Grief Took My Love of Reading, Too.

Here's How I Got It Back.

by Ben Hein
288 views 6 minute read

I began reading Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night in early June 2021. The book was attracting much attention at the time, as it was being heralded as a wonderful book that deals well with grief and suffering.  It was also the first book in a “Summer Book Club” at the new church in Indianapolis our family would be joining in just a few weeks. I figured the book club would be a great way for me to meet people quickly at our new church, so I decided to start reading it in my spare time between packing boxes and preparing for our move.

Little did I know how much this book would be ministering to me in just a few days.

On June 11 – just six days before our moving truck was scheduled to arrive – I received the call which I had long feared, but always knew was coming. My father passed away suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 77. So much of my world came crashing down in that moment. My father lived just a few hours from Indianapolis. We had so many plans for spending much more time together, and for our two young boys to make memories with their Papa. In an instant, it felt like all that I had hoped for and desired was being taken from me.

As if the grief of pastoring through the previous four years – Trump, racial injustice, COVID – weren’t enough, I was already grieving the thought of leaving our church family and many friends behind. Now I also had to grieve as a son losing his father. It often felt like far too much for me to bear.

In the pages of Prayer in the Night, I found comfort in the words of someone else who understood what I was going through. As Warren* shares in her book, 2017 had been a difficult year for her: a cross-country move, the loss of two children in pregnancy, and the loss of her father. As I read her reflections on grief and sorrow before the Lord, I met the words of a “friend” who understood the depths of pain I was going through. (*It is not lost on me that Tish Harrison Warren’s last name was my father’s first name)

On the one hand, Warren pressed me deeper into the presence of God. I did not want to pray. I did not know what to pray, and I was a little scared of what might come out of my heart in prayer. But as Warren reminded me,

“Unless we do not make time for grief, we cannot know the depths of the love of God, the healing God wrings from pain, the way grieving yields wisdom, comfort, even joy.

If we do not make time for grief, it will not simply disappear. Grief is stubborn. It will make itself heard or we will die trying to silence it. If we don’t face it directly it comes out sideways, in ways that aren’t always recognizeable as grief… Grief is a ghost that can’t be put to rest until its purpose has been fulfilled.” (p. 43)

This was a lesson I had tried to pass on to others many times in teaching and preaching. I now had to wrestle with whether I would believe this to be true for myself.

At the same time, Warren also acknowledged the complexity of grief and our need to be gentle and patient with ourselves. She writes,

“In these seasons [of grief], just getting through the day alive can feel like an ascetic experience. (And if in the depths of pain, all you can do to keep going is sit before God and eat some ice cream or smoke a pipe or watch a movie with greasy fries – for the literal love of God, do so.)” (p. 133)

Here was someone who understood my need for God, but also my need to slow down, cope, and process; whether with ice cream, or, in my case, junk food, Kim’s Convenience, and the occasional bourbon. Prayer in the Night was God’s grace to me even when I didn’t know how much I would need it.

Warren’s book was the last I would be able to read well for nearly six months.

As my grief took over, I quickly lost my ability to focus, think, write or even at times speak in coherent sentences. I am normally a voracious reader, often reading multiple books a month. More than that, I had just accepted a job as a church planter at a new church. This was supposed to be the season of my ministry where I was firing on all cylinders – strategizing, meeting with others, planning, reading, studying, communicating, building. I no longer wanted to strategize or meet with others. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t feel that I could. I soon felt defeated under the overwhelming burden of being what felt like a dysfunctional human.

I wondered – was this my new normal? Will I ever be able to read, think, write, and plan like I had before? How can I possibly fulfill this new role as church planter that I had been called to?

Just days ago, Tish Harrison Warren published a new opinion piece on the New York Times titled Grief Stole My Love of Reading. Here’s How I Got It Back. Like a phone call from a familiar friend, I read the words of someone who understood what I have been going through. I found inexpressable comfort knowing I wasn’t alone in the way grief has been affecting me. Just as she had experienced the pains of being a priest who could not pray, she now shared her experience with being a reader who could not read.

While there were other factors contributing to her loss of reading, such as the internet, social media, and “doomscrolling” over the turmoil of our day (unhealthy habits I have seen in myself as well), the grief she experienced in 2017 had significantly impacted her ability to read. Not only was she unable to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, she couldn’t remember the words she had just read. In fact – she didn’t even care about reading. It all seemed pointless.

I know exactly how that feels.

It was during this season which she learned an important lesson, one that I have also learned and have been passing on to others: simply recommending books to the grieving and suffering are one of the most unhelpful things we can do. Unfortunately, this tends to be one of the most common answers to grief that many Christians give. As Warren writes,

“As a pastor, I have seen that when someone suffers a loss, her community often offers books to help. And books on grief are indeed incredibly helpful… I even wrote a book about grief. But, for many of us, the best time to read books about suffering or grief is not when we are actually in deepest mourning. We need these books before we hit seasons of sorrow or well after a time of suffocating sadness, when we are starting to learn to breathe again.”

But all hope is not lost. Warren writes that after an extended season of grief and being unable to read, she is now “feasting after a fast, drinking words deeply down after a time of drought.” And for the last two months, I too have been enjoying a feast of words.

When I lost my ability to read last year, I started telling people that I’ll know I’m starting to heal when I’m able to read again. And in December, I found myself not only able to read again, but also wanting to read again. A lot.

I started slow at first with audio books at the gym. I generally don’t like books in this format, as my mind is predisposed to wandering while listening. Plus, I love highlighting! But this medium was good for me for a time. As I allowed the words of others to pour over me, my hearts desire for reading words on a page grew even more.

In December I decided to get off social media. I am more and more convinced social media isn’t healthy for any of us. It was especially unhelpful for me as a distraction and coping mechanism in my grief. I also no longer bring my phone into my room (no more staring at it in bed when I could be sleeping – or reading!). This was and continues to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time. I’ve returned to Twitter (where I now heavily edit my feeds through blocking/muting), and only reactivate my Facebook account to post new blogs (like the one you’re reading now).

Next, I decided to call on my community to help give me purpose to reading and hold me accountable. I asked two brothers in my church to commit to reading two books with me that we would discuss over the New Year. I am grateful these brothers agreed to join me in this, as they have been of immeasurable help in my healing.

I’ve also doubled down on my devotional reading. I’m training myself to wake up earlier, devoting myself to longer periods of reading Scirpture, praying, and one classic work of theology (currently Calvin’s Institutes).

Finally, my opportunities for preaching and teaching new material picked up around this time, which gave me purpose to once again to pursue reading and writing.

By the New Year, I found that the fog had lifted. Make no mistake, I still grieve our losses of 2021. At times, the sadness is all consuming. In those moments I’m learning to be patient with myself, choosing to read something more light hearted (if at all) rather than something I may have difficulty focusing on.

God has been kind to use these very ordinary means – time, good friends, and simple decisions for how I use my time – to restore my ability and love for reading. And when the next season of grief comes – which is inevitable – I think am better prepared to face it with faith and patience.

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