You can connect with Jerry on his website (where he also writes a lovely weekly blogpost).
Jerry talks about finding love after becoming a widower. If you’d like to listen to more guests who have found love after death you can listen to Lucy Kalanithi’s episode here or Nora McInerny’s episode here.
CW: Traumatic death, loss of family members
Kate Bowler: There are these little tells, clues everywhere, signs that this person has lived more lives than others. “Oh, strawberries. My first wife used to love strawberries.” “My son had a wonderful sense of humor. You were never safe from a prank when he was around.” “I used to be a pilot and a paint salesman, and well, that story’s for another day.” I was driving past the hospital the other day with a very distinguished older man, and I asked him if he’d ever visited Duke before. I haven’t been back since my son died in that hospital. He said, tapping the window and pointing at Duke University Hospital. And in those moments, I am suddenly reminded again. Yes, of course we live many lives. My name is Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. On this season of the podcast, we’re going to be talking about various formulas we use for how to live or, as we’ll be discussing today, how to grieve. We all crave formulas, right? Easy solutions and paths to a happier, better, more fulfilled life, a life without pain or heartbreak or death or disease. But no matter what the self-help culture tries to tell you, there is no amount of making your bed that will help you overcome grief. It is never that easy. Never that neat. But there are some voices who find a way forward when we can’t go back. Sometimes that comes with age, sometimes that comes with swift and sudden tragedy. You can hear it in their voices. How some people have stumbled through the valley of the shadow of death. The long, dark paths, the places they never thought they would emerge from. My guest today is someone who has walked such a path and his writing became a light to follow through it. Jerry Sittser taught theology for years and years at Whitworth University, and it’s now what we call emeritus, meaning sort of retired professors never retire. And like me, he teaches about religion in American public life. So we have twin souls, and he is the author of many, many beautiful books, including the one we’ll be talking about today, a Grace Disguised, which even after 25 years of being in print, continues to be a must read on life and grace after loss. Jerry, I feel so lucky to be speaking with you today. Thank you so much for doing this.
Jerry Sittser : And I’m honored, Kate. Thank you very much.
Kate: You are someone that I’ve really been looking forward to talking to because you have such a thick account, you give so much extra language for what a before and an after feels like. So if you don’t mind if we start at the hard beginning, your life had a very obvious before and after, when a catastrophe changed everything. Do you mind taking me back there and telling you what happened?
Jerry: My wife, Linda, my first wife, Linda, was a homeschooler. We were new to Spokane, Washington, where I took a position as a professor of psychology at Whitworth University. And we decided to take a field trip after a unit in home schooling to a Native American reservation, we had dinner with the tribe. Tribal leaders had a lovely time with them, ironically, we talked quite a bit about the curse of alcohol that afflicts this particular tribe. My two girls, Katherine and Diane and Jane, did dancing in the powwow. My boys brought their little cars and they were playing under the bleachers. You know, it was just kind of an idyllic experience driving back from that occasion. We were struck head on by a drunk driver going 85 miles an hour. His car actually cart wheeled over hours. So it was very head on.
Kate: Oh Jerry, I’m so sorry. In one moment you lost your wife, your young daughter and your mom. The driver of the vehicle lost his wife and his unborn child as well. It really is unthinkable the thought of having to move forward to continue to parrot your surviving children after such devastating loss.
Jerry: My doctor Father Martin Marty from the University of Chicago, really kept in very close, touch me after that, after that experience and after about a year, he said, Jerry, you won’t be able to duck this when you’re going to have to figure out how to steward it because you’re not going to be able to avoid it. It’s just too big and too catastrophic. That was the business at hand after that terrible experience. Three three of my kids survive. Katherine was eight and David was six, and my John was two and he was seriously injured. But he has since recovered.
Kate: The way you describe being a dad in those early moments, that life continued to to demand that you live it, whether you felt up to it or not. You describe all the beautiful little routines that you and your wife had, that that made those that must’ve just made those first weeks and months absolutely impossible to do alone.
