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 Unhappiness Project: Why I’m OK With Being Unhappy

A few months ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s book Happier at Home which is sort of a sequel to her uber popular book The Happiness Project (which I haven’t read). I wrote a mini-review of this book here, but the short version is that for me personally, I found her list of resolutions and things to do make life “happier” a little exhausting. More than that though, I found myself thinking a lot about the concept of happiness and whether or not pursuing happiness is valuable, worthwhile, or even right.

Many people, particularly in Western society, live with some idea that happiness is a right that human beings are entitled to. We act as though our default setting as human beings is happiness and that if we aren’t feeling happy, we need to figure out what’s wrong and adjust it so that we can get back to the state of happiness we are meant to be in. We view unhappiness and unhappy people as something to be avoided at all costs. So we distract ourselves with busyness, numb ourselves with medication or other substances, try to buy ourselves material happiness through consumerism, or drive ourselves to earn more, achieve more, be more social, take more vacations, cross more things off of our to-do list, often because we think these things will bring us the happiness we want and feel we deserve.

I was raised on pat little phrases like, “God is more concerned with your holiness than with your happiness,” so it’s always been somewhat ingrained in me that happiness is not a basic human right, nor is it something I’m entitled to. And while I struggle against the view I described above (because this is the world we live in and it’s easy for me to adopt some of those messages without even realizing it) my bigger struggle with happiness comes from something else I’ve been told my whole life. That happiness is dependent on your circumstances, but joy isn’t. That I can (and must) choose joy.

My struggle with unhappiness is compounded by the guilt I feel for not being happy. I’ve often felt that allowing myself to stay unhappy without actively fixing it or “choosing joy” in spite of it was both selfish and sinful. Not because I’m entitled to happiness, but because being unhappy in spite of the many good things in my life is wrong, ungrateful, and selfish. And so I try to fix myself. I try to create, or choose happiness in a season where it isn’t coming naturally. And I find myself discouraged by the weight of disappointment when I can’t seem to do it.

I don’t want people to think of me as an unhappy person. I don’t want my husband, who loves me and is constantly concerned with my happiness, to be burdened with a wife who can’t be pleased or who is chronically unhappy. But I am understanding more and more what it means that I am a Highly Sensitive Person. The traits of passion and compassion and emotional excitability that make up some of the best parts of my personality are the same traits that cause me to be deeply affected by sadness, and sometimes prone to anxiety and depression.

I recently saw the new animated movie, Inside Out (which is terrific, by the way). The movie takes place inside of a little girl named Riley’s head where her major emotions are personified as the characters Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Sadness gets a really bad rap because she’s such a downer and the others want Riley to be happy all the time. *Spoiler Alert* But in the end they realize that Sadness is an essential part of who Riley is and that Sadness actually creates opportunities for feelings of joy, comfort, and peace.

The message of this movie was exactly what I’d been wrestling to articulate about my own self-discoveries. I’ve been learning to accept that unhappiness is not the worst thing. In fact, sometimes unhappiness is the right thing.

Two weeks ago a girl I went to high school with lost her husband in a car accident leaving her a 26-year-old widow with 5 small children. One week ago there was a shooting in a theater in my hometown, the same theater I’ve been to dozens of times throughout my life, and two young women lost their lives through a random act of violence. A few days ago my best friend’s father died of cancer just two months before her wedding.

These days I find happiness more difficult to grasp. In the past when I’ve gone through periods of sadness I’ve asked these questions: How many times am I allowed to cry about this? How sad is it OK for me to feel on behalf of other people’s tragedies? How many days or hours am I allowed to get over my sadness before I owe it to God and to the people in my life to be happy again?

I don’t want to ask these questions anymore. The answer is, and should always be, “As many as I need. As sad as I feel. As long as it takes.” And that’s OK. Being unhappy is not the same thing as succumbing to utter hopelessness. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe there is any good in the world. It (usually) doesn’t mean that you’ve decided to never be happy again. It simply means that you are human. That you live in a broken world. And that right now you are reacting to that brokenness with unhappiness. And that’s a good thing. (Also, it means you probably aren’t a sociopath).

More and more lately, when I recognize that I am unhappy, I try to identify why. Is it because of a choice I’ve made or am making? Is it something that could be easily fixed? (i.e. I’m unhappy because my clothes are too tight, and I can choose to exercise more and eat healthier). Is it because of something I am choosing to hold onto and obsess over that I need to let go of? (i.e. holding a grudge, getting worked up about small things). Is it a chemical/physical thing that I should seek counseling or medical attention for? Or am I unhappy because there’s something wrong in my life or in the world that I can’t fix or change? Then maybe the right response is to let myself feel unhappy. To lean into to the discomfort of that feeling even as I remember the beauty and the hope in my life. I can take my cue from the Psalms of David, from Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, from Jeremiah the weeping prophet, who didn’t avoid or cover-up their unhappiness, but expressed it.

I am sad right now. AND I have a wonderful husband and I am two weeks away from moving back to America and seeing my friends and family, and I have more than enough food to eat and clothes to wear and I am thankful for these things.

I am not happy. And that’s OK.

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.