Here’s my Sunday column from today’s (June 7) Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette:
In the middle of my 4th grade year, my dad got transferred. We moved in mid-January to a new town I had never seen. Suddenly, I got introduced to the experience of grief and loss. I just didn’t know what it was that I was experiencing. My stomach ached on that last January Friday when Miss Karnes held a party for me and my classmates and friends presented me with a scrapbook filled with their good wishes.
As the class dispersed and the kids headed home, my good friend stayed behind watching me clean out my desk. Unexpectedly I turned to him and told him to run after the girl in the class that I liked. “Tell her to come back. I want to kiss her,” I said.
In an instant the brown-haired angel appeared in the doorway, looking at the little red-headed boy cleaning out his desk. How could she or I have known what was happening? What did we know about embracing grief and loss? When I saw her staring at me from the doorway, I froze. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it.” With that, she turned and left. I never saw her again.
Welcome to one of the central elements of a healthy life – embracing grieving and loss. Take Champaign-Urbana alone. Unless you are totally entrenched in the land of numb, you know that experiencing grief and loss is part of living in a college town. Thousands of students, faculty and staff come and go every year. Just when we get to know people, they graduate and move one.
In my early days of the ministry, I served as a campus minister on the UI campus. Every fall I was nervous when students arrived, but every spring I grieved when they left. I came to understand that part of bearing God’s imagine is learning that grieving is part of life.
Indeed from Genesis chapter 6 we learn that God himself grieved. “The Lord regretted that he had made humans beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” Just before his crucifixion Jesus looked over the city of Jerusalem and grieved over the people he loved but who never understood him. The book of Lamentations in the Old Testament is a chronicle about grieving. Nearly half of the Psalms are laments. And the entire book of Job is a classic struggle of grief and loss.
Every day in my counseling I discover loss is the norm, not the exception. Seasons change; relationships evolve; children grow up; adults age; and our body changes. Some losses come as a result of the choices we make or didn’t make. We all carry regrets with us, unless we live in the state of denial. Sadly, some loss enters our lives as a result of the actions and decisions of others. Life is far from fair. And yet, embracing the pain and loss is the road to health.
Just this week I talked with a middle-aged jogger who said, “I’m not nearly as flexible as I once was.” A pastor told me, “I sure wish I had received more love when I was growing up.” And a church leader said, “In the earlier days or our church, I loved how everyone constantly pitched in.”
Indeed, loss and grieving are central to life. If your regular response to loss is “Just stuff it and get over,” you are shaping your relationships in ways you will live to regret. How do you think it was that Jesus became known as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? (Isaiah 53). Not by pretending and denying reality. When he wept at the death of his good friend Lazarus, he allowed the grief of the world to penetrate his heart.
Some of the losses we experience are devastating – the death of a child, divorce, abuse, a suicide, infertility, betrayal. Other losses are “natural” – a child leaves for Kindergarten, moving to a new city, growing older, changes at your church. What is universal is that we all experience sorrow. And that loss is infinitely better to embrace than to deny. Similarly, when we see others experiencing loss and sorrow, our first instinct should be to say “I am so sorry.” Period. They don’t need want answers. They want love. So let the tears well up.
Over the years, people have told me that King David is one of their favorite biblical characters. They love that he was a mighty warrior, a man after God’s heart. But have those same people read the Psalms, many of which David wrote? More than half of the Psalms are laments, with many akin to what David writes in Psalm 13. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”
That sounds like a man who understood the indispensability of grieving to spiritual maturity. So here’s today’s assignment. Stop, right where you are. For 2 minutes quit letting the culture dictate to you that you just need to be happier, healthier, smarter and richer. Give yourself permission to grieve your losses, big and small. Embracing those losses will make you be more compassionate, more tender-hearted, more humble, and more vulnerable – the kind of people God always calls his favorites.