The last few months have been absolutely crazy. January and February were a whirlwind. I hope to update you all soon on some of the highlights of early 2019, my favorite of which was an impromptu trip to London, England! Today, I’d like to be vulnerable with you about a different kind of experience, a low. As some of you may know, my sister, Farnaz, recently lost her baby boy to be, Ezra. She’d just announced the pregnancy to the public. She was in her 16th week, in town visiting our family, when she started to feel really sick. Her doctor advised her to go to the ER. Later that night, she gave birth to a still, baby Ezra. The loss came as a complete shock to our family. She was doing so well and even better going into the second trimester. There was no doubt in our minds that this summer we’d be holding a brand new bundle of joy. That’s how some grief comes, suddenly and unexpectedly. The frailty of life is often unnoticed and even under-appreciated until loss demands your attention to it. Each moment seems an incoincidental miracle with loss as the perspective.
Losing baby Ezra felt unreal, impossible. They say denial is one of the steps of grieving and maybe that’s what it was, but I think shock is more accurate. The presence of Ezra in our lives was so tangible, so real. The loss wasn’t about “what could’ve been”. I think that’s something people don’t understand when it comes to miscarriages. Sure, part of it is “I’ll never get to see him grow up”, but more than what could’ve been is what already was. As Christians, we should understand that babies are souls, their spirits are felt long before they are present outside of the womb. Baby Ezra, although only 16 weeks old, wasn’t just a wish for a future. His absence to us is not a denial of what could’ve been, it’s a loss of the hope and joy that the promise of his life already was. Babies, even in the womb, have spirits. They are present. They are felt. And so is their absence.
One idea this process has led me to contemplate is how a Christian should grieve. I’ve never had a good grasp on how to lament. It’s not something that’s often taught. Grieving is a gruesome process we often forget about unless we’re the ones suffering. We all have different responses to sorrow based on who we are, the environment we’ve grown up in and how we’ve learned to process pain. My innate response to most emotions is to downplay the way I’m feeling. Being an INFJ (my personality-test junkies know what this means), I know that I’m all too in touch with the way I feel. In order to counteract that, I’ve developed a habit of depreciating emotions when they’re felt strongly. I’m in no way saying that this is healthy or the proper way to cope, but up until recently, this is what I’d been trained to do. I had a misunderstanding of feelings and of the heart.
Hearts are not innately bad. Before you go quoting Jeremiah 17:9, hear me out. God has a heart (Gen. 6:6, 8:21). We know that God is perfect (Matt 5:48). How should a perfect being possess an imperfect vessel? He doesn’t. If we think of a heart as a vessel, housing whatever the keeper places in it, then we have a better understanding of the heart. In the scripture where Jeremiah calls the heart deceitful, he is talking to an idolatrous Israel who had given themselves to the lusts of gods apart from the One true God. The human heart is sinful according to the content allowed in by its keeper. If we believe the gospel, we know that the blood of Jesus washes clean our hearts. A heart that is submitted to the law and spirit of God, a heart that is kept (Prov. 4:23), should not be ignored. Not all feelings are lies made by our deceitful hearts to steer us away from Truth. In fact, I believe it’s in the suppression of a pure, feeling heart, the neglecting and undermining of real emotions, that uglier seeds may grow. God made us to feel. He gave us hearts. It is not out-of-order for us to use them.
Now, you may not have a problem with letting yourself feel things, but the above paragraph was for people like me that do. Other contemplations were: how long is it okay to grieve? What process should be used to grieve in a healthy manner? Truth be told, anyone that gives you a step-by-step process of how one should grieve is overconfident in their understanding of heartbreak. There is no science to grieving. Just as no two people are the same, no two hearts feel or cope in the same way. With that being said, there are WRONG ways to grieve. Some of these include avoidance, repression, projection and all the other defense mechanisms Freud named as means to running away from problems. While I can’t tell you the right way for you to grieve, I can talk to you about the ways I’ve found most useful for me. I can also share a couple of resources, besides scripture, that I’ve found useful: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis and “God’s School of Pain” by Bro. Raymond Woodward (links to both will be at the conclusion of this blog).
Lately, I’ve been worshiping at a different altar than I’m used to. This altar’s name is Grief. Many who have grieved know that it often comes in waves. You feel it. You go through it, or rather it goes through you. You feel better and then after a little while, you feel it again. I’m not sure why it happens this way. Maybe God knew that it’d be too overwhelming for us to bear the weight of sorrow all at once, so He built us to grieve in currents. Whatever the case, when I start to feel the currents rise, as the waves start crashing, my process has been the following:
- Thanking God – I start most of my prayers this way. It’s something I was taught to do.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name.
