In early July, PLNU alumnus John Mark Slagle (84) was on the phone with his 26-year-old son, Jordan, discussing a speech Jordan had to give for a course at Trinity Western. The speech was to be a reflection on Jordan’s leadership style. Jordan was nervous about giving it and still needed to work some things out. Before ending the call, the two of them agreed to review the speech together the next morning at home.
A few hours after John said goodbye to his son and ended the call, Jordan died in his sleep.
Words cannot describe what John and his wife Mona (84) experienced when they heard the news.
“We have experienced the loss of our son as a threshold experience,” John said. “Everything before that morning is ‘before,’ and everything after is ‘after.’”
It’s in the “after” where John and Mona now press forward, as if wading through a thick and unforgiving tide. For them, every act—no matter how simple or trivial—becomes a singular step requiring profound grace that cannot be taken on their own. These many steps are the equivalent of crossing just as many new thresholds. Everything they do, they now do for the first time without Jordan.
“Going through security at the airport was a step, putting my shoes back on was a step, getting on the plane was a step,” John said, regarding a work trip he had to take after Jordan’s death.
Through these small steps, John has begun to recognize that he now lives with a pain carried by many others as well. Before the loss of his son, he had no idea so many people were going about their lives secretly burdened by immeasurable loss and heartache—so many were living from a place that others cannot fully understand without having experienced it themselves.
In a recent article from The Atlantic, “The Space Between Mourning and Grief,” author Claire Wilmot writes about her experience of grief after losing her sister to a rare form of neurological cancer. She explains how such a loss can violently alter how we relate to the world in ways people on the “outside” simply can’t fathom.
“The novelist Aleksandar Hemon compared the sense of separateness he felt when caring for his daughter, who was dying of a brain tumor, to living inside an aquarium,” she wrote. “Those on the outside could see in, to a degree, but those inside the glass led a completely alien existence.”
Dr. Bettina Pedersen, PLNU literature professor, echoed this experience after her mom passed away when she was a young woman. When she returned to graduate school and attempted to relate the experience of losing her mother to her friends, she explained it was like learning to live in a new universe, “a universe without my mom.”
While such tragedies—the death of a child or young parent—can never be undone, how can those who’ve experienced such things move forward in this new and painfully incomplete “universe”?
How can we as the body of Christ walk alongside those who are experiencing this type of pain? And not just in our communities—in our world as a whole, as it seems we’re confronted daily with news of loss, especially in recent years with the increased prevalence of social media.
When deep tragedies, personal and global, leave us feeling confused, angry, or even helpless, what does it look like to place our trust in the God of the living and not of the dead? How can we answer the call to mourn with those who mourn, and allow for grace and healing to pour forth in our relationships, communities, and the world?
The Experience of Grief and Mourning
Grief is the internal emotional, psychological, and mental experience that results from having lost someone or something deeply loved or valued. Mourning, on the other hand, is something we do collectively and externally, according to Dr. Dean Nelson, founder and professor of PLNU’s journalism program.
He has researched grief and death, and in his book, God Hides in Plain Sight, he devoted an entire chapter to the mystery of death, grief, and mourning in the context of faith. According to him, mourning is something “we do with the people around us—something that the community does.”
Many look to the five stages of loss (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) made famous by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, as a roadmap for navigating loss. However, there is growing evidence that these stages are not accurate representations of the entire grieving process. For instance, Kübler-Ross came up with these stages when interviewing patients who were facing their own death, not those suffering from someone else’s.
A Time article by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, “New Ways to Think About Grief,” calls attention to a report conducted by Janice Genevro, a psychologist commissioned by the Center for Advancing Health, which suggests grief doesn’t function in such clear- cut successive stages: “Genevro concluded that the information being used to help the bereaved was misaligned with the latest research, which increasingly indicates that grief is not a series of steps that ultimately deposit us at a psychological finish line, but rather a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and, eventually, simply lift.”
“This means there is no prescribed way of “getting through” the grieving process. The emotions associated with grief can fluctuate—recede and intensify—without warning or expectation”.
Dr. Ross Oakes Mueller, chair of PLNU’s Department of Psychology, confirmed the latest research, emphasizing that in his experience working with those suffering from grief, it’s helpful to understand moving through grief as “something less like progressing through the stages of Kübler-Ross, and more like a sequence of spirals where those in grief are able to revisit previous emotions or thoughts over time with a greater level of solidity and mastery.”
