Hey Sweet Friend! Today’s post is really special and a lot sacred and if I could, I would sit with you on the comfiest couch and look you full in the face as I pulled the veil off of this particular story of my life, but since I can’t I’m going to trust the Lord to walk us both through this one.
Today is a birthday, and an anniversary of sorts, and while I thought I would wait to tell you this story, the Lord is asking me to go ahead and share it with you, so get comfy. Maybe even grab some tissue and get ready for the most heartbreaking surprise of my life.
One of my biggest dreams, from the time I was a little girl, was being special enough, and looking back, it wasn’t so much a dream as it was a conviction. I knew, with a childlike faith, with a fierce conviction, that I was special enough to capture the prince’s attention, almost immediately. Special enough to move him to action. Special enough, that after a handful of moments, he would know I was worth slaying the dragon for.
All my Gen Z students are screaming right now, “Kathryn, you can slay your own dragons!”
I love y’all, but please don’t turn my little girl dreams and convictions into a rant on feminism. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
Whether it was the healthy dose of Disney Princess movies I grew up on in the 80s and 90s or the heart of an Enneagram 4, I knew, deep down, I was special enough…and yet…until I was 38 years old, my circumstances screamed to me the absolute fantasy that long held conviction was.
I wish the need for this post didn’t exist. In our reality of being created for Eden, and yet living so far removed from it, this post is a perfect example of “it’s not supposed to be this way”!
And the truth is, it’s not supposed to be this way and yet, it will be this way until Jesus returns for us.
There is a discomfort in my spirit as I hold both of these truths in my hands trying to communicate them to you. How can both be true?
How can we experience such grief in this life that we are left incapacitated, emotional zombies for months, at the same time believing there will come a day when every tear will be wiped away?
The only answer I have for this question is, this is where faith meets experience…and not just where they meet but where they wrestle and contend with one another. Where the experience is laying in the fetal position in your bed weeping over a loss so profound that you can hardly breathe. Barely able to breathe through the sobs, you whisper Jesus’ name and He is there, immediately, carrying you, cradling you.
It was my experience that left me incapacitated but it was my faith that compelled me to turn to Jesus. A faith that had been hard won over 38 years but had never been experienced as profoundly as grief created the space for me to experience it.
To be clear, I had experienced grief before Heath, but no loss had ever affected me in the same way his did. I remember not fully understanding my grief, and not being able to understand something that I was experiencing every waking moment and even some non-waking moments, scared me. I’m not sure if it was someone in my life, or an article I read, but when I learned that grief is irrational and isn’t supposed to make sense, this gave my heart so much freedom. I started to get comfortable with it not making sense and I stopped trying to make my grief make sense to the people in my life.
I share this with you because I’m about to share a story that might not make sense to you and that is okay. Grief and loss can never really be felt but by the person who is experiencing it. And even in the space of the same loss, each individual experiences that loss differently.
I can feel you already getting nervous…thinking maybe you’ll skip this post because you can already tell this is going to be one that will make you uncomfortable.
“Kathryn, I thought you said today was special…a birthday and anniversary. Those are happy things, right?”
Oh Sweet Friend, will you lean in? Will you let me share what I know to be true about holding grief and joy in the same hand?
Because today would have been Heath’s 36th birthday and it also marks two years since I found out who I was to him when he died, and the gift of him is too precious to just keep to myself anymore.
To share this story we have to look back. Not to when I lost him, but to 8 ½ years earlier when the world lost him.
In September of 2010, a new friend of mine was murdered in an interrupted home invasion. There he was, minding his own business, coming home from work and it cost him his life. It rocked our community and in the following days and weeks I didn’t feel like I had a right to grieve as those around me were grieving. Heath and I had just begun a friendship and partnership in a new worship ministry we were a part of.
We knew of each other from worshipping at my church together on the days he came to play guitar, but we never spoke until about a month before he was killed. He hung out with the “band guys” and I was never cool enough to hang out with them. At least I thought I wasn’t.
Heath and I shared several moments in the week before he died, and even later in the night that he was killed, while I was leading worship. Those moments created, what I felt was, a bond between us. I can hear some of you ask, “How can you form a bond with someone AFTER they die?” I don’t know the answer to that question but I do know as I stood in front of all those grieving souls singing the words, “Til I see you face to face, when grace amazing takes me home, I will trust in you” something so profound happened in my spirit.
