When my son Elliot died, my response was, understandably, railing against the evil of his being taken from me. I couldn’t see any grace in it, and I will still bristle if an off-handed comment, especially from a religious onlooker, tries to bring “good” from the daily aching pain of being separated from my child. Please don’t try to stuff child loss into a hole of “a greater purpose.” It doesn’t fit there for me.
The dichotomy of what should have been and what was caused me torment for weeks, months, years, and sometimes still does. I see the pajamas I planned to bring him home in still hanging in my closet. Pajamas no baby has ever worn because my Elliot did not come home. No baby will ever wear them because I can never give them to another.
In the early months of grief, I wrote a blog article entitled “The Big But,” in which I bemoaned the unintended insult given by statements trying to look on the bright side of suffering. “You must miss Elliot, BUT at least you have your girls,” and such comments caused a smoldering resistance to the minimizing of suffering. I was at the beginning of learning how I had done the same in my life, but in the wake of Elliot’s death, I could not minimize the tragedy and trauma I’d endured. Every moment became an “and,” a concept I found resonated with many others who read that blog post. Maybe we all need some permission or, better yet, an explanation, for what is happening to us when seemingly contradictory emotions overwhelm us.
Maybe because of the years of wrestling with “and” after losing Elliot, I was really not surprised at my dual emotions two years ago when we brought Joncarlo home from Colombia. I had been aching for this little boy for years, nearly triple the length of a conventional pregnancy. I wept daily through Covid’s delays, staring at an unchanging picture of him, knowing he was growing older.
And then, after all of it, finally, he was home! Joyful relief flooded me. And a fresh wave of grief mingled with that flood of joy. Everything had changed; our family would never be the same. A little boy was home, and another boy was still gone. Joncarlo had just lost everything he’d ever known. All the love and rightness that infused our family shared space with the bittersweetness of what adoption means.
At that point, however, the mixed feelings did not frighten me as they did early on in my grief journey with Elliot. My walk with Jesus is more an observation I talk about with him than a broken structure in need of fixing. Hey, look at that, Lord. All that fun I just had with my family caused me to run and cry in the bathroom. Huh. Glad you’re here with me. If you haven’t found this out yet, it’s really nice to let go of religious efforts to be better and relax into a trusting freefall with the one who already is better. You can let go.
In the years since Elliot’s beautiful eyes shut forever on mortality, I’ve found kindred spirits on the journey of “and” in various authors and thinkers. Refreshing perspectives on the cross have rebooted the religious conditioning many well-meaning instructors imparted. I’ve heard some in the evangelical tradition boast that crosses at their churches do not portray Jesus as still on the cross like those mysterious Catholics do it. He has risen! Don’t you know?
And he has risen, which of course, Catholics know very well, and celebrate with the rest of the family of God. Yet when Paul, especially, talks about what he boasts about (Galatians 6:14), the tool that overcame powers and authorities (Colossians 1:22), and what is foolishness to the world but the power of those who are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18)- he says it is the cross. One of my favorite authors, Greg Boyd, postulates that while resurrection is the victory over death that gives hope to every human, it is the cross that reveals the true everything about God. The suffering AND love that occurred when our Savior willingly entered our human condition was a pattern for us to emulate. It was not just Jesus’ plan of escape for us from the repercussions of sin. The cross is more than a transaction. It is where all hurts happen and all healing happens in the very same moment.
For a long time, the only way I thought I could find joy again was for reality to unweave and reweave itself into what it should be: Elliot alive, home with his parents and sisters, and everything okay. Suffering was stealing my joy because I could not find God’s love. I was still stuck on the empty cross: They say Jesus is alive, so Elliot is alive, so take heart and stop whining about what happened. It took Jesus himself, sometimes through the voices of others but often with his own heart within my heart, to say, look at me on the cross.
There, Jesus on the cross and in my heart says:
Suffering and love are not at opposite poles. Here they are together. Here on the cross, I understand exactly what you’re going through. Did you see me weep in Gethsemane? I would soon return to the Father, through pain, but the pain was not what I feared. Suffering, every ounce of it from the dawn of creation to until eternity’s light breaks, past, present, and future converged on that place in space-time. Because everyone’s pain fell on me, and I loved them within the suffering, all love burst from that cross. No darkness can extinguish it. I am the world’s light, God’s love for all creation, and the suffering of every life. I exist simultaneously in them all. That is who you see on the cross.
The tension of suffering love actually becomes the freedom to fall in faith because he holds us in both. I am not broken. I am just a wanderer in mortality, journeying with Jesus and with you, holding his hand and yours, through the hills and the valleys.
But so much of what culture, even church culture, can portray still messes with me. There’s a not-so-subtle message daily delivered in life that chasing and catching perfect contentment is within a stone’s throw. I still expect one day to wake up and “get it”—Oh! The love of God has finally rescued me from all this pain, all the aches, all the suffering! I’m just a walking pillar of hope and joy now!
But nope. Recently, I had a Sunday at church that was good. Not just tolerable, but good! I even sang along and felt the vulnerable space of worship open up inside me. This is new to me in almost six years. For so many years, Sunday-morning churchgoing was reluctantly dragging my feet into a space of triggers. Saturday nights, anxiety welled up in me, and I would find it difficult to sleep. We dutifully attended church maybe every other week for…why? For my kids, I suppose. Trauma finally gave way to tolerance, especially as we settled into the church we now call home. I like the people there, and they’ve listened nonjudgmentally when I say, “Church is hard for me,” and in so doing, they’ve actually made it much easier.
I still don’t always know my own mind about the conclusions of a sermon, and I usually still sing just to be polite. So, I can cope if I don’t like the songs or the sermon. But that Sunday, it was good, like really good, for the first time I can remember.
BUT! The next Sunday was not. I found myself crying in the bathroom during that song I hate. I thought about all the anniversaries coming up as Spring blooms. Even the hope I felt the good Sunday hurt my soul the following Sunday. It reminded me of the heights of hope I held on to as I trusted that God would save Elliot. And he didn’t. And on the bad Sunday, I didn’t want to sing or listen to a sermon. I wanted to get out of there.
Both are okay, the good Sunday and the bad Sunday. The perfection and the absolute fallenness that met on the cross show me just how willing God is to meet us exactly where we’re at. I’ve found that his meeting us in our present moment is the epitome of hope. It’s finding that I don’t have to “get over” one to move on to the other. The path of the cross has space for them both.
I suppose we’re not wrong to call the day of Christ’s crucifixion Good Friday, a title that once seemed morbid to me. It is good to know the God who spoke stars and planted planets would become part of the “and” of life in this world. To me, it is very good to think of him on that cross because his coming down has lifted me up. It means I am loved best by the one who knows me best. If he came to do that, he can never let me go. And I’m okay in the ups and the downs, the good Sundays and the bad, the love and the grief.
The tension of this “and” can be hard to hold. So I don’t try too hard to hold it anymore. That’s what the cross was for.
2 thoughts on “The Good “And””
Thank you for sharing this powerful blog. Just sending you lots of hugs!!!
I’m sorry to hear of your loss. Thank you for sharing your very powerful journey. When I became paralyzed almost 10 years ago, people also said some strange things to me. They meant well but some of the comments made me cringe. I appreciate your honesty, humility, and bold transparency.