Sheryl Sandberg recently gave a commencement speech at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, where she shared publicly for the first time of her husband’s sudden death a year ago. I wept with her as she described her “deep fog of grief,” laughed at the inside jokes that only Cal students would understand, and was inspired by the lessons she had learned about resilience, joy, and gratitude through her heartbreaking experience.
“I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void —or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.”
A few months earlier, another speech about the loss of a spouse had come across my Facebook feed. It was Monty Williams, the Oklahoma City Thunder Assistant Coach, giving a eulogy for his wife who had tragically died from a head-on car collision. Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition held Williams up as an example of “God-centered hope.” Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, called the eulogy “profound, sincere and supernatural.” Many commented with admiration for his strong Christian faith and call to forgiveness.
But I couldn’t help but feel disconsolate when I watched it.
As someone who had also experienced overwhelming loss (which I share about here), I felt more unease than comfort at his words. I wasn’t quite sure why at first. But the more I mulled, the more I realized why I found his eulogy disconcerting:
He didn’t show any grief.
He shed no tears. His voice never cracked. He never had to pause to contain his emotions. He acknowledged his pain (parenthetically), but quickly qualified it by saying that God was good and everything would work out.
He never let me into his pain.
Unlike Sheryl Sandberg’s speech in which I was invited to share in her vulnerability and grief, Monty Williams’ words left me feeling in awe of his strength and faith, but disconnected from his humanity.
I’m not saying that he was insincere. In fact, I honor his story as a beautiful expression of trust and grace. But I take issue when this one expression is upheld by the Church as the yardstick for a faithful Christian response to suffering. I am troubled by how this message could heap shame, condemnation, and expectations upon those who are already burdened down with grief. I feel saddened when his optimism serves to alienate those who have experienced their own catastrophic loss rather than welcoming them to mourn honestly.
Faith in the midst of grief does not just include hope. It also includes lament.
We forget that we, who “do not grieve as others who have no hope,” (1 Thessalonians 4:13),
Still must grieve.
David lamented. Job protested. Mary and Martha questioned. Even Jesus felt forsaken.
Yet we as Christians make little room for stories of lament, doubt, and wrestling.
Salvation is in the Sinking
Too many of us are trying to keep our heads above water in the midst of grief. We’re dog paddling with all our might to stay above the murky darkness beneath us.
We speak of hope,
slap a high five,
sing our Hallelujahs.
And all the while, we are slowly drowning.
What would happen if we actually let ourselves sink down into the depths of sorrow?
You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.
What would happen if we let the grief wash over us and overtake us?
Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves…
What would happen if we questioned and blamed the Lord?
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
What would happen if we voiced our fear and named our pain instead of trying to escape it?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
~ Psalm 88:6,7,14,15
I believe that when we lament, we are doing the very thing God wants us to do:
Be our true selves.
He wants our raw emotions more than our quoted scriptures. He delights in our broken spirit more than our religious works. He welcomes our weakness more than our show of strength.
In my own experience of loss, I have found that it was in my weakness that I discovered true grace.
It was in my sinking that I discovered real salvation.
For it was only by surrendering to the overwhelming waters of my grief that I could “kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”