Jerry Sittser understands grief and loss in a profound way. He and three of his children escaped from a car accident that took the life of his wife, his mother and one of his four children. How long would it take for someone to recover from a loss like that?
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Walking By Faith Through Irreversible Loss
Guest: Jerry Sittser
From the series: A Grace Disguised (Day 2 of 3)
Bob: Jerry Sittser understands grief and loss in a profound way. He and three of his children escaped from a car accident that took the life of his wife, his mother and one of his four children. How long would it take for someone to recover from a loss like that? Here’s Jerry Sittser.
Jerry Sittser: Through a long and often difficult journey I really did discover the Christian faith is true. Grace really is available to get us through these hard stretches of life. The ultimate message of Christianity is not self help. It is God’s help.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, July 7th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine. Jerry Sittser says when the landscape of life has been permanently altered God’s grace is there to help you make some sense of the loss and to give you peace.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We have been talking a lot not just this week but in recent weeks about the subject of loss. We’re trying to help listeners understand that your responses to the loss you will experience in life will help shape you and your family and your marriage and your whole life.
Dennis: It will. In fact, our guest on today’s program is really the result of losses that Barbara and I have experienced in recent days. In fact I want to welcome Barbara to the broadcast again.
Barbara Rainey: Thank you.
Dennis: Thanks for joining us again Sweetheart and thanks for recommending Jerry Sittser’s book A Grace Disguised. Jerry I want to welcome you to our broadcast. Welcome back.
Jerry Sittser: Thank you. It’s a privilege.
Jerry is the professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane Washington. As we mentioned earlier Jerry’s book was used in our family as it was recommended to Barbara by a friend. She started reading it after our daughter Rebecca and her husband, Jake, lost their daughter Molly after only seven days. This book really helped Barbara and me as well as Jake and Rebecca process through how the soul processes grief.
We mentioned earlier how you lost your wife, your mom and your daughter in a tragic car wreck in 1991. That really is the genesis of this book. I have to ask you a big picture question. If you could summarize what you think God is up to when He allows us to experience grief what would you say? You’ve experienced it on a profound level that few people will ever experience it. What do you think He’s up to in grief?
Jerry Sittser: I am not sure I can answer that question in a word. That’s a very difficult question actually. I think over all I would say that God is in the business of reclaiming people who have turned away from Him. He created us in His image. He created us to be gloriously beautiful people who participate in the divine glory. The perfect relationship that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we’ve turned away from that.
That divine image has been marred and made perverse. He wants not simply to save us. He wants to reclaim us and restore us and one of the ways that happens like it or not is through suffering. I honestly think suffering is necessary in the Christian faith.
It happens in lots of different ways some we can choose like the suffering that comes when we deny our appetites and practice self discipline. John Calvin called it self denial.
Sometimes that suffering is imposed upon us through some kind of loss or tragedy. Either way we need some kind of suffering not masochistically but honestly realistic to become the holy people God wants us to be and to draw us into a vital relationship with Him.
Bob: Grief that we experience when we go through a loss to what extent are we in…I don’t want to use the word control but to what extent do we have power over that grief? And to what extent does the grief have power over us? Do you know what I’m asking here?
Jerry Sittser: Well, I’ll start by saying this. I don’t think God causes these things as if He were some kind of divine manipulator who hovers above the ground and zaps us with cancer or divorce or job loss or loss of portfolio or loss of a loved one. I think that is a very poor mechanistic view of the sovereignty of God. I think God is in it. God’s sovereignty is in it. I don’t think God causes it in that kind of crude kind of way. I will say God uses it. God’s in it in that sense.
Our choice is whether we’re going to respond to the work the sanctifying work God is trying to do in our lives. Does grief and loss have power? Of course it does. It can change the entire course of our lives.
But I think the greater power is the way we respond by faith to God’s work in our lives. It’s a hard thing to say. It sounds so easy and so trivial. Oh you know God’s trying to sanctify us. I almost resist saying it because I don’t what it to come across kind of cheap as if I’m quoting a Bible answer or a Bible verse and that verse is going to make everything right. Well, God works all things out for good for those who love Him. I mean that is a true statement. I believe that with all my heart but I also believe that is extraordinarily hard to work out in normal life.
Bob: There were times when I’m sure the grief had to be…I don’t know if I want to say overwhelming or just so compelling that you felt powerless against it.
Jerry Sittser: Of course. I think any true catastrophic loss leads to that. That’s the difference between a normal loss from which you’ll recover like you’re high school athlete and you break your leg and lose the season. It’s a big loss and it’s hard but you’re going to get your leg back again and you might be able to play another season.
There’s a big difference between that kind of loss though significant and the loss of a spouse or the loss of your health. I call those irreversible losses and I’ll tell you they have power. We’re fools not to acknowledge the power they have.
Barbara: Interestingly I was with our daughter Rebecca a couple of weeks ago and she and her husband, Jacob, had renewed hope. They had gotten pregnant with baby #2 and then at 14 weeks gestation the baby died. She had to deliver this still born baby at 16 weeks. Go through the labor and delivery which was traumatic in and of itself but as I was there for a week and we had many really wonderful conversations.