Jerry: The strange thing, Kate, is that it was viscerally excruciating. It was it penetrated beyond the depths, I mean, no language can even get there. I will say that over time. It hasn’t gone away. I’ve just learned how to carry it differently. Not just the memory, but the feeling of the memory. And there is a difference between the two. Memory is not just cognitive, memory is emotional and it’s bodily. Your body carries memory. It’s not just your brain that carries memory. And I had to learn how to integrate that into a larger landscape without expecting that somehow it’s going to get better or it’s going to change, or there’ll be a kind of forgetfulness or whatever I- the word I use as we learn to carry it over time. And maybe maybe in a little less debilitating kind of way. Because other memories are added to it. I mean, I had to live with this strange juxtaposition of losing three beloved members of my family through three generations of women in an instant. But I have three children, and I had to figure out how to live for them, even as I was grieving those who were lost. And it’s not one that takes the place of the other. You have to learn how to do both.
Kate: Yes. Especially when they’re so little, when they demand bed time and they need snuggles, even in moments where it might feel suffocating or necessary to feel close?
Jerry: It did feel suffocating. Yeah, yeah, yeah my my first wife, Linda, was a professional musician and she and I were music geeks, so we memorized on a couple of early vacations, we memorized hymns together.
Jerry: I know that sounds so strange. I’m always going to apologize to the listening audience here, but we’ve probably memorized about 50 hymns and I sang those hymns to those kids as a way of kind of carrying on one of many, many sort of memories and practices that were rooted in our marriage in our home. I did that for years, and now I’m doing it to all my grandchildren. Same hymns. Same practice. Yeah, same stories.
Kate: Yeah, that’s beautiful. That feeling of like pouring into the foundation of each one.
Jerry: Yeah. And carrying it forward. Right. Yeah. However, painful.
Kate: Especially when they’re so let whole. And and you know that there’s so much that you already want to protect them from. Yeah, it’s such an intense feeling of like privilege and fear. I at least I that’s how I felt in the same breath.
Jerry: And it’s a terrible thing to recognize that no matter how conscientious you are as a parent, the randomness of life is never going to allow you to protect your children from all bad things. The smaller bad things like an injury that takes you out of a season of sports to a really big bad thing, and you have to figure out how to be a father or a mother in that and not sort of wring your hands thinking I failed because you couldn’t protect them from it. It’s just not possible to, as a parent, I don’t care how rich we are, how white we are, how middle or upper middle class we are, how privileged we are. We simply can’t do it.
Kate: Yeah, I think I did really have to change my definition of parenting when I got cancer is because then otherwise I was the bad thing. And then that just couldn’t be true that I could be. So I kept thinking maybe my job instead is not to protect him from every terrible thing, but to use the fact that because I have to walk through it too that, I like, I think in the- I guess to borrow your word, like to show him how to carry it. Yeah, yeah.
Jerry: That’s good.
Kate: So you and I both know that there’s like a very intense genre called Christian Living, which has the certain conventions and especially for men. I think it goes and here are the lessons, and here’s how I wrapped them up. And and your book is quite it really breaks from those conventions by just saying these are all the things that came undone. These were the things I wasn’t sure I could bear. It’s got an untidiness to it that I just I was really kind of shocked by.
Jerry: As I say to a lot of people and most of all, to myself, Kate, we all have our thresholds. There is simply no person who is strong enough where there’s no threshold, where they step over a line and they simply don’t know what to do. There’s no recovery. There’s no answer. There’s no way back to something that they had before. Now the threshold is different depending on the person and depending on the nature of the event. You know, people have said to me, I’m sure, well, I know they’ve said to you because I’ve read your book. They’re looking for answers. And surprisingly, you don’t really come to an answer until you realize there are no answers. And by answer, I mean that somehow it’s going to solve the problem. I think we have to learn to live in tensions where that that is the answer, that there is none. And yet we can still figure out how to carry on, still find or make meaning, still choose to love and carry that grief forward in a way that becomes mysteriously life giving to us and other people.
Kate: Yes, yes. I’m a little bit horrified by how everything you’re saying is everything that took me a really long time to get to.
