I did not know to grieve, at first. I saw a message, “Rest in peace Rachel,” and I thought, oh dear, someone’s loved one has passed, but I did not yet grasp the scope of sorrow, because it couldn’t be that Rachel. That Rachel had been on the upswing. That Rachel was supposed to wake up.
I never met Rachel Held Evans, and though I’ve been meaning to start the copy of Inspired I purchased last year, I haven’t read any of her books. She shared one of my post calvin pieces once, and I followed her on Twitter, intermittently liking and retweeting her witty takedowns of stuffy white dudes. Without exaggeration, I can say that her work, directly or indirectly, impacted the faith of nearly every person in my life and nearly every person whose work I respect, Christian or otherwise. But I did not know her.
Her death verges on a crisis of faith, though I know she wouldn’t want it to—she, who was prayed for constantly all around the world; she, mother of two very young children; she, whose influence on modern Christianity is so immense it can hardly be articulated; she, who was supposed to wake up. It’s unfathomably cruel that she should die, that her body should kill her, it seems, just because it could. My faith makes space for this, but just barely. Just when I remember that it should. Just because it might crumble if it did not.
In this grand play of life we are given many scripts, and in the passing of Rachel Held Evans I don’t know which one to follow. She was not a friend, nor an acquaintance, yet the loss feels more intimate than that of a celebrity or public figure, or even a distantly-known peer. She was a beloved wife and mother, yet this mourning encompasses not just the immense loss for her precious children and family but the collective grief of a worldwide community. Her passing has weighed so close to my heart.
The New York Times’ obituary describes Rachel Held Evans as a pastor unlike any other: “Her congregation was online, and her Twitter feed became her church.” In the past days, as that church has gathered under hashtags and comment threads, some have encouraged that it doesn’t matter if we “knew” her; being part of her congregation is enough. Our grief, I suppose, is enough. The sentiment is generous, but I can’t help feeling that to those who love her most dearly—those who are now organizing remembrance and community care amid an immeasurable and incomprehensible grief—these tributes are kindness but not understanding, tolerable but only a whisper of the magnitude of this tragedy.
Some people have a remarkable capacity for lament. Some can weep for tragedies the world around, large and small, of those known and unknown. I am not one of those people. I’m often saddened, but my body can’t hold the grief, the viscerality of constant felt loss. I don’t often truly mourn those I do not know. I perceive grief as something earned; if it is not obviously personal, it is stolen, or pretended, or unfair. This view is foolish and cumbersome.
Yet I still value this distinction of grief “unearned”—or however you may think of it—because it carries responsibilities to which we must remain attentive. We must steward this sort of mourning, maintain it. We cannot fabricate our grief to appear more or less invested than we are. We cannot place the burden of our grief on those nearest the one we are grieving, the family and dear friends and mentors and mentees whose worlds have been irrevocably shattered. We cannot lose the one we are grieving while we seek to understand, if we can, the tragedy.
We cannot forget Rachel Held Evans, woman of valor, revolutionizer of faith, wife and mother, friend and mentor, writer and speaker and world-changer.
Gwyneth Findlay is a writer and editor working in publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a degree in writing and minors in French and gender studies. She also writes for the new Calvin alumni fiction blog, Presticogitation.