Kay's Blog


in Grief

Walking Through Grief During the Holidays

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Christmas 2013 was our family’s first without our son Matthew. I could barely breathe. I stayed away from the grocery store and the mall, fearing I couldn’t hold it together in either. The Internet became my friend as I shopped late at night, without sentimental mall music stirring up memories of Christmases past—when all three of my children were alive.

But every day, the Christmas cards arrived.

When I opened the first batch of cards, shock washed over me. Photos of beautiful, happy, intact families cascaded onto my kitchen table. Most were accompanied by a greeting wishing me a joyous Christmas. Some had a signature and the message, “Hope you have a great Christmas.” Others included a standard family newsletter, listing the accomplishments, vacations, and delightful family moments that had filled their year. I grew astonished, then angry, as I realized that none of the cards mentioned that our precious Matthew had died violently six months earlier, leaving us definitely not having a joyous Christmas.

Eventually I left the card-opening to Rick. The cards remained unopened in the traditional iron sleigh that has held our cards through the years until after Christmas Day had passed. Weeks later, I tore through them, angry tears pouring down my cheeks as I separated them into three piles: ones that didn’t mention our grief, ones that did so with a short, “Praying for you,” and ones that included soothing, loving, and thoughtful words of compassion and empathy. The third stack was the smallest.

That second Christmas, I opened the first Christmas card of this season. I wondered if perhaps I had been oversensitive the previous December—so immersed in our family’s loss at the time that every expression of happiness was like scraping an open wound. I hoped that I’d feel differently this holiday season. When I opened the card—an artfully designed print on heavy paper stock, printed with a signature from a pastor I don’t even know—I threw it away.

After that, I wrote about the experience on Facebook. I asked readers to consider sending a plain card to grieving families (instead of an obligatory “happy family” photo). “Tell them in a few words that you are aware of how painful Christmas can be and that you are praying for them,” I wrote. “Yes, it’s inconvenient—it will take more time than your rushed signature, and it will require entering into someone else’s loss, mourning, grief, and anger.”

I ended the post on behalf of grieving parents everywhere: “If you aren’t willing to modify your way of sending cards for a while, please do us a favor and take us off your list.” Hundreds of folks resonated with my words and spoke of similar experiences. Others were deeply offended and let me know.

Piercing Reminder

I’m slowly learning that grief is both universal and yet as individual as each person who mourns. Psychologists note that most grief journeys include shock, denial, anger, resignation, and acceptance. But it’s not linear, as though it was a clearly marked path for everyone. The feelings come and go. Some days you think you’re doing well until something triggers a wave of emotions that make you wonder if you’ll feel like yourself again. There are better days, even good days. And then, after a couple good days, a tidal wave of sadness can knock you to the ground.

For me, grief has meant screaming and wailing and weeping and moaning and writhing. Grief is crying so hard that snot runs from my nose into my mouth. Grief is sobbing so hard that I throw up. It’s lying spent on the couch, too weary to lift my limbs up the stairs to bed.

I’m thankful there are biblical models for such raw outpourings. It was customary for God’s people to tear their clothes, cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes, and cry so loud that all could hear. Matthew 2:17–18 (NIV) tells us that the Israelite mothers whose baby boys had been killed by King Herod were in “mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” Throughout the Psalms, King David freely records his anguish, anger, confusion, and sadness. Paul said his depression was so deep, he despaired of life. And Jesus grieved so heavily in the Garden of Gethsemane that he sweated drops of blood.

By and large, Americans are uncomfortable with such raw emotions, perhaps especially coming from a pastor and his family. As a pastor’s kid (and now wife), I have learned about the “walk on water” syndrome—that pastors and their families are expected to keep doubt, struggle, grief, and anger to themselves, lest anyone think they are less than perfect. May I gently point out that we are not superhuman or above pain, as none of the biblical heroes of the faith were, either.

In traditional cultures throughout the world, the louder the mourning, the greater the love shown for the deceased. You might counter that that’s not the way Westerners handle grief. You are right, of course. But acknowledging this leaves me wondering: What are we supposed to do with our feelings when the people we love end their lives violently? How are we to feel when someone we love is murdered? When those dearest to us are ripped from our arms through an accident or illness? Are we comfortable with hard grieving at first, but less so when the grief doesn’t stop after a few weeks or months or years?