Jerry: Kate, Kate, I am 71 years old, so I tell, I tell people when you know, when they call me or I get emails, I get a lot of mail just like like you do. And I’ll just say, Oh, this is all so hard fought. Yes. And that’s why I can’t give answers. I can’t say this is these are the steps this is going to make theological sense out of. You are out of your experience. I can’t, and therefore I won’t. It’s unconscionable to me.
Kate: Your story of loss really resonated with so many people who are experiencing so many different kinds of loss, like job loss, or divorce, or diagnosis, or the child with a precarious medical condition. What do you think it is about grief that it seems to cross all difference?
Jerry: Oh gosh, yeah. Well, for one thing, I think the category that I prefer is something along the lines of an irreversible experience where you can’t get behind it again. As I say in my book, that’s the difference between a broken leg and an amputation. Well, now with modern technology, you know, we have artificial limbs, but we can never pretend that that is a line in the sand that we can’t go back to something else before. And there are experiences like that where there is no recovery, if by recovery we mean we’re going to be able to go back to something that we had before. And of course, the danger is, is to yield to the temptation that we can do that. So in the case of many men, it’s a remarriage. Somehow that’s going to get me back to what I had before they discover one way or the other that’s simply not possible to do. So I remarried 10 years ago, so I would have for 20 years, and then I remarried. And as I love to say to my wife, Patricia, teasingly remarriage did not solve a problem for me, it just created a different set of problems.
Kate: Yes. Yes.
Jerry: You say, Jerry, come on. That’s just not romantic. But then she she gets it. Sure.
Kate: Yeah. Because I guess there’s no general category, I suppose called marriage. There’s just the particularity of love. And then, yeah, trying to integrate two inherently non-coherent people into one coherent thing.
Jerry: Yeah. And I like what you said in Everything Happens that there’s no generic anything here. There’s no category of loss that is somehow generically true or the same to everybody. There’s no generic life. You have a son named Zach, don’t you?
Kate: I do.
Jerry: And that’s Zach is Zach. I have Catherine and David and John, and of course, Diana Jane has been gone now for almost 30 years. I have in-laws, I have grandchildren. I have a particular configuration of life. This is the problem with formulas, with all the magic we want to use. It’s all too generic and it doesn’t apply to each person. I mean, as strange as this might sound, Kate, I mean, even a miracle for some people is not going to be what they need, even if they think they want it. For other people, it would be extraordinarily meaningful. You know.
Kate: It’s not a universal key. Is that what you’re saying?
Jerry: Yeah. Mm-Hmm.
Kate: Yeah. I love that. That sounds exactly right to me, seems to that getting away from that kind of universal fix also helps us get at the problem of the endless, terrible math of comparison where everybody starts to count and the, you know, the small cruelties of it like, well, how far along were you when you miscarried or how old were you when you were diagnosed or how old was your dad? The idea that the answer to that is the answer to the real question, which is how big an incalculable is your loss?
Jerry: Yeah. And you can’t. I mean, I’ve met people whose losses seem small, but considering the landscape of their life, they’re utterly gigantic. Yeah, I’ve met other people who’s losses were huge, but again, because of the landscape of their lives, they were actually able to integrate it, maybe slightly more seamlessly than somebody whose life was a total wreck. I mean, I think about the driver of this car, Kate. Now, you know, he lost, too. I lost three, but his life story was so catastrophically bad. Yeah, I mean, I just his his loss is his and mine is mine, and that’s all I can say. And that’s why I want to take everybody with absolute seriousness and not fall into that game of whose loss is worse. Actually, I have a chapter in my book called Who’s Loss is Worse? Because strangely, I wrote that chapter to protect myself. My experience was a big experience. So the natural thing for everyone to say is something like, I can’t imagine, which is obviously true enough. They can’t imagine it. But you know, there are a lot of things that didn’t affect me. I didn’t have to deal with long term illness or long term consequences of an injury from one of my kids. The line between the living and the dead was really clear. I didn’t lose Linda in a period of strain in our marriage, for example. I mean, there are so many things that I was spared from. And that’s true of every human being. Each loss is uniquely its own, and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that and then go from there. I was the worst nightmare in the world for some people, and I a lot of my talk was simply, don’t think mine’s worse, please don’t do that to me. Don’t create a special category of nightmare. They’re all bad. They’re all bad.