Oakes Mueller has noticed parallels between grief and anxiety or extreme phobias. He explained that in the case of someone who harbors an intense and unhealthy fear of some thing, place, person, or event, the person’s natural tendency is to avoid all stimuli that trigger such a fear. However, such avoidance behavior can create a “sense of ominous dread,” which is often worse than the actual thing, place, person, or event responsible for the fear itself. In the case of grief, since certain memories, places, or things related to the deceased person can cause so much distress, sometimes those in grief avoid moving through the grieving process altogether.
“Sometimes, instead of moving into the grief, we move away from it in hopes of removing the distress, and while this may provide short-term relief, it can prolong the grieving process,” he said.
Oakes Mueller described one aspect of what can make grieving so difficult—the loss of a loved one calls to mind our own mortality. In this way, anxiety may play a part in the grieving process as well.
“When we lose someone, and therefore realize we are capable of losing someone so central and important to us, it can trigger fearful thoughts about our own mortality,” Oakes Mueller said. “And our own mortality—this realization that our life is limited—is something we usually go to great lengths to avoid thinking about.” Oakes Mueller recognized this doesn’t account for the entire process of grief, only an aspect of it.
Despite the various elements that compose the experience of grief, it remains something not fully understood or clearly outlined. This means there is no prescribed way of “getting through” the grieving process. The emotions associated with grief can fluctuate—recede and intensify—without warning or expectation.
“I view grief like rogue waves in the ocean,” Nelson shared. “You can be standing there, waist deep in the ocean, anticipating the next wave, and then way off to the side there’s this rogue wave that just completely knocks you off your feet, and you’re submerged.”
The temptation to understand the grieving process through an overly simplistic framework or faulty assumptions can be damaging to those in the midst of their grief, causing further isolation, pain, and even resentment. According to Pedersen, some people shed tears while others don’t at all; some people want to talk about it while others hardly mention the deceased person’s name. The way people grieve is just as varied as the uniqueness of their relationships with the people for whom they are grieving.
In his raw and haunting book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis captured the painful, debilitating, and sometimes conflicting nature of his own grief after he lost his wife: “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.” The process of grief is messy and unpredictable.
However, in his book, Nelson reflects on grief ’s agency in opening the door to healing and grace if we allow it.
“Grief’s initial job is to show us how attached we were to a specific person,” he wrote. “It slowly points to grace and gratitude, though, which shows us how much of the person is still around us in our memories, our routines, and in the unexpected if we are paying attention.”
With the understanding that this slow and painful process we call grief can point to grace and gratitude, how then can the body of Christ—His church—come alongside those suffering loss to provide rest and sustenance?
The Decrease of Lament in the Church
The church is clearly called to bring love and restoration to all who suffer in our midst, which includes those in grief and mourning. Yet, such a call implies that mourning and lament are not only acceptable, but have permissive expression in the church. In the last few decades, however, many churches have failed to embrace the value of genuine lament in their worship.
Dr. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, extensively studied the role of lament in the Book of Psalms. In his book, The Message of the Psalms, he refers to this state of unrest—an awareness that things in our world are broken, bruised, and seemingly beyond repair—and describes it as an experience of “disorientation.”
Dr. Brad Kelle, PLNU professor of Old Testament, discussed the trend in many churches today toward worship that is denuded of lament. In such churches, he said, “there is no acknowledgement of ‘disorientation’ through worship, music, and even preaching.”
Kelle speculates this is partly due to the tendency for some churches to “largely center around attracting attendees with a big show and heightened positivity.” Or, to put it in slightly crass and direct terms: lament doesn’t sell.
By tucking lament under the pews, however, we are losing out on a supremely biblical form of worship. Kelle is quick to highlight that almost two-thirds of the Book of Psalms is composed of lament psalms. According to the biblical imagination, lament as a form of worship is overwhelmingly present.
In his article, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Brueggemann discusses one of the major problems that arises by eschewing proper lament and mourning from Christian worship.
“Where the capacity to initiate lament is absent, one is left only with praise and doxology,” he wrote. “The outcome is a ‘false self,’ bad faith that is based in fear and guilt and lived out as resentful or self-deceptive works of righteousness.”
If churches don’t allow a space for honesty with God, or the opportunity to have “gut-level conversations with God,” the maturation of Christian faith is stunted, according to Kelle. This can lead to subdued bitterness and resentment toward God, a cardboard faith built on the faulty soil of fear. As a result, we lose out on an authentic relationship with God because we’re not honest with Him about our sufferings, struggles, anger, and fears. We pretend all is well, even though it isn’t, and point at any concession to the contrary as a gross deficiency in faith.
