By Brandon Lemons
Over the past few weeks, I have been reading a book called “A Grace Disguised” by Jerry Sittser. It’s about tragedy, loss, and grieving. While certainly not an easy or heart-warming read, I have found it to be moving and insightful. Therefore, I would like to share a few of the lessons I have gleaned from the book.
Jerry Sittser is, unfortunately, well-qualified to write a book about tragic loss. When he was in his early 40s, Jerry was driving a van with his family on board, and the van was struck by a drunk driver who crossed the center line at high speed. In that crash, he lost his four-year-old daughter, his wife, and his mother. Three generations of the women who were closest to him died in a matter of moments. Jerry and three of his children lived, but their lives were forever changed.
Jerry kept a journal as he journeyed through grief, and he wrote “A Grace Disguised” several years after the accident. I do not recommend giving this book to someone who recently lost a loved one. I think it is better suited for people who are several years removed from a major loss, or more so for anyone who would like to gain perspective on understanding and handling the inevitable losses we face in life.
The central premise of the book is that it is not “the experience of loss that becomes the defining moment of our lives…. It is how we respond to loss that matters. That response will largely determine the quality, the direction, and the impact of our lives.” This is why the book’s subtitle says: “how the soul grows through loss.” This emphasis on response is why “A Grace Disguised” is not for people who are in the throes of grief. When walking with someone who is grieving, especially when the loss is fresh, it is far better to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) than to instruct them in how to respond. That being said, Jerry Sittser does an outstanding job of putting words to the unspeakable pain, emptiness, anger, disorientation, and despair that come with the loss of a loved one. This alone makes the book a valuable resource.
One of the lessons I appreciate from the book is how pointless and unhealthy it is to compare your own loss with someone else’s. As a pastor, I frequently hear this type of comparison. It goes something like this: “I am sad, but I know so many others have it harder than me. I shouldn’t feel as bad as I do when I think about what others are going through.” Jerry Sittser says the same thing I have often said in response, though he does so far more eloquently. He says: “We tend to quantify and compare suffering and loss. We talk about the numbers killed, the length of time spent in the hospital, the severity of abuse, the degree of family dysfunction, the difficulty and inconvenience of illness, the complexity of details during a divorce, or the strings of bad luck…. But I question whether experiences of such severe loss can be quantified and compared. Loss is loss, whatever the circumstances. All losses are bad, only bad in different ways. No two losses are ever the same. Each loss stands on its own and inflicts a unique kind of pain. What makes each loss so catastrophic is its devastating, cumulative, and irreversible nature…. The very attempt we often make in quantifying losses only exacerbates the loss by driving us to two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand, those coming out on the losing end of the comparison are deprived of the validation they need to identify and experience the loss for the bad thing it is. They sometimes feel like the little boy who just scratched his finger but cried too hard to receive much sympathy. Their loss is dismissed as unworthy of attention and recognition. On the other hand, those coming out on the winning end convince themselves that no one has suffered as much as they have, that no one will ever understand them, and that no one can offer lasting help. They are the ultimate victim. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery. Whose loss is worse? The question begs the point. Each experience of loss is unique, each painful in its own way, each as bad as everyone else’s but also different. No one will ever know the pain I have experienced because it is my own, just as I will never know the pain you may have experienced.”
Among the many other takeaway points from this book, I’d like to highlight what he says about forgiveness. Many types of loss include a feeling (or actuality) that a wrong was committed, which contributed in some way to the loss. This obviously isn’t always the case, but it is common, especially since blaming is a common aspect of grief. Jerry Sittser had a clear reason to be angry and to blame: his family members were killed by a drunk driver. To make matters worse, the drunk driver was acquitted of any wrongdoing! Sittser had lots of anger to process. He writes: “Unforgiveness uses victimization as an excuse. Unforgiving people become obsessed with the wrong done to them and are quick to say, ‘You don’t know how unbearable my suffering has been! You don’t know ho much that person hurt me!’ They are, of course, right. No one can know. But I wonder sometimes if being right is worth all that much. Is it worth they misery it causes? Is it worth living in bondage to unforgiveness? Is it worth they cycle of destruction it perpetrates?” I have frequently repeated a quote that says, “Unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping someone else will die.” While Sittser doesn’t use this quote, his chapter on forgiveness is one of the best descriptions of this principle I’ve ever encountered. He came to this important conclusion: “The process of forgiveness begins when victims realize that nothing – not justice or revenge or anything else – can reverse the wrong done. Forgiveness cannot spare victims the consequences of the loss, nor can it recover the life they once had. Victims have no power to change the past…. There is no going back. But there can be going ahead. Victims can choose life instead of death. They can choose to stop the cycle of destruction and, in the wake of the wrong done, do what is right. Forgiveness is simply choosing to do the right thing. It heals instead of hurts, restores broken relationships, and substitutes love where there was hate…. I think that I was spared excessive preoccupation with revenge because I believe that God is just, even though the judicial system is not…. Forgiving people, therefore, define the role they play in life modestly. They simply let God be God so that they can be normal and happy human beings who learn to forgive.”
There is much more that could be said about these topics and others in “A Grace Disguised.” I will be mentally processing this book for a long time. I recommend it, but with the caveats I listed above. If you, or someone you know, is dealing with a recent death of a loved one, the best resource I can recommend is a series of four booklets called “Journeying Through Grief” from Stephen Ministries. This series spans the course of the first year after a death, and I know of many people who have benefitted from it – as much as you can benefit from a printed resource when journeying through the grieving process.