Kate: Yes. And so isolating. I used to just dread going to church because I hated I hated being able to look at people and know who knew. They just broke my heart again and again because then I could never be anything else. Mm hmm. Just being officially a tragedy is its own sort of.
Jerry: Yeah, it’s your own kind of category. Yeah, I remember this isn’t exactly funny. It’s sort of gallows humor here. I remember the first Mother’s Day, and I was stupid enough not to think about it. And I showed up at church worship with my three little kids. Oh, well, I was like a wet blanket. I mean, what is the pastor going to do when I walk in and sit down? It was so awkward I should have stayed out of church worship for the next five years. Yeah, I mean, and every time we a communion, we did do an intinction. So I’d walk down and I’d walk with my three little children. And for the first five years, I crowded every Eucharist I took. I received every Eucharist by itself a chain reaction in the whole church. What I did is I forced the entire congregation to live in Holy Saturday for five years. Oh, it’s just I should have, I should have withdrawn from life. Moved to Canada. Yes.
Kate: Oh man. You’re just bringing back so many memories right now. I’ll never forget the Sunday I knew I wasn’t being preached about or to for the first time.
Jerry: Like three years later, right?
Kate: I was so happy. To become some kind of object lesson as people try desperately to serve you and also to manage their own fear. And I didn’t want to be managed, I suppose, all the time.
Jerry: I had a small group of men surround me from the university right after the accident. We’re still meeting each other thirty years, 30 years later, by the way.
Kate: That’s lovely.
Jerry : And talk about sweetness. But since then, another wife has died. Another two wives have died of cancer. You know, pretty soon it gets filled in and other stories begin to emerge and you become one of many having to deal with the harsh realities of life in a fallen world. You know.
Kate: I mean, it’s it is wild the way that. That our pain seems I don’t mean ours, I just mean pain like seems to refract.
Jerry: Anybody’s yeah.
Kate: And then for some other people, it’s it’s shining a light in their own eyes about their own experience, which makes it either possible or impossible for them to see your own particularity.
Kate: I want to ask you about something that feels hard to ask, because, you know, I know we’re both very careful about not trying to rush to solve the problem of pain in any way. But you’ve described so beautifully the way that loss has a very mysterious way of expanding us and making us more somehow. I always hesitate to even talk about it sometimes because I don’t want it to sound like I’m, you know.
Jerry: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s terribly risky and it’s easily misconstrued where you get the idea that God is pulling the strings of heaven in order to grow us and inflicting misery on us in order to accomplish that. And that is simply not my worldview at all. I just think we live in a fallen world. It’s broken everywhere, ricochets everywhere, consequences toppled from one to another. And we just have to live in that world, that broken world. And when God chose to roll up his sleeves and get involved, it wasn’t like pulling strings. It was stepping into the story as a human being who became himself a victim of that same suffering and brokenness. I mean, it’s just astonishing to think about that. Yes. So I’m I’m very hesitant to give the kind of formula this happened in order for this to happen. That isn’t the world I live in at all. This happened, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to really understand why. I remember probably the most predominant emotion I dealt with and still deal with, Kate, after 30 years is utter bewilderment. Yes, it’s like I’m looking at something and I just can’t quite put it together. It doesn’t make sense. And I think I’m going to die with that, I just can’t put it together. I love what Joseph says to his brothers. You meant it for evil, God worked it out for good. And we have to live in that tension. Human agency: a person driving a car, a cell that decides to do something screwy in your place where there’s no rhyme or reason behind it, it just happens. Yes, Kate, if I would have sneezed at a stop sign, that accident wouldn’t have occurred. Yes. That’s all it would have taken. And living in that world and yet living in the world in which there is purpose, there is meaning there is life. And I just think one of the secrets of life is learning to live in that kind of tension. Yeah. Anyway, so sure, I remember thinking, I wish that Linda could see the kind of father I have become because of her death and the and the bitter irony of this is that it’s her absence that helped me discover it. Yes. And now she can’t enjoy it. Yes. Now, what do you do with that? Well, you just live with it.
