Faith and Grief in Orbit – Bethany Suckrow


Bethany Suckrow is one of those people that you just know you would be a kindred spirit friend just from her writing. Whenever she writes on grief I listen closely – she has lived it in her bones, and her words reflect that hard-won wisdom. I can’t wait to read her memoir.  I’m honoured to have her here today: 
 
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A few weeks ago I found myself at another church service. The thing is, I wound up there quite by accident. A community group that started with around 30 women in my friend’s home early this spring grew and grew each month that we met until they had to start hosting it at a local church. This church is big and trendy, with a repurposed-warehouse aesthetic and multiple auditoriums and leather lounge furniture and a coffee bar. As I walked through the big double glass doors alone, I realized that I didn’t know where I was going. There were no signs, there was no one there to guide me to the right room. I walked from one end of the expansive lobby to the other, peeking through door after door after door, growing overwhelmed and flustered with each footstep. When I came around the final corner, a woman ushered me in to a large auditorium full with nearly 200 women. I slipped into an aisle seat at the back.

 

All the chairs were facing the stage, where a young woman was speaking. She had recently turned 30, and she had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Her story was about her yearlong experience with the illness, and how God had carried her through it. After her testimony, there was music, after music, there was healing prayer time. I took that as my cue to leave. My feet carried me quickly in the dark parking lot to my car, faster and faster as the tears rose to the surface. Once I was safely in my car, I leaned against the steering wheel and sobbed.

 

It all hit way too close to home. My mother died of metastatic breast cancer nearly four years ago after living with it for 14 years. Everything the speaker said was everything I’ve ever been told about what God allows to happen to us, what He decides we can handle, how He waits until we’re at rock bottom to meet us, how He uses it all for His glory. It could have been mom speaking on that stage, for how many times I heard her say those same things. I said them for a long time too.

 

The grief has been two-fold: mourning the death of my mother, and mourning the ways in which my relationship to God and the Church has changed.

 

There were so many ways that our church cared for us through my mother’s illness, for which I am eternally grateful. But there was also this dark undercurrent of desperate belief that God would rescue my mother from a terminal fate. As a young girl I came to believe that my faith had consequences – I had to try and prove to God that our faithfulness was worthy of His blessing, that our prayers were worth answering, that we deserved His love. Of course, this meant that the opposite was true, too: that if my mother wasn’t healed, it was somehow our fault. And that God allowed it to happen.

 

I see now the ways in which it all got tangled up together, my mother’s illness and my sense of God’s blessing. I have trouble discerning where one thing ends and the other begins. When I sit in a pew, I am playing a mental tug-of-war with myself: to believe that God hears our prayers, and yet still believe that our suffering is not His doing. My faith and my lived experience are often at odds with one another.

 

Talking with my husband and my close friend Sarah later that night after I left the church, I had to admit that my community group wasn’t necessarily to blame for what happened. This was just the latest episode in a long-running series of Hard Church Experiences, and while the ableist theology was hurtful, I also respect the right of cancer survivors to tell their stories in their own words. It won’t always meet my expectations or match my experiences. Our language will always be imperfect, reaching at a mystery we will never fully grasp.

 

This is the part of any suffering story that no one wants to hear: the indefinite, ongoing pain. The incomplete miracle. The part where we admit that we’re not sure it will ever get better. Have you noticed that the Church often talks about grief in the same way that we often talk about illness and other forms of suffering? We expect people to just “get over it,” that if they believe hard enough, all will be well.

 

This is the part where I admit that my heart is not healed, and I don’t know if I ever will be. Maybe grief is terminal- not in the sense that it will kill me, but in the sense that I will live with it my whole life, because I loved my mother. Her illness looms large in the memories of my childhood and adolescence, a kind of gravitational force around which I continue to orbit. Sometimes I move far from it, toward brighter suns. Other times I am pulled back in close to it, enveloped in darkness. Grief and depression function similarly, in this way. (And if I’m really honest, I have a hard time discerning the difference between the two.) There’s a good possibility that I will always be triggered by conversations about suffering and healing, even from well-intentioned people.

 

When I pray now, when I lift my broken heart to God, I’m not necessarily asking for an absence of suffering, but a sense of God’s presence. And though the Spirit rarely appears in the places I’m told to look, the miracle is that I do find Her, most often in the listening ear or solid shoulder of a friend. Or in the words of the poets, like Rilke:

 

“We will sense you

like a fragrance from a nearby garden

and watch you move through our days

like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom.

 

We will not be herded into churches,

for you are not made by the crowd,

you who meet us in our solitude.

