When Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s 12-year-old son, Jack Donaldson, drowned in a creek behind her family’s suburban Virginia home three years ago, she turned to her blog, An Inch of Gray, which she had previously used to post about her kids and daily life. There, she chronicled her emotions, grief and spirituality. Eventually, she realized she wanted to write a book, which became the recently published Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love, from which this is excerpted.
We begin visiting a different church. We don’t feel Jack’s absence as keenly here, even though it meets in a local elementary school in the same room where he attended Cub Scout pack meetings for five years.
We go at first to support the young pastor who showed up for us the night of Jack’s death, but then we keep coming. I have yet to tell him about a conversation I had with my pastor Linda three hours before the accident.
“Did you know there’s a new church coming to Vienna this fall?” I asked. She didn’t. I continued, “Well, I was reading their website during lunch, and I have a feeling we’ll be connected to them somehow.”
Strange. I guess I thought we could lend the church space in our building or maybe I would help them order materials for their Sunday school classes. Looking around the elementary school cafeteria now, months later, I know I got it wrong. I see two friends who recommitted their lives to God after Jack’s accident and started bringing their families here. I see the family we went to the beach with summer after summer when the kids were small, who understand what a precious person we lost in losing Jack. I see his math teacher, who got to teach him for only the first two days of seventh grade, but who is helping shepherd his classmates through their grief.
I see men who put on raincoats and traipsed through the mud, thinking surely they would find Jack injured but alive. And there are the couples who formed small groups in our neighborhood initially to talk about God and the death of a young boy, but who continue to meet and support one another week after week as more deaths and cancer diagnoses rock our small community. We are connected to this new church, just not in the way I had expected.
I don’t know if this is where we belong, but I’m open to it, even though I have worshiped in the same church my entire life. I’m not worried. What would have once seemed like a sea change feels more like a blip in comparison to losing Jack.
And whether I’m here or across town, I need church. I am not one who regularly sees God at the ocean, in the mountains, or in a sunrise, although since Jack died, I am increasingly finding Him there. God and I tend to meet in community, and even though I dread the exposed and vulnerable feeling I get walking into His house now, I can’t stay away.
It has nothing to do with obligation or religion. I need to show up, sit on the hard plastic chair, and say, “Here I am, Lord.” For me. I sing when I can, but I don’t push it if I don’t feel up to it. Margaret sometimes moves up to the front rows where the tweens sit, and I feel more freedom to cry than I do from our exposed perch in the balcony of our home church where my emotions continue to embarrass her.
The pastor, Johnny, jokes with Tim that he knows when we’ll visit because when we do, they always seem to have Jack and Margaret’s favorite hymn, “In Christ Alone,” on the schedule. They’ll start the music, he’ll scan the congregation, and bingo, there we are, wiping dripping eyes and noses with the back of our sleeves, because even though crying is inevitable, I don’t always remember tissues.
It feels a bit weird to be at a different church, even just part-time, but if we’re learning anything, it’s that life is weird. I take communion, but I don’t serve it anymore. I am not here as a leader or a giver. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people and make them feel welcome and comfortable, as would be my instinct. Instead, I am here to partake and absorb and let God’s words fall down on my head. I soak up the truth of who He is. I tell Him I am open to receive grace and comfort. I remind Him I trust Him, even though His ways are not mine and I am still sad and hurt.
I don’t know if I’ll speak at women’s retreats again or lead Bible studies. I don’t know how long I’ll work in a church. The look of my faith may be changing in light of Jack’s death, as I step back from what I saw as my work and my effort of growing closer to God and being a good Christian, but God hasn’t changed. It seems like this is a season for me to rest in love and just keep showing up.
Excerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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