You see, the night before, I had sung those words to an empty sanctuary, with Heath standing right beside me playing guitar, as we rehearsed. 24 hours later someone else stood next to me playing guitar as I sang those same words to a full sanctuary.
Heath wasn’t there…because he was face to face with the Lord and grace amazing HAD taken him home.
Most of it was a blur, but that night marked me forever. It taught me what a sacrifice of praise is and what true worship really looks like.
Those early days after Heath’s death I remember feeling as though I needed to be strong for others, acknowledging their bond with him but never admitting I felt one too.
Our bond didn’t have a history to prove its validity. The only valid thing I could cite was how being a part of that worship experience on the night he died, after he was gone, had marked my life forever and so I clung to that, and it shaped the story I told myself of who Heath was to me. I held onto that story and I shared it through that lens for 8 ½ years and then in 2019 his moma found me.
Spoiler alert! When someone begins a Facebook Message to you with, “I have been looking for you for 8 ½ years…” you can guarantee that your life will never be the same!
I remember the moment I found out that he had feelings for me when he died like it was yesterday. It was his birthday. He had already on my mind a lot that day. In a moment, half of a moment really, he was the most spectacular gift and then he was gone.
To experience love and loss in the same moment? Even two years later I don’t have the words to fully communicate what that feels like.
I do remember one word that rose to the surface of the whirlpool that my brain turned into upon hearing this news. I was gut punched with how irrelevant that knowledge was. I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t talk to him about it. Shoot, I couldn’t even confirm it with him as I heard the enemy saying, “they got the wrong girl” over and over those first couple of weeks. So completely irrelevant and yet at the very same time, one of the most relevant things I had heard in my whole life. That bond I felt with him, the one I pushed down in order to be there for everyone else, that bond was real and valid.
It’s relevant even now, after two years of healing because they were his feelings and his feelings, even after the many years he has been in Heaven, are important. And because they are important, I let them mark me and change me and turn me inside out.
Many of you are trying to connect the dots…”Why did it take her 8 ½ years to find you, Kathryn?”
That really isn’t important and it is a long complicated story that would take too long. Just trust me. The Lord made sure I knew this information in the exact right time in the landscape of my life.
Over the coming weeks and months I had two sets of friends. One set didn’t understand why a loss that was 8 ½ years old was affecting me so deeply and one set shared with me how brave I was for inviting God into my grief and feeling all my feelings.
Honestly, it was almost like I didn’t have a choice on either account. I don’t know if you have ever been gripped by grief, and how many of us know you can be gripped by grief even when it isn’t grief over a death, but this was not something I picked up and held onto. This grief took hold of me and would not let me go. It was in the middle of my first grief induced panic attack when I was barely able to whisper Jesus’ name that the second choice was taken from me. It was almost as if the moment I said Jesus’ name and called out for Him, He had been waiting, with bated breath, to swoop in and pick me up and He didn’t put me down, because I kept saying His name. I kept calling out for Him.
The weirdest thing is that, for me, this is THE time in my life I felt the Lord’s presence in my life most profoundly. I’ve thought about it a lot and I don’t think the grief drew me closer to Him. In my grief, He drew me closer to Himself. In it, He answered the questions my heart had held tight to for over a decade and a half of singleness.
“Do you see me? Do you love me? Have you forgotten about me?”
“YES! Absolutely! Never!”
There was a moment, seconds after finding out about his feelings for me, that I said out loud, “I could have gone my whole life without knowing this.” Why would the Lord do this? Why would He let me know such a thing?
Let me crack open my journal from just three days after this revelation blew up my life.
“There is a part of me that could have gone my whole life without knowing this, another part that wishes I had known before he died, a bigger piece that is so thankful the Lord protected me from the pain that would have caused, and then there is the piece that is real and true. That piece of me knows this is a gift to my heart from the Lord for this exact season of my life.”
Looking back on the last two years, 38 year-old Kathryn had it SO right! I’m SO proud of her for not shutting it all down and ignoring what she was feeling because it made little sense to her. When I think about everything that had to happen, what is now, almost 11 years ago, in order for me to, now, have this knowledge, I have to remind myself to breathe. It was God’s kindness to that sweet, full of conviction little girl who knew she was special enough, for me to have this knowledge now.
