On Easter, as our opening hymn began, so too did my tears. Fresh tears of grief flowed freely, the result of having endured the most difficult two weeks of my life. Those tears mixed with tears of joy that came from celebrating the risen Christ.
Through the haze of my own tears, I noticed one of our youth ministry family's sitting a few rows ahead of me. This family's cheeks were also stained with tears as they mourned something different, the loss of a 19-year old friend whose life they celebrated later that day. Though this 19-year old was not part of our community of faith, he graduated from one of our local high schools only last year. His unexpected death profoundly impacted several of my students, including the family who sat crying a few rows ahead of me throughout Easter worship and another student who approached me after Maundy Thursday worship asking if we could talk.
I suspected what was on this student's mind as I walked up the flight of steps with her to my office after worship. Even so, I must admit, I prayed I was wrong. I prayed she wanted to talk about something more frivolous, more trivial... Something that in that moment I felt more ready to handle than a conversation about death and grief.
Of course, in the moments after tragedy strikes – and to be clear, the death of a 19-year old is always a tragedy – frivolous things cease to matter. What this student wanted to talk about was indeed death and grief. So I took a deep breath, silently muttered a prayer of “Help”, and dove into the conversation, unsure as to whether or not I could actually counsel this girl when my own grief was still so very raw. In the process of doing so, here's what I learned:
1. Despite how fresh my own grief was, I had the emotional and spiritual strength to sit with this student and listen when it mattered most because of the way in which others had so recently done the same for me. As I sat with her, I drew from the very small emotional and spiritual reservoir I had left thanks to the space and freedom my colleagues gave me to do what I needed to do to take care of myself in the midst of my grief (even though it was Holy Week, the most important week of the church year). Thanks to that, by the time this student asked to meet with me, I had spent the better part of a week praying, reading, journaling, and crying - processing my own grief, alone and with others. As a result of this, I was able to let this student's grief – and not my own - be the focus of our time together.
2. We, ourselves, do not have to be healed in order to walk through grief with others. As I sat with this student, my own grief enabled me to more fully empathize with hers. I made no attempt to offer her words of comfort because I knew only too well how empty those words sound to someone who's in the middle of the painful throws of grief. Instead, I listened and occasionally asked questions. I verbally gave her permission to feel whatever she was feeling and even to question God.
The day after my world fell apart, my friend gave me a card containing these words: “Know you are loved. Know you do not have to hide or pretend that things are OK.” On the day I received them and in the days since then, these words have ministered deeply to my soul; So, too, has knowing that she and many others have shared in my grief. In so many ways, this (and my faith) is what has carried me through the last few weeks.
The reality is that grief sucks - it has for me and I know it will for this student as well - but it sucks just a little bit less when you know others are in your corner. And so what I tried to communicate to this student (and what I hope she heard that night) was this: “You do not have to hide or pretend that things are OK. You are not alone. God is here. I am here. Others are here. We will walk with you through this and eventually, it will get better.”