My story of public grief (and what it taught me about God and chronic illness)
I hesitate to share this. It’s personal. It’s ‘deep’… and this is in itself is normally an indicator that I shouldn’t post it on the World Wide Web.
And yet, I believe it’s important. This experience was one of the times I have seen God teaching me ‘in the moment’. It was a valuable lesson – and so I share it, not for sympathy or scandal, but so you might also see the God I saw that day.
My sister’s chronic illness diagnosis
In 2015 my younger sister was suddenly diagnosed with a non-malignant but life-affecting and must-be-immediately-removed brain tumour. One moment she had un-explainable symptoms, and the next she had an MRI which showed a big growth in the centre of her brain.
One day I was convincing my parents that nothing could possibly be the matter with her, and the next the doctors are reading out a terrifying list of all that is the matter. Not to mention all which probably will be as a result of brain surgery.
The ‘best’ outcome was horrendous. The ‘worst’? Unthinkable.
Not many people knew. Our church community had been notified via email. The surgery was scheduled with alarming speed. I only had a few days to come to terms with the idea, and spent most of that worrying about my sister and family coming to terms with it.
Cue: much prayer, little talk and very little sleep.
Going ‘public’ after the diagnosis
Then Sunday came around. My sister’s operation was booked for the next day. She didn’t want to go to church. Didn’t want the questions. Didn’t want to talk about it at all. She was tired.
Timidly, I said I thought it might be good to go.
Inwardly, I wasn’t very timid at all. I couldn’t help but think: if it were me, I would go to church. She’s being cowardly.
Who knows what will happen after the operation? This might be her last chance for her to see her friends, and to hear God’s word before we all fall into the Unknown.
Outside of my sorrow, my God exists – Tweet!
Giving into grief at church
I’m forever thankful I didn’t mention any of that out loud. I went self-righteously off to church that morning, satisfied I (at least) was doing the hard thing. I was going to church – even though I too dreaded the questions, the hugs, the encouragements – but I was strong, I was brave, I was going.
I made it through the first song and Bible reading. I thought of other things. I steeled my lips. I dug my fingers into the palms of my hands and tried to focus on the pain in my flesh rather than the pain in my heart.
I took deep breaths, I took shallow breaths. I resolutely ignored a sudden and inexplicable urge to burst into tears.
And then we stood for the second song. It was something about glory and heaven and death and hope.
I began to cry.
Silently at first. A few drops. I snatched a tissue. Stood and mouthed the words, because I knew if I tried to sing I would really cry. But the tears kept coming. I could no longer turn my mind elsewhere.
My sister is sick. She could die.
This is awful.
What are we going to do?
My poor, poor parents.
I’m terrified. Everything is falling apart.
Running away from my public grief
I could no longer contain myself. I, who had been determined to be brave if it killed me. I, who was sure I was the stronger one.
I, who was none of these things, turned and ran out of church.
I ran through the foyer and out the front door, down the street, off the main road and into the bush. I scrambled onto a rock and stared out over the tree-filled valley, and cried.
I cried because life was awful.
I cried because I was a coward.
I cried because all I wanted was my sister to be healthy.
I cried because I couldn’t take her place.
Learning from my grief
Soon my tears began to change. I lay back and looked up at the sky and decided it would be nice if it could fall on me.
I talked to God. I watched some ants.
I realised I was an idiot.
I, who had been trying to convince my sister not to run away from fear but to go to church, had run away myself. I had been given some of my own medicine.
It was humbling.
It also made me laugh. Look how my God works. It seems a bit odd now that I could laugh at such a thing, at such a time, but I did.
God ripped my pride to shreds so that I was able, not only to sympathise, but also empathise, with my sister’s fear.
And so I stood up and dried my eyes. I went back to church. I stayed for the service, and I stayed to talk with some people afterwards. I tried not to worry that I was still leaking tears. I accepted hugs. I attempted to answer questions.
Then I went home and apologised to my sister.
Grieving in public can be helpful
I’m not going to lie and say that day was easy. But it was helpful. God knew what I needed. It set the standard for the many days to come.
It taught me humility – a lesson which I still need over and over again – and it taught me that tears are just tears. A reminder of my limitations as a human, of my weakness, of my need for a Saviour – but also just a physical hindrance which happens, and can be wiped away and discarded.
Outside of my tears and my sorrow, exists my God – and that is what truly matters.
// Have you ever cried in public? Looking back, do you view it as something embarrassing, or something God was able to use? Join the conversation in the comments below or here!