Do you believe everything happens for a reason? asked the text that arrived late in the night. Awakened by my phone’s vibration, I squinted my eyes and struggled to make out the blur of words before rolling over and falling back asleep. Waking up the next morning, the question haunted me.
Do I believe everything happens for a reason? No. I believe that we desperately want to believe that there is Divine order in everything–the good, the bad and the ugly. To believe that there is some greater force at work when our life is crumbling down around us gives us hope and comfort and there’s nothing wrong with wanting hope and comfort. I get that.
But it’s not what I believe.
To believe that everything happens for a reason means that there was some Divine intentionality involved in the anguish of a vibrant, smart and kind teenage girl on the cusp of her life and her desperate choice to deliberately end it. To believe that it happened for a reason would imply that this soul was plucked out and chosen to suffer. Unlike this young woman–whose own steadfast faith shined like a beacon for others–I often struggle with my beliefs, but what I know for sure is this: any God I believe in would not intentionally inflict such horrific pain.
Our community has been pummeled by a series of unimaginable losses: the sudden, unexpected death of a husband and father; the accidental death of a local pastor’s son, on his way to complete his first year at college; the suicide of a high school freshman from a neighboring school down the road; and the suicide of a high school senior, a young woman I held close to my heart and for whom I grieve deeply.
Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, the worst happens to the very best.
Did he have heart disease? Did he exercise? Had he been to the doctor recently?
Was he paying attention? Was he drunk or on drugs? Was he on his phone and distracted?
Surely, there must have been signs. Did he seem depressed? Was she on medication? Was she being bullied? Didn’t her family know?
Our grasping for control shows up in the questions we ask. We want to make sense out of the senseless. We want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to us. Please, please, dear God, don’t let this happen to us.
I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, but I do believe in the strength and resiliency of human beings. Life will test us in ways we can’t comprehend–this is part of the mystery of life. There is wisdom and valuable perspective to be gained from the trials we go through, if we’re able to withstand the challenge and get to the other side where we begin to see the light of day again. I believe there is a circle of humanity that exists that connects those who have suffered to those who are suffering and in those connections we find solace and strength. Within those connections, we learn what it means to be fully human.
The truth is life is hard and some days it will crush you. The truth is mental illness is real and depression can be deceptive and insidious. The truth is some people’s superhero strength is their weakness. The truth is we have so little control over so much. The truth is scary.
The truth is we are not alone. You are never alone. Life can be hard but it can also be breathtakingly beautiful and full of joy and hope. A life well-lived is one of vivid contrasts.
We are all in this together.
In a lighter moment recently, I imagined our path through grief like sampling at a salsa bar–sometimes it’s fiery and fierce and you don’t think you’ll survive. Other times it’s mellow and slow-roasted with a familiar smokiness when we taste it on our tongue that brings back rich memories. Then there’s the astringent, bitter one when our impulse is to recoil and spit it out and rinse our mouth with something soothing. The surprisingly sweet salsa of grief–still sharp with spice but with the relief of sweetness on your palate at the end. The grief salsa I like the least is the one that takes you by surprise without warning. A sneak attack when you are just going about your day, not expecting the slap and sting. The one that brings me to my knees.
Grief looks like this: padding aimlessly through the house on a Friday morning, opening and closing the refrigerator, sniffing the butcher-papered package of ground chicken meant for meatballs you bought five days ago that you haven’t been able to fathom cooking since the black velvet blanket of sadness descended. Then repeating the same pattern three, four, sometimes five more times.
Grief looks like simultaneously wanting everyone to leave you alone and wishing a group of friends would appear at your door with a grocery store sheet cake and plastic forks.
Grief is inconvenient. Grief is messy. Some people will tell you they’re tired of your grief by encouraging you to “get over it”. They might use different words, softer words that mask the intent, but the message is the same. These people are not your friends.
Walking the path of grief means knowing where you stand within the concentric circles of the blast radius of the explosion, then reaching in to lend a hand, an ear, a shoulder to those standing much closer to the eye of the storm.
If you’re in the eye of the storm, grief means allowing us to help you.
Walking the path of grief is not the scenic route but there is no other way through. There are massive inclines that will test your stamina and your lungs will ache with effort. There are labyrinth-like switchbacks and dead ends that will play with your mind and make you think you’re losing it. You’ll encounter others on this path and it’s important to hoist those that are struggling on your stronger back, maybe just for a few steps. And when your legs shake and tremble, remember to rest. And then get up and take one more step forward.
Grief feels like the skin on your face drawn dry and tight by so many salty tears and snot. Eyelids so swollen that lashes retract and disappear.
Grief means tucking yourself into bed at night and realizing that you didn’t feel that sharp sadness today and then feeling guilty about it.
Grief means looking out the window and wondering how the world can keep going when everything in your world seems to have ended.
Grief means remembering that life is for the living and through our living, we honor those we have lost.
One more step. Just one.
And that’s how we get through. There is no other way.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is…” ~ Mary Oliver
This past week I have prayed like a motherfucker.
My faith has always waxed and waned, but I know how to pray. One of my favorite prayers I learned at the Lutheran church I attended for about a decade included the words, ” Dear God, help me in my disbelief.” Even as the daughter and granddaughter of ministers, I was always encouraged to question. Blind faith was for fools, I was taught, and my parents didn’t raise a fool. When I was younger and went through challenging times, my mother would often say, “I’ll pray for you.” I wasn’t sure who or what exactly my self-described heathen of a mother was praying to, but I liked that she did.
Eyes closed, squeezing out more tears than I imagined I could ever produce, holding the warm hand of this young woman I loved. Please, God, please. Please. I felt like a hypocrite, desperately reciting clumsy petitions to a God whose viability I regularly questioned. Awkward and afraid, I asked her sister if she wanted to lead us in a prayer, knowing how much faith meant to this family in so much pain. And with composure and fortitude and conviction fitting someone decades older, we gathered around the hospital bed and she did.
In that moment, I felt comfort. I exhaled.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…
I prayed like a motherfucker this week, praying for a miracle. I prayed that the brain damage would be miraculously reversed and this beloved young woman would sit up in her bed, yank out the tubes that were keeping her alive and laugh at the crazy joke she played on all of us. But this young woman with the mischievous glint in her eyes and deep belly laugh walked in kindness above all else. She would never have thought it was funny to worry and hurt so many people she loved.
So what exactly are we praying for? someone asked me.
Peace. Comfort. Understanding.
I don’t know, I answered.
My daughter dreamed of the young woman and her sister with whom she had shared so many memories. In the early morning hours of the day this young woman took her last breath, my daughter had a dream of being embraced in a hug with these two dear friends of hers. The young woman, consoling her sister and her friend, repeating these words over and over and over again:
It’s gonna be okay. It’s all gonna be okay.
But right now, it’s hard as hell.