A couple years ago, we were serving a young couple who had just lost their two-year-old son “John” to cancer. The day of John’s funeral came, attracting a number of his parent’s friends from both work and church who were there – not because they knew John (he had spent a good part of his life in the hospital) – but because they wanted to support his parents.
The viewing started, people began filing through the funeral home, and all of a sudden, I saw that John’s mother was missing from the receiving line. I looked around the funeral home and found her back in our office, crying. Without me asking what was wrong she blurted out, “I hate this. And I hate what people are telling me. This didn’t happen for a reason. God doesn’t have a plan in this. And thinking about John in heaven doesn’t make me feel any better. I want him here with me now.”
I didn’t have anything to say. So I waited in silence for her to say what she needed to say. I didn’t introject my own thoughts, many as they may be (I do have a grad degree in theology and a certification in thanatology). I didn’t diminish her feelings. Even though I felt slightly uncomfortable as a sounding board for her frustrations, I didn’t say anything. I did what I’ve learned to do over years of comforting grieving people: I allowed her space to say what she needed to say. I listened.
After she was done saying what she needed to say, she asked me, “Do you have some coffee?”
“I don’t, but if you tell me what you want I’ll go to Dunkin Donuts and get it for you.”
“Medium hot coffee with cream and four sugars.”
For various reasons, we like to use death as a classroom; one of life’s major learning experience that affords those who are experiencing it some valuable lessons. And death can be a classroom, but let’s be clear about one thing: you are NEVER the teacher. It’s not your job to interpret tragedy with platitudes like “this happened for a reason” and “God has a plan.” If anything, it’s our job to create a sanctuary, a refuge where those who are grieving can say what they need to say, do what they need to do, and know that no matter what, we are there for them, listening to them and loving them.
Sometimes, the bereaved use their grief as a platform. That is their right. If your son dies from gang violence and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right to say what you need to say. If your daughter dies from an overdose, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right to do what you need to do. If your mom dies from cancer, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right. And I’ll respect it.
If your classmates die during a school shooting, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right. It’s your right to use your experience of grief as a platform, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Even if it makes others angry. Even if it’s a politically charged topic. And I’ll respect it because I’m not here to set up a classroom and tell you what you need to think, how you need to feel and what you need to do. I’m here to give you space to think what you need, feel how you want, and do what you need to do.
We provide the refuge for the grieving. We provide the space for them to say what they need to say. And we listen. Because if death is ever a classroom, the bereaved are the ones who have the right to teach.
I watched in horror as the details unfolded surrounding the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Seventeen students. Dead.
I can’t imagine the terror. I don’t want to imagine what the student body experienced during the six-minute shooting spree. And I hope that I never know the pain and horror of being a parent who suddenly loses their child to a school shooting.
On March 24th, 2018 some student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School lead March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration in support of tighter gun control.
Let me be clear: This is a legitimate expression of grief.
Let me also be clear: It’s not our job to tell these kids how they SHOULD be expressing their various expressions of grief.
It’s not our job to diminish their frustration and anger. It’s not our job to question their motives, poke fun at their supposed “liberal stupidity”, or threaten them in any shape or form.
Like the woman who was crying in my office, it might make the rest of us uncomfortable, we might have a lot of opinions about what they’re saying. But this is their time. And I’m going to give them refuge just like I do every week at the funeral home. I’m going to listen, just like I do every week at the funeral home. And if they want me to do something, I’ll hear them out, just like I do every week at my job.
My book has been alive in the world for THREE WHOLE MONTHS!
Like a first time parent of a newborn child, I’ve been fraught with worry since it’s birth. I check on it all too often to make sure it’s still breathing. I’m constantly calling more experienced parents to ask all the questions:
Like the parents of a newborn, you might be tired of me posting photos of it ALL OVER THE INTERNET. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter … everywhere you turn there I am, the proud parent, holding my book child up like it’s the first book to ever be written.
It’s not. I know it’s not. But, for me? It’s my first. And I am proud of it.
I know it won’t live forever, but I’ve got to help it as long as it is. Most books don’t live but a couple years and then they die off into the nothingness of collecting dust on shelves around the world. I know that the dying process usually starts soon after the book’s release, and I’m doing my best to keep this one living as long as I can.
In that light, I’m asking a favor from you:
If you read my book, and you liked it, I’m kindly asking you to help me as I try to raise it to be a contributing citizen of the world.
HERE ARE SOME PRACTICAL WAYS YOU CAN HELP:
ONE: Word of mouth … that mystical, organic, grassroots foundation for the growth of any good product. If you liked it, share it on Facebook, or Instagram, or with your check-out line neighbor at your local Wal-Mart.
