Engaging Grief

I returned to work a few days after Kyle died. Because Waco is a relatively small town, the management at the bookstore knew what Kyle meant to me and was generous in giving me time off. They also knew Kyle and were feeling loss as well, as he would regularly bring Avery, Sutton and Jude into the store on his days off. The entire family, in fact, were a kind of “small town famous” because of their stunning good looks, Kyle and Jen’s charismatic personality, and the fascination people have with twins.

There were words of care and concern from people outside our community, both from family, friends and others from around the world, and many of them fell flat. These were the typical Christian platitudes many believers use to make death sound better than it is. Not only were they hollow, many of them were self-contradictory. In one breath someone would say, “The devil may have won this battle, but he won’t win the war,” implying that it was the great Satan who was responsible for Kyle’s death, then in the next breath they would say, “Sometimes we just need to trust in God’s plan,” implying it was the Almighty that was responsible.

The words I remember most, though, and were the most soothing to me, came from my co-worker Pat, a 50 something, spiked-up grey-haired lady who has a penchant for profanity and brashness—a liberal Christian who goes through alternate periods of belief and agnosticism, and who can be scary at times to those like me who still have traces of conservative evangelicalism running through our veins. On my first day back to work she saw me from across the store, locked eyes with me and said in her marked Southern drawl, “Craig, I am SO sorry.”  That’s it. Five words, with feeling. They are the words I remember the most.

I spent the months after Kyle’s death immersing myself in the literature of grief. Most books addressed the issue of what to say to someone who is grieving, which helped me tolerate, and even appreciate some of the sincere but insensitive things people would say. We all grasp at straws trying to live with loss, and intention means far more than words when trying to extend comfort and compassion. But it can be painful when the straws grabbed are words that try to make the situation seem better than it actually is.

The most helpful book was by the  philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who adult son died in a mountain climbing accident. Wolterstorff wrote a journal of the year after his son’s death and published it under the title Lament for a Son. In it he spoke of those “fixers,” the people who tried to make it seem like dealing with death is a walk in the park, meant to be endured then gotten over. In it, he tells of an incident where someone approached his wife and told her that they were praying that she would be able to come to terms with her son’s death. He writes,

“Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death. When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench’. (p. 63)”

There were people who, admirably but misguided, wanted to make our hurting stop with their words. There were others, though, who wanted to make us feel the pain more acutely than we already were.

An article was written by a fundamentalist Christian columnist a couple of weeks after Kyle’s death titled “God Sends Shocking Message to the Emerging Church,” which was clearly a reference to the manner in which Kyle died. The writer spent half the article explaining why no one should accuse him of being insensitive for saying what (he believed) needed to be said. He inoculated himself from critique by citing passages in the New Testament where leaders were brutal in their judgement of others, implying he held the same amount of authority as Paul and Peter because of his correct understanding of the Christian faith. He proceeded to say that God was responsible for Kyle’s death, because of his involvement in the Emerging Church movement. The writer said “Kyle was trying to baptize someone in front of an adoring audience” but “The Lord stopped him dead in his tracks.”

Shortly after this was published, many of us who were a part of UBC received an email from two strange characters from Canada, saying similar things as the fundamentalist columnist. They quoted some of Kyle’s words about tragedy from his book on God’s will…

“There are many, many intelligent people who firmly believe that God does in fact cause all things to happen in today’s world, even tragic situations. And they haven’t come to this conclusion flippantly. Many believe this to be true after diligent study of the Scriptures. However, that is not my belief. I believe tragedy, chaos, and disease are natural consequences of the Fall when humankind was given freedom of choice.” (From  Understanding God’s Will by Kyle Lake.)

They then went on to say that Kyle’s belief was a lie, and that he died because of it. We later learned these men had a history of trolling people in tragic situations, collecting information from public listservs, then luring them into email arguments that they would then post excerpts of on their blog. 

Most of our inclinations, including my own, were to engage and correct. These people were hurtful. Unlike those, though, who just didn’t have the right words to say, they intended to be hurtful. They wanted an audience and found a way to get one. I engaged in a little back and forth with the first author before realizing it would go nowhere, and would not be healthy for my grieving process.  I eventually made a decision to not engage in any conversation with these people, and encouraged others to do the same.

Kyle would often remind me that we all have a limited amount of “thought space,” and we should be judicious in how we use it, not giving it to people that shouldn’t have it. Anne Lamott, quoting Violet Weingarten, puts it this way, wondering “Is life too short to be taking shit, or is it too short to be minding it?” For these poisonous trolls, we all, sooner or later, landed on the latter.

***

I was beginning to blog a lot, and in my grief was discovering my voice. I learned about blogging in 2001. Kyle and I were leading a book discussion over McLaren’s New Kind of Christian at JD’s coffee house. After one particularly engaging conversation, Christy, one of the students in the group, made the comment that she enjoyed the conversation so much that she was going to go home and blog about it. Kyle and I looked at each other, then looked at Christy, and one of us must have scrunched our faces and said, “Blog? What’s a blog?”

Christy gave us the scoop on this newfangled technology, and shortly after I began my own. In those early years, before Facebook, my blog posts usually took the form of journaling openly about details of my day, and maybe a little commentary. Blogs had yet to become the phenomena they are now. But in the time after Kyle died, especially in writing about the futility of engaging these online provocateurs, I began to believe I actually had something to say that went beyond the perfunctory activities of my week.

In retrospect, I think was finding my voice through my blog because I was increasingly beginning to sense that in losing Kyle, I had lost my actual voice in the life of UBC.

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