 

We are cradled close in your hands-

and lavishly flung forth.” -The Book of Hours, (II, 26)

 
Bethany Suckrow profileBethany Suckrow is a writer and artist at bethanysuckrow.com, and contributing editor and writer for shelovesmagazine.com. She writes both prose and poetry on faith, grace, grief and hope. She’s currently working on her first book, a memoir about losing her mother to cancer. She and her musician-husband live in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

 

Tweetables:

“Our language will always be imperfect, reaching at a mystery we will never fully grasp.” – @writesnrights on grief:
 
“This is the part of any suffering story that no one wants to hear: the indefinite, ongoing pain.” – @writesnrights:
 
“My heart is not healed, and I don’t know if I ever will be.” – @writesnrights for @Tanya_Marlow on grief:
 
Grief? “[As Christians] we expect people to just “get over it”” – @writesnrights for @Tanya_Marlow on suffering:
 
On grief: ” I will live with it my whole life, because I loved my mother. ” – @writesnrights for @Tanya_Marlow:
 
“The Spirit rarely appears in the places I’m told to look” – @writesnrights for @Tanya_Marlow on suffering:
 

Over to you:

  • “Maybe grief is terminal- not in the sense that it will kill me, but in the sense that I will live with it my whole life, because I loved my mother.” What do you think about this way of describing grief? Can you relate?
  • “When I sit in a pew, I am playing a mental tug-of-war with myself: to believe that God hears our prayers, and yet still believe that our suffering is not His doing.” How do you wrestle with this mystery? Is there anything you have found helpful?

 
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14 Responses to Faith and Grief in Orbit – Bethany Suckrow

  1. Mark Allman 5th November, 2015 at 10:37 pm #

    So Bethany,

    I am a strong believer that we never get over our grief. Nor would I want to. I think our grief speaks to whatever it is we are grieving and what it meant to us. I also think in some sense we honor that which we have lost with our grief. I think we learn to deal with our grief over time and we let it visit when it wants.

    My father killed himself and I know I’m never going to get over it and I am ok with that. I would never encourage anyone to “get over it” if it is something that was meaningful in their life. I do think we have to make sure in our grief that we are continuing to live in a way that is honoring to what we have lost and to what we still have.

    I’ve also thought a lot about that dark undercurrent you speak of and that being that we should expect a miracle and if it does not come then we are perhaps at fault in some way. I had wrote elsewhere on this and said “I am tempted to think that if I make my request the right way; if I say the right words, if I approach God correctly, if I am worthy then my prayers will be answered. I force myself to know that this is not the way I need to think about my requests. I would be so pissed at God if I got to heaven and He told me I just did not ask the right way or say the right things because I don’t really want my prayers answers to hinge on that trivial stuff. Really what do I have to trade for answered prayer?? I don’t want to trade anyway. I want to trust that God is bigger than my imagination and trust that his decisions are so pure that I need to accept them as such and be thankful even when I’m left struggling.

    I think we should “grieve with hope”. Hope that although we struggle we can find hope in the knowledge that God is with us through it all even if we don’t feel or want to acknowledge it. Is that not one way we love those that are “ours”? We stand by them and go through the good,, the bad, and the ugly that life throws our way.

  2. Terri Jackson 3rd November, 2015 at 11:38 pm #

    I love Rilke!Such a beautiful choice you shared. I am so very sorry for the loss of your mother. Their absence leaves a deep longing in our hearts. My dad died when I was 13, and my mom will be gone 20 years Nov. 5, my eldest brother died 10 years ago, and the most wrenching was when our eldest son was killed five years ago. I have been reflecting quite a lot on grief, and the word chronic comes to me. My mourning for my son is chronic, I have learned to care for myself and my grief with gentleness. I get exhausted easy, overwhelmed, waves hit me and I can’t breathe, but then as you said so beautifully, there are days of brighter suns.

    I love how you speak of “hard church experiences.” I walked away from our church, they were very good after our son’s death, but then after six months expected us to be “better” and “over it.” After all, we had faith, right? I find solace in nature, in nurturing abandoned animals, walking, and hours of solitude. I am slowly, slowly finding my way to God. I am learning that he is a God who will sit with me in the darkness and not demand that I feel joy.

    Thank you for your beautiful words, for sharing your journey, shared grief does lift the heart. Wishing you some peace filled moments, especially as we enter into the holiday season.
    Terri Jackson recently posted…Strong Like a MotherMy Profile

  3. adrian tremblay 3rd November, 2015 at 11:27 pm #

    I too live with ongoing grief. Not from a death but from a child who is a fifteen year drug user. Just today I was pondering, how can I live with this grief and experience “the abundant life” the bible speaks of. I do believe because of our grief we have the capacity for a deeper compassion for others.
    adrian tremblay recently posted…I Dare You to Keep This Song Out of Your Head Throughout Your DayMy Profile

  4. Rachel 3rd November, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

    Hi Bethany,

    Thank you for your honest post. I too lost my Mum to cancer, although I was older when that happened. I relate to what you say. I find that grief is a process but that it’s one that doesn’t just suddenly disappear. My Mum died two and a half years ago and if I think about too much, I could cry buckets of tears. She was gone too soon. Love doesn’t forget and love doesn’t stop loving. Along with that comes the pain. It’s an inevitable part of love and death combining.

