Living in-between is hard work. It’s much simpler to make a choice, color it black or white, draw a line. But even though this living in-between is more difficult, it’s better.
What lies in the in-between is nuance, richness and meaning. It’s only in the in-between that we can live in color, with heartaches and joys combining hues.
My friends Paul and Ellen lost their 21-year-old son to a drug overdose. Six days after his son’s funeral, Paul called me, and I asked him how he was doing.
He said, “It’s getting harder. The shock and adrenaline are wearing off, and people need to get back to their lives. The reality is setting in that we are living life without Matty.”
He went on to tell me about four kids who, since Matt’s funeral, had come forward to family or friends to admit that they, too, were struggling with addiction. The rehab center where Matt spent the final 19 days of his life was overwhelmed by the financial contributions that had poured in, and the staff came to Paul and Ellen to ask how they wanted those donations spent.
“Scholarships,” they said. “Assistance for kids who need this help but can’t afford it. We’re clinging to the hope that we might be able to save one kid.”
That’s living in-between. The sorrow I heard in Paul’s voice about how it was getting harder, followed by the lilt a few seconds later as he described the impact of his son’s death—the ripples and repercussions, the redemption at some level.
Living in-between forces us to recognize that grief is largely a nonlinear process. There isn’t a neat, clean, stair-stepped process that delivers us whole at the end. It meanders, twists, turns and stalls. Denial, bargaining, and anger turn us around like the spin-dry cycle. Depression invades all the stages. And acceptance? It shows up at some levels, maybe; but in the deepest parts of grief, no.
Time gets all mixed up, and here and there, then and now are barely decipherable. The smallest thing can trigger a memory, and there we are, squarely in the past. The smallest thing can thrust us back to the present with a whiplash-like sensation, and the future becomes almost unbearable to imagine.
Recently, when some friends of ours went through the sudden loss of their child (as Paul puts it, “a club no one wants to be in”), I wrote to Paul. “Tell me,” I said, “what to tell them.” I think it is those who have gone through it and are going through it who become our teachers in how to help others.
Here’s what Paul said in response:
Words can never express the loss this family has suffered—remember that. Sometimes just being with them is more healing than words.
People will walk alongside you on this journey, but at the end of the day, no one can walk it for you.
Take time with your grief. The second year is tougher than the first.
Let people know it’s OK to laugh around you and tell stories; you will be blessed, and they will be more comfortable.
The “unexpected visitor” of grief will appear when you least expect it. It is OK; God is bigger and greater.
These are holy words, formed from a broken heart that is clinging to God.
When we have experienced some semblance of healing, it can be tempting to want to leapfrog to that less painful point in the future. But, as my friend Paul knows, through is the only way.
Dallas Willard used to say that the only place God can meet us is in reality. And that if we faithlessly refuse to meet Him there, we will simply have no place to receive His Kingdom into our lives.
Sometimes, a devoted Christ-follower is presented as one who jumps immediately from tragedy into a melodic “God is good!” Powerful words indeed, but in most cases they must be spoken from the other side of pain.
When the darkness forces us to the deepest recesses of our souls, it is there that we are able to decide if God is good. No one can answer this for us. They can only tell us about their experiences, and that can be deeply helpful. Or not. As the beautiful line from the musical The Fantasticks says, “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”
And a hollow heart can only give a hollow answer. The words may be right, but the echo gives them away.
This answer about who God is does not come easily or quickly or in one fell swoop. We have to live in reality when reality is the last place we want to live.
Initially at least, it’s more appealing to live in chirpy praise, even if that is a superficial place. But after a while, the superficial becomes stifling and constricting. It leads to a thin version of ourselves, straining at the edges and brittle.
At some point or another, we eventually need to merge into reality and see what we find.
Adapted from Seeing In the Dark copyright © 2015 by Nancy Ortberg. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
Nancy Ortberg is the director of leadership development at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Northern California and the author of several books, including Seeing In the Dark. She and her husband, John, live in the Bay Area and have three grown children.