I was right. I was special enough to capture a man’s attention, almost immediately. And after only a handful of interactions with me, I was special enough to stir him to action to tell his moma and sister all about me. To have him fight to have me a part of this worship initiative he was starting. I was right…he just didn’t have time.
And while those answers gave me so much life, I was left with the aching wound of Heath’s loss, which needed daily tending from the Lord. Those were not once answered questions and then it was finished.
“Do you see me today, when my eyes are swollen and puffy from crying in my sleep last night? Do you love me today, when the thought of fully forgiving Heath’s murderer makes me sick to my stomach? Have you forgotten about me today as my spirit is restless within me with this ache that NEVER goes away?”
Daily He answered,
“Yes, I see you and you are beautiful. Swollen, puffy eyes and all. Absolutely I love you and I will carry you through this forgiveness journey. Never will I forget about you, no matter how restless you get.”
Daily he answered because daily I took the pain and grief to Him. I gave Him access to it and just like the sun rises every day, He showed up.
One of the ways He showed up was in what felt like memory recovery. When you don’t feel as though you have a right to grieve, you don’t know to pick up and capture moments and so, tragically, or maybe, graciously, some of my moments with Heath had disappeared. But in God’s great kindness He helped me recover some of the moments that have proven themselves the most transformative.
One of those moments took place in the parking lot of the church I was on staff with at the time. It was just days before he was killed. We had just run through the set list for that first worship experience. It had been just me and him. We’d never sung together and there is just something freeing about leading worship with someone when you know their rhythms, so we needed to get to know one another better. I have NO memory of us practicing together. I can’t even picture where we were in the church. But the parking lot? That I remember.
I remember he was wearing some kind of t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and flip flops. We stood there for 20 minutes maybe, just talking about worship and why it was important to us and daydreaming about what this new worship movement could be for our community. There was so much excitement in the conversation and I remember being surprised that we had so much to talk about. As he walked back to his car and I got into mine I thought, “He is REAL cute!” but almost immediately there was another thought that flitted through my mind and made purchase there. “But he is so young. We are in two different places in our lives.”
It’s important for me to stop here and tell you, in that moment I didn’t know he was just four years younger than me. I didn’t know how old he was until after he died. I also had no real evidence that we were in different places in our lives. I assumed WAY too much in this moment and if I’m honest I assumed too much in most moments.
Y’all, I was 29 and Heath was 25. I’ll tell you what, 29 year-old Kathryn needed to get over herself! Four years? Gracious!
But the age difference and the life stage difference and all of the stuff I assumed, none of that is really what this story is about. Fast forward to 38 year-old Kathryn, in the deepest parts of her grieving this man. The Holy Spirit took me back to that moment when I wrote off my attraction to him and He asked me a question.
“Was it REALLY because he was younger than you and because you were in two difference places in your life? Or was it because, never in a million years did you think a guy like him would look at a girl like you twice?”
Silence. I felt the tension of grief in my chest…in my throat.
“And honey, in that moment when you were rejecting him, in your mind, before he could reject you, he hadn’t just looked at you twice, he had ALREADY told his moma and his sister about you!”
The truth and reality of that statement from the Lord had the tension exploding inside of me and the shame of my singleness burned to the ground right in front of my eyes.
I heard the Lord one more time,
“So shoulders back. Head held high. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
I’m not yet fully comfortable with exploring why it took the love of a man to make me FEEL chosen when with my head I KNOW God chose me before the foundations of the world but something shifted in me that day that changed me on so many levels. Almost like I can look people in the eyes now in a way I never could before.
It was during this season that I realized how uncomfortable people are with grief. Maybe it was the unconvention of my grief that made it so clear but the western culture, as a whole, is very uncomfortable with grief. We look at it as something to “get through” or “get over” or “move past”.
I can only speak for myself, but Heath made such a lasting impact on my life and I NEVER want to “get over” that. If that means my old friend, Grief, shows up occasionally to have coffee, I’ll sit across the table from it as we remember him and what might have been and what absolutely will be one day when I see him again. And when I ugly cry in public, across that table from Grief, I’ll be thankful that this particular friend exists because it’s existence is proof that Heath loved me and somehow that proof makes the pain worth it.
