Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God
Blogger Tim Challies and his wife Aileen received the call every parent dreads: That their young, healthy, engaged-to-be-married son had suddenly collapsed and died. The Challies speak openly about muscling through their individual paces of grief and seasons of sorrow.
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Blogger Tim Challies and his wife Aileen received the call every parent dreads. On FamilyLife Today, they chat openly with Dave and Ann Wilson about muscling through seasons of sorrow.
Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God
Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God
Guests: Tim and Aileen Challies
From the series: Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God
(Day 1 of 2)
Air date: May 22, 2023
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Dave: I mean, I have to say, standing at my little brother's gravesite had to be one of the hardest things I ever had to do, and I can't imagine being my mom.
Ann: I think your mom carried that for the rest of her life.
Dave: Oh yes.
Ann: And it marked her. I watched my parents go through that same loss with my sister. It changes someone forever, especially as a parent, as you go through it. I mean, I was a sister and it marked me, and you’re a brother; it marked you, and it's hard.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app. This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: This is FamilyLife—
Dave: So today we're going to talk about hope and grief, walking through grief, comfort and grief, and we've got a couple in here who's walked that journey. Tim and Aileen Challies are here, and first time on FamilyLife Today, right?
Dave: So welcome guys.
Ann: Tim, you're a famous blogger. You started blogging before blogging was cool even.
Dave: You made blogging a thing. [Laughter]
Tim: I don't know if it was ever cool, but yes, so been doing it for a very long time now.
Dave: Yes, and it's challies.com.
Tim: You got it.
Dave: And thousands, you know, a day. I've been reading some of your blogs and I'd love to talk about several different—I mean, if you guys want to spend the whole day here in Orlando, [Laughter] we could do this all day. Obviously, this book we're going to talk about today, Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God. Tell us your story.
Tim: Maybe the place to begin is with the Lord granting us three lovely children. Nick who was born when/within a couple of years of us getting married. He was joined a little bit later by Abby/Abigail, who was born about two years after Nick, and then finally Michaela. And so today Michaela is 16. She's finishing up high school this year. Abby is 20 and she's married to Nate. They live in Louisville, KY. And then Nick is, I think, who we’re here to speak about today. Nick went to be with the Lord in November of 2020.
Dave: Yes, take us back to that day. Obviously, I've read it through Seasons of Sorrow, which you sort of wrote chronologically, right?
Dave: —from sort of that moment on but take us back to November 2020.
Tim: Nick was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was newly engaged to a sweet young lady named Ryn. He was doing just really well in life. He was an assistant resident advisor at his college, and so he had to lead the students in some games. They went to a park to play a game, and for reasons that we still don't really know, he just collapsed and was gone. Nobody could revive him. And so that entered us into this season of grief, this season of loss.
The way I work things through in life is to write about it. That's how I write through joys and pains and everything in between. And so even on that first evening, as we were trying to figure out what to do, and we eventually managed to find a flight that would take us down to Louisville so we could be with our daughter down there, I just started to write, and eventually, over time, that writing sort of led into the beginning of Seasons of Sorrow.
Ann: Aileen, what was that like? I'm assuming you guys got a call.
Aileen: Yes, the first thing we knew that something was wrong, Abby's fiancé, then her boyfriend texted us, texted me actually, and just said that Nick had collapsed, and they weren't sure what was going on. I was on the couch at home, and I remember leaping to my feet. We didn't know at that point how serious it was. Abby was there, but she hadn't texted us at that point at all.
Ann: Was she with him? Were they both with him?
Aileen: So yes, both Ryn and Abby were with him.
Ann: That is a parent’s nightmare. You don't even know what's going on, first of all, and then how did you find out?
Aileen: Well, it was also in the middle of a pandemic, so the borders were closed at the time as well.
Tim: Yes, it was—at that point in time the borders were largely closed; at least it was forbidden to drive across the borders and so there are all these other complications. But yes, we found out, you know that what Aileen said, that there were some things going on. And then, eventually, we got a call from the hospital—just a doctor who had said that they had done everything they could, but unfortunately there was nothing more they can do, and Nick was gone. That came as a complete shock and surprise to us. There was no reason to think Nick had been ill. There is nothing he did, nothing he took, nothing had been done to him.
