WHEN RICH DIED
I don’t often talk about my experiences when Rich, my first husband, died. It has not been for a lack of dear, sweet people who ask me about it. In the months and years after his passing, I have found myself tongue-tied again and again, retreating into private grief. I felt awkward over my halting responses to their questions, which seemed to come off as aloof, or weirdly breezy, or even (to the intrusively inquisitive) chilly.
The real truth of the matter is that for a time after his death, accessing that emotion was, to understate it, overwhelming. If you have ever been playing in the surf and a rouge wave caught you, flipped you over, and you were lost, unable to find up or down, that’s kind of what I felt like. Engaging my emotions about it felt like I was drowning, desperate for a breath, pounded by waves of pain, disoriented and confused. When we experience pain, we are all pretty much at our most narcissistic. Just keeping your chin above water, simple survival, takes total focus. A chat about it with someone over coffee somehow felt so trivial, for a while.
Rich and I had been married for two years. I loved him very much. Those had been two fantastic years leading our youth ministry in a suburb of Chicago, at Family Christian Center. Things were booming, and we were just getting started. We had so many plans, and it all appeared to be unfolding ahead of schedule.
Rich was an amazing guy. He was tall and extremely charismatic. He was the kind of guy who made everything he was involved in fun. He was funny and witty, quick on his feet with a tease. He was talented, a great performer in anything he did on stage. He was creative, inspiring, and a strong leader. He was very good-looking, athletic, with a great voice, bright blue eyes and an easy smile. He was also very young. He was just eighteen when he started leading our youth ministry. Young men a few years older than him called him, “Dad,” which was kind of weird, but I guess it made them feel like they had someone in the world.
To celebrate our second anniversary, we headed out on a road trip for a few days. When it came time to head home, Rich decided he wanted to leave in the evening and drive all night to get home in plenty of time for our youth meeting the next evening. I felt a little twinge of anxiety about the choice, but neither of us had any idea just how foolish this decision would be. I took the first shift driving while he rested in the back seat, and then we traded off.
When I woke, the car was tumbling for what felt like an eternity. I braced myself and held on until it came to rest upside down. When I looked over to the driver’s seat, it was empty. A flood of anxiety and adrenaline rushed through me as I unbuckled my seatbelt, dropped into the broken glass and debris, and crawled out a half-crushed window frame. There he was, maybe fifty feet away, in a little heap, on the pavement.
The next few hours are very much a blur for me still. I remember paramedics coming and hovering over him for what felt like an eternity, and them strapping me down to a gurney and whisking me off to the nearest hospital. I remember the half-whispered conversation of the EMT’s in my ambulance, who looked at me with sad eyes. I waited in an intensive care unit with a room full of strangers, still strapped down, until a kindly doctor came and told me, with tears in his eyes, that Rich didn’t make it. I don’t remember much of that day after that besides the pain that welled up inside me, overwhelming in ways I had never known before. It echoes in me still today as I write this, so many years later.
As much as I felt alone in that moment, I wasn’t unique in my brokenness. Pretty much all of us have or will carry the weight of intense mental and emotional pain in our own stories. If you have faced deep pain, my story may have brought up echoes of your own emotions too. I don’t mean to be cruel by reminding you of those painful days, but we all limp a little bit from places that have been wounded in our hearts. We are all at varying points of healing from those traumas.
I know people who have been through very difficult situations and are still controlled by their pain, years later. A wound becomes a state of emotional or mental ill health when things get infected with things like bitterness and fear. It’s so easy to get stuck in anger, bitterness, or depression. In the crisis, your brain wants to do everything it can to turn off that pain. It’s tempting to just avoid thinking about the pain and hope it goes away. Pain we don’t deal with winds up controlling our lives.
LIGHTING THE LAMP
In the book of Matthew, Jesus used a metaphor that underlines why it’s so important that we get healed:
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:21-23 NIV)
In this verse’s metaphor, eyes represent the way that we view the world around us. My worldview will major on either the good things around me or the bad. If my soul is unhealthy because it’s been wounded, my perspective becomes damaged, distorting what I believe about my life. A wounded soul is constantly distracted by what is negative and painful.
The Message paraphrase puts it this way. “If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!” Unhealthy perspectives come from wounds we have experienced. Living with hurt impacts everything in our lives. We will see darkness wherever we look, not because darkness is truly there, but because that is all we can see. In other words, the world around us just looks bleak and lacking, because we have lost the ability to see past our own pain. In order for us to accurately see the world around us, we have to be healed from these kinds of traumas.
