As much as I love Star Wars (and I do), for the last three years this day has crept up on me for an entirely different reason. And every time I’m stunned and confused as to why or how this thing lives in my body; because people much physically closer to me have died and it does not affect me the same way. It was four years ago today that the world lost one of the greatest voices for inclusion and affirmation in Christian spaces. She was the same age as me. Our kids were very close in age. And while I had already planned to attend Evolving Faith later that year–the conference she dreamt up with her dear friends and fellow authors Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu– when she died I had still never met her in person. All I had were a few interactions on Twitter and her books.
I hadn’t been around exvangelical twitter for very long before someone asked if I’d read Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. “Who?” I replied. Before that moment I had never heard of her. I followed her immediately and then went to download the book on my Kindle. I devoured every word through hot tears streaming down my face because how was it possible this person whom I’d never met had heard my innermost thoughts and put them in print? It wasn’t long after I started following her on social media before she was talking about her new book, and the chance to get a reader’s copy ahead of the release. I lept at the chance, I didn’t know anything about publishing (I still don’t know much) but I knew that whatever was in those pages was going to make me feel seen, heard, known and accepted just as I was.
When I read Inspired in February of 2018, it gave me hope for a faith that was teetering on collapse. We were still living under the Trump administration, and watching the MeToo movement sweep the nation. I was pregnant with my second child (my daughter), as was Rachel. And I thought if this woman could still scrape together belief from the remnants of the faith she inherited as a child, then perhaps I could too. The following spring I decided I’d buy a ticket for Evolving Faith 2019, going by myself was terrifying and out of my comfort zone but I was determined. And then Rachel got sick.
The spring of 2019 might be the last time I ever prayed for anything in earnest. And it wasn’t so much a prayer as it was denial, that is, denying the thought that there was any way a loving and just god would not heal her. That thought contradicted everything I had ever been taught or believed. There was no way the god I had been taught to believe in would be so cruel as to take this mother away from her small children who need her so much.
After both my children were born, but especially after my first, I would sit up next to them watching them sleep in the dark. I’d watch my tiny son’s back rise and fall with each breath, watching carefully for any sign of distress. At the same time I was praying. Telling god how aware I was that my children were a gift from god and that gift could be taken away at any moment and I had to be ok with that. And then begging, pleading with god to let me keep my children. The same way I begged and pleaded as a child to not let Jesus come back before I got to grow up and do all the grown-up things. Looking back now I see the cruelty in those moments. I see now that I am a survivor of decades of conditioning, spiritual abuse and emotional manipulation. But back in the spring of 2019 a greater percentage of me still believed that particular god must be real, that the things I was taught about Jesus were real. And I still believed I was the rebellious one for being the child who questioned and doubted so often.
When the announcement appeared in my twitter feed that she was gone, that Rachel would not be healed, that her children were left without a mother, that Dan was left without his partner–his best friend–something inside of me broke. For days I cried so hard my face hurt and it was hard to breathe. I was a stay-at-home mom to a then 4yo and 10mo old and it was all I could do to keep going one diaper change, one sippy cup refill at a time until my husband came home and I’d lock myself away and cry some more. I was so angry. And scared. My gosh was I scared. There was no rhyme, no reason to her death. It felt like a completely fluke thing that could have happened to anyone. Even me. So why her? The thought that gripped me the most was not getting to watch my kids grow up. It was one of my biggest fears and I had just witnessed it happen to someone else the same exact age as me with kids the same age as mine.
It wasn’t until months later though, while sitting in the stands all alone at Evolving Faith in Denver that October, that I felt the permission to grieve. Here were hundreds of other people, many of whom had never met her either, all sobbing while the speaker talked about Rachel’s life and what it meant to lament collectively. Suddenly I didn’t feel like such a weirdo for grieving the death of a person I’d never met in real life. It was probably also the first time I realized that online friends are real friends–an important truth that would prove crucial to my survival in the wilderness of deconstruction.
I tweeted this morning that yesterday I was tense all day and easily annoyed, every human interaction was akin to hearing nails on a chalkboard. This day keeps coming every year and yet every year it creeps on me. But sure enough my body remembers. And every year I try to let my body feel whatever it feels. I think about how much her kids must have grown. I think about Dan, who gave me the permission I needed to grieve when he got up to that podium himself at that conference and shared his grief with all of us–something he did not have to do.
2019 was tumultuous for me in a lot of ways, which is funny now thinking about what 2020 would bring. In the same way so many of us categorize life into the before Covid time and the Covid-times, I will always do the same for 2019 in my journey out of organized religion. Rachel and her death taught me how to hold opposite truths in tension with one another. She showed me I was not alone, that I wasn’t just the rebellious kid who wanted to live a “sinful life” without conviction or repentance. She showed me a window into who I could be, in spite of everything I endured. She taught me I didn’t have to be afraid of my past, but to use it as a catalyst for change, for something better. I’d like to think that she’d honor my choice to walk away and live a full life outside of Christianity, because she held space for everyone in the wilderness. That’s just who she was.
Rachel, we miss you so much. Rest well my friend, eshet chayil.
2 thoughts on “May the Grief Be With You”
Emily, every time I read one of your posts I think how it would have been to get to stay in contact, taking your family photos each year, if I’d stayed in the Bay Area. We have so much in common. I have a poem about Rachel in my first book of poetry, about her death, about many of these things you wrote here. Thank you. Let me know if you come visit the PNW, I’d love to catch up in person.
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Jo! First of all, books of poetry? I’ll be seeking that out momentarily.:) Second of all, your words mean so much to me. Over the years watching your littles grow on IG, it always made me a little sad you were so far away, because I knew you’d be a kindred. As it would happen I have a few other friends in your area who I recently met up with in LA, but made a lot of promises to visit them in Portland soon. I will definitely be reaching out. Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give you my number. Again, thanks for reading, and I’m sorry if yesterday was hard for you too. Take care.