This Mother’s Day, We Grieve a Matriarch Who Birthed Community for Doubt-Filled Believers

Amid prayerful-yet-playful tweets bemoaning missed episodes of Game of Thrones, the voice of our generation, Rachel Held Evans, died one week ago following complications from a sudden illness.

Rachel Held Evans, photo credit: Daniel Evans via Chaffee Management.

At 37, the theological giant, wife, and mother to two small children just before one of the few Mother’s Days she’d live to enjoy. A modern-day “prophet with a pen” and “doubt-filled believer,” Rachel embodied the restlessness of Millennials raised in the Christian Church frustrated with its current direction.

One of the first Christian-bloggers turned scholar-writer-activist, she led a generation of young people struggling to remain in the pews. She inspired us to return to and dig deeply into scripture again, even when we felt it had failed us.

How do we sit with this loss of our beloved RHE—especially this Mother’s Day? How do we sit with the loss of women who, like the mentor she was, emboldened us to step into our own place? Rachel was the “mother” of respectful theological debate: she encouraged us to doubt, ask, and engage with all sides, exhibiting a spiritual heft that left us feeling like eager students at her feet. How do we grieve the loss of a woman who “birthed” a safe space for “doubt-filled believers”?

 Though the death rate is 100 percent, there is something about death—especially young deaths—that shock us. Maybe it’s because we spend our entire lives trying to keep our bodies going to do the Gospel work we are called to. Maybe it’s because we don’t want anyone to disappear from status updates, our feeds, or social movements galvanizing change. We want them to live and make it happen; we want to live and see it happen. We had hoped our intercessions of #PrayForRHE would save her. They didn’t.

This is death’s lesson: it reminds us to be present with the mothers, mentors, and loved ones who’ve inspire and love us–and to remember those whose memory lives with us.

RHE was ever the encourager. We will miss her thoughtful prose and generous words like these.
Rachel’s last publication, released last year. I was honored to serve on her launch team. Purchase a copy here.

Our society is quick to rush through grief. In lieu of what’s next, I hope we’ll sit with the heaviness of losing Rachel—and all the metaphorical matriarchs who’ve ever held space for us. Rachel’s death is visceral because she built a global virtual “home” where we all felt we belonged, especially when we didn’t fit anywhere else.

How do we give thanks for Rachel’s life while also grieving the loss of her physically presence? How do we grieve the void of her voice—calling us to task with her wit and integrity like a good “mother” does? How do we navigate this grief—so real yet so unbelievably strange that I once heard a friend describe it as “sleepwalking.”

This is what I’ll be doing this Mother’s Day, and I hope you’ll join me. Don’t gloss over your grief. Use these steps from my forthcoming book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, to sit with it:

Acknowledge the loss. The religious community has suffered a significant, life-changing death. Name that void—talk about Rachel’s words, advocacy, and ability to cross theological divides to make and make space for the faithful shut out of faith will be felt.

Acknowledge that grief comes in waves. Grieving is not linear, though it can be cumulative. We will grief her for weeks, months, years, and decades to come. Some days, the grief will feel like an enormous wave crashing over us. Be aware of these waves—but know that they are not rip tides. Feeling our loss will not pull us into an ocean from which we cannot escape. We will not drown; we will not be lost at sea. We will buoy one another.

Stay in the grief; don’t minimize the loss; seek support. Since an unexpected grief of such a personal-yet-public figure is overwhelming, it can feel as if we are going to drown. Kate Bowler, no stranger to grief, has offered grief support here.

From Kate Bowler.

The following are sample rituals from Dessert First you can use this mother’s day—or any day, to remember Rachel and all those who’ve impacted you. Adapt them to suit your needs.

  • Keep a grief notebook. Notice your feelings and experiences. Notice how Rachel’s death may trigger other losses you’ve had—I know it triggers my most recent loss of my own mother. It’s also normal to think about your own death, or the death of your significant other. These are all to be expected. As much as you are able, write you feelings down and share them.
  • Write a tribute letter to Rachel—you can post it online or send it here. Lift her name often; it honors her legacy and acknowledges how much she will be missed. This is especially important as we remember that she leaves behind young children and a husband.
  • Tell stories of the memories you shared of Rachel and with Rachel. Share your photos; recall their stories. They become a living archive of her life amid us.
  • Light a candle in remembrance; hold a moment of silence. This could be done every day, but on especially hard days, like Mother’s Day. If you are the praying type, lift up her family as they grieve.
  • Plant a tree, flower, or special plant in Rachel’s honor. Think of her as it grows; offer gratitude for all the ways in which she helped you grow and bloom.
  • When you are ready, think about how you might continue to the work she called us to: studying, loving, and living an authentic Christian call. Become more familiar with her depth of work. Do not be afraid to stand up and asked questions, just as she did.
  • Donate to Rachel’s official GoFundMe page.

We didn’t expect the matriarch of misfit Christians to leave us so soon. But this Mother’s Day and always, we lean on the vibrant, global community Rachel created for us—one that grieves deep and wide, sitting with the loss of a woman who gave us permission to be “doubt-filled believers.”

The Rev. J. Dana Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School, professor of World Religions, and author of the forthcoming book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life (Chalice Press, 2019).

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