Tim lost his wife sudden from a brain aneurism while on a family holiday; that was 7 years ago, and the pain is still very real, but he has found grace, joy, new life & learnt to love again. Tim shares openly about the trauma and how God has led him through it all in today’s Story of Hope on CCFm’s Breakfast with Friends.
Grief and Grace
George Matheson was a 19th Century pastor and hymn writer. Blind from his youth and having faced grief, loss, and disappointments of many kinds, he was a man who was familiar with the challenges of suffering. He wrote:
Many of us would tearlessly deal with our grief if only we were allowed to do it in private, yet what is so difficult is that most of us are called to exercise patience, not in a bed, but in the open street for all to see. We are called upon to bury our sorrows not in restful inactivity but in active service; in our workplace, while shopping and doing social events… No other way of bearing sorrow is as difficult as this, for it is truly what is meant by running with patience.
Matheson is highlighting the challenge of navigating public and private grief. If it was difficult enough for him in the 19th century, how much more challenging is it for us in the digital age? We don’t just handle grief in the open street for all to see, but on the information-super-highway! In particular, social media has provided a new and complex platform for those of us who are grieving to navigate. As Matheson implies, those of us who have been through deep grief often want to curl up into a ball and hide away. However, psychologists tell us that grieving people require social proximity to help facilitate healing. Social media is clearly one opportunity for us to connect with other people as we seek to process grief and loss. But how do we do this in a healthy way given some of the constraints and challenges of this relatively new communication tool?
For many of us, social media became exponentially more important during the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have become increasingly connected to our devices and it has simply become part of our daily life. However, many of us are also concerned that there is an intrinsic link between social media usage and the state of our mental health. If this is true (as many studies are indicating), then we need to be even more cautious about how we utilise social media while we are processing grief.
The challenge is that social media is not just a vehicle for us to share about what we’re going through, but it also exposes us to the pain of others, which can compound our own grief. As one researcher has written, Death is becoming a much more public experience… due in part to the introduction of technology (Resa Ware). The long-term reality is that, whereas, in pre-social media, we tended to lose touch with people as our social circles changed, we now have an increasingly long list of online ‘friends’. It is, therefore, simply the mathematics of probability which means we are going to be exposed to more loss and sadness, alongside the frivolity, triviality, and downright ridiculousness of social media.
The breaking of tragic news via social media seems to now be part of everyday life. I first became aware of how social media would change our interaction with grief in 2011. My good friend, Mark Versey, tragically died aged just 38. He had worked with me in Pretoria for three years and had recently moved to London and taken up a new position within our organisation. I heard the news of his passing via telephone from my dad. Later that afternoon I realised I needed to phone some people with the news. As I was calling some people, I became aware that word of Mark’s passing was spreading very quickly. So, I logged on to my Facebook account and saw that my feed was filling up with messages that tagged Mark. Tribute after tribute was being posted. I felt a bit stunned as I witnessed this global expression of grief. It was an amazing testimony to the impact that Mark’s life had had. And it was also an incredible comfort to be able to relate to a global community of people through the shrinking world brought about by social media.
That was 2011 and it was the first time I became aware of how this could be a powerful medium to help people through their grief. However, an equal and opposite danger has emerged: tragedy can become commonplace resulting in us being desensitised to our newsfeeds. In the same browsing session, we can see acquaintances or far-flung friends celebrating an engagement or the birth of a baby, while others are announcing that they have cancer or have lost a job. At any point of any day, our lives can be interrupted with uninvited heart-breaking news as friends and loved ones, or even long-lost acquaintances, experience and share their personal trials and grief.
The fact is that social media is here to stay and it is a vehicle of communication that people going through grief need to navigate. And there is no playbook on how best to do that. Some people lay their hearts bare for all to read through highly personal and emotive posts. Others withdraw completely. When I lost my wife in 2016, I took a different approach. I determined to try and use the platform sensitively and sparingly. Reading other people’s tributes to Laura and messages of love that came through various online platforms was certainly a comfort. It was also a great vehicle through which to mobilise prayer and support for our family. However, there were many private and personal things that I didn’t feel were appropriate for the world-wide-web to be aware of at that time. So, although I browsed regularly, I posted sparingly.
Now, in 2023, the world is more connected than ever. Pre-Covid, the average American was checking their smartphone up to 150 times a day. During 2020, we became hooked on tracking the spread of the disease and how each country has adopted different strategies to counteract it. Since covid, it seems that we are increasingly aware of tragedies that sweep our world, be it raging fires in Canada, loss of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, war in the Ukraine or dams bursting in Libya. We are exposed to the tragic devastation that this is causing, which fuels our fears and compounds our concerns about the future. We are more aware of people’s grief but can feel powerless in our interventions. This can also be exhausting!
