Grief

Where Grief and Gratitude Meet

Last week felt like one giant win for Chaos, Fear, and Grief.  It was a week marked by terrible loss. Innocent men and women in Paris and Nigeria and Lebanon and Syria lost their lives to violence. Men and women in my country lost their sense of human decency to fear and self-preservation. A friend of mine in South Africa lost two of his friends last week to cancer. And Jonathan and I and the rest of the Wheaton College community lost two of our beloved English professors in the space of three days. I don’t have words for the collective grief of the world right now. I barely have words for my smaller, personal grief, but I feel that I need to say them anyway.

Grieving people talk about how to make sense of loss or come to terms with pain. I don’t know how to do either of those things. I only know how to say thank you.

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Brett Foster was 42 years old, a brilliant man and gifted poet with an extraordinarily kind and generous spirit. Jonathan and I actually met in Dr. Foster’s Ancient Literature class at 9:00 AM Monday morning our very first day of college. Dr. Foster, listening to you read The Odyssey and The Aeneid brought these epics to life for me in a way I’d never experienced before.  I can still hear your voice in my head when I read them today. Thank you for sharing your passion, your insights, and your love for words with me.

The summer after our freshman year at Wheaton, Jonathan did a summer study abroad program in England led by Dr. Foster along with a few other professors. One afternoon he announced his intention to see a special exhibit and invited anyone who wanted to to join him. Jonathan was the only student who showed up, so he and Jonathan went tot he museum by themselves and spent the afternoon together. Jonathan remembers how incredibly kind, genuine, and down-to-earth he was, even as a professor spending time with a student.

Thank you for seeing beauty in the world, but more than that, thank you for bringing beauty to the world through your words, through your authenticity, and through your generous spirit.

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Roger Lundin was dear to me in ways I don’t know that I can explain. Of all of my professors at Wheaton, he was perhaps the one who left the biggest impact. His death was sudden, unexpected and also much too soon. Dr. Lundin was big in every sense of the word – a tall man with long lanky limbs ending in large hands and feet, a huge, booming voice, a staggering intellect, and an enormous, tender heart.

He had a memory like no one else I’ve ever known. I once went to his office to discuss a paper I was having trouble with. “This is what I want to talk about, but I’m just not sure how to tie it in with the larger historical context.” He leaned back in his chair and thought for no more than 15 seconds before saying, “There’s a book I think you can find in the school library,” he named an obscure title, “and around page 140 there is a paragraph near the bottom of the page that speaks to exactly what you’re saying.” I left his office and went to the library where I found the book and the passage exactly where he said I would.

Last fall when Jonathan was applying for graduate school, he asked Dr. Lundin to write him a recommendation. Being nearly five years out of college, he was apologetic and tried to remind him of who he was. Dr. Lundin wrote back, “Of course I remember you. I think of you and Lily often and wonder how you’re doing in South Korea.”  He said he would be delighted to write the recommendations.

Most significantly for me, though, he had a dear and tender spirit. Through years of classes with him, I was repeatedly moved by the way he spoke of his wife – someone he regarded as the best and most vital part of himself and whose wisdom and input he not only deeply respected, but found essential. During my senior year at Wheaton when Jonathan and I were engaged I started seeing a therapist. I was trying to come to terms with how someone as deeply afraid and distrustful of men as I was could possibly enter a marriage. I remember telling my therapist, “There are only four men in the world I’ve never felt threatened by or afraid of in some way: my dad (though I was deeply afraid of his disapproval), Jonathan, my friend Leigh’s dad who I grew up with, and Dr. Roger Lundin.” (I’m sure there were people I wasn’t thinking of, but that’s how I felt at the time. You get the idea, I had issues).

Dr. Lundin, I think I remember ever story you ever told. Thank you for making me love Emily Dickinson and Dostoyevsky, for introducing me to Milosz, and teaching me that literature and faith were inseparable. But mostly, thank you for teaching me not to apologize for who I am, and for making me believe that there were men in the world who could be trusted and that marriages really could be beautiful, equal partnerships.

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I confess that I don’t want to die and I think it’s brutally unfair that these men died last week. I am one of hundreds, of thousands, of students whose lives were shaped by these men and in a small way, it comforts me to know that I am just one of many who care deeply that these men lived and mourn deeply that they’re gone.

There is nothing I can say to make this sting less. All I’m left with is, “Thank you.” Thank you for sharing yourselves with me, and with so many others. Thank you for showing me how to live a life that matters. Thank you for being exquisite examples of lives well-lived.

The following is a poem that Dr. Foster wrote as he neared the end of his life. I want to finish with just this, Dr. Foster, you did give the sickness and the shivering meaning. And you and Dr. Lundin both showed us all how to go out singing. I’m deeply saddened that you’re gone, but I am profoundly grateful for the lives you lived.

