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This weekend I had the delight of hosting Jeff Munroe at my church. It was great fun for me, this connection of two places I’ve called home – West Michigan and Southern Ontario – and the bringing together of two areas to which I dedicate time – the local church and the Reformed Journal. Jeff, as many of you know, is a compelling and winsome speaker, so hearing him preach in the morning and then discuss his book, Telling Stories in the Dark: Finding Healing and Hope in Sharing our Sadness, Grief, Trauma, and Pain, in the evening was deeply gratifying.

Jeff’s book is beautiful. It’s well structured, moving, easy to read, and full of wisdom and insight. I turned the final page filled with a sense of both fullness and longing, that feeling of having encountered something deeply good.

But what is perhaps most beautiful about this book is the opportunity it creates – the permission it gives – for people to tell their own stories.

I’ve heard many of those stories these last few weeks, as people popped into my office to buy a copy of the book, as we chatted after church in the fellowship hall, as they lingered after Jeff’s presentation on Sunday night. Some of the stories I already knew. Others I didn’t. Looking out at the group gathered on Sunday evening, I knew they represented a wide array of encounters with grief and pain. They had lost children to tragic accidents and parents to dementia. They had walked alongside friends battling cancer – they had battled cancer themselves. They had gone through divorces; they had experienced painful separations from employers.

And I knew that if the whole congregation had been present, the ratio of person to story of grief or pain would not diminish. It would remain at 1:1.

In an interview with Krista Tippet for the OnBeing podcast, singer Nick Cave speaks of his experience with grief after the death of two of his children. “It feels to me,” he says, “that loss is our universal state as human beings. I disagree with the sort of “grief club” and the club that no one wants to join. I think humanity itself is that club and that we are all feeling these senses of loss, whether it’s directly personal, it’s bred into us, that sense of yearning. And that’s not a failure. It’s a condition.”

We live in a society that tries to deny or defy pain and death and sadness. We get through the heartache of a burial so we might have a “Celebration of Life” instead of a funeral. We are reticent to share our stories of pain lest we be deemed “soft” or “overly emotional.” We buy products to mask our aging, to help us ignore signs of decay. We shun lament in church, preferring upbeat songs of victory and praise.

We desperately want the human condition to be one of happiness and fulfillment. In such a condition pain and loss are interruptions, problems to deal with in order to return to our preferred state of being.

For Cave, however, and for many others, the problem isn’t so much the interruption of grief amidst joy…but joy amidst grief.

“There is no problem of evil,” Cave says. “There is only a problem of good.

“It’s the audacity of the world to continue to be beautiful and continue to be good in times of deep suffering. That’s how I saw the world. It was sort of not paying me any attention. It was just carrying on, being systemically gorgeous. And how dare it? But there you have it.”

For Cave, to live in a world that holds both immense suffering and profound beauty, the only way forward was to grapple with both. “The common energy running through life is loss,” he says, “but you can translate that into love too, quite easily…one feels an enormous and new capacity to love, I think.” This loss – and thus this love – led Cave into a place of writing about grief, creating music for those who are grieving, and corresponding with people about all manner of things, including faith and suffering. He uses beauty to invite people into a space of dealing with their own loss.

In Telling Stories in the Dark, Jeff quotes Frederick Buechner, who urges people to be stewards of their pain. “Being a good steward of your pain,” writes Buechner, “involves…being alive to your life. It involves taking the risk of being open, of reaching out, of keeping in touch with the pain…because at no time more than at a painful time do we live out of the depths of who we are instead of out of the shallows.”

Nick Cave is being a steward of his pain. It does not come easily, and it has taken many years. Like some of the people Jeff interviewed for his book, Cave says he would trade everything he has learned to have his sons with him again. But given the condition of his life – given the loss, and thus the love, that he knows – he is choosing to transform his pain, to contribute, somehow, to what he describes in his book as a “subterranean undertow of concern and connectivity…towards a more empathic and enhanced existence.”

This is what Jeff has done through his book. The stories he tells are both tragic and hopeful. They speak of our capacity for loss as well as love. They fill the reader with a sense of fullness and longing, a sense they have encountered something truly good. And thus they invite us into a deeper way of living, attuned to the universality of pain and grief, but also, then, attuned to the faithful undertow of beauty, hope, and love, so we might live fully alive.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for this, Laura. Especially Nick Cave’s assertion that being alive is knowing loss and an inborn condition of yearning, that precludes an exclusive ‘grief club’. It’s being alive to pain, but also the joy in the morning. Your writing is a blessing, as always, dear friend.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you, Laura. When I scrolled to respond, I expected to keep on scrolling down below 100 responses. Then I remembered how talking about one’s pain is usually seen as self-Indulgence. Such is this judgmental sector. Welcoming another’s painful story should bring out the best in us, our quiet compassion and silent comfort; or listening—an embrace.
    Jeff, you have given the world what has been harmfully hidden. This is what actual trauma healing is: healing into living the pain in our lives. What’s the “meaning” of the poem? Is so often asked. The answer: we all embody trauma, pain.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks for reminding us, Laura, through Jeff and Cave, how amazing grace can turn our lament into love.

  • Wesley says:

    I work as a hospice chaplain. I see a fair bit of grief and fear. What astounds me every day is the amount of joy and gratitude I see, the people who build lives of significance and love even amidst extraordinary challenges.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I look forward to reading Jeff’s book and listening to the podcast. Buechner’s essay “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain” is one of my all time favorite pieces of writing. It is profound in depth and richness.

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