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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

When life plunges you below the surface

New salvationWhen my brother committed suicide at age 25, I grieved for a week before returning to my classroom. To the eagerness of getting on with it. The faces of my high school students were sympathetic, and I tried sketching faint details of my loss without the public horror of confessing what had really happened. This is often what suicide does—leave whispers in the wake of its failed explanations.  After I’d returned home from the funeral, cards began arriving. For most of them, I was deeply appreciative, thankful for friends, who tried reaching across the chasm of their own helplessness to express comfort. I didn’t need them to understand, but I did need them to acknowledge David’s death. To say that something—someone—had been lost. I needed their testimony to the horror without the additional burden of their silence.

Of all those kind words I received, there was one card I didn’t forget. Maybe it’s most true to say that there was one card I didn’t forgive. It came from people at my church, of all places. And while I know the effort was well-intentioned, I won’t forget opening the card that lacked any personal acknowledgment of the particulars of my situation. At the top of the store-bought stock condolences, they had written my name: Jen. At the bottom, they had dashed off an impersonal signature line: From the grief committee.

I imagined a group of them circled up, a stranger drawing my name from the pile of the week’s tragedies.

“Jen Michel. Her brother committed suicide. Dear me.”

Our deepest condolences, The Grief Committee.

It has been almost twenty years since that card—twenty years since David’s death and the earlier death of my father. I guess I’m not done with talking about those losses. Maybe I’m making up for lost time: all the time that I didn’t know that belief abided lament.

The last couple of weeks have brought great loss to many people I love. The situations vary, but the bottom line is the same: life seems undeniably capricious and cruel. I find myself wordless in response to their suffering. What should I say? I stare blankly at my computer screen, trying to compose an email, and feel my helplessness. I want to reel them in from their grief. I want to rescue their sinking figure before their faith tires of struggle. But I know there are no words to effect that kind of rescue. The terror is: there are some losses that plunge us below the surface of life, and death is a strangling, dark place.

My friends don’t need my platitudes, as much as I want to say some helpful word. But they do need my presence, which is why I’ll plan to see them soon. And for now, I’ll keep praying Psalm 118:14 on their behalf: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” Lord, have mercy.

Here’s something that loss has taught me: faith does not preclude pain, but every time the bottom falls out of life, God becomes our salvation again. It’s not simply that he is our salvation. It’s that for every loss, he meets us in the particularities, becoming a salvation that we have not yet known. His comfort is not a stock card, dashed off with the impersonal signature, “Condolences, God.” His salvation meets us in the unique particularities of our grief.

And he doesn’t let go.

The bottom fell out of my life as a very young woman: in each of those losses, I met a God who became strength and song and salvation. And if life is an inventory of loss, as much as love and laughter (and I think it is), there is a God who endlessly becomes our salvation. He receives our bitterness and anger and faithful lament and enfolds us—not usually with explanations. But always with love.

I’ll tell my friends this. Not yet. But someday.