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Audio+Story: Pastor Turns Sudden Loss into Path for Healing

It was sudden. There was no warning, it just happened. What everyone thought was a headache, like any other a headache she had in the past, was something more and ominous.

Pastor Steven Massey and his wife Jill had returned home from Church. Jill said that she was going to go and lay down as she was developing a headache. That was nothing unusual; she had headaches from time to time.

“For me, it was very sudden,” said Pastor Massey. “She had a brain aneurysm. It happened on the second Sunday of Easter.”

They had just returned home from Church, where Pastor Massey led the service. They had margaritas that afternoon, and then at ten p.m., everything changed.

None of us are prepared for the death of a loved one. Even when we expect their death, because of a prolonged illness, or sudden onset of aggressive cancer, we are never really prepared. It’s something I’ve seen far too often.

For just over two years I used to work at Mt. Carmel Cemetery, in El Paso’s Lower Valley. Almost every service I was assigned to, I would see the grief, the pain, the hole left by sudden loss.

“She started complaining of a headache,” Pastor Massey says. “Then she started to explain some things about her vision. And then she was a little dizzy, so I was walking her to the bathroom, and she collapsed, and that was it”

Just that suddenly, that quickly their world was tossed into a rush of disarray and confusion.

Pastor Massey called 911, and his wife, Jill, was rushed to the hospital. While they were there, it was discovered that she had blood on her brain. She was airlifted to another hospital that was better equipped to deal with such emergencies.

With the suddenness of this, their son, Marco, was there for all of it. The initial hospital admission, the airlift, and the delivery of the news the following day.

“In the morning,” Steven relates, “the doctor came to me and said she had a brain aneurysm at the base of her, and she was brain dead.”

At that moment, his life, and that of his son changed.

While I was speaking to Pastor Massey, even though we are now years removed from the passing of his wife, you can still see the pain, the loss, and the love he carries for her.  One of the things I learned from speaking with him is that there is a difference between mourning and grief and that your grief could be hijacked.

“To me, mourning is a natural reaction,” says Pastor Massey. “When your loved one dies, you are going to mourn.” He says grieving is different because you work through it, you change, you have to learn how to live is what he calls the “new normal.”

“Everyone, as they mourn, they just react day by day,” he says. I can understand that all too well. When my daughter passed away, I didn’t want to accept it, didn’t want to realize that she had, in fact, passed away. I did everything I could to put it at the back of my mind.”

In the case of Pastor Massey, he began to lose himself in his work. He dove headlong into anything and everything that would take his mind off what had happened. That is how grief can be hijacked.

In my case, I began to write more; I would appear on more and more radio shows (ones I’ve been on in the past) as a call-in guest. I began to insert myself into various causes around the world. I did not want to accept the truth of what had happened. I didn’t, and no one could tell me otherwise.

“If you don’t learn to get on,” says Steven Massey. “You stay in that mourning and grieving.”

“I will be like this forever,” says Roccio Garcia, who lost her husband four years ago. “My grief, my mourning, is me, is needed.”

Roccio lost her husband, who was serving in the United States Army, just over four years ago. She acknowledged that her grief and mourning continue. “After I heard the Reverend I think my grief has been hijacked.”

Roccio has been serving others, helping others, and forgetting herself and her needs. She has moved into what could be a very dangerous place for anyone who has lost another.

Massey says that we need to take the time to acknowledge ourselves and our needs. We need to look out for ourselves, our feelings, and what we are going through.

“If you don’t learn to get on,” says Steven Massey. “You stay in that mourning and grieving.”

Complicated grief, something we talked about, is being stuck in grief afterward. “There is normal things you feel,” says Pastor Massey. “Depression, there’s a brain fog where you can’t think straight, there is a sadness. Over time, you learn to cope with that.”

He says there will always be that hole left by loss. We need to fill that hole.

During his grief, his morning, he had what he called his “Luther” moment, after reformer Martin Luther. During a period of Luther’s life, historically, Luther was translating the Bible and was feeling a lot of persecution by Satan, picked up an inkwell, tossed it at the wall and yelled, “get out of here!” Steven Massey had his version of the Luther moment.

Steven Massey had reached a point where he wasn’t sleeping well, and then he began to fall back into the traps his grief presented to him.

Then, one night, he woke up and, “in the middle of the night, I woke up and said enough is enough.” He felt he was on the point of a nervous breakdown.