Ann: He’s a healthy young man.
Tim: A healthy young man; it just literally his heart stopped for reasons that are unknown and undiagnosed.
Ann: And you guys are living in Toronto at that time, so your kids are in the United States; you're in Canada and you can't get to the United States?
Aileen: We couldn't drive. We could fly, but we couldn't drive over the border.
Tim: At this point in time, almost all the flights are canceled, right. Almost all the airlines have grounded their fleets. Thankfully, we were able to eventually get a flight that would take us down and in relatively short order.
Ann: We've been talking a lot about your son, Nick, but we want to know him. Like, if you had to share, “This is who our boy was,” what would you say?
Aileen: Yes, that's actually one of the hardest questions I get asked. I can talk about myself and my grief, but to talk about Nick is really hard for me. He was my first born. He was born in March of 2000. He was my first baby, so I didn't know what I was doing at all. But he was really the most delightful little guy. He was always smiling. He was exuberant. He loved garbage trucks when he was little. [Laughter] It's typical boy.
As he grew up, he was always so very introspective, so he was always looking at himself and trying to figure out how he could do life better, I think. He was always concerned about doing the right thing. He was one of the kindest people I know. He was very sarcastic in typical Canadian fashion, which I think sometimes came across as a little bit abrasive; and he was very, very quirky, which was always delightful. He didn't have the easiest time in high school, I would say, but he was always very firm in his faith. He came to Christ at I think about 13 and never really looked back at that point.
When he went off to Boyce College, he had determined that he wanted to be a pastor, and he went there determined to serve well. And I think he did. He met Ryn down there who has become a daughter in so many ways, which I am so very thankful for. Nick chose so well in Ryn. She really was perfect for him.
Ann: And they were engaged?
Aileen: And they were engaged. They had been engaged for about 3 months I think before he passed away. They were in the midst of planning their wedding. I mean, he had his faults, and he had his insecurities, but he really was just a wonderful, wonderful person. And I miss him.
Tim: I'm sure if Nick would want to be remembered for anything, it would simply be as a forgiven sinner who loved the Lord and received His forgiveness and truly in his own way wanted to live for His glory. He was a sinner saved by grace.
Dave: Walk us through the grief journey as a parent and maybe even as a married couple.
Tim: We learned that people process grief very differently. If we talk about love languages as we do, we could talk about grief languages, I think, where we just process things very differently. Some need to externalize it all; that's how they work through it. Some do that through the written page; some do that through just speaking; some people process entirely internally. Some people want to read vast amounts of literature on it and just try and put the pieces together in that theoretical sense. I had somebody write me recently who lost a child, and she said she's read 22 books on grief since her child died. I know many other people who would never pick up a book on grief again in their lives and so we all process it differently.
And then we found out that a lot of it is related to roles, so a dad is going to process grief different from a mom, or a man differently from a woman, or a brother than a sister and so all of that makes sense. But I think the challenge comes, you've got to be careful you're not expecting everyone to process it in the same way you’re processing it, as if this is the objectively right way to do it, and if you do it differently, there must be something wrong with you. I think we encountered that a few times where we just had to give the other person a lot of room to grieve in their way.
Aileen: That was probably the best piece of advice that we got very, very early on. We had a dad who wrote you a letter in the very beginning, and he laid out a lot of those things; that you need to give your wife space because she's going to take a lot longer than you will to grieve this, and you're going to just grieve it very differently. And that was the one thing that stuck out a ton right in the very beginning and was so helpful to us in our marriage because then we could look and say, “Okay, it isn't that he doesn't care anymore.” Because that's the temptation when he's, not moved on but just move forward faster than you as a wife; that it feels like he doesn't care anymore. And to realize that “No, he's just different than I am, and I have to give him that space and it isn't that he doesn't care.” And that was super important for me just to remember.
Ann: What did that look like for you, Aileen? Because Tim, you're writing.
