On grief, growth, God and grace: a widowed pastor’s story
Alain Emerson’s wife Lindsay died aged 23. A blog he began during her illness became a study of grief and the path to hope through faith
Alain Emerson: I would love people to know that there is hope, not in some fairy tale kind of way
I distinctly remember the moment, one week after Lindsay died. I’d moved back to my Mum and Dad’s house where I was going to stay until I got myself sorted, with the boxes containing the contents of Lindsay’s and my home sat around my feet. I remember saying to God, “This is my story now and I don’t want this to be. How have I found myself in this place with this story. It’s not what I signed up for.”
Coming to terms with the fact that losing my wife was my story was a long process. The brutality and finality of death simply forces you to come to terms with it. Because when you still love someone so much and the object of that love has been removed, you become completely grounded in the reality of the moment. That doesn’t mean you have processed it – that long, arduous journey is only beginning.
During the months of Lindsay’s operations, treatments and sickness I was keeping friends and family up to date with her progress through my blog. People were faithfully praying and walking as best they could through the journey with us. When Lindsay died, I suppose I felt a degree of connection with people, even virtually. They had left loving and compassionate comments, even gathered to pray together throughout her sickness and I guess there was a part of me that was aware that after she died these same people were now directing their loving thoughts towards me. So I began to share some of my own thoughts with them.
As I posted thoughts and feelings in as honest and an authentic way as I could, it seemed to resonate deeply with lots of people. I became aware of a whole section of people who have never been given permission to grieve properly and fully, people who simply wanted someone else to “get them”, someone else who could give a language to describe their turmoil.
Initially I wanted them to know that it was ok to not be ok, but then as I began to fully embrace the pain, I found that this give way to the first shimmers of hope. I knew any chance I had for healing was only going to come by being “true” to the pain I was experiencing, but I didn’t want to stay in that place of darkness forever, nor did I want my reader to, as much as I understand not wanting to “move on”.
I wanted them to move with me towards hope. It was the experience of how the vulnerability of my own story was resonating so deeply with others that I realised I would someday love to collate my blogs, journals and reflections into a book that could be some kind of resource and connection for those walking through their own grief.
I began writing Luminous Dark because my wife Rachel encouraged me to. I met Rachel 18 months after Lindsay died, and she was a massive gift of grace in my life. Up to that point it had been 18 months of intense grieving and processing my pain. I had come to a place of acceptance but was nervous about my future and unconvinced my life could ever be as good again. Rachel massively helped complete the healing process. She felt I had something to say for people moving through such a dark season of life and she wanted me to do this – I couldn’t have written it without her.
Writing from this pretty “healed and whole” place was important for the process of reflection and opening up some of the past again. Having my two daughters around me as I wrote the book also gave me a beautiful reminder that though I was trying to enter into the moments of grief again to add weight and feeling to my writing, the reality was this was not my reality anymore. A new chapter of my life had opened up – I had a soulmate in Rachel and was a dad to two beautiful girls, Annie and Erin – and I was now fully living in a new chapter of life as I had the previous chapter of my life. That new perspective provided a great place to write from.
I also learned a lot about God in that process. As my faith in Jesus was central to my life and vocation as well as being brought up in the church for most of my life, I found it difficult initially to know how to engage with God when my faith felt so shattered. But in searching for the kind of language that described my experience of grief, that validated the pain, to my surprise I found that the Bible is full of this kind of prose. I discovered that disappointment, protest, lament and doubt are all given to us in the Scriptures as a form of prayer.
And so one of the threads of Luminous Dark is an encouragement to those of us who are processing searing pain in our lives that not only does God lovingly care for us in these times, not only is he deeply present in our pain, but that he gives us a language – a raw, honest, indiscriminate language. This is the gift of prayer.
I wanted to write something that would give permission for people to grieve, especially for those who have been brought up in environments or cultures where this permission seems to have been restricted or constrained. And I would love people to know that there is hope, not in some fairy tale kind of way. Not even because the circumstances of life can turn around for the better, although they can.
Writing the book reminded me that through this experience, I got to love a girl who was going to die when she was 23. I got to experience a deep love with her that I never knew you could experience. And through her death and my encounter with God in the darkness of my grieving there is a mysterious grace in all of it I came to perceive, but only months after embracing the pain, being true to it and giving voice to it. Writing the book helped me process how, if I’d been given the chance beforehand, I wouldn’t have chosen this way, but living through it I would never give it back. I wouldn’t be the same perfectly loved, whole son of God that I am now.
Alain Emerson is Irish National Director of 24-7 Prayer and one of the lead pastors at Emmanuel Church, in Lurgan, Co Armagh. His book, Luminous Dark, is published by Muddy Pearl