He decided he was going to give a voice to what grief, mourning, and his own tumultuous emotions were putting him through, and so he began to write. Starting with only titles, he began to write poetry, began to give voice to what was going on, what he was feeling. From this, the formation of his book grew.

“There are a lot of books written by experts,” he says. “But my expertise is that I went through grief. In fact, you could even say I failed grief.”

“Songs From the Pit” is written in such a way that you would read it, day by day, like a devotional. The book covers thirty-one days. Each day has a scripture, a poem, and a short devotion. The aim, of each day, is to help center you, to help give a voice to what you are feeling, and to point you towards something, someone greater than you and your pain.

I’ve begun using “Songs From the Pit,” years removed from the loss of my child, and am starting to understand how my grief was hijacked, how I continued, even now, to lose myself in my work, my causes, and the lives of almost everyone else but me. It’s cathartic, this book, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is suffering.

I do want to back track to one thing we spoke about on the radio program: Anticipatory grief.

When I asked Massey about anticipatory grief, he said it is that period we have before we lose someone, before their passing. It is that time when someone has cancer, or another inoperable condition that may cause someone to lose their life. It is a time that can give us closure, a time that we can come to accept that this person, this part of our life is going to leave us, is going to die.

I mention this for two reasons. First, I think “Songs From the Pit” would be a good book to use during that time. It may help bring acceptance and peace.

The other reason I mention anticipatory grief is that we are not always afforded the opportunity to have that period before someone dies. We don’t know when any of us are going to pass. We should live, and love to its fullest every single day.

At Mt. Carmel Cemetery one of the most common refrains I would here was that “I never had a chance to say goodbye.” Another, “I never said ‘I love you enough,’” Each one of those people, each one of those families left the cemetery in greater pain than they had to.

You can get a copy of “Tears From the Pit,” on Amazon. I’ll leave you with a poem from “Songs From the Pit,” entitled “Standing Stone.”

Standing Stone
I come before this Standing Stone
Full of sorrow and all alone,
As a broken child, I’m calling out to ya.
The stone reminds me of deeds you’ve done.
The battles fought, the vict’ries won
For all to see is written Alleluia.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia.

I come to you with pain and fear
Struggling through this vale of tears
With just enough strength to cry out to ya.
By sadness is my one refrain.
A broken life is what remains.
Will there ever be another Alleluia?
(Hum)

You come to me in my brokenness
You recognize my pain and stress.
You whisper in my ear, “I am with ya.”
You hold me in your warm embrace,
Gently wipe tears from my face
Assuring me, you are my Alleluia.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia.

I come now to your burial tomb,
With no hope and full of gloom
I’m so saddened by what my sin did to ya.
The stone’s been moved. The body’s gone.
Death is dead. The vict’ry’s won.
All is changed there’s only Alleluia.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia.

I come to you my cornerstone
Though you stand I struggle on.
At times it’s so hard to just hang on to ya.
You show up, and you are near.
You speak to me, remove my fear
Calm comes back you restore my Alleluia.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia.

One day I’ll stand before your throne.
When everything will be made known.
Those blazing eyes will be looking right through me.
The hand that wiped my tears away
Opened the door for me to stay,
Will give a stone with my new name “Alleluia.”
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia.

About Steven Cottingham

Steven Cottingham is an artist, poet (haiku, tanka, senryu) as well as a photographer. Growing up, he wanted to be a columnist, as well as photojournalist. Life, and poor decision, led him down a different path. Today, Steven is chasing those dreams. He is currently working on his next book, as well as starting a small poetry journal. You may visit Steven, online, at www.StevenCottinghamPhotography.com

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3 comments

  1. What an amazing story. It gives me hope that I will get through my loss.

  2. This is a beautiful article and show. The pastor has made this loss of his wife a journey for healing for others such as me.

    I live in South Korea. Recently I lose both mother and father. This loss was hard for me. I have been making the period of mourning for far too long. I now no that I have become used by grief to not heal or care for myself. I have learned from here.

    My only wish would be that I could have a conversation with this pastor. This was equally good for me, but I want to ask so many other questions.

    My thanks to the author of article for sharing this on Google+. If it has not been shared I would never have found it.

    • An-Kor, thank you for your kind words. To God be the glory. One of the challenges with complicated grief is that you have listened to the wrong voices for far too long. You listen to your pain, sadness, then guilt and fear. There is a healing voice which calls out to you, and that is the voice of a loving God.

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