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.