“If churches don’t allow space for honesty with God, or opportunity to have “gut-level conversations with God,” the maturation of Christian faith is stunted”.
Dr. Mary Paul, PLNU’s vice president for spiritual development, confirms that pouring our hearts out to God in times of mourning is crucial for mature faith. She believes that trust in God is not only displayed in the “beauty of someone’s peace, but also in the willingness to voice our distress.” She pointed to the example of this in the Psalms, and of Jesus Himself, who prayed on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
If our relationship with God is splintered and disingenuous because of a false understanding of who He is and how He relates to us, Kelle believes in short order our relationships with others will follow suit; how we love or fail to love God will inevitably bleed over into how we love or fail to love others.
It seems all the more necessary for our church communities to include lament in worship, creating a more inviting space for those who are grieving to give their pain, confusion, and suffering to God, as well as fostering the opportunity to build genuine relationships with God and others.
Public Mourning and the Role of Social Media
While lament is vital in our own relationships with God and in our churches, it also plays a necessary role in the public sphere. If we fail to lament properly in public, according to Kelle, we eliminate the possibility of change because we are no longer naming injustice and calling upon God to bring restoration. In other words, without public mourning we’re implying that a world plagued by third-world poverty, widespread sex trafficking, and mass terrorist bombings is as it should be, negating the possibility for transformation through grace.
Yet, how do we bring prayerful lament to God for such tragedies when we are inundated with so many of them these days, thanks largely to the advent of technologies like social media in the last decade?
Dr. Karl Martin, chair of PLNU’s Department of Literature, Journalism, and Modern Languages, has closely studied American history and literature. According to him, the unrestrained access to tragic news in modern America is cause for concern. We need to be informed of tragedy so we can mourn, call upon God’s restorative grace, and work toward a better world, but at what point does being informed become problematic? He noted that in the not-so-distant past, there was a way to control when we received national and global news—at breakfast while reading the morning paper or after dinner while watching the evening news. But now, such barriers seem nonexistent.
“I think social media threatens to overwhelm us,” Martin said. “With social media, like Facebook or Twitter, there are no boundaries around when we are exposed to events or incidents that call for mourning.”
Martin added that receiving updates of a friend’s newborn baby mingled with news of a bomb going off in France can lead to pervasive numbness. We can become jaded due to repeated exposure; mayhem becomes mundane. Conversely, the endless flow of harrowing news can also lead us dangerously close to the banks of despair.
Neither response, said Martin, is a Christian one, which entails a sincere and appropriate lament for tragedy combined with faith in God and His promise of restoration.
However, Martin admitted the proper Christian response to public mourning is complex, and there are no easy answers. Perhaps “discipline on when and how we receive news,” especially with social media, is one way forward. According to Martin, whatever the solutions, our public lament must always be hinged on our hope in God.
“We can become jaded due to repeated exposure—mayhem becomes mundane”.
Moving from public mourning to the realm of private grief brings up additional questions about social media, regarding what role it should play in serving those who are grieving.
Facebook, for example, can allow connection and solidarity with others that geography may not allow. John Mark Slagle has used Facebook to share the story and life of his son, Jordan. For him and his family, social media has become an avenue of grace, granting him the opportunity to connect with others during an immensely difficult time.
However, social media can also be used to undermine the very thing it purports: building community and connection. Instead, if it’s merely used as a surrogate for real human connection, it can become damaging, and in some cases, even dehumanizing.
“I think we can sometimes believe that posting something on Facebook is like being with someone,” Martin said. “We can substitute our social media presence for actual physical presence.”
In Wilmot’s aforementioned article, she reiterates this exact admonition: social media can be a more palatable but ultimately shallow way for people to reach out to those in grief without physical interactions.
Wilmot is unapologetically honest about her own experience of grief from losing her sister, detailing that she found certain social media posts and messages about her sister to be downright hurtful and insensitive. She goes on to write that instead of assuming “the bereaved are ready for (or comfortable with) Facebook or Twitter tributes, send a private message, or even better, pick up the phone and call.”
There is no doubt that social media remains a gift to help us connect with others and foster genuine community, as it continues to be for the Slagles—when it’s not adopted as a substitute for real human connection but rather an extension of it. In this way, it becomes a means of grace that can reflect God’s love to those suffering from loss.
Loving Others in Their Grief
Still, there remains something undeniably sacramental about human connection that takes place in the form of physical presence.
On the work trip John Mark Slagle took shortly after his son’s death, he wore a small photo of Jordan pinned to the lapel of his jacket. As he walked through the airport and onto the plane, no one asked him why he was wearing it.