If we are functioning in a ministry leadership role, it’s even more essential that we prioritize the process of getting healthy again. Our perspectives don’t just affect our own lives, but the lives of everyone we lead. We will always reproduce what looks like us. If we don’t get healing from our own pain, we will reproduce hurt and wounded people in our churches. A leader’s healthy soul is essential for leading healthy teams.
In my travels, I meet so many amazing pastors and leaders. It’s heartbreaking and alarming to me how many have carried deep wounds and hurts for years and years. Many beautiful faithful people have continued to lead while wounded for so long, sensing the need and feeling compassionate about their people, but have not been able to lead with joy because of their internal deficit. Leadership becomes a burden, and their gaze is drawn toward the dark and weak parts of the church instead of taking pride in the strong and good places.
When our soul is healthy, we have strong vision—seeing far ahead. We can move our focus away from simple survival, which is all about just getting through the next hour, the next day. We are able to adjust our focus farther ahead, dreaming again.
The night I got home from the hospital after Rich died, I made a challenging, deliberate faith decision to believe the best about God’s plan for my life and to trust his goodness. Making that decision didn’t magically make the pain go away overnight. Healing is a process that takes a while. Just like recovering from a major physical injury takes time, getting healthy emotionally is usually not instantaneous. I definitely didn’t do everything right as I struggled to process it all. I made more than my fair share of mistakes. My journey hasn’t been easy, but it has been a healing one. Now, twelve years later, I have identified some benchmarks along the way that may help you move forward if you have faced significant pain. Answering each of these areas was a step forward toward healing.
1. Engage the process of healing by facing the pain.
For a while, every morning I would wake up and feel uneasy for a few seconds, trying to remember why things didn’t feel right. Then it would all come flooding back to me and I would just feel sick. When enough days of this go by, you really just want to be done with it all. Obviously, no one wants to live with pain. We all look for a way to escape overwhelming pain. Some people run toward things like alcohol or risky living to try and forget. For me it was probably more keeping myself busy, avoiding being alone, avoid talking about it or thinking about it. I disengaged from my emotions completely for a while, I think.
The brain has some amazing protective mechanisms and will forget trauma for years, probably because it’s too overwhelming to cope with. I’ve met women who were abused as children who didn’t remember until they were middle aged. If we live with unhealed pain long enough, we get numb to its existence. We get so used to our own dysfunction and pain that it becomes normal, and we don’t even realize it’s still broken. If some time has passed since the trauma, there may be a process of self-awareness that is required for us to even see clearly what needs healing.
I’m a pianist. When I was a teenager, I managed to smash my own thumb in the car door. It was blinding pain. It hurt so bad I was absolutely convinced in that instant that I had damaged it beyond repair. Because I am an avoider, I couldn’t even muster up the courage to look at my own thumb. I had my dad look at it, proclaim that it would not need amputation, and bandage it up. I didn’t look under the bandage for days. This was not the smartest thing I ever did. If I never look at my injuries, don’t clean them out and give them fresh bandages regularly, they will get infected. Cleaning out an infected wound is super-painful, but it has to be done. As we lift the bandage and cleanse the scab, we feel the pain of the injury again, but this time it is a healing pain.
We have to learn the difference between healing pain and injury pain. It may hurt for us to address it now, but the next time it needs cleaning, it’s going to hurt a little less as it heals. I had to allow God to expose some of those painful places in me, again and again, and let him clean them out—memories, attitudes, fears, anger—all of it. If we don’t do this, our soul gets infected with bitterness. It was painful and was always tear-filled, but the Holy Spirit would always be right there to soothe me with a measurable, tangible sense of his loving presence. I knew those moments, as painful as they were, were healing.
“If your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there; if you’re kicked in the gut, he’ll help you catch your breath. Disciples so often get into trouble; still, God is there every time.” (Psalm 34:18, 19 MSG)
We can’t afford to absorb the pain into our identity, saying to ourselves that it will always be this way. We are not designed to live with pain all the time. Don’t resign yourself to it for the rest of your life. We get hurt, but we don’t have to stay hurt. Healing is available to us all in Jesus.
2. Don’t ignore the questions or the anger.
I tried for a while to make sense of sheer nonsense. There was no discernible divine purpose behind Rich’s death. It just happened. But because we all want a why so that we can assign blame somewhere, in my case, it usually wound up on Rich himself. He made the choice to drive all night, despite being advised differently. I couldn’t get away from the nagging irrational thought that maybe he had a choice in the matter about his death, that somehow, God gave him a choice in that moment and he chose to go to heaven instead of stay with me. I felt abandoned, left with his responsibilities.
