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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Guest: Jerry Sittser
From the series: A Grace Disguised (Day 3 of 3)
Bob: Proverbs 25:11 says, “A Word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” When someone has experienced loss we need to be careful that our words are fitly spoken. Here’s Jerry Sittser…
Jerry: 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. The cue is, when they’re ready to talk, then you’re ready to listen. When they really feel like they are ready to receive a word, then you give it, but never before that. And what you don’t want to do is use words to try to somehow push the loss and its significance away.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, July 8th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll here today how God shows up in the midst of loss. And about how we can show up, too.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today and thanks for joining us. Just as I was walking in here, I got an email from our mutual friend, Dr. Michael Easley, who is the pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Franklin, TN, and Michael sent me a prayer that he had written to send to a couple who had experienced the loss of a child a year ago today. The child had lived two months and unexpectedly died. And Michael wrote this prayer for them.
He said, I pray for you today that your memories will be sweet, that your hearts will be calmed, that you will find a non-anxious presence. That you will choose to trust and see good when there is nothing for sure, that you will grieve, but not as those who have no hope, that you will find comfort and mercy in places others may never know.
That your “why” questions will be replaced with a confidence in knowing that, He knows, and that’s enough. We love you and ask Him to pour mercy, kindness and hope into your hearts. He does indeed know you and love you no matter what your experience may try to tell you.
Dennis: Bob, you know as I listen to those words, I think, how many people listening to this broadcast right now have experienced loss, some kind of major loss in their lives, in the past 5 to 10 years.
As I said earlier, if you live long enough, you will experience loss. In fact, life is really made up of a lot of losses as we lose our childhood, and move into adulthood. Some of those losses look good at the time but some of the losses aren’t easily figured out, in fact, some are never figured out on this side of heaven. We’ve had a guest with us, Dr. Jerry Sittser who has helped us better understand the process of grieving through his book, A Grace Disguised. Welcome back.
Jerry: Thank you, it’s good to be here.
Dennis: I mentioned earlier, that Barbara had recommended this book to me after our daughter, Rebecca and her husband Jake, experienced the loss of their daughter after seven days of life. And Barbara joins us on the broadcast as well. Sweetie, welcome.
Barbara: Thank you, glad to be here.
Dennis: In fact, I hadn’t asked you this question, sweetheart. As you read this book, what was it about Jerry’s book that most ministered to you, and why have you recommended it to so many people?
Barbara: Well, I wish I had my copy in front of me, I tried to find it this morning, and I can’t find where I set that thing. But at any rate it’s all underlined and marked, and page corners turned back.
And one of the things I remember most vividly is early in the first few chapters, Jerry, you talk about how loss is loss and that it doesn’t do any good to compare losses, and to say that this loss is worse than that loss. Because loss brings grief and it brings pain and that grief and that pain is real and it needs to be experienced. It is what it is. To try to explain it or measure it and say it’s not really that bad or it’s worse than this, doesn’t really make any difference in the long run. I think we are so prone to wanting to measure and figure these things out.
The other piece I remember real vividly is a later chapter in the book, it talks about how our identity is changed by grief and loss and how so much of who we are is wrapped up in our identity with that thing or that person or that ability we have lost. Whether it’s a divorce or a death, or whether it’s losing the ability through physical illness and how that personal identity is transformed through the process of loss and grief. I thought that was really helpful and profound.
Jerry: I call that the amputation of the familiar self.
Barbara: That’s what it was, yes.
Jerry: It’s extraordinarily hard, because we are really defined by our location, our relationships, our work, these things provide sources of identity and when one of those is lopped off, it requires a pretty long and significant period of adjustment to figure out who you are in the wake of the loss of that thing, when that thing defined you to some degree.
We have these phantom pains, you know. Phantom pains are the leg telling you it’s still there when you look down and it’s not there anymore. That’s what an amputation does and we will go through a long period of time when we feel those phantom pains of still feeling like we are this person, we belong to this person, we do this particular line of work and this kind of thing, even though we don’t anymore.