Isaiah 43

I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth, with heart
astir. It’s not oath-taking that I’m concerned
with here, for what that’s worth— instead just a cry
from the very blood, a good, sound imprecation
to give the sickness and the shivering meaning.
Former things have not been forgotten,
but they have forgotten me. The dear, the sweet,
the blessed past, writes Bassani. Tongue is the pen.
Donning some blanket of decorousness
is not the prophet’s profession, not ever.
Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow. Yet sorrow’s the thing
for all prophets. Make a way in the wilderness,
streaming your home-studio-made recordings
from a personal wasteland. These are my thoughts.
I can’t manage the serious beard. My sackcloth
is the flannel shirt I’m wearing. But the short-circuited
months have whitened my hair, and it’s not
for nothing that Jeffrey calls me, with affectionate
mockery, the silver fox. It’s a prerequisite, finally—
being a marginal prophet, but a severe attention
to envisioned tomorrows must be present, too,
must be perceived as possible, audible, or followable.
There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything,
each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites.
And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.

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The Summer of Unbelief

It rained almost every day this summer –not the brief and angry afternoon storms of my childhood, but in intermittent streams all day long, like someone turning a faucet on and off. The honey-golden days of June and July were swallowed by a colorless sky and air so thick and sticky that walking to work in the mornings felt like wading through molasses. The barometric pressure swelled every day, the pressure inside my head building with it, straining for equilibrium, my nose and eye sockets and temples pulsing with pain like I’d been punched in the face. Sometimes I felt like the summer had been one long headache, though in fairness, I suppose it could have partly been from all the crying.

April and May and the beginning of June were an emerald green haze of hope. I felt energized, excited about the future, and more open to God and to life than I had in a long time. We made the decision to stay in Korea, the cherry blossoms were scattering beauty everywhere and my parents came all the way from America to visit. I joined a Bible study and Husband and I started meeting with our friends each week for “church.” I was running again, my writing was gaining momentum, and I felt like I could see God’s fingerprints everywhere I looked.

When the summer came those fingers I’d imagined sweetly leaving their mark on the world turned into fists that pounded me so relentlessly I was sure that if I looked closely I’d actually see bruises blooming purple under my skin.

Some blows were truly big and terrifying things, like cancer and ISIS and planes falling from the sky. Some were only personal tragedies – losing our cat and saying forever goodbyes to friends moving away, moments of disconnect and frustration. And some were simply annoyances—a broken computer, a busted kindle screen, a new shirt that shrunk in the wash—but piled on top of the big things they felt like a conspiracy to suck all the goodness out of life.

I have prayed more and harder over these past few months than any other time I can remember. In the middle of the night when I have lain awake, exhausted but unable to sleep, I have begged God for mercy – for the world, for my loved ones, for myself. But I always woke in the morning feeling alone and unheard.

Part of me was angry. Because even though this goes against everything I believe, some subconscious piece of me felt cheated. Like I’d been faithfully holding up my end of the bargain and God had let me down.* And another, larger part of me was simply bone-weary.

Husband says these are the moments that draw him into God, make him see his own need. I suppose that’s what the people who suffer so beautifully through great tragedies experience. They are drawn to God in their pain.

I’m not one of those people.

When it seems like the darkness is winning and God feels utterly disinterested, I lose heart. And I lose faith –not in God exactly, but certainly in God’s goodness.

See, I’ve never really questioned the existence of God. My Big Question isn’t if God exists, it’s “Is He good?” And even if He is good, how can I know that he is really involved in the world in any significant way?

I know, I know. Oh me of little faith. But the problem is that you put your faith in the one you trust. And it would seem that I am not to-my-bones and in-my-belly convinced that I can trust God’s goodness. When I see the vast power of the ocean or the way the mists roll over the mountains in the morning, or when I see ordinary, messy people made beautful, I see God’s work in the world and I believe that God is good and maybe even that he cares about me. But when the ugly bits of life break in and I beg for grace and rescue that doesn’t seem to come, I waver. Is God still good here? Now? Or (maybe worse) is He good and simply not interested?

I don’t believe God has promised us an easy life. He has simply promised to be with us. To give us Himself. But sometimes He doesn’t seem to be doing that either.

My wise friend Julie said to me “Maybe God is asking, ‘Will you still trust me now?’”

If He is, I’d like to be able to answer His question with a grumbly, big-sigh, reluctant, “Yes.” But the truth is that I don’t know. I just don’t know.

The summer is ending and I am running out of tears and out of prayers. All I am left with are the words of the father in the gospels whose name we’ll never know: **

“Help my unbelief!”

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*Which, of course, isn’t Christianity at all. It’s karma. But that’s another story for another day.
**The man in Mark 9 whose son has an evil spirit.

