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:
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 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.
“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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