Kate: Yeah, that’s right. And all the context around it. Yes. The way we can feel about even then the scope of the day that you can be somewhere that smells like that terrible pink soap. And you’re watching thin people’s frames at the cancer center and everywhere there is death. Yeah. And then two hours later, there is probably about 200 freckles you can count on the same kid’s nose and a very aggressive conversation involving sock puppets and and everything just like in the big scope of things, there is so much beauty and in the big scope of things, there is just such an unbearable amount of pain.
Jerry: And I mean, it happens a thousand times every day. I mean, you with your little guy, you’re thinking, how long am I going to be around? And yet every experience you have with him has its own kind of extraordinary quality to it, even when he’s a brat. Well, my kids were brats. Maybe Zach isn’t, but my kids were.
Kate: I’ve never heard of this condition you’re describing. It seems terrible. I started thinking of it like, like an aperture, you know, just the widening to be able to take in all the light. And the darkness.
Jerry: Yeah, a good term to use, I don’t use aperture much in my daily vocabulary, but you’ve just inspired me to do that.
Kate: You know how like, I just always picture like my heart just cracking open wider because I need both to see it. I’m going to need both to even know what to pray for.
Jerry: And yet suffering is like a blinding light and all of a sudden an aperture closes. And then it, then it opens and closes. It opens and closes many times every day. Somehow, we have to become attuned to both. You know, I love the Mary Martha story for that reason. Here are two women who are utterly besieged with loss at the death of their beloved brother, Lazarus, and you can tell they were talking to each other because they memorized the same elevator speech when they met Jesus. If you had been here, our brother would not have died, which is true enough. I mean, Jesus does not look very good in that story. And then he says to to Martha, I’m the resurrection and the life, what you’re really looking for is not a resuscitation, but a resurrection. But by golly, we like resuscitations too don’t we?
Kate: Absolutely. Yeah, show up a little earlier.
Jerry: Show up a little earlier. Fix the problem.
Jerry: But but in that moment of longing for a resuscitation, we forget that there’ll be another death. I mean, Lazarus did die again. Yes. And who knows how he died? It could have been just hideous for all I know. So the dirty little secret behind a miracle is that it doesn’t last. It’s a lovely sign, as the gospel of John puts it, it’s a sign of God’s kind of invasive power, but it’s not really a solution and suffering will come on its heels sooner or later. That sounds terrible to say.
Kate: It feels like you’re kind of stabbing me when you say that, and I just- all of it is true. It’s a postponement, and we’re always looking for that deferral.
Jerry: And we and with good reason. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just being profoundly human to long for those reversals or those resuscitations of one kind or another. And and God shows up and does it. But it’s a little random.
Kate: You have this beautiful quote you write, we love again, work again and hope again. We think it is worth the risk and the trouble to live in the world, though terrorists surely await us and we take our chances that all things considered, life is worth living. I like all the courage that is poured into those words.
Jerry: One of my favorite novels is Hannah Coulter, if you ever read Hannah Coulter?
Jerry: Wendell Berry, he’s a novelist and as well as a great ecologist and farmer, an agrarian and lots of things. And he wrote a series of novels of novels about a small town in Kentucky and the stories of several characters in it. Hannah Coulter experiences the loss of a husband at a young age and in the course of this novel Wendell Berry says of her, “she came to the point where she realized that life itself was demanding life from her.”.
Jerry: And I thought, OK, that’s probably right. That’s probably the world that I want to live in life itself kind of demands life from me. Now, I would fill in God there, too, but that’s a part of the way I think God set things up.
Kate: Yes, you have these multiple timelines of your before, and your after, and then your after the after. I’d love it. If you could, you could tell me about Patricia.
