The purpose of this post is to give a raw and honest glimpse into the grief I’ve experienced in the last year. I’m telling my story in order that others who have experienced grief can feel less alone. But it’s also simply MY experience. Everyone who grieves has a different journey. This is a longer piece than usual. Thanks in advance for reading it, if you do.
Grief. A Memorandum.
I wake up on November 2nd, 2012, to several frantic texts from my younger sister sent at varying hours of the night.
“Teryn, call the *Smiths.”
“You need to call the Smiths NOW.”
“Something terrible happened. Call the Smiths.”
I get these texts around 7:00am. They are texts that leave me feeling vulnerable and afraid. What has happened? Did someone get sick or severely injured?
I never think death.
I text Rebecca Smith, and she doesn’t respond. I also text her sister. Her sister calls me and gives me the news.
Rebecca is dead. She committed suicide. Rebecca–my best friend, older sister, spiritual mentor, Kindred Spirit.
“What the hell?” I yell at God when I’m off the phone. “What the hell?” Rebecca of all people committed suicide? It doesn’t even make sense. She just got married two months ago. She’s in this great Christian community who loves her.
I will use more choice language in the days to come, when the truth comes out. But for now, I am simply at an utter loss. I have no idea how to process this sudden death. My Kindred Spirit. Gone. Just like that.
I try to go to work, I try to be strong, I try to get through that first day. But I fall apart at the office. I leave. I spend all day crying. I actually go to vote early, although I don’t care a shit who wins the Presidential election. Rebecca is dead. How can the country still keep functioning as if nothing happened? Don’t they know?
Don’t they know someone beautiful has died?
I fly home the next week. I’m asked to speak at her funeral. This brings me both great honor and great pain. I don’t know what I should say. I don’t know how to express in words how much she meant to me, to us all. I don’t want to get up in front of people (I hate getting up in front of people). I don’t want to cry in front of people.
But I was her Kindred Spirit, and I have to. It’s something I’ve got to do. I’ve got to voice our love for her.
I sit under a sprawling oak tree in my parents’ backyard, and I think.
I’d sat here when I wrote her wedding card, just two short months ago. There underneath this tree, I’d spilled out a long letter to her of how much I loved her, how much our friendship had meant, how excited I was for her marriage, how I hoped to see God use her in great ways.
Now, just two short months later, I’m writing something for her funeral. A letter, of sorts, to her soul. A tribute.
The leaves whisper in the wind. I write and I weep.
The funeral comes and goes in a blur of agony and beauty. Agony, for the loss. Beauty, for the life she lived. She did more for people in 27 years than most people do in 80 years. She was someone so filled with love, it spilled over into all she did.
Yet nothing is right. Why would she commit suicide? Why? There is no explanation for it. Something is off, something is wrong. Everyone feels it. Questions are being asked about her community. Doubts are being voiced about her husband. But for now, we must go on as if the facts we know are the facts.
(And to my shame, I defend her husband that week. I looked up to them so much, and I can’t imagine that there could be anything truly wrong. I can’t admit it to myself. I’ve been having doubts, I’ve been feeling weird about the community and her husband for quite some time. But there’s nothing tangible to cling to. No facts. Just a feeling. And feelings don’t mean anything. The facts, what we saw, what we heard, are proof enough that everything is fine. Right? Right?)
I hear the news on the way back to Colorado. Her father calls me. “Are you sitting down?”
That is never good. “Yes.”
“A person has come forward and confessed to murdering Rebecca.”
With that phone call, everything I think I know shatters.
The truth starts coming out in the agonizing days following her funeral. The Christian community was a cult. Her husband had become increasingly manipulative and controlling. A friend inside the cult has confessed to murder (which he later recants). There may or may not have been sexual abuse. What is certain is that the husband was having illicit relationships with other men. That he was becoming more and more manipulative and controlling of the entire group. Everything is so confusing.
But one thing is for certain. What we thought we knew is completely wrong.
How does one process murder? How does one process the fact that one’s friend was in a cult? How does one process the fact that the husband was lying? He married my friend with no inkling of real love and then drove her to despair (which led to suicide or murder)? Which one was it?
I don’t know.