During that time one of the things Rebecca said to me that was really profound was we’re not as fragile as we think we are. We feel like in these really hard times that we won’t survive but she said I’ve learned that we can handle a lot more than we think that we can handle. Because God strengthens us to go through these things that he takes us through.
She said I’m just amazed that I can go through this and still live. Because you feel like you won’t live. You feel like you’re going to die because of the burden of the grief. She said I’ve learned we are stronger than we think we are. We aren’t as fragile as people as we imagined that we would be when looking at a situation like that.
Bob: Did you feel like you weren’t going to live in the days that followed your wife’s death?
Jerry Sittser: No I think that maybe that’s a little too extreme. I knew somewhere deep inside my soul that God was still God. I had to live in this dynamic tension between acknowledging the severity of the loss on all levels. Not just intellectual but emotional.
Grief has its way. It is corrosive. It gets to you. You can push it away for a month or a few months. You can work hard. You can develop bad habits and do whatever you want to run away but eventually it’s going to get its way. It’s going to tell you that those people are gone and they are never going to come back again. So that’s one side of things.
Acknowledging the severity of the loss on the other hand also requires us to live by faith and to recognize there is a bigger story being told. God is somehow in this even if we don’t see how He is. Even if we don’t have any evidence at our immediate disposal that God is God and God is good somehow we have to believe that that is still the case.
You have to live in that tension. If you pretend it’s not severe it’s like painting over mold. You don’t want to give that mold too much power either. Recognize that you can get rid of that mold and put on fresh paint and make that wall beautiful again. It’s a very delicate process to navigate through the months and sometimes the years involved.
Bob: So you’re not saying to somebody keep a stiff upper lip and deny the anguish of your soul in the midst of grief.
Jerry Sittser: I don’t think so. I don’t think the Bible teaches that either. You look at the book of Psalms and fifty percent or about 75 of them are devoted to the Psalms of lament…The anguish of the soul in the face of unanswerable questions or so it seems at the time and unimaginable loss and grief…the trail of enemies and this kind of thing.
We have a kind of emotional handbook right in the Bible that’s acknowledging the severity of these kind of losses. I think it’s not wise to pretend that they don’t exist or they aren’t serious. They don’t have the final word. That’s what a Christian believes. The final word is the Resurrection.
Dennis: Jerry, you describe a scene in the mortuary where you visited the three caskets and you asked to have them opened. You were there alone for about an hour. You said that point ushered you into a darkness. Describe what took place in that setting in the mortuary?
Jerry Sittser: Well, it’s difficult. You have to use images because language just fails as it does to all people who’ve gone through some kind of severe loss. I felt like I was floating just in the universe and utterly cut off and alienated. I looked around to see billions of stars. The world seemed like a cold impersonal place. It was really an awful experience for me. But it also turned out to be a significant turning point for me too.
That very night or a few nights later I had a kind of waking dream. It was a dream but it was not like a typical dream at all. It was very vivid and real to me. It is to this day. In this dream I was chasing frantically after the sun that was slowly setting in the west. I remember as I was running that there was the frantic panicked terrifying feeling. It was as if that sun beat me to the horizon it would never come back to me again.
Finally the sun did sink below the horizon and I stopped exhausted and looked with a sense of foreboding to the darkness from the east that was sweeping over me. Then I awoke from the dream and I felt a kind of extastential darkness. It was if I was going to be in this darkness for the rest of my life. It was really a terrible feeling.
I told a cousin this dream a few days later and he reminded me of a poem written by John Donne a very famous 17th century Anglican poet. In the poem Donne says that on a flat map east and west are far removed from each other. The farther east you go the farther removed you are from the west. But on a globe if you go east you eventually meet west.
Then I talked to my sister about this and she said that’s the cue for you Jerry. If you keep running west to try to stay in the fiery warmth of the setting sun you will actually stay in the darkness longer. But if you have the courage to plunge into that darkness heading east even if you’re hanging by one thin thread of faith all the sooner will you come to the sunrise. That was really a cue for me to head into darkness and let grief have its way with me assuming that I would all the sooner come to the sunrise.
Bob: You did have a period of darkness in the days that followed. There was depression and daily weeping. As we sit here 18 years later talking about trusting in God in the midst of those days it was a hard journey you were on.
Jerry Sittser: It was a hard journey. There were lots of tears and lots of tears of my kids. Actually the hardest period was after the tears stopped. The tears kind of turned to brine. It became thick and bitter. Almost like molasses. It didn’t flow quite so easily. That was darker still. This is hard work. It is for anybody who goes through a severe loss.
Dennis: Yes and watching our daughter go through this both Barbara and I as parents have felt so powerless apart from our prayers. There really are no words to be able to share. Our daughter found a lot of healing and help in writing a blog. I’ll never forget one of her blog entries where she described mourning the loss of her daughter and finding comfort by crawling up into the crib and weeping for the loss of her baby girl.
