Grief, Loss & the Pastor’s Heart

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Today is my brother’s birthday. He would have been 45 today. But he died 34 days ago.

Grief is a strange thing. As a pastor, I’m certainly not unfamiliar with it. I’ve counseled countless individuals and couples, prayed with people for God’s comfort, offered biblical insight, taken food, sent the card, been present. Tried to offer a helpful thought. But when you are the one encountering it, it’s a whole new animal.

Pastors feel a tremendous pressure to be strong, to portray a stellar example of faithfulness before the congregation, and to live a joy-filled presence. But there is a temptation to hide one’s humanity, to show no weakness in an attempt to model what others could be if they will only believe more, attend more, pray more, give more…but this is a mistake. In fact, Jesus proclaimed the opposite. I learned very quickly that there is something nearly diabolical about being on the stage. It’s as if an unforeseen voice whispers into the ears of those watching, “this person has it all together; this person is closer to God than you are.”

Increasingly, I find myself helping people in the church remove me from a man-made pedestal and understand that we are all in this faith journey together. The difference is I’ve just been given the weighty responsibility of leading well. Hiding the stuff of the heart is not leading well. So, for the many who are asking, “how are you?” This is the lengthier, more honest and thought-provoking answer.

I don’t know.

Sometimes ok. Sometimes really not ok. And sometimes truly fine. But definitely on a roller coaster of cyclical feelings, and not sure when the ride will be over.

The weekend of my brother’s funeral contained more emotions and more memories than my mind and body could physically absorb. Everything I touched, everyplace I sat down, laid down or stood in was pregnant with memory. I slept in the room where we once played. I walked through woods where we built a giant fort when I was 11 and he was 8, and saw remnants of it still there. I sat under a treehouse where we once fought over a BB gun, and it went off and the bullet ricocheted into his forehead. (I always felt really bad about that). I stood in the church where we were both baptized. I ate at the table where we shared Thanksgiving just 4 months ago. I visited with friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I relived old stories, roared with laughter, sobbed, had moments of disbelief and numbness, shook a thousand hands, and listened to as many heart-felt condolences.

So many people…so many words…so many cards and texts…so much fried chicken.

Thank God for the community of faith. But the responses are so wide and varied. Many want to just be present and don’t know what to say. Some people say so much. SO much. Some people say the most comforting things. Some say nothing. Some wait weeks to say anything. And some say truly dumb and grossly theologically inaccurate things.

Some bring food, which is a wonderful ministry as our bodies naturally fast when we are in grief. These people remind us that we are still here and need to attend to ourselves. Some tell jokes and try to get us to laugh. Some cried harder than I and needed to be the ones consoled.

Let me be clear. None of this is words of criticism or judgment. I have done ALL of the above, and everyone does the most compassionate thing they can when they see someone they love hurting.

Returning home, and to the church office, I figured there would be some days of adjustment. But in the meantime, life must go on. People have to go to school. I need to go to work. So I did.

I went back to work on a Tuesday. I sensed a frustration, a low rumbling anger, but wrote it off to how much needed to get done with a late start to the week. On the way to the church office, I had an encounter with a gentleman at an intersection. A primal rage boiled up, and I nearly had a “Towanda” moment. (If you don’t know what that is, go rent the movie Fried Green Tomatos and enjoy.)

On Wednesday, I felt like I could burst into tears at any moment all day, and hoped no one would say anything too nice.

On Thursday, I felt numb all day, couldn’t focus and had continual moments realizing I had stared at a wall for half an hour, over and over again, and had no idea what I had been thinking about. I also drove through 2 red lights and didn’t realize it until I had gotten to the other side of the intersection. Thankfully no one was coming.

On Friday and Saturday, I felt good. Like I was starting to get my brain back. It was wonderful. I could focus, work, get things done. So I pressed in to all the projects, thankful that I was back. And didn’t realize what a mistake that was.

Sunday morning, I got to lead worship, which I love and being with my church family. And as soon as it was over, my whole body crashed. I went to bed for the rest of the afternoon. Not the normal nap in the recliner, but completely down-for-the-count for hours. When I woke up, I thought, “my God, it really did happen. He’s really gone.”

Monday morning, I was angry again. But this time it was a little more defined. I was mad that he died. I was mad at certain people. I was mad at myself. Could I have done more? Couldn’t I have been a better brother? I’m angry for my parent’s sake. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children. It doesn’t go in that order. I had a good weekend. How is it fair that I get to continue enjoying my life and he doesn’t? When will I feel normal again? Then I realize, the normal I knew before isn’t returning, and that pressing on in an effort to “get over it” actually makes the adjustment worse. There will be a new normal I’ll have to settle into, and that angers me too…like something has been stolen from me and I don’t know if or when I’ll get it back.

Am I mad at God? Hmmm…no. But I am expressing all of this to Him. And I will be mad at you if you tell me God did this for a reason or he needed another angel in heaven. (See note on dumb, theologically incorrect statements above).

Then as the week went on, I realized all the same emotions were coming back day after day, except each morning when I woke up I wasn’t sure which person I would be that day.

I don’t like this…feeling bipolar. Or is it tri-polar? Or Quad-polar? Is that a thing? I don’t like not knowing what is coming next. I would like a divine memo: “tomorrow you will be (insert emoji here),” so I can be prepared. Thankfully, my wife is a counselor. She tells me this is normal for everyone going through the stages of grief, and that I’m not exempt just because I’m a pastor. Also thankfully, she hasn’t billed me yet.

It’s significant that this is Holy Week, when we remember and walk through the agony of Jesus’ final days of human life. And I am comforted in knowing that there is absolutely nothing that I am feeling that God did not feel a hundred times over watching the death of his own son. The Father is the parental role. Loving parents don’t intentionally harm their children. God did not do the crucifixion to his Son. Jesus chose to die for our sins, but it was out of love for us…not because God was mad at us and needed a whipping boy. Sinful people did it to him. I wonder about the cycle of emotion He encountered. I can only imagine the level of anger, sadness and indignation He must have felt. Like Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, only greatly amplified. I wonder why God waited until the third day for the resurrection? Did he need take the time to feel it all? Does God need time at all? What was he teaching us all about how to manage time after encountering death? I don’t know. But I do know this: the death of his Son did not undo Him. And then thankfully, Sunday came.

I love my church family and am so grateful for those who are understanding and are walking through this with me—especially those who have been here before and who have shared their personal stories.  I don’t know when or where I will land, but I will land. Whatever congregation you are in, know that your pastors will encounter seasons of grief, and some are in them now: marital strife, divorce, financial crisis, severe illness, decisions for aging parents, prodigal children, clinical depression. And they may look completely fine on the outside; but they will need individuals in their congregations who are healthy enough to realize that their pastor is not a Christian version of the Avengers, which is the main reason for writing this. Having these kind of saints embedded in the Church breed healthy congregations and inspire healthy pastors. Thank you for being people who speak and pray words of life over pastors so that we can be life-giving leaders.

How am I? Not fine yet, but I’ll find my footing again. It’s Tuesday…but Sunday’s coming.