Right now I find myself in a deluge of tragic circumstances. Just a few days ago, a 29-year-old woman, a member of my congregation, died from an unknown staph infection leaving behind a bewildered, devastated family and scores of friends. A very good friend admitted his mother dying of cancer into hospice care, and then just a few hours later, she passed away. Another very good friend just told me that his mother is not doing well in her battle against cancer. I have a pretty high number of parishioners also battling cancer, grieving losses, and more.
As a pastor, I try very hard to be fully present with people in pain without shouldering their pain upon myself. I simply have too many people to care for and too many other leadership responsibilities to allow myself to be saddled with all the wounds and sorrows people carry. Yet that’s a fine line to walk, and after almost 20 years of ministry, I can’t always clearly see where that line is because it’s constantly moving. So if there’s a place to err, I’d rather be under the yoke of sorrow rather than hiding behind a shield of emotional distance.
That’s a choice I make, however, and sometimes it comes at a personal cost- one that I’m paying now. So, this post is just as cathartic for me as any chance it may have of being a blessing to someone else. Like most, I’ve had my own seasons of loss and pain along with the lessons I’ve learned. The following are some of my reflections and insights about the nature and redemption of pain.
1) Presence, not words.
When someone is in pain, the knee-jerk response is an urge to “say something to make it better.” That’s natural. We’re human beings. Made in God’s image, we’re creators, builders, and fixers. So when confronted with the inexplicable invasion of pain, our instinctual drives to create, build, and fix kick into high gear. Make the pain go away. Replace it with something else.
There’s one problem, however: pain can’t be undone or circumvented. For example, when someone dies and we’re filled with the pain of grief, no one’s words or any other attempt to fix it, manage it, or mask it can take away the pain from the unalterable fact that a loved one is permanently gone. Any attempt by others to fix, manage, or mask that reality can easily result in the unintended consequence of making the pain worse.
The true act of consolation is presence. When Job lost his children and all he owned, his friends Eliphaz, Bilbad, and Zophar came to visit. They wept with him and sat with him in silence for seven days. (This is the biblical precedence behind the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, a period of seven days when Jews in mourning welcome visitors to console them.) After losing my first fiancée Diane, the best consolers I had were those who just sat with me and listened. They said little. They held my hand, gave me hugs, and even shed tears with me. One church woman kept fresh flowers on my desk for several months after Diane’s death. I do remember getting lots of cards and notes from people, but I don’t remember anything the cards said. Their words did nothing to comfort me. But the act of remembering me and reaching out was the true gift of all those cards and notes.
2) There are no answers, only realities.
Why did this happen?
We human beings hunger for meaning and purpose, and pain is a deafeningly silent force that offers neither of those things. Sitting with the family and friends of the 29-year-old woman who died, so many have asked and will continue to ask, “How could this happen? Why did it have to happen? Why her? How could life (and God!) be so cruel?” I think we ask these questions as a way to gain some kind of power over a pain we did not ask for or deserve. Perhaps if we could understand the pain or explain it in some way, we could gain some mastery over it.
Try as we might, that struggle is an illusion. We’ve heard it said- and it’s very true- that many times we just don’t know. Yet all is not lost. I have learned that peace comes when we accept the wisdom that there are mysteries we do not know and do not need to know. We can find healing and meaning even with unanswered questions. I also came to a practical realization that even if I was able to find an answer to my questions of why?, those answers would not somehow lessen the pain or make it more bearable. That same pain would still be there, even if I possessed all omniscience into the rhyme and reason of my own circumstances.
Instead of answers, there are realities, and these realities bring about hope. As a disciple of Jesus, I have the realities of God’s presence, God’s faithfulness, the cross, resurrection, healing, and abundant life in the here and now to stake my life on. The presence of pain invites me to claim these realities in a new way to fit a new circumstance. Like lighthouses in treacherous waters or guide rails in a dark hallway, they are there for me to claim as I muddle my way forward. These truths are not mystical antidotes to the pain I carry, but they shepherd me through pain to the healing I seek.
3) Grief is a friend, not an enemy.
Grief is the byproduct of a great loss. Like an unwelcome guest, grief shows up in the place of what or who went missing. During times of loss, I remember at first hating grief, avoiding it, and doing all I could to beat it back. My grief became the great enemy to my happiness, which I felt could only be had if my loss was restored. Yet the losses we suffer can never truly be restored. Once we come to terms with that, then grief becomes our guide to letting go of who or what we lost. Grief guides us through all the necessary places of anger, sorrow, guilt, shock, and denial. Eventually grief leads us into a place of living well even with the pain of loss.
Over time, I have found grief to be a trusted friend. I don’t have control over grief. Grief often arrives unannounced and with no pre-arranged agenda. When grief arrives, however, it takes me where I need to go, and the result is one step closer to wholeness. With grief, wounds become scars. Deep sadness becomes joy. The cross and tomb burst open to the limitless possibilities of resurrection.
4) We can choose what to do with our pain.
This is the most difficult lesson to write about because in no way do I want to suggest that there are definite things to do with pain, or that what one person decides to do with their pain is necessarily better or more admirable than another person’s choices. However, I think it’s safe to claim that we do have the power to decide how to navigate through pain and what we want the legacy of our pain to be.
That said, I’d like to gently suggest one avenue of navigating through pain. We could choose a life in which our places of pain become the very places where others find comfort and healing. People have transformed their pain into advocacy movements, ministries, non-profit organizations, support groups, charitable foundations, books, seminars, music, poetry, and so much more. People have chosen to insert their own sense of meaning and purpose into their pain by using it as the very thing that would bring life and vitality to other people.
I have often said that while I am not at all grateful for the pain I have endured, I am grateful that with God’s help, I could find some wisdom, empathy, faith, love and strength I did not have before. I have allowed God to redeem my pain by deepening me to become a more authentic person and pastor. For all of that, I am eternally grateful. Yet I had to make the choice to do this, and my choices along the way did not always manifest themselves in the most gracious or endearing ways. Working through pain is always a messy process- an intentional slog, at times murky and perilous- but always forward-looking and stubbornly hopeful.
This post is written in loving memory of Meredith Mahr-Edmunds (3/25/88-7/29/17) and Doris Rodbell (10/15/37-7/31/17) and in honor of their loved ones. May God shepherd them through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures of healing.