It wasn’t until John boarded his third plane that someone noticed.
“A flight attendant said, ‘Oh he’s beautiful.’ And I said, ‘This is my beautiful son,’ and then she came and sat on the arm of my seat for most of the flight and we talked about Jordan. That was tremendously healing,” John said.
Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Like this flight attendant who blessed John with her presence, we can sometimes offer blessing to those in grief by simply sitting with them, hearing their stories, or embracing them in silence with shared tears.
Nelson emphasized that what those in grief don’t need is someone to “fix them.” Rather, it is healing when someone comes alongside them without answers, clichés, or expectations—when someone chooses to “accompany them” through a time of deep sorrow.
When Jesus arrived at Lazarus’ tomb and was told of His friend’s death, He wept. Human tears fell from the face of God. At times, the only response to those grieving is to weep with them as Jesus did with Mary and Martha.
John affirmed that he isn’t looking for answers, but rather, the space to know he is loved.
“All I want someone to say to me is, ‘All you have to do is breathe,’” John said. “I want someone to say that every 15 minutes. Nothing more. ‘Just breathe.’”
It’s the same response of love he offered Jordan when his son struggled to accept his father’s love. Jordan would sometimes tell his father he felt he wasn’t “measuring up” as his son, but whenever he did, John would look at him with tender eyes, and say, “Oh Jordan, all you have to do is breathe. All you have to do is breathe.” To John, the permanent and unconditional love for his son is the same love God has for us.
There often exists the all-too-human desire to simplify and expedite the grieving process, and though it may be well-intentioned, loving someone in grief is never as simple as quoting scripture, praying with them, giving them space, or even crying with them. They may need all these things at different times, or perhaps none of them.
It may not seem like enough, but sometimes all we can offer to those in grief is the same thing John would offer his son, the space to know they are loved and that we are with them.
The Fruit of Mourning and Grief
It wasn’t until a few days after Jordan’s death when John was able to review Jordan’s speech from the night of his passing.
“It wasn’t finished yet,” John said. “There were places in the paper where he literally had my strengths are … then left a gap. My areas of growth are … then left a gap. And the sense of him not being finished was crushing.”
John and Mona are committed to filling the “gaps” of Jordan’s life and finishing the work he started—the work of love, healing, community building, and generosity. According to John, Jordan lived with openness and without judgment in his home, workplace, classroom, and diverse circles of friends.
John and Mona are seeking to live “Jordan’s legacy forward,” having established a scholarship in his honor as well as a foundation to promote opportunities for generosity across their community. They have reached out to many people Jordan knew in hopes of not only learning more about their son, but also inviting them—many of whom have not experienced a community rooted in Christ—to be a part of their community.
Similarly, Pedersen’s experience with grief and mourning has impacted her relationships with others who grieve. She has developed a deeper capacity for tenderness and compassion through the losses she has experienced in her life, which include both of her parents and other family members.
“I think being more compassionate is deeply at the heart of what Christ is all about,” she said, noting that through loss and suffering, she has been reminded of how intricate and precious every single human life is, as well as of the lasting fruit one life can have on others even when the person is gone.
Her experiences of grief and loss continue to reveal the transience of this life, helping her practice more humility in accepting that God is ultimately in control of our lives and the lives of our loved ones. She recalled an image of unfurling waves in perpetual transition that she witnessed while on a plane. As the plane descended, she looked out the window at the vast and dynamic blue of the ocean. She thought about how every single curl of foam below her was passing from existence, “that each peel of foam will never be that foam on that wave in that time and in that way ever again.”
“Her experiences of grief and loss continue to reveal the transience of this life, helping her practice more humility in accepting that God is ultimately in control of our lives and the lives of our loved ones”.
She was reminded that this world is not home—that all is passing away, and we were made for a place without tears.
By God’s grace, we are invited to hold loosely in our hearts both sorrow and joy—the sorrow of living in a fallen world tempered by the joy of trusting in a God who has overcome it. We are invited to enter into a life that contains celebration and mourning, according to Dr. Mary Paul. “When I’m most devastated and mourning deeply, there’s also this whisper of hope,” she said.
May we uncover this “whisper of hope,” even in our darkest moments, through Jesus’ promise that He will always be with us, “even unto the end of the world.” Though we are left to mourn and grieve the loss of our brothers and sisters in this life, we are not left to do it alone. We are told that death will not have the last word, and with that promise of Divine comfort, together we are invited to look with expectant eyes to Emmanuel—to the God who is always with us.