    I also relate to your wrestling and mental tug of war regarding prayer. My current challenges are Multiple Sclerosis and more than seven years of infertility. When people talk of prayer for healing, my initial reaction is that I want to get up and run out as fast as I can. Somehow I have to combine that with the knowledge that sometimes people are healed. However, I’ve received much prayer and not been healed. I don’t believe that everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is God’s will. Personally, I’ve found some of Gregory Boyd’s books and material on Open Theism to be helpful. It’s never sat right with me when people say that God has three answers to prayer, “Yes. No.” and “not yet.” I think we like to try and sort things out and put everything into neat little boxes, but sometimes life isn’t as simple as that. I prefer to live with the questions than to try and impose an answer. That’s where the damage can be done when someone’s going through a difficult time.

    Thank you Tanya for having Bethany here today. So great to have someone share from the heart.
    Greetings to you both,
    Rachel
    Rachel recently posted…Finding Hope When Hopes Are CrushedMy Profile

    • Bethany Suckrow 3rd November, 2015 at 10:19 pm #

      Rachel, thanks so much for sharing your story. I can imagine how painful it is to not only grieve your mother’s death, but your own illnesses and lack of healing. I’m so sorry for all that you’re coping with, and I pray that you continue to experience Love and Hope, through it all.

      I will definitely have to check out Gregory Boyd’s work. At this point, my views have changed so much that I’m open to any perspective, so long as it offers hope.
      Bethany Suckrow recently posted…An Iris in Remembrance.My Profile

  5. Rebecka 3rd November, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

    “I am playing a mental tug-of-war with myself: to believe that God hears our prayers, and yet still believe that our suffering is not His doing.” I do this too. Every day. Thank you, Bethany, for sharing your story of ongoing pain. The Church could definitely get better at talking about suffering.

    • Bethany Suckrow 3rd November, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

      I hear you, Rebecka. I hope that the Church continues to grow in our theology of healing and suffering. I think that’s the beauty of online spaces like Tanya has created here, and the spaces that brought us together (SheLoves mag and Twitter). Not only does it widen my understanding of Church community, but it gives us space to have these conversations so that our faith and theology can evolve. When my experiences within the brick and mortar of a church are too painful, I take comfort in the global community that is helping me heal through conversations like this.
      Bethany Suckrow recently posted…An Iris in Remembrance.My Profile

  6. Janice 3rd November, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    “Her illness looms large in the memories of my childhood and adolescence, a kind of gravitational force around which I continue to orbit. Sometimes I move far from it, toward brighter suns. Other times I am pulled back in close to it, enveloped in darkness. ”

    Bethany, that may be the very best description of grief I’ve ever heard. (My degree is in rocket science so I may be biased…) We lost our son 8 years ago when he was a few months old, and orbiting around that loss is the perfect description. It grows closer or more distant, exerts more or less of a pull on me at different times, but I do continue to orbit.

    Thank you for the words.

    Also, yes, “Have you noticed that the Church often talks about grief in the same way that we often talk about illness and other forms of suffering?” And too often the sorts of stories that are shared one only shared because they are wrapped up–the person healed or some other greater good discovered.

    Many things in life are terminal, and we need to learn to talk about that – about living with terminal grief or pain or sickness. Because God doesn’t expect us to only speak once we’ve wrapped up our suffering in a neat little bow. He speaks and listens and is here in the terminal. Thank you for bringing the conversation to that point.
    Janice recently posted…Highs and Lows – the Highs partMy Profile

    • Janice 3rd November, 2015 at 4:11 pm #

      And, of course, thank you Tanya for always keeping the discussion open at that point.
      Janice recently posted…Highs and Lows – the Highs partMy Profile

    • Bethany Suckrow 3rd November, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

      Janice, thank you so much for your thoughts. I think the first time I really thought of grief as “orbiting” around loss was when I read the book “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. She describes it in a similar way and the imagery has stuck with me ever since. It’s interesting, the older I get and the more I walk through grief and evolve in my faith, the more the language of science and concepts of nature help me grapple with these issues… When I was in school I never understood science that well, but as an adult, learning about science (like when I watch Cosmos or listen to interviews with scientists on podcasts and public radio) has opened my understanding to God and the spiritual world in such a surprising way. The wonder and mystery of it, even as I’m learning interesting facts about how the universe works, comforts me when I contemplate things like grief, loss, faith, and doubt.

      And I agree with you – so often when we hear stories from people about suffering, it’s always wrapped in positive language and happy endings or lessons learned. As if things like cancer aren’t as horrible because it will teach us to be better people. I’ve tried my whole life to let that idea comfort me – that at least watching my mother die of cancer has made me a good person, more faithful to God, kinder to other people. As if it could lessen the blow of loss. All it really did was short-circuit my ability to cope, and it kept me from being totally honest about the pain for a long time.

      Wishing you and your family comfort as you continue to grieve the loss of your son. May you find safe spaces to grieve openly. <3

  7. David Bridger 3rd November, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

    Thank you, Bethany. I’ve known unhealed grief for many years, and I too can sometimes find solace in solitary places. Love and prayers for you.

    Thank you, too, Tanya, for hosting Bethany’s quiet wisdom from the heart today.
    David Bridger recently posted…Research questionMy Profile

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  1. Shawn Smucker - Five Blog Posts You Should Read - 6th November, 2015

    […] The grief has been two-fold: mourning the death of my mother, and mourning the ways in which my relationship to God and the Church has changed. […]

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