It’s not on my radar. It was never, ever something I thought I’d have to deal with. Stuff like this is reserved for TV shows and mystery novels. Stuff like this happens to other people on the news. Not here. Not to people I know. Not to someone I loved.
How do I process this?
I don’t know.
I feel numb a lot.
The husband emails me. He uses the most manipulative, controlling language I’ve ever seen to try and win me over to his side. I loved her so much, everyone else is lying, here’s the truth. I think you’re strong enough to handle the truth. Not many others can. You’re really following God, and I’ve always admired that. I think you’ll be able to help me. Don’t tell her family I contacted you. Let’s talk…
Unwittingly, he reveals the scales of a dragon.
That’s when it truly hits me.
This is the man my Kindred Spirit married.
Dirty, lying coward. I hate him. I hate him.
Oh, how I hate that hypocritical son of a bitch.
I use other words. Lots of other words.
I truly believe that only the prayers of loving friends and family sustain me over the next few months. If it were up to me, I would cave into the deepest, darkest anger and hatred I have ever experienced. I would never, ever recover. I would fall into cynicism and bitterness and live there the rest of my life. This is my natural me, the depravity and weakness of Teryn in the flesh. Bitterness, anger, despair, depression. I know because I’ve been battling it for years.
I’m walking along a narrow bridge over dark chasms. If I tread but a little, I will fall. I will fall and never reach the bottom of the sorrow, the hatred, the anger.
There are days I want to shut everyone out and never love again. Never have true friends again. Never let people in. Because there is too much damage when you love people. They will always betray you. Or they will die. Either way, they leave.
There are days I feel as I want to die. As if death would be better than facing the truth of what happened. As if death would be better than having to heal from so deep a betrayal.
There are days I look at my roommate’s liquor cabinet in our basement and think, If only I could forget my sorrows. If only I could make this go away. If only I could stop feeling this pain.
I want to drown my sorrows.
I begin to understand why people turn to drugs, sex, and alcohol when faced with grief and the wounds of the soul. Anything to numb the ache. Anything to deny the reality of what has happened.
But I feel the prayers.
They are like a tangible presence around me, protecting me from myself, my darkest desires, my own weaknesses. They hold me up as I wobble over the chasms on either side of me.
God holds my hand in His. I will not fall, as long as I cling to Him.
As long as I cling to Him.
I will not fall.
There are so many questions. Why? Why? Why? Why did she have to die? Why didn’t we figure it all out sooner? Why did he deceive us for so long? Why did God even let her meet him in the first place? Why didn’t God rescue her? Why didn’t she leave sooner? Why did she hide from us the extent of the damage?
Oh, why, why, why?
The questions buzz like flies that overwhelm and stifle. Whenever I listen to them, I start to bow down under the weight of them.
I can’t listen to the questions. All the questions will kill me if I let them. I must trust. I must trust God is bigger than these questions. I must trust God is love, that He loved my friend, that He is good, and that everything does work together for good for those that love Him (Romans 8:28). I must trust. Oh God, You’ve been so faithful to me all my life. You’ve never failed me before. I will trust you.
It is a daily battle, to trust. It’s a daily battle, fighting the questions.
There are beautiful moments, too. I never thought grief could be so beautiful. I write and write and write about my friend, growing up in high school together, our group of friends, how safe and loved I felt. I write all the things about her that made us Kindred Spirits. It was so long ago, when we met. I’ve been through so much. I can’t even remember everything that made us all so close. So much of that joy and love and laughter has faded into the corners of my mind, replaced by the pain and frustration of multiple years of pretending to be someone I’m not, conforming to cookie-cutter standards, people-pleasing in an attempt to gain love and acceptance…
But the memories come back, like lights from the past to distinguish the darkness of the present. The light of who Becca was, who we all were, dissuades some of the darkness. I begin to see, to really see, for the first time in a long time.
That is who I am. That girl who was friends with Becca…THAT is me. That’s why I felt so safe and happy during that time. I had friends who loved me. I was myself. I could be myself, and no one judged.
I’ve never felt so safe again. So loved.
