It was the Sunday before Easter. Palm Sunday. A warm April day. My sermon was ready. In it, I wrote that Holy Week is about sitting beside hospital beds and all crosses of human suffering. It is stubbornly insisting that there is a sacredness that neither death nor grief can take from us.
Little did I know how prescient those words were. Words I’d never get to preach.
Instead of climbing into a pulpit that morning, I sat in a hospital beside my wife, Jenna, as she went into early labor and began hemorrhaging. Six units of blood later, Jenna’s life was saved, but there was nothing the doctors could do to save our babies. Our two sons—Ezra and Leo—died, as stillbirths.
They join the four other children Jenna and I have lost through miscarriages over two years.
On the face of it, I should be good at grief. I know all the Bible verses, all the prayers, rituals, and confessions. I’ve been trained for this. I’ve ministered in hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons. I have counseled scores of other people in similarly tragic situations; my first baptism was of a premature baby in a NICU. I have a church and a wide support system, including hundreds of other clergy.
Most of all, I am a pastor, expected to be a model of faithfulness. And as such, I should grieve well.
But I have not grieved well—whatever that may mean. My grief has been made of spit and mud, staring up at the heavens from a pit where light does not reach.
No one tells you how heavy the emptiness of grief can be. How it coils around every organ, every muscle, and squeezes. How it paralyzes you till even getting out of bed in the morning is a great and strenuous task.
All I want to do is hold my boys again. To feel the touch of their skin on mine. But I look down, and my arms are empty. I look at their clothes hanging in the closet; their toys lying in a corner, unplayed with; their nursery, empty and forbidden.
In Ezra and Leo’s absence, I have felt God’s absence.
It has occurred to me, however, that such absence may in fact be a gift. In his book The Living Reminder, Henri Nouwen reflects on Jesus’ statement to his disciples, “It is for your own good that I am going away” (John 16:7). Nouwen writes, “The great mystery of the divine revelation is that God entered into intimacy with us not only by Christ’s coming, but also by his leaving.”
Emptiness creates space. Room to question and wrestle God, to sob and rage, to hear wisdom, to love and grow closer to my wife, to imagine and speak with my sons. Space to listen to the birds and watch the warm sun rise on the earth. Space to slip in the mud and shout profanities in the lonely woods. Space to ask for help and receive it. Space for home-cooked meals and tokens of love from dear church members, family, and friends. Space for life to slip back in, with laughter, even joy. Space to step away from work and ministry. Space to relinquish all pretense at understanding and to stand silently, without explanation, before suffering. Space to open my eyes, as if for the first time, to the searing pain of others—and to see something miraculous take place: the rise of a community.
With so many hands holding each other up, with so much space to see and touch one another, with room even to glide our hands over the Lord’s scars as Thomas once did, we are pushed up and up, closer to the light.
We are accustomed to thinking of God as “presence”—and indeed that is true. But perhaps God is also absence.
It must hurt God something awful. Must hurt so bad not to hold God’s children and make everything better, to close the gap. But the truth is—and God knows this truth—you can’t write on a filled page, and you can’t think in a noisy room, and you can’t grow without space to stretch.
God enters, departs, and returns. That is how God grieves. And at our best, it’s how a pastor grieves too. By creating space enough for something new to emerge. And in that space, in that silence, I listen for my boys. I wait.
And I count that a gift.