Some Thoughts on Grief & Gratefulness

In a few days my family and I will go to the Evolving Faith Conference where we will fellowship with the people who loved our Rachel best and celebrate her legacy of love and whole hearted faith.  It was just a year ago that I went to Evolving Faith in North Carolina and witnessed firsthand the impact of her life and work. And now I cannot believe that October 4th marks five months since her death. In some ways it feels that I’ve lived a lifetime of sorrow in those five months.   In other ways, It feels that I am only moments beyond her physical, tangible presence: her smile, her laugh, and the sisterhood that we shared.

I confess as I write this, I’m a little scared and unsure of myself.  For several months, I’ve felt a desire to say more about Rachel, to express our appreciation for the love and support we’ve received.  But I’m afraid I won’t say it the right way.  I’m afraid of saying too little; afraid of saying too much.  I’m wary of being overly guarded but also don’t want to be an exhibitionist.  Nothing I say can adequately express our grief.  Or our gratitude.  And nothing I write will offer sufficient comfort to a community in mourning. 

But I want to speak, however imperfectly, about where I am at in all of this.  And share a few thoughts about Rachel.

People talk about how in the aftermath of a tornado or hurricane, they get lost in their own neighborhoods.  The GPS points are the same but all the landmarks are all gone.  That is what it is like to lose a loved one that served as your true north from day one.  There is no childhood memory in which she is not present.  There was no imagined future in which she was not present.  The carefully scripted life we’d anticipated has taken a dramatic and devastating turn.  It is a new reality, a new way of being in the world.  I want my old life back.  I want my sister back.

Life is still a fog some days.  I have not fully absorbed what has happened to our family.  There are days where I feel that I’ve begun to acclimate to the new normal.  But then something sends me flying headlong back into the shock of it all.  Grief is not linear.  It doesn’t always progress in a consistent direction.  The onset is surprisingly slow – those first few weeks were so out of body, so driven by the primitive, instinctual need to survive; I think we are only just now beginning to unlock the unending compartments of pain this loss entails.  There are tributaries of grief branching out from the event itself that we have yet to discover.

A friend put it this way:  I feel like I got strapped into a roller coaster and I can’t get off. 

But there have been a few things that have served to steady us as we ride out the violent waves of this loss.

We have been lifted up by the love and kindness of others.

For as long as I live I will never forget the kindness that friends and colleagues of Rachel’s have shown me and my family.  Many of you only knew us by name before this all happened. I am blessed now to count you as friends. We are forever grateful for those who are steadily working to ensure Rachel’s writing continues to reach people, and we appreciate the faithful labor of those moving forward with the vision of Evolving Faith.

I want the world to know how deeply moved and grateful we are for the support that Rachel’s community has poured out on us. The prayers and financial contributions that were made were given as a sacrifice of love to our family; they have lightened our load in ways that you will never know.  It is no small thing to give of your own resources to people you do not know.  We are overwhelmed with gratitude. 

I want people to know that my family read the dozens and dozens of letters that came in from all over the world.  And they brought us comfort when we needed it the most.  To everyone who took the time to write, to pray, to hold space – thank you.

I could brag all day about my home town of Dayton, Tennessee.  The community has rallied around us in ways that have moved me to tears.  Rachel wrote in one of her books that one of her fears in moving on from church was that no one would be there to bring her casseroles in her time of need.  Well, she would be delighted to know that the casseroles have rolled in in abundance – inter-denominational casseroles at that!  In the spirit of the Eucharist, the body of Christ in our sleepy little home town has fed us...  and so much more.

My husband and I are forever grateful to our community and colleagues in Boone.  I’ve always said the mountains of NC are healing.  I believe that now more than ever.

I’ve learned how amazing my family is.  I knew it before, but I now know it in a deeper way.  I now see just how wise and resilient my parents are.  I see how sacrificial and steady my husband is – his loyalty and service to my family outside the limelight is a picture of Christ.  I see how courageous and determined my brother-in-law is.  Our extended families, including my in-laws, have given of themselves above and beyond what I could have imagined.

My daughter and niece and nephew continue to bring us the kind of joy that only children can, and that has given us moments of inexplicable happiness.  The year of my sister’s death is also my first year of motherhood. Those kids have brought light in a way that has left me stupefied and utterly unable to categorize the quality of my life during this season.  As Frederick Beuchner said “Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Do not be afraid.”

And I think I am learning some things about God.  But I am not yet able to write or articulate these things yet.  There is an intimacy that comes in struggle.  And maybe someday I’ll be able to write of that intimacy.  But that will be for another time.

There are still things about my sister that I want the world to know.  She worked harder than anyone will ever fully understand.  As hard as the work was, she never gave up because she so deeply loved the people who sought refuge in her writing. 

She was self-deprecating and down to earth.   She was a clear minded person – she was honest with herself about her own shortcomings and would constantly examine her motives.   Woundedness wasn’t a status for her; it was a tool with which she could better love and serve others and fight for justice.  She wasn’t one to wallow; if she ever caught herself feeling sorry for herself, she looked for a way forward towards gratefulness.  She resisted negativity and meanness. In the spirit of beating swords into plowshares, she used to fold her hate mail into origami.  

She had no time for pettiness.  If she persisted on a controversial topic, it wasn’t to poke anyone in the eye.  It was motivated by a fierce love.

She loved Jesus and the story of resurrection with a persistence that refused to give up.  Though she had many questions, she didn’t allow her love for Him and His body, the church, to be dictated by the negativity and pessimism all around her. 

She was generous in ways few will ever know – she was liberal with her time, gave the best birthday and Christmas gifts, tipped waiters and waitresses unsparingly, and made genuine conversation with anyone she came into contact with. The same is true of her husband Dan.

In the last few months, people have asked me what it was like to live in her shadow.  It never occurred to me before Rachel died that I might be living in her shadow.  It never occurred to me that I might have something to prove.  That’s because Rachel was my greatest cheerleader; she believed in me and the choices I’d made.  She never made me feel small.  I loved my life and she loved hers.  We were fiercely proud of each other.  I never worried about living in her shadow until someone told me not to worry about it.

That’s how Rachel always was – she made others feel important.  Because she actually believed they were important. 

I laugh when I think about how Rachel would react at seeing the endless memorials, tributes, accolades that have poured in after her death.  I suspect she’d probably roll her eyes and say, “I’m not that big of a deal!”  I also think she’d be profoundly sad that we were all so sad. 

I’m always hesitant to speak for Rachel – Dan and my parents are always good to remind me that Rachel can speak for herself.  Her body of work continues to speak. But I think I can say with confidence that if Rachel were here, she would likely redirect all the attention away from her and point to the multitude of strong voices of justice and wisdom all around us.  She’d enthusiastically direct us to others who are carrying on her legacy.  She would point us to the countless acts of small, unassuming mercies we can all embrace daily.  She’d be cheering on others who are doing the work.  She’d be passing the torch and rooting for the underdog.

Rachel was a prophet in our midst.  But, she would remind us, she is not the only one.

She was, however, my only sibling. 

And so, as I attend Evolving Faith, and lean on those who continue the work she loved, I will listen to other prophets and torchbearers.

But I will miss my sister.

Because as good as she was as a writer, a speaker, a prophet, a healer….

She was an even better sister..

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Amanda Opelt53 Comments