I stood, clutching the kitchen telephone as if the intensity of my grip would bring clarity to the words coming from the voice on the other end of the line. As soon as I heard the words “Jenny, your brother is dead,” the room started to spin. My body filled with a strange hum, and from that point on, nothing made sense.
It feels like yesterday, but it’s been sixteen years since I got that call. Sixteen years since I went from being a big sister to an only child.
The pain I felt in the wake of my brother’s death was indescribable. Most days the ache was so deep, it was hard to breathe. Movement hurt. And thinking—oh my, was that agonizing. The early days focused on survival. I clung to shallow breaths as they gave way to deeper ones, and practiced going through the motions of life, hoping it would begin to feel normal again someday.
As time passed, I learned to cope. I worked diligently to numb and distance myself from my grief for fear it would swallow me whole. I went through the motions and checked all the boxes in order to convince myself and others that I was okay. I went out, interacted with friends, and even talked about my brother with a degree of vulnerability from time to time. I was doing everything I was “supposed” to be doing on the outside, but I was dying on the inside.
Then something happened that would shift the course of my mourning and reshape my understanding of grace, mercy, and comfort.
I tested God.
It started when I was sitting in church (check that off the list), and the pastor started speaking about the Beatitudes. I remember thinking sarcastically, “Oh, yes, more lists of things I can do to be a good Christian person.” I was probably going through my grocery list or making plans for the following week when I heard these words:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
I’d heard this verse countless times, but this time, it was different. This time, I could relate. I knew mourning in a way I had never it known before, and the words cut through the fog of my pain in a way nothing else had.
Then came the challenge.
Apparently, Jesus was inviting me and promising something in return. He wasn’t simply saying, Life is tough and I’ll be there for you when it stinks the most. He was asking for an active participation on my part.
“Blessed are those who mourn.”
That was the part I didn’t like. I had worked hard to cope and stuff and compartmentalize my grief up to that point. Now I was being asked to take my mourning and give it to God. That meant I was going to have to revisit it. I was going to have to dig it up from the depths where I had shoved it, unwrap the layers of protection I had so carefully placed around it, and hand it over.
All the time I had spent numbing and stuffing and compartmentalizing, and now I was being asked to go back and undo all of that?
I wrestled with some strong doubts at that moment. And while I’d like to say it was my great faith that prompted my ultimate act of trust, it wasn’t.
The truth was that I knew the numb state I resided in was just grief prolonged. I had been through therapy and had done most of the things healthy people do to deal with intense mourning. None of it was providing me with healing. My mechanisms had bandaged the wound, but the wound was still festering.
I went home that night, got on my knees in the middle of my bedroom, and said: “Okay, God. Here it goes.” I dug up all the pain and sadness, unwrapped it, and laid it bare. Every feeling that threatened to pull me into that dark abyss came forth. Disappointment, regret, guilt, sadness, anger—all of it. I let all the memories and pain back in, and just when I thought I would disappear under the crushing weight of its agony, I felt a sense of peace I had never felt before.
At that moment, I felt a profound comfort amid my pain. The grief that had terrorized me and turned me into an empty shell had changed shape, and the dread and fear that gripped my life were gone. I took the first step, and in time, I regained the ability to feel and process my sadness and pain in a new light, within the context and comfort of the ultimate healer.
Jen Kinney is a writer and anti-trafficking activist. Her twin sons and passion for social justice make her a prime candidate for therapy. Humor and sarcasm fuel her, along with copious amounts of coffee. You can find her writings at The Mighty, HuffPost, and her blog www.jenkinney.com
Photograph © Michael Heuss, used with permission