 

 

No Right Words: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

The news came in bits and pieces – a trip to the hospital, some internal bleeding, too much blood thinner. Then the suspicion of diabetes which would mean big lifestyle changes. More tests to confirm. And then they found the tumor, wrapped around pancreas and liver, obstructing valves and major arteries. Then the biopsy and the final (though no longer unexpected) diagnosis – Cancer.

And just like that, life changes. Conversations about what will happen next year or even next month are fraught with hesitation. The future everyone has taken for granted now dangles by a thread.

I am amazed by how quickly perspective shifts in these situations. Something clicks into places and our fundamentally adaptive natures try to bend themselves around a new reality. We find ourselves saying things that would have been ridiculous just weeks ago. “I’m so glad he made it to the hospital when he got sick.” “It’s wonderful that he has family with medical training to help.” We are grateful for the most absurd things. For the shots of insulin that simulate a pancreas. For a treatment plan that may buy a few more precious months.

This grief is one step removed from me -the loved one of a dearly loved one. I won’t pretend that this affects me as directly as it does her and her family. (But surely the next worst thing after losing someone you love must be watching someone you love losing someone they love).

I stand in my shower on the other side of the world and sob, hiding my face in the corner of the tiled wall. My loved one is losing her loved one and I am not there. How could I not be there? And instead I am in this wretched (right now) country 7,000 miles away, unable to do the only thing I know how to do. Be present. I get out of the shower and try to prepare myself for the conversation I’m about to have. I am afraid. I rely on words like air and suddenly there aren’t any right ones.

I think of the story of Lazarus. That famously short verse that simply says, “Jesus wept.” This story has always moved me deeply. It’s not just that Jesus shows empathy and humanity in this moment. It’s because he shows it in spite of the fact that he is minutes away from raising Lazarus back to life.

Almost two years ago to the day, a classmate of mine from college passed away unexpectedly. At the time I wrote this post about grieving where I reflected on what it meant for Jesus to weep for Lazarus in spite of knowing that glory was mere minutes away. Maybe this isn’t just a story to reassure us of Jesus’s compassion, but is also instructive for us in how to be human.

“I think it’s this exact feeling we have when things like Josiah’s death occur. We are wracked with grief because the world is not as it should be. Our hearts are torn because, even though we have the hope of eternity, in the present things are broken. I think Jesus shows us by example that it is appropriate, even correct, to grieve for the brokenness of the present even as we hold the hope of the future. What is more horrific  in the present than the stark contrast of the way the world is now against the glorious way it was meant to be and will be in the future?”

I open my computer and my friend’s face fills the screen.  “This is NOT OK,” I say to my dearest friend, whom I love as though she is a part of myself,. “And it’s probably not going to be OK for a long, long time. And it’s OK not to be OK.” I don’t know if it’s the right thing to say, but I refuse to profane this moment by spewing words I don’t mean. Maybe these aren’t the most encouraging words, but they are the only ones that feel true.

 

A Sobering Moment: What Do We Do in the Face of Real Grief?

Those of you who are Wheaton friends are already aware of the sudden loss of 2011 alumnus Josiah Bubna on Saturday. For my non-Wheaton friends, Josiah was a year behind Jonathan and I at Wheaton, a big, strong guy who had grown up as a missionary kid in Africa and played on Wheaton’s football team.*

I am sure that some of you reading knew Josiah better than I did, and I won’t try to claim that this loss is greater for me than for any of you, but Josiah’s death has touched me in a profound way. While we in the Wheaton community have suffered several tragic and difficult losses in the last few years, this has been the one that has hit closest to home for me.

I worked with Josiah in the nursery at Blanchard Alliance Church. He was this huge, strong man with such a gentle heart. I can vividly picture the way he looked with a toddler up on his shoulders. His parents are missionaries supported by Blanchard Alliance and we often spoke of them and prayed for them in services. Josiah also often hung out in the office for the Wheaton Record where I was an editor. While we didn’t have the same group of close friends and didn’t hang out outside of our mutual activities, he was a familiar face to me and he was almost always smiling.

Beyond the grief I feel over the loss of someone I knew and the collective grief of our community, I have been overwhelmed by compassion for his fiancée. How do you go from planning your wedding and your future with someone one day to planning their funeral the next? I know that God is mighty to heal even this depth of hurt, but if I were her I don’t think my first reaction would be to turn to Him. If God had taken my fiancé or my husband now, I can’t honestly promise that I would respond with grace. I have been praying that God would give her a supernatural peace and surround her with people who can support her.