Aileen: I wouldn't say that I've processed it completely. I find that if I dwell on it too much, it consumes me and so I need to glance at it and then go on my way and do the rest of life and then come back to it again. I'm processing it in tiny little increments, where Tim just poured it all out in a year. It's just a very different way of dealing with it. I just know myself well enough to know that if I were to do that, I don't know that I would recover.
Ann: I totally agree. When my sister passed away—she's my best friend. She was 45. I was 39. And I had—I'm still a mom. I still have life to do, and I think that I would have been so overwhelmed exactly. I'm afraid that I couldn't have even gone on because you get swallowed up in your grief. It's that same kind of idea of there's little chunks of it at a time. And I found worship felt so overwhelming. It was so beautiful, but it felt like it was coming head on, exposing my soul and exposing the pain. I couldn't sing. I could listen, but I couldn't get words out.
Aileen: I think that's very typical.
Ann: You do?
Aileen: We've talked to a fair number of people now and music for whatever reason speaks to your soul in ways that other things don't. And that was the hardest and continues at times to be the hardest part of church for us; is certain songs and certain types of worship, really, we battle through that—not battle. I mean, it's a good thing, but it's still hard thing.
Ann: You feel that too, Tim?
Tim: We have all these wonderful songs that we sing as Christians and the best of our songs tell a story. So many of the great hymns of the faith, they begin with our sin, and they move to our salvation and then they speak of the glories to come and the blessed, joyful reunions we're going to experience.
Now, it’s one thing to sing those songs when you've never had a grievous loss. It's another thing to sing those songs when you're not just this abstract reunion, but it's a reunion with your child, reunion with your spouse, or reunion with your sister. I found I could sing the first two or three stanzas of a song just fine but as it progresses into those truths—you know the joy of heaven, the joy of reunion—that's where I would so often breakdown. And so, I just learned to cry in in worship, cry in singing and that just has to be okay. I think there's something just deep and worshipful even about that expression of emotion.
Ann: That's healing. I think there's a healing in that as well.
Tim: Yes; that's the power of music because music is taking truths but wrapping them in this packaging that just engages the whole person in a different way. That's why music can be used so well and so poorly, because you can use music to really manipulate people and manipulate them through their emotions, but also when you're combining the greatest truths with just powerful lyrics, wonderful music; that is just a great packaging. It makes sense when you look at the glories of what's to come in the Book of Revelation. How much of it is about singing, right? How much is this great heavenly choir? Worship is such an important way of recovering from loss.
We said so often: how could we have done this without the local church? How could we have gone through this?—endured what we've endured without the church. And that's the people of the church. It's all these good things, all these ways the church cares for you, but it's the worship of the church that we needed so badly.
Dave: Yes, how did you walk through your journey with community? How was community a part of that?
Tim: I want to say two things. First, the Christian community, both our local church community and the wider Christian community were absolutely incredible. We benefited so much from their love and their care, and they surrounded us, they prayed for us, and sometimes we just really felt upheld by prayer and that was absolutely wonderful.
I do want to say as well that our local community, not Christians in our community, but just our neighbors were every bit as helpful and engaging. They weren’t praying for us, but they were caring for our needs and going to the store for us and bringing us food. It was just lovely to see a local community come together as well, not just the Christian community, but just people being lovely, being helpful, and giving.
Dave: Was that something that was helpful for you as a husband and wife? I mean, as you walk through this and you're processing it differently, how did it impact your marriage?
Aileen: One of the things we've learned about grief is that it is, in a lot of ways, very lonely. And a lot of that is because it's something you just have to kind of do on your own because everybody's so unique and individual. That's one thing we hear about a ton is people talk about how lonely grief is. In terms of our marriage, I think we've done well but we've definitely processed it separately. I don't know that we've processed it together. And a lot of that is, some of that's personality, some of that's my inability to face it flat on and stare it down the way Tim has. But I think our marriage is still strong coming out of it. But I don't know that we've—would you say we've processed it together?
Tim: We haven't gone to a grief retreat with the two of us and just really confronted it in that way. I think neither do we really feel the need for it. I think we've processed it together in the sense that we're married, and we've lived through it together and we've talked about it lots and all of that.