My natural inclination with prayer is to repent first. In the presence of Perfection, I can’t stand my juxtaposing sinfulness. However, rather than walking into His presence ashamed of who I am, I think God prefers that I enter acknowledging who He is. Praise, sacrifice, looks different at an altar named Grief. It’s less circumstantial. It’s independent of any subject besides God. At other altars, we may thank God for the things He’s blessed us with or the people we’re surrounded by. Grief allows us to praise God just for who He is. In grief, when it’s hard to be thankful for where God’s placed you, it becomes easy to appreciate who God is, instead. In the aforementioned sermon by Bro. Raymond Woodward, he says, “Don’t let what’s wrong with you keep you from worshiping what’s right with God”. Despite everything that can be wrong with us, everything is always right with God. It does us good to acknowledge this when we least feel to. This is a true “sacrifice of praise”, a laying down of “I” for an increase of “He” (Psalms 49:14, John 3:30). This is costly. This is the building of an altar named Grief.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
2. Inviting God Into My Grief – During this time, I haven’t asked God to take away my grief. To me, that would be an insult to the one I was grieving. Scripture even tells us that there is “a time to mourn” (Eccl. 3:4). I loved Ezra, even if just shortly. I anticipated getting to be his aunt. Grief, loss, is the price we pay for all earthly relationships. As Douglas Gresham writes in the intro to A Grief Observed, “…all human relationships end in pain— it is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love…the greater the love the greater the grief”. Some wages are paid sooner than others, yet for all, the time for separation will come. To take the grief, you’d have to take the love with it. Instead, whether I’m on the couch or in my bed, sometimes I even like to sit on the floor, I ask God to join me. In John 14:16, Jesus alludes to the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter”. The Greek word used in these scriptures, paráklētos, translates to “summoned, called to one’s side”. The word “com-fort” originates from Latin, meaning with strength. In my brokenness, I don’t want forced wholeness, I just want my Comforter at my side, with strength. I find this strength, this Comforter, at my altar named Grief.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
3. Giving God My Heart – Heartbreak is a reality of life. In our humanity, we often associate brokenness with inadequacy, inferiority and weakness. No one wants to be broken. We want to be whole, untouched by life. Yet, our frail humanity is keen to breaking. Whether figuratively or literally, we’re all broken. Some of us are just better at hiding it. I, in myself, am and will always be broken. Now, please don’t get me wrong. God didn’t make me broken. My sin, the sin of those around me, seasons of separation from God and sometimes just the unavoidable tragedy of life has left its mark on my heart. While the scars heal, as long as I’m human, I’ll always be broken. My awareness of that brokenness fluctuates depending on how dependent I’ve been on my own strength. It’s both ironic and beautiful that my acknowledgement of my brokenness goes hand in hand with allowing God to make me whole. Christianity is, after all, the stride towards wholeness. A pace we never stop until we’ve met eternity. Until I’m rid of this flesh, I will continue to break and crack, hoping never to cut anyone in the process of being made whole. May we never forget that we’re broken creatures continually being put back together by God.
Losing baby Ezra broke my heart, the place I’d made for him. I hadn’t talked to many people about my excitement, but I’d slowly built a space in my heart for him. I’d dreamed it and hoped it and planned it and kept it. It was his space. The realization that that space would be left void, the unbalanced equilibrium, the emptiness of unrequited love caused the walls to collapse. The walls in the corridors of our heart are not always made solid. They’re as sure as we believe them to be. I believed in baby Ezra. I had built strength in the love that I was preparing for him. The more I built, the more it hurt when the weight of all that came crashing down. It’s in these times we need God to come in, to rebuild. In these situations He doesn’t take away what’s been built, but restructures it in a way that maintains the integrity of the heart. At an altar named Grief, God reshapes and repairs my heart.
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
4. Asking to Know Him – I’ve asked God to use this to help me understand Him better.
That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death;
“The fellowship of His sufferings”, that’s not a part of the verse that’s often accentuated, yet it’s a very important part. Christ suffered. He was “a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief”(Isaiah 53:3). He hurt. As already mentioned, those who love often do. We Christians are called to this kind of love. If I am to know Him, I must not only know “the power of His resurrection” but also “the fellowship of His sufferings”. Grief brings us to an understanding of Jesus, the way He loves and the way He hurts. At an altar named Grief, we’re afforded a seat at His table, where we learn to know Him in “the fellowship of His sufferings”.
“If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
5. Trusting in His Sovereignty – The story-making predilection of humanity likes to think of events in sequential a to b, cause-effect order. But the reality is that things happen, sometimes for no understandable reason. We’re not always in control of why or what happens. We can only control how we choose to move forward. Something I’ve chosen not to do at my altar named Grief is to ask God why it happened. I have not looked for answers. When you love truly, no justification can ever satisfy the reason for that love being taken away. You can’t reason with love. Love understands no limits, sees no impossibilities. Rather than reasoning, I chose to trust in God’s sovereignty. Another quote by Bro. Woodward that beautifully depicts this kind of trust is: “Faith is trusting God’s heart even when you can’t see His hand.” Faith is essential to surviving grief. I despise analogies that allude to God as a schoolmaster “testing” us with hardships. As Lewis says, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed). We learn the quality of our faith through hardship. God has led me through things that I don’t understand and some I might never understand. My understanding isn’t the important part, continuing to be led is. At an altar named Grief, doubt and questioning are sacrificed and in their place, faith is planted. Trust is established.
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
My hope is that this blog is a resource to those also in the “fellowship of His sufferings”. Through the building of this altar, Grief, God has taught me so much about faith, life and my own heart. In grief, eternity comes all too close, yet still too far to reach. It’s a hard process. It’s a knock-the-wind-out-of-you kind of pain, the kind that can only be comforted in the presence of an almighty God all too acquainted with sorrow. But in the building process of an altar named Grief, comes a closer walk with God, a humble surrendering.
“…the thing is to rely only on God. The time will come when you will regard this misery as a small price to pay for having been brought to that dependence.”
Link to “God’s School of Pain” by Bro. Woodward:
Link to purchase “A Grief Observed” by C. S. Lewis: