrooms?  Or would one of them have nudged the other into something different, with a ground floor master and less upkeep?  Would she still pull her own weeds in the garden, or would she pay someone to do that periodically?  

Actually, I think I know the answer to that last one…

My mom would be friends with our neighbors, Hawk and Woody.  She would love an occasional trip to Charlottesville, to drive on Preston Place and see her old apartment.  She would want to connect with Marie and Drew, with Carol and Don- since they are still here and she was always a maximizer; fitting one more thing in.  She would want to at least stop by and say hi.  That “stop by” would take at least an hour, and I would be impatient.  

She would be horrible at keeping track of her phone and worse at texting (“Why can’t people just call each other, for pete’s sake?”.  Texting would be some sort of relational efficiency that she was not built for.)

She would not ask or…expect much on Mother’s Day.  A phone call.

I don’t remember what I did for her on her last mother’s day.  Of course, even with the leukemia, I did not expect it to be her last.  All I knew of parents was that they live, and live, and live some more.

Kyle Rittenhouse, and some thoughts from a 43 year old white woman

I was in my mid-20’s when I first gave much consideration to the color of Band-Aids. Or most dolls in the doll aisle. Or my childhood book characters.

They all matched me, or matched my siblings. White skin and blonde or brown hair.

What is there to consider? For my entire childhood and adolescence, Band-Aids, dolls, and books all matched me. That’s just normal. Nothing to pay attention to- it was just the air I breathed.

I remember seeing the Rodney King footage on tv when I was in middle school. I remember shock and disbelief at these officers beating and beating on a man who was lying prone on the street. It was horrible. And yet- even watching the footage again and again- my mind still searched for a way to make it “make sense”. Surely- SURELY- there was an explanation. I don’t know what it is, but surely there’s a reason they beat him so much. My mind bent in favor of the officers’ goodness, of Rodney King’s badness. It was as normal as the air I breathed, to do that. And then the officers were acquitted. Even as the protests raged in response, I tried to keep the categories that I knew- that the justice system works, that police are good, that the victim must have done something to warrant that- in place. It was a shaky, fragile belief system, but it held because everything around me supported it.

I didn’t know that police brutality existed, or that racial profiling happened, or that the justice system was not, in fact, just for all. When I saw the video of Rodney King, I still wrestled the footage into some version of “justified” or “explainable”, even as that felt tenuous.

Then came grad school, and a class on multiculturalism- and required, closer reading on things that were the backdrop of my entire experience. Things like Band-Aids; but also things like the benefit of the doubt while shopping and while driving. That my whiteness assumes I am trustworthy and I am trusted. I am not watched or scrutinized. I was in my 30’s when I learned about this talk. MY 30’s.

A few years ago, a local white college student disappeared one night. She was texting her friends, then she stopped texting, and then she didn’t come home. I was leaving my house for work the following Monday morning and there were maybe 15-20 people in my neighborhood, dressed in reflective vests. They were opening up trash cans and looking in bushes. I stopped and asked one of them “Is this about the UVA student that is missing?”. Yes, it was. She had been seen close to our neighborhood.

I remember that adrenaline feeling in my stomach and the tears of vulnerability- I think our community knew that the news, when it finally came in, would not be good. I also knew that this is how my community would respond if something ever happened to one of my white skinned/blonde haired kids. Search committees, police chief barely sleeping, tears in press conferences, national media attention, etc.

That is as it should be. Their lives are valuable. They matter.

You cannot convince me that that people would come out in droves, to search with the same intensity and fervor, for one of my Black neighbors. That news sources all over the US would pay attention and give the story the attention it deserves, for a Black neighbor. I just don’t believe it. I look at my own racism, and I see how Black deaths are justified and explained away. “He was stealing…”, “he had a history of arrests…”, “the officer felt threatened…”, so… here we are. That’s just normal. [Shrug].

In contrast, my kids can jog, can sleep in their beds, AND can be thanked and handed bottled water as they hold a rifle during protests. Can commit crimes and not have their necks pinned to the ground for 7 minutes. Can be thanked and affirmed and reminded that they are loved, even as they storm the Capitol.

The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict shows what has been normal to me my whole life- that the justice systems bends in favor of my race. It is as normal to me as the air I breathe. As normal as the band-aids that match my skin tone.

Though raised as a Christian, I am only recently learning how to wade into this with repentance and humility. I think evangelicalism taught me to live in absolute truths. Things are good or bad. Black or white. For example, welfare=bad, bootstraps=good. Liberals=bad, conservatives=good. As a friend stated recently, there was very little mystery. When I saw Rodney King beaten, it was hard work but I wrestled that footage back into the absolute categories that I knew to be true. Police officers=good. Justice system=good. Victim=bad.

I am thankful to let those “absolute truths” go. They were mostly garbage, when held up to Jesus’ actual life and lived relationships. If He abided by these “truths”…well, that’s an entirely different gospel story.

It is awful, holy beautiful work to wade into the injustice and the harm and ask- how have I participated in these things? How have I benefited? How do I perpetuate these things? May I continue to ask, and be willing to hold the weight of what I hear in response.

My thoughts about “what now” follow Rachel Elizabeth Cargle. My prayer follows Osheta Moore.