Bob: How long was it for you in the weeks that followed the car accident where your wife and your daughter and your mother all were killed? For how many months did you have this kind of reflexive phantom impulse to say, oh, I ought to call her and share this with her and then realize she’s not there?
Jerry: Well, for a long time. Reflexive is the right word, too. It is like a reflex, where it’s programmed in you, so automatic. When after twenty years, when you call your spouse once or twice a day just to check in, “Hi, honey, how’s it going and what are you doing, what are the kids doing, or how’s work going,” that sort of thing. You can’t help but have your mind go there; just automatically, it happens a long time. I would say after those months even though it wasn’t as reflexive as it once was, it still was an impulse in me.
And to tell you the truth, Bob, it still is, after 18 years. Now, I don’t say that in despairing or bitter kind of way. I still think about those people every day. There’s not a day that goes by, I don’t. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t like words like recovery; I think that gives us a kind of vain expectation as if we can get back to something we had before.
Dennis: Some months before our granddaughter, Molly, died, I received an email from the gentleman who heads up FamilyLife in New Zealand. His name is Andy Bray, he and his wife Nikki have given leadership to FamilyLife there for more than a dozen years. Their daughter who was 15 or 16 years of age, at the time, was killed in a tragic flood in New Zealand along with 5 or 6 other young people who were all first class Christian leaders.
It was a reward trip for these young people, and I received that email some months before Molly’s death. And I have to tell you that in those seven days of Molly’s life, I kept thinking, that has to be harder, a harder thing to bear, to have had a relationship with your daughter for 16 years and now, to say goodbye. I mean it’s one thing for my daughter and son-in-law to have a relationship for seven days and say goodbye, and the more I tried to work this equation out in my mind, I came to the conclusion that it was futility. It was a waste of time. Am I wrong?
Jerry: No, you are right. Comparing loss is vain. It’s like comparing headaches; I mean people will describe their headaches in lots of different ways. Well, how are you going to determine which one is worse? I mean it’s silly in the first place.
I put it this way; all losses are bad, just bad in different ways. How can you compare say the loss of a spouse to death and the loss of a spouse to divorce? How can you compare the loss of a child to death or say the loss of a child to waywardness, they are both bad. And they stand on their own and we need to treat them as unique and sacred in and of themselves.
I tell you that was one of the reasons why I hesitated to write this book. My story is kind of sensational in a way, I mean this big event and three people are killed in this drunken driving accident. Everybody sort of gasps and I became almost an instant celebrity in Spokane overnight and I didn’t like that. And the reason why I didn’t like that was because I was so profoundly aware of other kinds of losses that were as severe as mine, just different, and maybe not visible and maybe not as prone to receive sympathy from other people.
Let me give you an example, some guy came up to me a couple of years after the accident and said I’ve resented you for two years. And I said, “why, I hardly know you”, and he said, “your tragedy turned you into a hero, my tragedy has only brought more pain. My wife left me for another woman,” he said, “and I’ve had to deal with catastrophic consequences, but I’m nobody’s hero.”
That was very sobering for me to hear, it wasn’t very nice for him to say, but it was very sobering for me to hear, recognizing that there are lots of losses that do not receive very much public attention. If they do, it’s not with sympathy.
I hesitated to write the book and when I decided to write it, I inserted Chapter Two: Whose Loss is Worse, just to protect myself from being made some kind of false celebrity because of my loss. There are lots of ways to suffer, lots of ways to experience pain, and mine is only one. And there are lots of things I don’t know, I don’t know what it means to experience, let’s say the long term effects of terminal illness or injuries from which a person cannot recover.
Bob: You know, it was interesting, Barbara, to hear you reflect back on what had an impact on you as you read Jerry’s book. I asked Maryann last night, the same question. I said what was most impactful as you read the book, and she said probably the chapter on forgiveness. I thought it’s interesting, I don’t know that we make a connection between grief and loss and forgiveness, but you see those as being intimately tied together, don’t you?
Jerry: I do, and I titled that chapter: Forgive and Remember, instead of forgive and forget. I don’t think it’s possible and I don’t think it’s healthy to forget anything. But I think forgiveness can change the way we remember things.