But I agree with what you say about the loneliness of grief. I think a lot of that is because you simply can't express so much of what's going on inside and that you realize that death is a stranger in this world; that your mind, your heart, just don't have the capacity to really understand it and to make sense of it. We weren't created by God's design to experience loss and so it's really beyond us. And so, when it comes time to say/somebody will say “How are you feeling?” I don't know. I can't—I just don't have the words. I work with words all day and I don't have the words to express what's really going on in my heart. So of course, it's going to be lonely. If I can't really express it, they can't really bring comfort. It's just the nature of it.
And yet when I was reading—these are your words—"It's too much today. It's too heavy, too sad, too sorrowful. I'm drowning. I'm overwhelmed. I'm going under. I need an angel to come and minister to me in this garden of grief.”
And it goes on, but I remember reading that, and I think if you've experienced grief, everybody resonates with that of just the authenticity and rawness of that, those feelings. I can't imagine for you, Aileen, of even—you probably knew how Tim was doing through reading his writing. Or did you read it?
Aileen: No, I did read some things that came out, but often I just simply couldn't. It was too much for me.
I'm going to go really quickly back to the concept of loneliness. And I think in some ways in grief, God uses that to have us rely solely on Him. So when you talk about that particular passage and the idea of the angels coming to minister, we saw so many times where God gave us what we needed, the support that we needed in whatever moment that we were really struggling in. And so, it wasn't people we were relying on to comfort us in that way. It was really ended up being the Lord and Him giving us what we needed in those moments. I think that's, in part, why grief feels so lonely but that it turns us to God and wanting Him to be the one that's going to give us that comfort.
Dave: I mean, if there's a married couple listening right now that's gone through a tragedy like this, either one of you, what would you say to them? How would you speak words to them?
Tim: I think the first thing we'd want to communicate is: you can do it. And that was something someone communicated to us early on and it was just helpful to have them say that because they were saying “We went through it, and you will emerge into something beyond that’s still okay. This isn't the end of your life. This isn't the end of your calling.” I think the specific words he used were “You'll never get over it, but you'll learn to get on with it.” Which means you'll never, of course, you'll never forget your child. You'll never fully recover from your loss, but you will get on with life. There will be a new normal waiting for you eventually, and you'll come to it. And that was just really encouraging so we’d want people to know: you can do this. The Lord will equip you. He'll bless you.
And then I think probably just to be very, very patient and kind to one another wouldn’t you say?
Aileen: Yes, that's where I was going to go next, is just to be super patient with yourself. It's okay that you're struggling with this. It's not something that is easy. I think there's so often you feel like you're not a good Christian because you're battling feeling this way. We've learned that we have to walk in tandem. The grief is there, and the joy is also there, and you have to learn to walk with them both present. And you can't assume the days that the grief takes over, that those days are days that you're not a faithful Christian because that's just not true at all.
Tim: Yes, the Bible gives us just this wonderful picture of Jesus grieving, right? Jesus standing outside the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus. We all know the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” And it's just so comforting to know that Jesus wept.
And then we go on reading the New Testament, and we find that He can truly sympathize with us because he has been tempted. He's gone through all the humanity we've been through, all the experiences of humanity, and so we do have a God who's sympathetic and a God who's with us in our grief and who knows what it is to experience loss. Presumably Jesus lost his father somewhere along the way as well; was Joseph we presume, and so He knows what it is to grieve. And it's okay to truly, truly grieve because these things truly are horrendous and truly inconsistent with the way God made this world to be.
Shelby: What a comfort to know and understand that Christ understands that you're not alone in your sorrow and your grief. There's comfort in knowing that you're known in your mourning, over whatever it may be, from huge loss like Tim and Aileen were talking about to smaller ones, you are known. What an important reminder from two really special guests.
I'm Shelby Abbott and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Tim and Aileen Challies on FamilyLife Today. Tim and Aileen have written a book called Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God. You could pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com or you could give us a call at 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now tomorrow, Tim and Aileen Challies are going to be with us again to talk about how to take care of someone who is suffering in their grief. How do we give hope for someone's grief? How do we help them find peace in believing that God is sovereign, that He's good and He's in control? We'll talk about that tomorrow. We hope you'll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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