Jonathan wrote an article for Relevant magazine’s website recently that discussed the complexity of the problem of evil and how impossible- and even inappropriate- it is to give a simple answer to the question of why evil exists, or why bad things happen. It’s situations like these that really make you ask those questions. And it’s situations like these that leave you without answers other than  to accept the truth that Christ on the cross means that God is good, even – impossibly – in this.This has been sobering for me. It is an all-too concrete reminder of how little control we have over our lives and how none of us are promised a long one. Josiah was 22, but he did more with those years than many people do with 80. He played college football, got his degree, made many friends, helped in the nursery, moved to Japan to work with Samaritan’s Purse, fell in love, asked a beautiful woman to marry him and she said yes. He was a wonderful son and grandson and brother and friend. And even having lived so fully, it feels so wrong that he should just be gone. That a man who had that much to give should be taken. Beyond the sadness that I feel for his family and friends there is the grief of the wrongness of the whole situation and the deep conviction that things like this just shouldn’t happen.

I think it’s only right that we should feel this way. And I think that Jesus, too, felt this way. I am reminded of the famous story of Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. We use this story to point to Jesus’ compassion and his love for Lazarus and his sisters. But I think this is also instructive for us. I think that we forget sometimes that Jesus already knew the outcome of this situation. And not just on a grand universal scale. He not only knew that death would ultimately be defeated and that there would eventually be eternal glory. He also knew that in literally 5 minutes he was going raise Lazarus from the dead. So how could he get so worked up over this guy being dead? I think it’s this exact feeling we have when things like Josiah’s death occur. We are wracked with grief because the world is not as it should be. Our hearts are torn because, even though we have the hope of eternity, in the present things are broken. I think Jesus shows us by example that it is appropriate, even correct, to grieve for the brokenness of the present even as we hold the hope of the future. What is more horrific  in the present than the stark contrast of the way the world is now against the glorious way it was meant to be and will be in the future?

For me, this has also caused a lot of personal reflection about how I spend my time and what I am doing with my life. I have a lot of dreams. A lot of things I want to see and do in my life. When I express frustration with my job being something I don’t care about or with my present inability to pursue some of the things I want to, people often say to me, “But you’re only 24. You have your whole life to be able to do those things. Just because you can’t do them now doesn’t mean you’ll never do them. The things you don’t like about now are just a season. You won’t be in this same place forever.” I’ve always tried to see things that way. Not to live dissatisfied with where I am and always be looking for the next thing. But Josiah’s sudden death screams at me the opposite reality. That there is no guarantee. Perhaps today will be the end of my “entire life.” Perhaps today is all that I have. How can I know that this isn’t, in fact, my final season.

I don’t think the answer to this is fear, and I am trying not to respond in that way. But I do feel deeply convicted that I want to spend as many days as I can doing things that matter to me and that matter in eternity. I can’t spend any more time doing things that aren’t life-giving. I’ve been in my current job for almost a year. That’s over 2,000 hours I’ve spent doing something that holds little value or joy for me. I don’t want to spend my next 2,000 hours this way. Whether that means finding a job that’s more fulfilling in itself or simply finding a job that will give me more time and energy to invest in the things and the people I do care about.

I would ask all of you to sincerely join me in praying for Josiah’s family and especially his fiancée. I would also challenge you to consider, as I am, the reality of how fragile and fleeting our lives are and the importance of how we spend them. Josiah knew Christ and he loved and served people. It was apparent, even to those of us who didn’t know him that well. I want to live that kind of life, every day, for as many days as I am given.

One day I hope I can truly look at this, and things like this and say, “O Grave, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” But today I am still feeling Death’s sting.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               

*I know for me, it’s painful to have to go through the details of what happened over and over much less write them down myself, so I’m just going to paste the official email from Wheaton here for anyone who doesn’t know the details.

It is with deep sorrow that we report to the Wheaton College community the sudden and unexpected death of Josiah Bubna, class of 2011, who died Saturday afternoon (July 7).

While exercising at the Wheaton College track, Josiah sat down to rest and then collapsed. He had been running with his fiancée, Rebekah Falcone. CPR was administered immediately at the scene before the arrival of paramedics. Josiah was transported by ambulance to Central DuPage Hospital where it was determined that he had not survived.

Josiah and Rebekah were in the midst of planning their wedding set for August 11. They had met a year ago in Japan where they were both serving with Samaritan’s Purse.

Josiah’s parents, Joel and Elin Bubna, and his sisters, Angele (age 15) and Nadia (age 13) were all in Wheaton preparing for the wedding. The Bubnas are a missionary family ministering in Senegal, Africa. Rebekah is from New York state.

Pastoral care for the Bubna family is being provided by the staff of the Blanchard Alliance Church. Visitation will be held on Wednesday, July 11, from 5—8 p.m. at Hultgren Funeral Home, 304 N. Main Street, Wheaton, IL. A memorial service will be held on Thursday, July 12, at 12 p.m. at the Blanchard Alliance Church at 1766 S. Blanchard Street, Wheaton, IL.

A complete obituary can be found at the Hultgren website.

Please uphold the Bubna family and Josiah’s fiancée, Rebekah, in your prayers in these very difficult days.