Therefore, in the midst of a tragic storm, I would advise caution in your engagement with social media. Develop a strategy to handle it. I believe the danger of over-immersion in social media is that it can exacerbate your sense of isolation. Your strategy needs to enable you to share appropriately about what you are going through with your broader social network, while also finding ways to connect more deeply and meaningfully with people you love and trust. We need meaningful relational connections in order to survive the worst that life can throw at us.
The critical principle is that you feel empowered to utilise social media in ways that helps you and doesn’t harm you or others. Additionally, although research is indicating that there are many positive advantages to processing grief online, don’t allow social media to become your only platform where you seek to process your grief. My experience on social media after losing my wife was largely positive but it was not all-encompassing. Connect with people directly. Seek professional help. Join an online or physical support. Some small groups have started working through the Grief and Grace book and video series, which now contains a reflection guide that can help spark conversation. Look to a diverse community of people to offer you support and help in the aftermath of losing a loved one.
I came to see the community of people around me as a gift that God had given me to help me through my journey of pain. Just as I don’t see my relationship with God as a crutch, but as a gift of grace, so I began to see people as gifts along the way. There were people, in my physical and online community, who journeyed with me through the valley of the shadow of death, and I learned a beautiful thing that I hope will be your experience. Although both online and physical relationships can be a sensitive and challenging reality to navigate while grieving, people became the source of God’s gracious gifts that helped me along the way. And this led to some breakthroughs at various stages; glimpses of light breaking through my smog. This brought relief, support and even some joy even in the midst of pain.
The Grief and Grace book was released in 2019. This interview was on Radio CCFM morning show as part of their “Story of Hope” segment. With the launch of the new edition of Grief and Grace, it seemed like a good time to repost this video. I’m also looking forward to going on the show later this year (October 2023) and again early next year (February 2024) when my new book is released.
Discombobulated is one of my favourite words to describe my state of being when I was going through deep grief. The state of being discombobulated is to be characterised by confusion or disorder. In other words, grief caused my brain to be scrambled. All the things I had taken for granted were now thrown into the mixer. My plans, my future, even my identity, were suddenly all up in the air. When we go through grief, we are reminded that life is fragile. This can cause a sense of fear and despair as we face a future we didn’t choose. It’s hard to come to terms with the uninvited interruption which is grief.
Whether you are grieving the loss of a loved one, or a sudden change in circumstances (e.g. redundancy or ill health), being discombobulated is an innate feeling that things are simply not as they should be. Grief does that. It is a pernicious force that can destabilise and cripple us physically and emotionally. Grief is an exhausting bedfellow that, if unrecognised and ineffectually processed, can have a long-term detrimental impact on our sense of well-being and purpose. However, my reason for writing is not to add to your woes but to provide you with hope to courageously face the future. It is possible to find a depth of resilience that can enable one to persevere along the road of grief and, indeed, find joy once more. Discombobulation does not need to be your permanent state. However, grief is not something we simply get over. But it is something we can journey through. Thankfully, there are signposts that can help us on this journey. I hope that my own story can be a signpost for you.
On 9th August 2016, Laura and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary with breakfast at the Company Gardens in Cape Town. Over bacon and eggs, we reflected on the previous couple of months. Laura had been hospitalised twice but we were now grateful that she appeared to be on the mend. We were looking forward to my brother and his family coming to stay with us in just a few days’ time. A long-awaited holiday was an enticing prospect and a chance for us to recover from the stress of the previous weeks. I couldn’t have imagined that, within just 9 days and while on that very holiday, I would be sat by Laura’s side as she lay in hospital, unconscious, having suffered a brain aneurysm. She did not recover and 24 hours later I was instructing the doctors to switch off the life support machine.
I have described the details more fully in my book Grief and Grace. This uninvited and unwelcome interruption in my life was utterly devastating. As I sat beside Laura’s bedside on the night she died, I cried out to God in despair and confusion. Let’s face it, there is no explanation for why a 38-year-old mother of three is tragically taken from this world. My Christian faith means I believe that there is hope beyond the grave. But for those left behind on planet Earth, grief can be a cruel and dangerous journey. I was facing a future I would never have chosen or imagined.
In the weeks following Laura’s death, many concerned friends and family members counseled me that I would have to find my “new normal”. That expression became something of a cliché during the COVID years. But back in 2016, it was a phrase I had not heard before. However, I struggled to accept that anything about my new reality was normal. So, I started referring to my situation as a new abnormal. Grief had brought me into discontinuity with my previous life.
I subsequently came to refer to grief as my sixth sense as I navigated this new abnormal. And when in grief, the sixth sense dominates all other senses. I recently read Michelle Obama’s book, and her description of life after loss resonated with me:
“It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colours go flat. Music hurts, and so do memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful – a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of kids – and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way.”Michelle Obama, Becoming, p. 144.
This is the sixth sense. The lonely journey of life in slow motion where every decision to keep going requires Herculean resolve. In times like these, the platitudes, clichés and greetings card poems don’t help. It is literally a case of survival and determining to put one foot in front of the other.