It took me a while to be able to express what I was feeling into any kind of coherent thought, but this was an important step for me. I had to choose to forgive Rich. Several times. I wrote him letters telling him how mad I was. I had to say out loud into the air multiple times, feeling super foolish, “I forgive you.” Sometimes I had to forgive God. Sometimes I had to forgive myself for not demanding that we wait until morning to drive home, or for not holding his hand as he died. To be honest, I had to forgive myself the most times, because that last one really cut me up. Even discovering that he died as soon as he landed headfirst on that asphalt road didn’t help, because the truth is I just wasn’t brave enough to face whatever was happening on that road.
Allow God to expose the painful places; don’t hide them.
If we don’t let go of our anger through forgiveness, it turns to bitterness. Bitterness poisons our healing. Keloid scars aren’t cute. They are wounds that haven’t healed just right. Raw skin has covered over the injury, but it’s built up thick scar tissue. They are big, red, puffy, raised, sensitive scars. Bitterness produces keloid scars on our soul that are sensitive to being touched, always reminding us about what happened to us. If we allow them to stay, they are repelling. We become hostile, angry, prickly people, and we wind up alone.
We have all met people who get stuck in bitterness. There are two types of them—protestors, who angrily lash out at anyone who tries to help, and victims, who feel entitled by their loss. They leech onto people physically and emotionally, flashing their pain like a credit card. Both types will wear you out after a while.
Too often, our flesh wants to run away from the presence of God when we are locked up with soul scars, when what is required for healing is the opposite. If you have gotten to that point, it takes the oil of the Holy Spirit rubbed into our soul repeatedly to soften those scars back down. “When I was upset and beside myself, you calmed me down and cheered me up.” (Psalm 94:12-19 MSG) In these Holy Spirit sessions, we have to let ourselves get soft before him. We get vulnerable and honest with ourselves and with Jesus. His presence is always healing. If we ask him to help carry our pain, he will. He went to the cross so that he could.
Psalm 40: 1-3 “I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from the deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God.”
3. Let a wise leader take the steering wheel for a while.
When we are hurting, especially us girls run right toward the relationships that make us feel the most valuable and the least alone. These relationships don’t always bring the best out of us. All our good decision-making ability goes out the window in the face of our need. This often means we get involved with people who aren’t God’s best for us, which result in guilty feelings. We go from feeling bad to worse when guilt adds to our pain. The pressure of pain brings the real me to the surface, and that’s not a pleasant mirror. I dealt with both the pain of my loss and the pain of being disappointed in myself because as much as I wanted to, I frequently didn’t make the right choice. I’m so grateful that God does not stand with his finger pointed in judgment.
I have several different pastor friends who have had nasty religious people tell them that the reason their child got terribly ill or they faced a major crisis was because of sin in their life, and they were getting what they deserved—the judgment of God. Shut those people out of your life; they don’t know what the heck they are talking about. Did we do something to deserve this? In the search for answers, we may feel like because of past mistakes, maybe we are getting what we deserved. When you feel that way, you tend to hang back, feeling undeserving of God’s help. The thing is, God doesn’t look at our pain that way. The gospels tell us repeatedly that Jesus looked at hurting people and the first thing he felt was compassion. If we will bring our failure to him, he gently scoops away the sin, the issues, and the attitudes. Jesus holds us close with forgiveness, and carries us higher. “God is sheer mercy and grace. He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve, nor pay us back in full for our wrongs.” (Psalm 103:8-12)
When you’re trying to figure out whom to process with, please, don’t run away from church, run toward it. Don’t disconnect from real kingdom relationships. Especially as leaders, we tend to feel like we need to have it all together to serve in church, but it’s just not true! We feel this internal pressure to be strong around both the people we are leading and the people we are following, so we often isolate ourselves when we are hurting. It’s one of the biggest lies the devil spreads. God designed us to be a part of a community. He looked at Adam alone and said, “It’s not good!”
We need help to process our thoughts and feelings correctly. Usually we need to talk to a counselor or our pastor to get our thinking right. I was not healthy enough to make good decisions on my own. God put my pastor in my life specifically for that season. Amazingly, she had lost her first husband to cancer at the exact same age I did, years before! He will put wisdom in our path if we will open our eyes to see it and access it. In that season, I invited her input in my world about pretty much every area of my life. I needed someone healthy taking the wheel for me for a while, just like I would if I was sick in the hospital and needed my family to take care of things for me. For deep traumas that have wounded us for many years, we can’t allow our pride or insecurity to keep us from getting professional counseling. Let’s just get the help we need!