TWO: Introduce it to your group. Small groups at church, book clubs, Facebook groups, your local brony chapter. Groups are where books can take off. A friend of mine had his book rocket to a best-seller list just because a youth organization decided to endorse it. It’s the simple things that can go a long way. And you, my friend, no matter how small, or how large your group, can help good things grow because you are powerful.
THREE: Buy one for a family member or friend who you think might benefit from it.
FOUR: Leave a review! On Amazon, Goodreads, on the bathroom stall at McDonald’s. Positive, thoughtful reviews always help other potential buyers. For me, every time I buy a new scalpel for the prep room, I always check the Amazon reviews. Does it cut like promised? Is it ergonomic? Reviews help.
Thank you all!
Amazon is discounting my book by two dollars, from $17.99 to the current price of $15.53. The discounted started on Black Friday and it’s still going as of Tuesday evening. I’m just a very small pawn on Jeff Bezo’s chess board, so I have no control over when these discounts come and go. If you were looking to buy a couple copies for a support group or for friends, or you were waiting for a cheap price (I’m frugal too), this is easily the cheapest option to date.
You can bounce over the book’s Amazon page by clicking HERE.
I’m on Rob Bell’s podcast this week. For those of you who don’t know Rob Bell, he used to have a show on Oprah’s network, and before he was working with Oprah, he was a rather progressive Pastor. He’s easily one of my favorite speakers. I actually flew out to his home studio in West Hollywood to do this interview.
If the Podcast plugin below doesn’t work for you, you can listen to our conversation HERE.
This book started as a dream some five years ago, right around the birth of my son, Jeremiah. His birth marked a distinct time in my life when I realized that I could find enough beauty in death care and enough beauty in death to sustain me as a father. When I first joined the funeral home — approximately seven years prior to Jeremiah — I was depressed, anxious and held onto a narrative about death that painted it as entirely negative. Through a number of experiences, experiences that I share in this book, that death negative narrative slowly began to change as I discovered a positive view of death that inspired me to a renewed appreciation for death care and the renewed sense that I could raise a child in this world.
Although the dream started five years ago, this book’s journey has been two years in the making. It was around July of 2015 that my agent started pitching my proposal to different publishing companies. Back in July 2015, I had a somewhat clear idea of what the book would look like, but it had yet to be written. From the beginning, it was to be a memoir that followed my journey from death to rebirth, from infertility to Jeremiah’s birth, from a death negative narrative to death positivity. But, like most memoirists, I was somewhat afraid to tell the honest truth about my life with death. I was afraid that my journey was too dark and too complicated by matters of God, death, religion, hell, and heaven for people to want to read.
I knew there’d be an interplay between my growing up around death, how my views of God affected my death negative narrative, and how my experiences in death care led to a death positive spirituality. I knew that I’d need help telling these stories in a way that was both inspiring and yet still honest about the difficulty of death. So, I was really excited when HarperOne (the spirituality imprint of HarperCollins responsible for books like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Love Wins by Rob Bell and a number of other books that found a way to deal with heavier topics while still maintaining a tone of inspiration) signed me on in September of 2015.
In the Fall of 2015, this space here on my blog became all but quiet as I started tracing my journey with the help of my wonderful editor Katy Hamilton. I kept working full-time at the funeral home, which made the writing process slower but it also kept the stories grounded and in touch with death, death care and my own personal struggles with both. It may have written a better book had I focused entirely on this book, but staying at worked helped me write compassionately from my heart about the family who lovingly dressed their deceased father for his burial. The embalming of a little girl that offered a gift back to her grieving family. The nursing home that honored a woman’s life by standing in procession as her body was taken away. The community of people with different beliefs who came together at last at a funeral. Save the introductory chapters, each chapter follows a different death story, and how that story moved me toward death positivity.
I write, as something of a thesis for the book,
“I tremble to say there’s good in death, because I’ve looked in the eyes of the grieving mother and I’ve seen the heartbreak of the stricken widow, but I’ve also seen something more in death, something good. Death’s hands aren’t all bony and cold.”
I’m both excited and nervous for this book’s release. Excited because I feel like I captured a story that will inspire, deepen and move its readers closer to embracing death and mortality. Nervous because many of these stories are written from a position of personal transparency and vulnerability.
If you’ve read my blog for a while, you may see traces of stories you’ve read here, but most of the stories are new. If you haven’t been reading my blog, the whole thing should be fresh.