Becca’s death is like a wake up call. A strange slap in the face when I’d been sleep-walking for so long. I wake up, and I begin to feel and think and wonder all over again. I begin to embrace myself, my dreams, my passions. I begin to revel in the wonder and beauty of the world. I begin to LIVE again.
It’s cathartic. It’s healing. It shows me who I was, and who I still want to be.
My identity is renewed.
How could Becca’s death be the thing that saves me from losing myself?
The more I remember the past, the sharper the pain in the present. There are evenings and mornings where I cry, cry, cry my eyes out because I miss her. I rend the air in my room with groanings too deep for words. I sob so hard my stomach hurts.
I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to be alone.
I’m afraid of life. I’m afraid of a future without Becca. A future I must face without her wisdom and love and guidance. I looked up to her so much. She was a mentor, older sister, friend. I looked up to her to help me follow Christ.
Now…it’s just me.
There’s no one like her in my life. No spiritual mentor I look up to. No older sister-figure whose faith I want to emulate. No Kindred Spirit who looks at life many of the same ways I do.
It’s just me now.
This feels me with fear.
Oh God, I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to be alone, I sob into my pillows. What am I suppose to do now?
You are not alone, He whispers. You are not alone. And I feel His presence, wrapping me in a love I can’t understand.
I cling to Him, and He does not let me go.
Even in the darkest moment, He does not let me go.
I am not alone.
There is a moment where I truly despair. One moment where I wonder if I should end my own life. One moment where the future seems so bleak, I don’t think I can go on. I’ve never truly contemplated suicide, but in that one moment, I do. Alone, in my room, I wonder…If I should end it.
Life is worth nothing, the dark thoughts echo in my mind. Life is not worth living if such evil can happen. You will never heal, you will never recover. You might as well die. You might as well end it all, because life is a horrible, dark place full of hateful people. You’ve seen it now. How can you go living after so much darkness and evil?
In that moment, as I cry more deeply than I ever have before and contemplate suicide, my roommate enters my room, uninvited. She holds me in her arms like a mother would her child. She speaks softly to me. She whispers prayers out loud into the darkness.
She is the tangible presence of God, His hands and feet, in a moment when I needed it the most.
The dark thoughts leave as she prays, and I choose life.
It’s the beginning of the slow, slow step back into life that takes almost an entire year.
Choosing life is a continual process, I’ve learned.
Every week, every month that passes after her death, is a choice.
A choice to choose life over death. Joy over despair. Trust over bitterness. Faith over cynicism.
Love and forgiveness over hate and revenge.
It’s the only way to survive the darkness of this world without creating your own darkness. By choosing to shine light and love wherever you go, no matter how painful. By choosing to respond to evil with something better, something more beautiful.
Gradually, I let go of anger. I let go of hatred. I begin to learn to forgive–her husband, her murderer, the cult. I begin to have peace.
All of it are steps back into life. I still have a long journey ahead of me, but I’m finding my way again.
No longer am I walking over two chasms.
I may be walking in a valley, but the ground is solid beneath my feet. The rock is firm, and I will not fall headlong.
When everything you thought you knew is destroyed, you have to somehow pick up the pieces of the rubble and build something stronger.
The old foundations of what I thought about life, death, God, Christians, church, faith, etc., crumbled when Becca died. I had to rebuild each piece of my life. I bent over the rubble, the blackness of soot smeared across my face, and I picked up each piece.
Piece by piece, I built something stronger. A faith that has withstood one of the fiercest storms I’ve ever endured. A belief in a God who loves us so much that He died so that we might live eternally with Him.
I’ve become wiser. I know what spiritual abuse looks like. I know what forms spiritual oppression takes, no matter how beautifully or “biblically” it’s packaged. I’ve learned that some men will use God and religion just like a totalitarian regime would use propaganda and government–all in a lust for power and prestige.
My faith has been challenged, refined, and beaten into something that can truly fight the darkness. A sword wielded against manipulation, tyranny, and oppression masquerading as the voice of God.
I still miss her.
(I cried writing this.)
I’ll miss her until I die.
Yet I’ll remember her everyday by how I live out my faith, by the stories I tell, by the words I write.
I’ll turn grief into something strong and beautiful, loving and wise.
That is my choice.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Vladimir Grabev