Lessons in Grieving: Resting in a Future Hope

This week marks a difficult passage in the life of our Study Center community. On Thursday we pause to remember the third year anniversary of Tom Gilliam’s death. Tom was one of our first-year students, a missionary kid from Ireland with extended family in Charlottesville. Tommy died from an accidental fall after spending the evening with his visiting father. Yesterday, Julia Green would have turned 21. Julia, one of our rising second-year students, died in a car accident on Saturday evening, July 7, 2012, after spending the day in Charlottesville. She was the youngest of four siblings who were a part of the Study Center community during their time at U.Va. 

Tom and Julia’s friends are now third and fourth years, many on the cusp of graduating this May. As they’ve wrestled with their grief and deep suffering, it has been beautiful for us to watch them moving deeper into their relationship with their Heavenly Father. We’ve seen how grief has impacted every aspect of their lives, including how they are approaching their post-graduate life. It has fundamentally changed them. And through the enabling of the Spirit, those whom they serve will be changed as well.

A few weeks ago, I asked a few of their friends to write about how Tom and Julia’s death has impacted their faith and how they view the world. Their answers back to me beautifully illustrates that grief remains a process, often winding and continuing over a lifetime. As you will see from their note below and the one we will post for Tommy on Thursday, they are still figuring out my question about how their faith works itself out in their work and service. They focus instead on running to Christ at their Comforter. I won’t quibble with that.

Ellen Upton, Julia Green, and Lisa Myers
Ellen Upton, Julia Green, and Lisa Myers during Spring 2012 Exam Snacks

Dear Friends,

This time two years ago, we were with Julia—laughing continually through a silly YouTube video of a swamp man named Old Greg, dancing freely on the porch of Chi Omega, picking out our “joutfits” at Goodwill, and posing for a picture with her in the kitchen of the Stud on the last day of first year. These ordinary moments became precious memories as we answered the unexpected phone call that midsummer evening.

The process of grief has taken many forms over the last two years. First, anger as we realized our friend had left this world. We struggled with how to trust in a God who would take away someone so lovely. We experienced doubt as we realized the Lord had a different plan but didn’t understand it. We felt fear as her death reminded us of the brevity of this life. We were confused. How do we deal the void she had left behind? Some of us desperately wanted to return to the hours we passed with her, longing to spend just a little more time, now knowing how precious it was. Her absence caused a loneliness that could not be filled.

As time went on, we felt an internal pressure to move along with it and conjure up a new vocabulary to prove that we were dealing with the pain. But it didn’t work. It wouldn’t work. While many of those around us had seemingly transitioned to accept the loss of Julia, we felt isolated as we made the slow shift from pure shock to overwhelming sadness. And though we tried to keep up with the expectations of others, the grieving process progressed at a unique pace for us.

“She’s in a better place.” “Everything happens for a reason.” These were common responses we heard from our friends, but they left us searching for what exactly they meant. These sympathetic messages held no weight. Comforting one another required more than a Hallmark condolence; it required us to reorient our eyes upon God.

There is a beauty in realizing that the Lord does not demand us to conform to an anticipated grieving pattern. Instead of asking us to jump ahead or be okay or put a band-aid on it, He moves in beside His children to meet us in our mourning. We hear this story when we open our Bibles and read about a God who refuses to remain silent or hidden but is willing to enter into a broken world, experience the pain of searing loss, and stand victorious over death. And how awesome it is that He is purposeful in doing so—that His incarnation acts as way for Him to know us, understand us, and guide us to find peace and rest in Him.

As we begin to recognize God’s presence with us, we are also forced to reconcile that this God who provides peace is the same God who took Julia from us. The story of a God who loves an unlovely people involves a King who both gave us His Son and took His Son away as He was nailed to the cross. It’s easy to stop there. And if we let that be the end of the story, we find ourselves leaving the concert before the encore. If we leave early, we will miss the best part. Our Father sent His most beloved Son, not only to live and to die, but to rise as well. Even as we live in the three days between Christ’s death and resurrection, we look forward to being raised from the dead by the Spirit in His eternal kingdom. We find peace, not in where we sit today, but by resting in the presence of the One who promises us that we won’t be sitting here forever. He has provided us with a confidence that there is more to the story. Ultimately, that means that both Julia and we have the hope of resurrection life in His presence.

While we walk in light of what the Lord has done, we are able to recognize how blessed the world is to have seen the sunshine of Julia’s smile. When we think about her, we will remember how she was compassionate in spirit, outstanding in joy, and quick to love everyone around her, but we adore these characteristics as reflections of Christ. Friends and family, although we may feel overwhelmed by the clouds that cover the earth in shadows, we have the hope in Christ to say: Where is thy sting, Death? Where, Grave, thy victory?

By His grace and love,
Ellen and Lisa