Especially when we’ve had pain inflicted to us, spouses betrayed us, somebody’s done some violent act, say raped us or something like that, or someone has embezzled money and that destroyed our business. There are lots of ways we suffer loss when the results are catastrophic and somebody willed to do harm to us, directly or indirectly.
Bob: In your case, it was a drunk driver who swerved across the road, right?
Jerry: And smashed into us. Now he didn’t intend to do that, his harm was not malicious in the sense that he was out to kill three members of my family. But his irresponsible decisions did lead to that and required me to forgive.
Bob: What did you have to go through to get to forgiveness?
Jerry: I think there were two phases to it; the more immediate and obvious one was the trial when the drunken driver was acquitted on a technicality and he walked away. That only added kind of a bitter cast to an already difficult journey in forgiving somebody who had had such a significant impact on my life.
I learned in the process that forgiveness is not a singular act, it’s a process you go through. And I think the most significant decision we make, is to say, we want to forgive. Not that we forgive at the time, but we want to go through the process where forgiveness begins to take place. And we get to the point where we can wish the person well and pray for them.
Bob: You have heard some amazing, well; you’ve gotten some amazing feedback to the book. Letters, you were saying earlier, not a week goes by that you don’t hear from someone who God has used your story and your book profoundly in their lives.
Jerry: Yes, but it’s a strange thing, there’s a kind of an otherness to this book. I actually brought it with me. I’ve reread it once since I wrote it and that was when the new edition came out about five years ago, about the only time I ever cracked it.
I skimmed it a little bit yesterday and it was a strange experience, because it’s almost as if I didn’t write it, it has a quality of otherness to it. As if it’s not quite mine, I think the closest it would come would be the way that parents feel about their children. Is that those children are so much a part of you but when you look at them and get to know them you realize they’re so other than you, too. And that’s how I feel about this book.
Dennis: You did tell a story before we came in the studio of a letter you have received from a woman who had a brother who was murdered.
Jerry: And this was after 28 years. And through those 28 years of suffering she described it as being very harsh, very hard. She feels like she lost her mother permanently in the wake of her brother’s murder and this sort of thing.
She decided that she needed to forgive the murderer of her brother, so she did research, found out where he was in the prison system and asked if she could have permission to visit him. He sort of coldly gave her permission, and so she went to see him and God gave her two words, on the ride to see him, and these are very powerful to me.
The first is, you’re never beyond the reach of the grace of God, and the second is you can always become the man God wants you to be, even if you’re in prison. And she met this man, forgave him, he broke down and sobbed, came to know the Lord and their relationship continues to this day.
That’s a powerful example of forgiveness, but it’s a little troubling to me too, because it doesn’t always happen quite that easily. Sometimes it is a process. It’s a journey and you have to go through phases of forgiveness to get to the point where you can really wish the person well and trust them to the good hand of God and pray for them
Dennis: Your story and just what you said reminds me of Romans 12: 18, and these are powerful in my life because there’s a person I’ve had to forgive, more than one obviously over my lifetime, but one where this is very real to me.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord.”
It’s interesting, Jerry, as I have very imperfectly attempted to be obedient to that passage and have prayed for not only to be able to forgive and to be at peace. As I thought about the wrath of God I’ve prayed for that person to be delivered from the wrath of God, because I know what that means. It potentially could mean an eternity separated from God.
Jerry: Oh, what a terrible burden a person has to bear for wrongdoing. I would always choose to be the victim of wrongdoing, than to be the perpetrator of wrongdoing.
Early on that came to me, by the way, is I thought about what it would mean for me to change positions. And I didn’t want that at all. You know, ironically, we like to claim justice. We really want, we think we want to live in a fair world, but I’m not sure we want the world to be fair. On the one hand maybe some bad things wouldn’t happen to us that have happened to us over the years.
But grace isn’t fair either and I’d rather live in a world that is unfair, knowing that I am going to take some hits along the way, as I have, and will continue to experience if I know that grace is available to me too, because the unfairest thing in the world is grace.