Some are hardened by grief. They lose their ability to share in other’s happiness. That’s not where I am headed. I am doing my best to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Since Matthew’s death, I’ve attended the weddings of friends, baby showers, graduation parties, birthday parties (well, most of them), because life goes on and it’s not all about me. At the same time, it’s been four years since our son took his life. There are still moments when the happiness of others is a piercing reminder of what we have lost and will never have again.

One Foot at a Time

Meanwhile, I am grateful for family and friends who keep walking with us on the path of grief. There are those who enter fully into our tears when we need to cry, who make us laugh at ourselves and at life, who gently inspire us to keep seeking beauty from these ashes, and who point us—with their lives more than their words—to our eternal hope and home. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is possible to be in deep grief and yet experience the joy of the Lord. In fact, it is the Lord's joy that enables me to keep choosing to engage life and ministry even as I live with a broken heart.

I’m praying for all who mourn today for any cause. May we find in the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ the fulfillment of the words that Zechariah prophesied long ago:

Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God's Sunrise will break in upon us, Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.

Luke 1:78-79 (MSG)

For additional resources on grief, please visit kaywarren.com/grief.

Posted by Kay Warren with

National Day of Prayer for Faith, Hope, and Life

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The first time Rick publicly prayed at a weekend church service for people living with a mental illness, his words were simple. He asked God to bring comfort and strength to anyone living with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness. He asked God to reassure them that their pain and suffering mattered to God and to their brothers and sisters, and to remind them that as a church family, we would do all we could to offer support to them and their families.

The response from the congregation was astonishing. As he stood on the patio following the services, dozens of men and women who were living with a mental illness, or who loved someone living with a mental illness, lined up to give him a hug and to thank him for bringing their struggle into the light. Many spoke through their tears about the deep gratitude they felt to hear mental illness mentioned from the pulpit in such a loving and positive way. “I’ve kept my illness a secret at church,” several said. “I didn’t know it was okay to talk about it.”

That simple, grace-filled prayer instantly changed the atmosphere at Saddleback. Those few short words, lovingly expressed, made it infinitely safer to talk openly about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and suicidal thoughts. Chains of hopelessness were broken, and walls of stigma, misunderstanding, confusion, and prejudice began to melt away in the face of recognition, acceptance, and love. People began asking the questions they had been reluctant to ask before: Can a Christian experience a mental illness? Does it mean I don’t have enough faith? Is it okay to take medication for a mental illness? If I pray hard enough or study my Bible more, will it make my anxiety go away? Can children have a mental illness? What happens to Christians who take their life?

Saddleback Church has always been a welcoming, inviting congregation to anyone in need, but it has become an even more compassionate place as we’ve expanded our conversations around mental illness, listened to the stories of those living with a mental illness, and learned what we can do to more fully support individuals and families in a mental health crisis.

We’re not the only ones: Many other congregations are exploring what the Bible says about God’s response to illness — including mental illness. Many are beginning to understand that mental illness is real, and it is common — 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in the coming year (NAMI). Approximately 43 million men, women, and children will show signs of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or another diagnosable mental illness (NAMI). Mental illness is not only common, it’s also highly treatable when addressed quickly, allowing many to manage their illness well.

While mental illness is common, it is still an uncomfortable topic in most avenues of society. It is time for faith leaders to stand in the gap and speak up for people living with mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

The good news is that every day we hear testimonies from people in the faith community about creative, effective ways they’re breaking down the walls of stigma around mental illness and suicide, willingly sharing the love and mercy of Christ to those most deeply affected. Simple steps of prayer, listening, and love bring hope to those who often feel abandoned by God and the church.

If talking about mental illness at church is uncomfortable, talking about suicide is one of the last taboos in our culture. Yet we are surrounded by multiplied thousands of men, women, and children — including teenagers in our church youth groups — who have lost hope and are experiencing suicidal thoughts. One practical way your church can begin to engage is to join the faith community around our nation in praying for people touched by suicide on World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. Your words of compassion, acceptance, and hope may be the lifeline that will help save the lives of people in your congregation.

As suicide loss survivors, Rick and I know firsthand the almost unbearable agony that accompanies the suicide of someone you love. We ache for those in our congregation — and in yours — who are experiencing despair. These friends — brothers and sisters in Christ — need to know that their church is a safe place to share the inward torment of their pain, and that their pain will be met with deep compassion and acceptance.

Please lend your voice to this effort on behalf of hurting people everywhere by clicking on this video and pledging to pray in your house of worship on the weekend of September 10.

Posted by Kay Warren with 1 Comments

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