Jerry: Yeah, the after of the after of the after. Well, it’s such a strange experience, Kate to remarry. It’s like marrying again for the first time. There’s no second marriage. There’s a first marriage again. Honestly, it is so strange because it’s so different from the first and one reason why is because you carry everything that happened to you in the first marriage into the second. And it fundamentally changes you along the way. Patricia has given me a lot of gifts, but a couple have been this. She said she’s never once competed with our family story. She’s never once felt insecure. Honest to God, it’s amazing. She’s never once competed with a larger than life first wife, Linda, and she was larger than life. Just beautiful, multitalented, full of life, full of light in her eyes. Great mom, blah blah, you know so on. And she said, here’s why, Jerry, is that the way you remember and honor your first wife tells me of the kind of man I’m marrying. And I’m- in marrying you, I’m marrying that story, and it gives me all the more confidence that if you can honor your first you’ll honor, me too. Now that’s extraordinary to me.
Kate: Yes, to hold the story’s not in opposition to each other, but as telling the same truth.
Jerry: So there’s a lot of sweetness there. There’s a lot of beauty, but I will say none of it compensates for the pain. Yeah, it’s not this happened so that this can happen. I just reject that world doesn’t work for me. The pain stands on its own and we somehow can’t explain it away because I’m happily married or I have grandchildren now or whatever it happens to be.
Kate: Yes. That is careful. Painful, important work to tell it all as part of the same story. Yeah, without without the ending-
Jerry: tying things up. Yeah. Yes. Because what if they happen, opposite happens and bad things continue to happen? Yes. I’m mindful of all the people I know whose narratives just don’t seem to have a lot of light in. That’s right. And I just don’t want to kind of share my testimony. That’s the language you’re familiar with in the evangelical world. You know, share my testimony as if it’s just all frosting and bows. It’s not, and it won’t be. And besides the fact, even if I do have moments, many moments of happiness, the world groans and bleeds.
Kate: Terry, I feel like if I could have just made us officially twins, I would I-
Jerry: you wouldn’t want to look like me, though, Kate.
Kate: I will take it. I will take it, honestly. Thank you for helping me widen the scope of the way I know how to tell this story about about how we live multiple lives. It gives me a tremendous amount of comfort to be your friend. Thank you.
Jerry: The same with same with you. It’s so nice to see you. I wish we could go to one of the one hundred one thousand three hundred and twenty one breweries here in Bend, Oregon, alone we’re the brewery capital of the world here out West, you know. You can sit down, you could drink your nice IPA and I drink my manly stout and we have a long conversation. I want laughter and few to tears too.
Kate: Go Pentecostal and prophesy that it will happen. Thank you Jerry.
Jerry: Boy, would I love that.
Kate: There’s this quote from a show on HBO that is really, really good, and it’s called Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet, and you really have to see it if you haven’t already. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. But there is one profound scene that reminds me of what Jerry spoke about. The character has experienced profound loss, and when someone asks her if it ever gets easier, she says “no. But after a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable. Food still needs to go into the pantry.” In other words, your world may have stopped, but the world kept spinning, and somehow you learn to live here. So here is a blessing for that terrible reality. Blessed, are you who feel the wound of fresh loss or of the loss no matter how fresh that still makes your voice crack all these years later. You who are stuck in the impossibility, frozen in disbelief. How can this be? It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Blessed, are you fumbling around for answers or truths to make this go down easier, who demand answers or are dissatisfied with the shallow theology and trite platitudes. Blessed are we who instead demand a blessing because we have wrestled with God and are here. Wounded, broken, changed. Blessed are we who keep parenting, who keep our marriages and friendships and jobs afloat. We stock the pantry because what choice do we have but to move forward with a life we didn’t choose, with a loss we thought we couldn’t live without. One small step, one small act of hope at a time.
Kate Bowler: Our work on the Everything Happens podcast and with the Everything Happens Initiative is made possible because of our partners and generous donors Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Faith and Leadership, an online learning resource and a huge thank you to my team who makes this work not only possible, but fun. Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Hegginbotham, Katie Mangum, AJ Walton, Kathrine Smith, Mary Jo Clancy, JJ Dickinson and Jeb and Sammi. And if you’d like to be a human with me, come find me online at KateCBowler. I also have a weekly email that might be the right dose of love and courage you need, sign up a KateBowler.com/newsletter. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.