We could ask why all the resistance to pain and grief but that isn’t what I want to focus on in this episode. I want to look at what the Bible tells us about grief.
Did you know that grief is an act of worship?
After Job found out that he lost his livestock, all his servants, save two, and all ten of his children the Bible tells us in Job 1:20-21 what he did next.
“Then Job stood up, tore his robe, and shaved his head. He fell to the ground and worshipped, saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Much can be, and has been, said about how Job handled his grief but my biggest take away is that the very first thing Job did when confronted with his experience of loss was he engaged his faith in that experience. He worshipped the Lord with his grief.
The Bible also tells us we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) If we are being completely honest with ourselves, the first is much easier than the latter. I think it is completely okay to admit that but where we often fall short is we will turn our lives around in order to rejoice with those who rejoice but we won’t do the same in order to weep with those who weep.
I’ll be the first to be honest about this and say I have failed miserably at this in the past. In fact I’ve failed in a way so catastrophic that my relationship with this friend I failed, it hasn’t yet recovered. The saddest part about this failing is I didn’t know how much of it was my fault until after I experienced Heath’s loss. I have asked for forgiveness and I hold onto the hope that one day I will be a safe space for her again.
We grieve with those who grieve and we rejoice with those who rejoice…there is a time for both. But if we can’t sit with people in the mess of their lives, we need to ask ourselves if we deserve the right to celebrate with them in life’s joys.
It was also around this time that the phrase, “I can’t imagine” grated against my nerves like nails on a chalkboard.
“I can’t imagine”. It’s what we say to magnify another’s situation, all the while letting those common, everyday words keep us at a distance from another person’s pain.
This is different from the phrase, “I can only imagine.” One communicates an inability or unwillingness to imagine the pain of another person, while the other communicates that while they have nothing in their life that compares, they can only imagine the pain, but they are willing to imagine.
I’m not suggesting we all camp out in imagining the worse things of life on a daily basis, but I do think our world would be better if we imagined.
As a white woman, I do not understand racial injustice the same way my black friends do. What benefits my friends, my community, and our world more? Me saying, “I can’t imagine”? Yea, no! Maybe I NEED to imagine it! Maybe that would help my empathy grow.
As an adult who went through high school before the advent of social media, I do not understand what that is like for the high school students I lead and mentor. I guarantee you my compassion and empathy has grown for them as I have imagined what trouble a 16 year-old Kathryn would have created for herself if she had TikTok!
We need to imagine more and let the cop out of “I can’t imagine” go.
In some recent conversations I’ve had with people who have lived different life experiences from me, I have found myself saying, “I don’t want to put words in your mouth but I imagine…”
Not every time but several times they have responded with, “Yes, that has been my experience…” It’s been so helpful to really understand, as much as I can without having lived it myself and I pray that it has helped them feel seen and understood. All because I let myself imagine.
There are so many directions I could take this conversation but I feel the Lord leading me to land this plane. I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a bit. I’m asking myself if I’ve shared enough to convince you that Heath really was one of the biggest things to ever happen to me. Asking myself that while my spirit reminds me not to give too much away, knowing I have nothing to prove. To share all of what God has done in my heart and continues to do in a blog post would not only be impossible but would also cheapen it and I will not dishonor the Lord, or Heath in that way.
Over the coming post I’m sure the Lord will lead me to share other little nuggets of this story and how it continues to shape me and I guess I just want you to know a bit of the background before I do that. And maybe, just maybe I wanted to introduce this sweet man to you on his birthday and my anniversary. Maybe I wanted a chance to claim him in the only way I can.
This deficit, this loss of Heath, I acquired it long before I experienced it.
For 8 ½ years, I went about my life, not completely unmarked, but I went about my life completely unaware of the deficit.
But Jesus always knew. He saw it. He knew it was there. And then, when He needed the deficit to grow my faith, He unveiled my eyes and there it was.
The gaping wound I never saw.
Is it a wonder that for those first several months after learning of who I was to him that I looked around at my life feeling as though a stranger in it.
How could I have lived with this loss for so long without having experienced it? That is when I learned that deficits have to be reconciled. Wounds have to heal. Losses have to be acknowledged.
And we desperately need to imagine more.
