Grace Revealed Through Grief
Thank you for your prayers, emails and calls this week. As many of you know, it has been a difficult one for us as we pause to remember of the lives of two of our students, Julia Green and Tom Gilliam. So your faithful prayers for their families, friends and all of us has meant more than you know. Thank you.
Today marks the third anniversary since Tom’s death and we mourn with his family for his absence. We sit alongside them on their mourning bench. His many friends here are now fourth-years, who will in just a few months be graduating and beginning the next chapter of their lives. Yet in their transition they very much feel the absence of their friend who was supposed to be with them, as you’ll hear first-hand from one of his friends, Abby Harries (NURS ’14), in a moment.
About a month ago I got to go with Abby Harries and speak to her nursing clinical class on a topic her professor had given her—resiliency. I found this word curious during my prep time so I looked up its definition: the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc. after being bent, compressed or stretched; elasticity; the ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity or the like, buoyancy.
As Abby walks out her vocation as a nurse, one thing seems clear to me: she has been stretched, compressed, bent and disturbed by the death of her friend Tommy. She won’t return to normal because life for her has fundamentality changed. His life mattered and so did his death. And as she’s sat with her grief and cried out to the Lord, she’s grown and deepened through it because she rests in a wider hope. Can you imagine what an agent of healing and relief she will be as she works in UVA’s I.C.U. next year?
I was walking back to my dorm from the Study Center on Sunday night, March 27, 2011 with my close friends. The sound of sirens filled Central Grounds. The harsh red light of ambulances and fire trucks cut through the darkness. We were told that someone had fallen from the roof of the Physics building. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned that the student who had fallen was my friend, Tom Gilliam.
Just over a year later, I was laying in bed on a warm summer night and woke to the ringing of my phone. I answered and listened as the voice on the line told me that my friend and sister in Chi Omega, Julia Green, had been in a fatal car accident on her way home from Charlottesville.
These two people, dear to so many, hold a place of great value and affection in my heart. Their lives mark a significant page in the story of the work of Jesus in me. The death of a friend, loved one, or child isn’t something you get over. And I don’t think that you work through the five steps of grieving so that you can finally put the lid on the box of sorrow you’ve been trying desperately to contain. No, grief is permeating and death is a monster that leaves hearts raw, jagged, and bleeding.
But there is so much more to grief than getting over sadness. Indeed, He has bestowed new life upon me as I have mourned the passing of my two friends. He has drawn me deep into His character as I’ve wrestled with understanding death.
There are tears in my eyes as I write and there isn’t a lid to my box of grief. It spills over into the emptier, happier spaces of my heart, revealing itself in anger and unexpected waves of sorrow. If I believe that all He gives is grace, if I am commanded to give thanks in all circumstances, I wonder if I could ever truly give thanks in this difficult circumstance.
An image takes up residence in my mind as I give voice to that dark, buried question. It is the image of one hanging on a cross, His eyes burning with love and determined grace. Consider the Father who gave His Son’s blameless life for us. All that I am is full of sin, yet He releases me from bondage to grief and sin. Bearing the full weight of all things sinful and broken, He utters, “It is finished.” On the cross, the Son of God carried death that seemed premature and bore the heart of grieving families and friends.
If His death was the end of the story, we might find comfort in solidarity, but without any further hope of restoration. Indeed, Christ did not remain in death, but arose in victory. He burst forth from the permanence of the grave in new, unshakeable life and promised that He would restore this world to Himself. This truthful promise is full of beauty because He invites my dark, bitter, angry soul into His work of restoration.
And He gently receives us when we offer up of our raw, jagged, and bleeding hearts with the desire to love and serve Him. We can give ourselves over fully to a God who did not withhold Himself from our sin and grief, entering into its darkest depths to draw us out. This grace demands that we fall upon our knees in surrender and thanksgiving. It demands that we receive rest in anchored hope that is realized in the present time and is still yet to be realized. Take heart, people of God, for Christ is the victor. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:3-5).
Abby Harries, NURS '14