As those who peer in other people’s lives coach us a bit on how we can keep an appropriate distance and not be trite in what we say. What should we say and do for that person who is entering or is in the valley of the shadow of death?
Jerry Sittser: I would say presence, consistency, patience, and symbolic gestures. I have a young friend—well, she’s not so young any more—who was the accompanist to Linda’s voice students when we lived in Iowa and she has sent me a long letter and card on the anniversary of the accident for 18 years recalling incidences, sharing life and expressing sympathy. She’s never too syrupy. I find that kind of gesture profoundly meaningful.
When we aren’t affected by loss in the dailyness of life it’s easy to think that after two or three months people should be getting on with the business of life because we are getting on with the business of life. But for those who are affected in a primary kind of way they are the ones who have suffered the loss and whose landscape of life is permanently altered they are living in that for a long period of time in one sense for the rest of their lives.
Now their perspective is going to change over time. Mt. Rainier is always 14,410 feet. It looks a lot bigger when you’re a mile away than when you are 50 miles away. The size never changes.
Our perspective can change over time admittedly so I think that dailyness, consistency, presence and those symbolic gestures are probably the best we can do.
Then simply pick up on cues. The cues like when they are ready to talk. Be ready to listen. When they really feel like they are ready to receive a word then you give it but never before that.
Jerry Sittser: And what you don’t want to do is use words to try to somehow push the loss and its significance away. Sometimes words can actually exacerbate the problem rather than help the problem. I mean Job’s three friends did their best work when they just shut their mouths for a week and sat with Job on that heap of ashes.
Bob: Barbara were there people in your life or in Jake and Rebecca’s lives who did some of those same things like symbolic gestures that Jerry is talking about.
Barbara: Yes, there have been some remarkable young men and women friends of Jacob and Rebecca’s who have done things that I wouldn’t have thought to do.
On the very first Easter after Molly died one of their friends brought an Easter basket that was pink with pink candy and a pink bunny and bow and left it on their front porch and said Happy Easter. It would have never occurred to me to do that but it was a powerful statement of love. They didn’t stay themselves. They just left it there.
So there have been those kinds of things that people have thought to do and what we’ve noticed and learned by watching them is if you have an idea of something like that act on it. Because so often I think we think of an idea and think well that might not be a good thing to do.
The people who have encouraged Jacob and Rebecca the most are the ones who have had the thought to write them a note or have had the thought to drop off the Easter basket. There have been other things too that they’ve thought of and acted on it.
Bob: Jerry I hear Barbara’s story about the Easter basket and I think to myself boy, I don’t know that I’d want to do that. It’s almost like saying here’s a reminder on Easter that you lost your child nine months ago…
Barbara: They know it anyway.
Jerry Sittser: As if they aren’t thinking the same thing. Are you kidding me?
Barbara: Of course they think about it.
Jerry Sittser: We did a lot of things as a family, too. We always observe the anniversary of the accident and at key milestones we’d have dinner parties and I’d invite our key community of friends over and we’d observe it and I’d thank them.
My wife Linda would have been 60 in April and I talked to all of my kids and we kind of laughed about what it would be like for them to have a 60 year old mother. We have been pretty mindful of these important milestones along the way even after all these years. It’s not at all bitter any more. We have a lot of good stories that have happened in these last 18 years. It’s been very rich and meaningful for us but we still are mindful of this loss and these important dates and milestones.
Dennis: Sometimes the grief will be expressed in a phone conversation or in person or in a letter or email where it’s clear that the person is truly grieving. At that moment they are really hurting.
Recently I received an email from our daughter and her husband just around what they were experiencing and I started weeping. I just wept. I thought what can I say? I just wrote back an email that said I’m weeping with you, Dad.
Jerry Sittser: Yes.
Dennis: I think many times in our desire to help as you just exhorted us Jerry it’s back to that statement—I have regretted my speech but never my silence. Sometimes the gift of presence and being there and letting someone know you are praying for them and you are there for them may be all that’s needed in that moment. Never underestimate the power of a human being touching another life at a point of tremendous trauma and hurt in a catastrophic loss like you experienced.
Bob: And coming alongside with a gift like a copy of Jerry’s book and you can say you may not want to read this right now but at the right time I believe this book will minister to you in a profound way.
We have copies of Jerry’s book called A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. We would love to send you a copy. Go to our web site FamilyLife Today.com. Again that’s FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order online from us if you’d like or if it’s easier call 1-800-FL-TODAY. That’s 1-800-358-6329.
Let me also mention a book you have written Barbara along with your daughter Rebecca when your granddaughter Molly was born and lived for seven days before she died. That book is called A Symphony in the Dark: Hearing God’s Voice in Seasons of Grief. You can find more information about that book on our web site as well FamilyLife Today.com. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. That’s 1 800 “F”as in family “L” as in life and then the word TODAY.
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Tomorrow we’ll talk about how we can be used by God to bring comfort to others as they experience loss and hope you can be with us as we continue our conversation with Jerry Sittser.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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