Maybe you can relate to some of this in whatever situation you are currently facing. Grief brings about an abnormal reality full of unexpected consequences that blindside us. C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed that sorrow is not a state, but a process. The process is not easy. But it is necessary.
I have always been careful not to express my journey through grief as a recipe for others to follow. I don’t believe there are sequential steps that can guarantee your recovery from grief and loss. Rather, the fact that I’m still standing after facing my personal experience, can hopefully provide encouragement to you in your own journey through grief and loss. Critically, I am not the only example of someone who is rebuilding their life following a loss. There are tens of thousands of such stories (some of which are contained in our Grief and Grace video series). In itself, this can be an incredible encouragement. Just as no one is immune from the vulnerability of life so, I believe, everyone can find the grace and strength required to endure and progress in life in spite of seemingly insurmountable challenges and heart-breaking sadness.
Although not a recipe, there are three pieces of advice I would give anyone going through grief.
The first is to recognise your limitations. Grief, of any kind, is exhausting. The sixth sense can drain your energy and emotional reserves. Recognise that your capacity has been compromised and be kind to yourself. Don’t just push through. Rest. Sleep. However, be careful of absolute lethargy. In the midst of the hardest moments of my grief, I still tried to make sure I got up each day, made food, got outside for walks… and even took up surfing (distractions can be necessary). I became an avid list-maker. This helped me feel a sense of accomplishment as I worked through necessary daily tasks. But still, I had to be gracious to myself and simply find ways to get through each day.
My second piece of advice is to try and find things to be grateful for. Author and motivational speaker, Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms and legs, writes, “one of the best ways to take the pain out of past experiences is to replace the hurt with gratitude”. This is certainly not easy, but I learned that I can be grateful even if I’m not particularly happy. I’ve always kept a journal. After Laura died I journaled vociferously which helped me process my emotions. In the journal, I started a gratitude list that included things I was grateful for about Laura and the life we shared together. It was tough. But it was incredibly helpful. I also read the Psalms in the Bible which spoke directly to my situation as the authors themselves grappled with the deep challenges of life. Over time, I began to find other things to be grateful for and, on occasion, having a grateful attitude began to spill over into times of joy. This wasn’t always straightforward as joy can quickly be juxtaposed with pain (I call it two sides of the same coin). However, it enabled me to occasionally lift my head above the cloud of the sixth sense and gain fresh perspective and, eventually, hope for the future.
Finally, don’t cut yourself off from community. If you’re going through a particularly difficult experience, your friends and family might not know what to say or how to help you. Sometimes it can be draining to have them around. But we cannot get through the quagmire of grief unless we let other people walk with us through the journey. Additionally, seek professional help when necessary. I was so grateful for medical help and counseling. The people who walked with me through my grief were gifts from God, able to assist me practically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Let’s be honest, grief sucks and is a tough reality that all human beings will face. However, all is not lost!
My own journey continues. I have remarried and we have a two-year-old daughter. This isn’t about finding my happy ever after but recognising that, as I continue to walk through grief, new chapters emerge. My story has shaped who I am becoming.
My hope and prayer is that, even if you are currently feeling discombobulated by your grief, you will find the grace, resilience and courage to move into the new chapters that God has for you.
It is now five years since Laura’s passing. It seems like a significant milestone – many people have expressed how unbelievable it seems that five years have passed. A friend sent me this verse, which sums up God’s faithfulness to us over the past five years:
Fear not, for I am with you;Isaiah 41:10
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
As I spent time reflecting this week, I was once again reminded that grief is not something you “get over” but continue to work through. The nature of my grief has changed over time… but I still feel the loss of my wife keenly.
I am aware that many people are experiencing grief and loss in these difficult times. It is a tough season for so many people and I continue to realise that grief is such a difficult process and there is no quick-fix remedy. My sincere condolences to everyone who has suffered grief and I pray that God will sustain you in the days, months and years ahead.
Over the past five years I’ve had to find various ways to honour Laura’s memory. In 2017 I started a small fund in memory of Laura which helps us remember the amazing lady she was, as well as continue her legacy. The photo above is of Laura in 2014. The girl in the picture is now supported by the Laura Tucker Legacy Fund to attend an amazing school in Pretoria.
As I continue to work through my own grief, I’ve also found a measure of healing in sharing quite extensively about my own story (although it’s not always easy). I find it encouraging that my story can help other people find courage and hope to face the worst that life can throw at them. The link below is an interview with Jenna Leigh Bilong on her Elevated show. She asked me some great questions… if you have some time to listen, I hope you’ll find it helpful.
Helping others find courage and hope is also why we filmed the Grief and Grace video series earlier this year which features a number of testimonies of people who have walked along the valley of the shadow of death. You can see them here: https://www.message.org.uk/griefandgrace/
So it’s five years on… and on some days it feels like an eternity, while on others, it feels like yesterday. But through the changing phases of grief, I continue to experience God’s grace in “many facets and colours” (Paul Young – The Shack)… and for that I am eternally grateful.