The Difference Two Years Can Make
Maybe Your Story Just Needs A Little More Time
There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
– Zora Neale Hurston
Years that Ask Questions
All I remember about April 14, 2015, are the unimportant things. I remember it was a Tuesday. I could close my eyes today and retrace the layout of the Longhorn Steakhouse in Orlando. I’ll never forget the way my knees literally knocked together before giving out. I’ll always remember the way the faces on the unsuspecting diners so effortlessly twisted between terror, disgust, and sympathy as they looked (and tried not to look) at me screaming the words
at my iPhone.
Before I had a chance to protest or offer a prayer for God to heal or fix or repair or change or whatever we expect Him to do in those times, my brother was gone. And I was left holding nothing but the anxiety that comes with knowing I would have to put my mom, dad, brothers, and sisters (and all the unsuspecting bystanders in their orbit) through what I just went through as I relayed the news that my brother was dead. I knew this day would be the worst day of my life, and that it would likely never be redeemed.
Just like that, my brother Sam was gone.
My apprenticeship with sorrow had begun.
The Wonder Years
Like all apprentices on their first day, when the grief first hit, I had no idea what I was doing. But unlike real apprentices, I had no one beside me—no mentor to guide, teach, or instruct me. As a result, I was about to do a whole lot of damage, both to myself and everyone orbiting around me pulled down by the gravity of my grief.
My brother died four days after my wife and I had received news of a failed adoption. I buried my brother quickly before getting right back to work, starting a church six weeks later in a part of town where tragedy was a long-term tenant, routinely visiting each of our neighbors without warning. We were a young church unacquainted with processing grief; and as providence would have it, the death of my brother was the first domino in a seemingly never-ending series that began to fall. And I, as a thirty-year-old pastor who just suffered my first loss was responsible for helping to pick up these fallen dominoes.
I remember fragments of these days: dreading stepping into the pulpit, crying through more sermons than I can count, putting my wife through the wringer, and ultimately feeling like a fraud because of how hard it was to believe the good things I was preaching about God—His wisdom, His kindness, His grace, His care, His compassion.
My faith crumbled quicker than molded bread and stayed in pieces for longer than I’d ever care to admit. One of the only shreds of consolation during that time was this CS Lewis quote I read in A Grief Observed as he was reflecting on the death of his wife.
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. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.
The ounce of hope I found in that quote reminded me that my shattered faith was not my fault—nor was it irreparable. But I wasn’t equipped to piece it back together. If this issue was going to be solved, the solution would have to come from Him. All I could do was wait.
As the days passed, I did the best I could during the day only to realize that when I got home, my best wasn’t good enough. I was new at grief. In the show The Morning Show, character Hannah Shoenfield (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) sits in a car with a production assistant, processing her proficiency at speaking to hurting people during a series of California fires that have left people with nothing. The PA asks how Hannah came to be so good at it, and Hannah simply replies, “I’m smart at tragedy. There’s nothing you can say to make it better, but there’s a lot of stuff you can say to make it worse. I try not to make it worse.” I wish I’d had even this much advice back then.
I didn’t. Those years in between were fumbled in so many ways.
Two years later, things cleared up a bit.
Years that Answer
“Part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you from remembering the things that matter” - Chimamanda Adichie
It was April 14th, 2017. It was a Friday. I was still pastoring the Atlanta church we started a few years prior, but on this Friday, I was in the NICU in Columbus, Georgia. After a decade of praying for children, God answered, and my daughter was born about a week before this Good Friday. Because she was born premature, she still couldn’t breathe on her own (she had a breathing machine), she couldn’t eat on her own (tubes were everywhere), and she couldn’t regulate her body temperature, so she had to spend twenty-two hours a day in an incubator.
It's funny the things you remember. I’m a terrible singer and think of myself as tone-deaf, but I still remember the keys that all the beeps and monitors were in. I’ll never forget seeing my daughter’s first smile through the smudged glass of the incubator. I remember how uncomfortable it was to hold her with her breathing tube constantly getting in the way. I was always mindful of my embrace of her because I didn’t want to scrunch the tube up.
I didn’t mind—it was better than not holding her—but I do remember it feeling like an obstacle.
The one thing I’ll never forget, however, is what happened on that Friday.
That Good Friday.
I had to drive back to Atlanta to preach the Good Friday service, so my wife let me have all the skin-to-skin time that day. I remember holding my daughter and reading to her a chapter on adoption in one of my favorite books. Even while holding my daughter in my hands, all I could think about was death.
April 14th had been more than a sad day. It was a blackout day where Joy was grounded and unable to fly. Despite this amazing blessing, this year the sadness hit differently. It was also the two-year anniversary of my brother’s death, and I was holding my daughter in my arms, grieving the fact they’d never meet.
And then, the doctor came and out of nowhere snatched my daughter out of my hands.
Before I had a chance to protest or offer a prayer for God to heal or fix or repair or change or whatever we expect him to do in those times, she was gone. Out of arms. By the time I turned around, the doctor placed her back into my arms, and she was noticeably lighter. My confusion evaporated as he whispered these words in my ear:
“Today’s the day she breathes on her own.”
He had only removed her from my arms to take out her breathing machine. She no longer needed to live life hindered. She could breathe on her own. Before I knew it, me and her were reunited with no more tubes between us.
In an instant, my thoughts of April 14th, God’s goodness, grief, and death changed forever.
Tears of sorrow and tears of joy both canalled into the corners of my mouth, and I realized they both tasted the same. In an instant, grief and hope, joy and sorrow intersected. I learned that grief and hope aren’t parallel streets that we travel down based on life’s circumstances.
They’re winding roads that intersect at some of the most unexpected points.
When the Almighty guides us down the paths of grief, He isn’t leading us away from hope. He’s trying to lead us to the point where those streets intersect so that we never believe the lie that our joy is tied to our circumstances.
Grief doesn’t need to be avoided. It’s calling for us to lean in. And even though our faith is shattered in pieces, we’re never alone. We’re carried along until we reach the point where it begins to make sense.
The only thing I was missing in the two-year gap was the patience to let God finish writing the story.
The Stories that Hold Us
Over the past seven years, I’ve shared this story hundreds of times to thousands of people. Each time, they have expressed their thanks as they have shared that hearing that story gives them the patience to allow God to continue to write their own.
One of the most important lessons for His children to learn is that tragedy doesn’t ruin any one of us.
You only need to hold on to hope. These stories help us hold on.
Stories change us because stories are about change.
When speaking the language of Grief, stories serve as repeated reminders to the grievers that change is possible. The tide has turned before; it’ll happen again. The role of the poet or storyteller, as Northrop Frye puts it is, “is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place.”
Today, I tell this story to remind us, that while God had a lot of children, He has no favorite children.
If He’s written a good story for one of us, He’s inclined to do it again.
I’ve shared mine. I’d love to hear yours! Because in the thickness of grief’s fog, I forget that fog isn’t solid. I’m tempted to stand still and I need other stories to help me move forward.
Would love for you to share your stories of hope in the comments. Take as much space as you need. I’ll repost some of the most encouraging ones this weekend here so the rest of the family can use the threads of your storyline to hold on to hope.