I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the magnitude of tragedy that many of us have experienced going back as far as 10 years. This week our brothers and sisters from Africa have been reflecting on Gatumba. On August 13, 2004 one of the most unimaginable massacres occurred in a camp that was supposed to be a refuge for those who had been displaced by an already horrific conflict. Loved ones, family and friends, were lost along with limbs, sight, and most if not all of what anyone called their own. The dignity and innocence of women and children was forever lost, and the images of such atrocities continue to this day to haunt those who experienced the tragedies. Out of this unimaginable experience God has raised up a remnant, and we at New Hope have been privileged to share in their journey as they continue building a new life here in America.
Five years ago (August 10, 2009) we lost another godly man named Keith Perkins. A guitarist in the worship team, a loving father, husband, brother and son, and New Hope was stunned. Five years later, we are stunned again as we consider Jake’s premature death. We have experienced loss in the intervening years as well as we think of Brian Glass, Joanne Colon, parents, and friends. Layers and layers of pain, some of it yet unresolved, and some of it just good memories that can’t help but hurt even though we’ve come to terms with the new reality.
How does one church handle all this tragedy? I’m not sure that we have experienced more than others, but we’ve had what feels like more than our fair share. And it’s not always death. There are lawsuits, child custody battles, broken or breaking marriages, estranged families, economic struggles, health issues and….need I go on? It is not hard to focus on all these negative things and spend quite a bit of time begging God for some mercy. When we stop begging, we start asking questions. Why? What are you doing God? How much longer? Are we under some sort of attack? Where are you God? Frankly, some of us are just numb and not even sure we can keep praying. Maybe you’ve stopped altogether. Is there really a reason? How can a good God let all this happen? How can I go forward?
Many of us just don’t want to move forward. Can’t time just stop? The world around us keeps moving and people act like nothing’s happened. It’s not right. I want to linger, grieve, hold on, and wait. Just let me be for a while.
The questions are natural and the desire to just linger in the moment is completely natural. There are many stages of grief and it frankly just takes time to begin to unpack all we are thinking, processing and coping with. The stages are not all neatly linear and can’t be checked off in some sort of left brained pain management strategy. Most of us will experience many stages in overlapping and recurrent ways and over many years. The intensity and immediacy of the pain will lessen with time, but we just don’t get over tragedies. We live with them forever and many years later they hit us in a new way. There is no “right way” to grieve.
The stages of grief can help us know what to expect from each other as we walk this journey over the next several months and years together.
1. Denial and Isolation
This was my first reaction when I first heard the news about Jake. I’m sure we’ve all experienced it in some form. It is a natural reaction and one we use to help cope with overwhelming emotions. It is temporary and primarily helps us handle the initial pain.
Inevitably we will experience anger; anger at Jake, friends or family, complete strangers or even objects around us. The anger is an expression of the pain that we are frankly just not ready to completely handle yet. We are raw and we take that pain and sometimes we redirect it at other people or things. It is not always rational, and though we know not to blame others, we simply don’t know what to do with the intensity of our own emotions. We must pray for patience with each other and support and love each other even when hurtful things are said, or when thoughts are expressed that might not otherwise reflect what we really wanted to say.
A normal reaction to overwhelming pain and feeling vulnerable is the need to control our environment. This causes us to start reflecting on what we could/should have done differently, or what we can do now to change our circumstances. Some will reflect with “If only” types of reasoning such as “If only I had said this/that…” or something similar. Maybe we want to make deals with God or think that somehow we let down our end of the bargain on some promise that was made previously. The full range of bargaining is unknowable. However, one thing to understand is that our bargaining is really a line of defense as well against fully embracing our painful reality. In some respects, we use it somewhat unknowingly to postpone dealing with the most painful recesses of our heart and soul.
Very natural, and completely expected, we should all expect to go through some form of depression coming out of this tragedy. Depression has very negative connotations in our society, and yet many of us experience it in some form on a periodic basis. It is not something to avoid or even be afraid of. The most common and first aspect of depression will likely just be pure sadness. It can also take the form of regret. Both are ok and indicative that we are actually getting to the deeper parts of our souls and embracing the pain in a very healthy, if hard way. During these times, we need to come alongside of those who are there and just offer encouragement. We don’t need to rush anyone through it, or even feel pressured to get over it. A few supportive words, some reassurance, reminders of love and support that remains intact; let’s just be sensitive to be present and not judgmental.
There is actually a more subtle form of depression that is sometimes less visible. It is often expressed more privately as someone may withdraw ever so slightly to deal with painful thoughts of separating and saying goodbye. All we can do is provide a reassuring hug or sit and be present while someone withdraws into their own thoughts, journals, prays or whatever else they feel they need to do to come to terms with their new reality.
We may not all reach this stage. Some people frankly never move beyond feelings of anger and in some cases we can’t envision life in a new or different reality. Acceptance is not something we are “striving” for. It is something that might happen, in time, but is not something we can force. We cannot hold anyone to a standard that somehow considers them more or less healthy if we perceive they have reached this stage. We cannot deny what is at work inside of us and our goal I believe should be to come alongside of everyone meeting them right where they are at. If someone does get to a place of acceptance eventually, it would be important to understand that this can look like depression. There are periods of withdrawal, and calm and a sense of peacefulness that resonates very deeply. It does not result in happiness per se, but a sober, maybe even somber willingness to embrace the challenges of living into something different.
As I said earlier, and others have expressed, these various stages of grief are not easily defined. We may experience elements of all of them at the same time, or we may only experience a few of them and never really move beyond them. Our goal as a church family is to be as sensitive as we can be to support one another and come alongside of each person to meet them individually and in loving ways. We don’t place expectations on people or inadvertently put timeframes on what we think is an appropriate length for grieving. We will all work through this in various ways and in various timetables. Let’s extend God’s grace and love for as long as it takes. Don’t resist the emotions and waves of grief as they come over you. As a church, we won’t expect you to.
We must also remember that in these moments, when it feels like God is so far away, He is actually closer than any other time. The feelings of pain are so foreign to our understanding of who God is, and contrary to what we want our relationship with God to be. Yet, we read in Philippians 3:10-11 that Paul wanted to know “…the power of Christ’s resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him is his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” It is the most uncomfortable aspect of maturing in our faith to understand that to be counted worthy of participating in the sufferings of Christ is actually a sign of a much closer and deeper relationship with Him than we think possible. No one knows better the pain and sufferings of this life than Jesus who experienced the most unimaginable pain, on top of the emotional and relational rejection from the people for which He so selflessly gave up his perfect existence to be with. When we walk through these types of painful experiences, we get a small glimpse of what God went through. When we participate with Him, we grow in our relationship in ways that are profoundly different than less trying times.
In the coming weeks, I hope to unpack this a little bit more, and start to bring some focus to the many questions we are all asking. Some cannot be answered, and I won’t pretend to. But there is perspective we can gain that will help remind us who God is, where He is during times like this, and what He wants for us especially in times like this. God is not immune to our pain. Far from it, He grieves with us knowing that this is not what He wanted for us. However, he also knows that if we will cling to Him as we work through this, He will help us and one day, in eternity, we will be relieved and made whole.
I love you all and want you to know I am available for each of you. I look forward to seeing you on Sunday!
 Adapted from the article at this website: http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/000617