I think about our Lord who had to wear a crown of thorns, the only one in all of human history who was not deserving of that crown of thorns, so that we could wear a crown of honor.
Dennis: Hmm, what a picture
Jerry: There is no fairness in that at all.
Dennis: And the reality of that is that it all occurred through suffering.
Jerry: It all occurred through suffering. In fact, that is the answer to the problem of evil. This is where the Christian answer to evil is so paradoxical and so glorious and beautiful.
The Bible’s answer to suffering, is suffering, the suffering of God in human flesh. God chooses out of his pure love for fallen humanity, to actually enter into the world. And instead of entering it with a glorious birth, announced and heralded by sounding trumpets, he was born into a pathetic stable. He grows up in obscurity. He is a carpenter’s son, he never gets a first rate education. He didn’t really get an education at all, except in the synagogue. He has a three year ministry, and then he suffers death on a cross. We are talking about God doing this. This is the Bible’s answer to suffering, God’s suffering and then the triumph in the resurrection.
Dennis: The apostle Peter says this about that suffering of Christ, “Beloved do not be surprised at the fiery trial which comes upon you to test you as though something strange were happening, but rejoice, in so far as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may be able to rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.”
Jerry: And Paul writes, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” This is one of the strange things that’s occurred in our own experience, is a rejoicing in the experience. Not because we’re glad it happened, we’ll never be that, bad is always bad, but because of what’s come as a result.
Bob: You are talking about what is come in your own life, your own experience of God’s grace in the midst of all of this. But also, what has come through you in the book that you have written, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss. God has used powerfully in the lives of folks sitting around this table and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of folks who have read the book. And God’s used it in a great way to minister to them in their own sense of grief and loss.
Jerry: But I will say, that no book, however, well read or however life-changing will ever justify, explain or excuse the pain that was visited upon us. These are separate things altogether. I don’t like it when people sort of explain something because of the good outcome. Joseph really gave us the right formula here, you meant it for evil, God worked it out for good, but the evil was still evil.
Bob: Yes, that’s right and we don’t want to do anything to try to minimize the reality of that, but in the comfort you’ve received from God you have been able to be faithful to do what
2 Corinthians 1 says, to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received. And you do that through your book and we want to encourage listeners who are in the midst of a season of suffering or a season of loss to get a copy of the book, A Grace Disguised: How a Soul Grows Through Loss. You can find out more about it online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
While you are on our web site you will also see information about Barbara Rainey’s new book written with your daughter Rebecca Mutz. It tells the story of the life, the short life, of your granddaughter Molly, who was born a year ago at this time and lived for seven days.
The book is called A Symphony in the Dark: Hearing God’s Voice in Seasons of Grief, and we do have copies of that book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center as well. You can get more information about it online at FamilyLifeToday.com or call toll free, 1-800 FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329. Someone on our team will let you know how you can get either or both of these books sent to you.
We also want to be quick today to say thank you so much to those of you who help underwrite the syndication and production costs of this program, to make it possible for the program to be heard on this station and on our network of stations all across the country. Our listeners and especially those of you who can help support this program financially, you make it possible for this program to continue and we appreciate you so much.
This month if you are able to make a donation of any amount to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today, we’d like to say thank you by sending you a CD that features a conversation we had not long ago with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, the author and the speaker on the daily radio program Revive our Hearts.
Nancy has written a book called Choosing Forgiveness and we wanted to explore what the Bible teaches about the subject of forgiveness with her. That conversation is available as our way of saying thank you this month when you do make a donation to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
If your donation is online, you’ll see a key code box on the donation form as you fill it out online. Type the word “forgive” in the box and we’ll send you the CD, or if you call 1-800-FLTODAY you can make your donation by phone and just mention that you would like the CD and we are happy to send it to you. And again we appreciate you so much for partnering with us, here at the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
Tomorrow we are going to talk with a young woman who lives in NYC, about a different kind of loss than we have talked about already this week. We are going to talk about being young and single, and wishing you were married, and dealing with the sense of loss that comes with that. Carolyn Leutwiler is going to join us tomorrow, hope you can be back with us as well.
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 tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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