Here it is. Please consider preording it by clicking the image below:
It’s been three years since my 4-year-old died from brain cancer, but sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. The memories can come roaring back in the blink of an eye, leaving me motionless, breathless, and aching. Sometimes I long to hold little Henry like I long for air. Even as I push forward, I encounter reminders of loss everywhere.
Two years ago we moved half-way across the country. In part, we moved to escape the reminders. We left behind the empty bedroom decorated in oranges and blues. We traveled 1,150 miles away from the library with the fountain in the front and story time on Tuesday mornings. We put days of driving between us and the pediatrician’s office with the green vinyl-covered chairs and matching industrial carpet. I left Henry’s shadows, but I can’t seem to outrun the reminders.
When I hear about a toddler being snatched and killed by an alligator, my blood runs cold. A weight sinks into my chest and doesn’t lift for hours. I know what it feels like to hear your child scream out in pain. I’ve walked through helplessness, terror, and disbelief. I know about the birthday parties his parents will never throw, the presents they won’t buy, the holidays that will feel somewhat empty and off. I understand the pain they’ll feel as they watch other children his age grow, enter kindergarten, and learn to ride their bikes without training wheels. I realize the strain that this type of loss will put on their relationships, perhaps even their identities. I know how, even years into the future, they’ll feel like something is missing when everyone is present.
When mass shootings occur and sacred lives are senselessly slaughtered, I am completely undone. I can’t seem to find words or formulate thoughts through a fog of horror and grief. My heart turns towards the loved ones facing funerals filled with polite and sympathetic conversation. Afterwards, they’ll watch as the shock fades for everyone else. The masses will disperse back into the groove of life while they instead limp forward, tired, cautious, acutely aware of the cruelty this world can dish out. There will be no going back to “normal.” Normal is forever changed. They are forever changed.
And when I come across yet another Facebook status about yet another child diagnosed with terminal cancer, I freeze. I spend a few moments locked in the painful silence of remembering, reliving, dreading for them what lies ahead. We live in a world where pain is everywhere.
Why is the world this way? How do we make sense of all this? As a Christian, I’ve turned to faith for answers. But sometimes faith can bring more questions. For example, the Bible says that God is all-powerful. Can’t God stop an alligator? Or vaporize a tumor? Scripture also says that God is love. Doesn’t God want to paralyze a gunman with murder on his mind?
Does God lack the power or the desire to prevent unspeakable pain?
I know I’m not the only one who has wrestled with this question. Some of you may have wondered: Did God lack the power or the desire to prevent my rape? My miscarriage? My cancer?
Some Christians attempt to answer these questions with phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” and “Sometimes we just can’t see what God’s doing when our eyes are blurry with tears.” Other times we’re told that suffering is “sent to refine us,” is a “blessing in disguise,” or is simply a necessary part of “God’s plan to glorify himself.”
These ideas stem from the assumption that everything is happening according to God’s perfect plan – his meticulous, divine blueprint. But I think it’s time to question that assumption.
After all, how can we call God love if God is the one orchestrating our devastation?
How can we sincerely worship a God whose glory-seeking plan requires alligator teeth in toddler flesh, bullets spraying through a crowd, or terminal brain cancer in a 4-year-old?
How could this God be considered praiseworthy? If God plans all our pain in minuscule detail, then his character doesn’t strike me as loving or praiseworthy. At best, it seems mysterious; at worst, it seems sadistic.
Finally, how do we reconcile this picture of God with God’s self-revelation in Jesus? The Bible says Jesus was the exact representation of God’s essence (Heb. 1:3). Yet when we look to Jesus’ ministry, we see a God who healed the broken… he didn’t break the healthy to glorify himself. Does God in Spirit hold a different standard of morality than his flesh-and-bones representation?
Several years ago, I began to compare God’s self-revelation in Jesus to my picture of a God who designs humanity’s suffering. That’s when I discovered a huge chasm. And during the process of engaging my questions, I found new, more satisfying answers.
Now I stand with a growing number of Christians who think it’s time for us to take another look at one of the most important questions in the world: If God is loving and all-powerful, why do we suffer? In my experience, the answer points us to a God who is more stunningly beautiful, more pure, and more loving than most of us have ever dared to imagine.
Find Jessica Kelley’s book on Amazon: Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death.
Kelley is a writer, speaker, and author of Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, (Herald Press, April 2016). She has a B.S. in Psychology, a M.S. in Counseling & Human Development, and experience as a School Counselor. Born and raised in the South, Jessica now lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She survives the absurdly long winters by going to the gym, dreaming about the beach, and eating copious amounts of chocolate. You can find her processing her faith journey at JessicaKelley.com.