4. Find new purpose in God’s house.
With Rich gone, so much of my life plan was suddenly down the toilet. Up to that point, I was really more of a support to Rich’s ministry than anything on my own. Without him, I had to figure out who I was going to be and what I was going to do.
Ministry probably saved me, really. Somewhere around six thousand people attended Rich’s funeral and wake. For hours, I watched thousands of hurting people walk past his casket. There was no way I could claim some kind of exclusive stake to grieving Rich. I was clearly not unique in my loss. Seeing those people every week for the months that followed kept my gaze up. It would have been so easy to give into the navel-gazing and bury myself in pain for a few years, but I felt such a sense of responsibility. These were my kids too, and they were hurting, so I did the best that I could to help them.
I think that one of God’s favorite roles is to ride in on a white horse as our knight in shining armor, the Savior, there to save the day. Jesus loves us so much that he gives us the chance to get in on that feeling. He lets us taste that joy when he uses us to help someone else—an extension of his body, part of the church. Seeing everyone else’s challenges helps us understand that we aren’t alone in our suffering.
God didn’t restore to Job all he had lost until he prayed for his friends. “After Job had interceded for his friends, God restored his fortune–and then doubled it!” (Job 42:10) I believe something happens on the inside of us when we do something to ease someone else’s suffering. A little bit of our own pain recedes, and God puts healing in its place.
When we are looking for purpose, we will find it in the house of God. Pain does not disqualify us from the ability to serve someone else’s need.
5. Face your fears about the future.
For a long time, I refused to make any life or ministry plans. It felt too risky, and I just didn’t have any heart for dreaming. Life didn’t appear to be full of possibilities. All I could do was keep going with what I was already doing. The future was one big scary blank.
There is a landfill next to the neighborhood I used to live in. Several years ago, they closed it and covered it over with a layer of plastic and dirt. Eventually, they built a lovely city park over the top of that dump. You wouldn’t know today that it is a landfill except for the pipe vents that pop up out of the ground in a few places.
I used to enjoy a great running route that would take me about four miles around the neighborhood and would finish up on a track through this park before getting back home. The last leg of the run took me right past the dump vents, down into a little depression between the man-made hill and the road. During the summer, at least once a week, they open those vents to let off the funk that has built up underground as everything decomposes. When the vents were open, the last half-mile home was just awful. The gasses would collect down in that little hollow, and choke me with their foulness as I tried to run past. I felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. My tired body would tell me to slow down or stop, but slowing down just meant the noxious vapors would overwhelm me. My only real option was to speed up to get past this little valley and be home.
“Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.” (Psalm 23:4)
When we go through these horrible valleys, the only way out is to keep going! Don’t slow down; don’t stop, just keeping moving forward. You will get through this season, and it will hurt less and less. What a beautiful promise, that we are not alone, even when we feel alone! “Oh, blessed be God! He didn’t go off and leave us. He didn’t abandon us defenseless, helpless as a rabbit in a pack of snarling dogs.” (Psalm 124:6 MSG)
God intends good for us, whether we see it today or not. When I look backward, I see his hand on my life so clearly. We can trust that his plan will bring us to a good place. When I was trying to wrap my mind around a new future, I thought about this verse frequently. “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil. Plans to give you a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) When I couldn’t dream for myself, God dreamed for me. He had a better plan for me than I could conceive of.
How do we access it? Decide to trust God every day and dream again. “Be brave. Be strong. Don’t give up. Expect God to get here soon.” (Psalm 31:24) Surrender to his process. Let his healing love cover over the injustice of what happened to you. His love is bigger than what shouldn’t have happened. Decide to believe that he can restore what was lost. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NKJV)
Four years after Rich died, God worked through my dear friend and pastor, Kent Munsey, to set me up on a date with John Morgan. That night changed my life. John is warm and affectionate, absolutely hilarious, and very strong. He made my life so much fun! God knew he was exactly what I would need! We got married a few months later. I didn’t see it coming, and I couldn’t have planned it, but God’s plan for us was better than I could have dreamed on my own. God healed my heart and replaced pain with a whole lot of joy. He’s just that good! I got three gorgeous stepdaughters in the bargain, all of them amazing, loving girls. I am living proof that “God places the lonely in families.” (Psalm 68:6 NLT)
For us who lead in church, it’s not how well we can put together a church service, or how well we can deliver our gift that matters most. What people remember isn’t likely to be the points of the messages we preach. They will remember the way that we live, and the way that we navigated the hardest moments of our lives. People need to know how to face and get past their difficulties, and they need hope that it’s possible to get to the other side and be whole. Let’s not hesitate to show them the path. “Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say.” (Matthew 7:16-18 MSG)