No matter what you have experienced in the last year, there is something all of us are grieving…maybe multiple things. Whether it is a person who died, or a graduation ceremony not had, or the end of a marriage, or it’s simply being able to look at a person full in the face, without a mask on and hugging them.
We are all grieving, and I’ll remind you, in case no one has ever told you before. Grief and pain are relative. The worst thing that has ever happened to you may be small potatoes to someone else, but it is still the worst thing that has ever happened to YOU…and that matters.
As I began to share pieces of my story with Heath to several of my older students they would sit, sometimes with tears streaming down their faces, and as I would turn the conversation to them they would say something like, “Nothing in my life is as bad as that, so I don’t have anything to talk about.” I would so quickly say, “No way! Don’t let the enemy lie to you like that. Whatever is going on in your life, I want to hear about it. This is not a competition.”
So even if it’s just that you thought you would be able to go to Prom this spring and you are finding out there isn’t going to be one…that matters. If it is important to you, it is important to the Lord and so it is important to me.
And for those of us older folks who may have forgotten how important Prom was to us when we were their age, maybe we need to imagine what living through a Pandemic has been like for our teenagers.
Maybe we need to imagine more.
If my grieving Heath taught me anything it is that God can handle all of me. My anger, my unforgiveness, my confusion, my questions about His sovereignty, my spiraling thoughts, my panic attacks, my need for more oxygen, my fantasies, my unhealthy coping mechanisms….all of me! Do you know how I know? Because I kept nothing from Him. I didn’t have the mental and emotional capacity to keep anything from Him. I was cracked open and He had access to it all and I am better for it.
Heath’s moma has apologized to me more than 11 times for finding me. My response to her is always, “I will never be sorry you found me.” Not only is Heath a gift I could have never anticipated, the Lord’s work in my heart has been so full and lasting with this piece of my puzzle. Yes, it was devastating, but even in this, God has spoken a worth and value to my heart that is an invaluable part of my story. Here’s what I know to be true…I will never be sorry.
What’s that devastating thing in your life? The one you can barely look at? The one so devastating you can’t help but look at because it so completely blew up your life? Have you given the Lord access to it? In the breaking, have you let Him put you back together? Like, Job, have you worshipped the Lord with your grief?
Let me pray for you…
Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Sometimes, Lord, in the midst of our pain and grief that is all we can say. Thank you that your name, alone, is enough. Thank you for being enough when we don’t even know what we need. God, everywhere we look, it seems, after the year we have all lived, someone, or speaking for myself, multiple someone’s, in our lives are grieving. With authority, I can say that you, Jesus, are close to the brokenhearted. I claim that for my Sweet Friends right now in the name of Jesus. Holy Spirit, would you prove yourself to them in this way. Carry them, Lord. Would your voice be the steady and strong thing in their lives and as they hear it more every day would they be able to recognize the voice of the enemy more and more so they can renounce the lies he tells them. Would you remind them of your promises you have spoken over their lives…that they are more than conquerors, that you will never leave them or forsake them, and that you have gone to prepare a place for them…that this isn’t all there is.
Holy Spirit, for those of us who are walking with people who have been gripped by grief, open our eyes to how best to love them today. Would you help us to develop our imagination more and more? Give us the courage to show up, to be present, and to speak only the words we hear YOU say. May we adjust our expectations of people to get over a thing you never intended us to leave behind. May we remember that when we wrestle with the Lord well, as Jacob did, we will always walk with a limp. Jesus, grow our compassion for those we notice who also walk with limps.
Jesus, there are many things we don’t understand. I pray you would help us to hold both joy and grief in our hands. In the moment you gave Heath to me, he was already gone. There is still so much I don’t understand about that but I praise you that even in his death, you used him and his life to teach me how to hold both, at the same time. For my Sweet Friends, Lord would you help those who need help with this. Grow our faith, Lord, and where there is unbelief in us, like the father of the demon possessed boy in Mark 9, we cry, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
Sweet Friends, you are so brave to still be here! Thank you for leaning into the hard stuff with me as I share this beautiful part of my story I am so proud of.
Until next time…
Thank you for being here.
Remember to take deep breaths.
And God has got us!
Oh, and Happy Birthday, Sweet Man. I cannot wait to hug your neck!