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In this episode of Faith for Normal People, Jared talks with J.S. (Joon) Park about his experiences with death, grief, and loss as a hospital chaplain for a Level 1 Trauma Center. Together they discuss the varying manifestations of grief, practical advice to help those who experience loss, and how we can develop a holistic approach to grief. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What makes Joon equipped to talk about grief and loss?
  • What has it been like to be a hospital chaplain at a Level 1 Trauma Center?
  • How does Joon define grief?
  • What kind of responses to grief are unhelpful?
  • What kind of responses to grief and loss are helpful to those who are suffering?
  • Can we ever get comfortable with the discomfort around those who are grieving?
  • Is there a healthy way to confront our own mortality?
  • How can we manage the grief involved in a faith transition?
  • In what ways has Joon’s faith changed amidst so much death, grief, and loss?
  • How do we make changes in a culture that is just not good at grieving?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • ​​The clinical technical definition of grief is our body’s, our mind’s, our heart’s response to loss. Our entire response to loss. — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • My range of “acceptance” of what grief is has expanded and continues to expand. — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • Grief is, I believe, what our body needs as we experience that loss. It is our almost natural response to when we see something irrevocably taken away from us. — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • Many people will pull the eschatological curtain of hope over a person’s suffering, thinking that they’re doing that wounded person a favor, and they’re really not. They’re just smothering them under sugary cliches. — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • Not taking away from what this person is experiencing, not steamrolling, not suppressing, not bypassing, not spiritualizing, not moralizing it—but just being able to say, “That is really hard.” — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • Whenever we feel that impulse to try to fix or try to say something, there needs to be a practice in which we say: is this going to be helpful for this person and help bear them up, or will it be a burden on them? — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • I lost my faith in fact more than once and came back, but differently each time. — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • All of us have an innate fear of mortality and loss. — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • I didn’t expect to be so angry as I started losing my faith. The faith that I learned from pastors and from churches [was] not holding me through crisis and through suffering. And I was so upset that it was almost like I was handed something that was never gonna work. — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • There is a way to shake our fist at God that’s still communicating with God, I think. The times when I lost my faith, I sometimes wonder—did I lose my faith, or did I lose ideas that I had to lose? — J.S. Park @theb4np
  • And I think the church and the broader culture would do well to ask, “In what ways can I serve this person and understand that my definition of grief may not fit theirs?” — J.S. Park @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Jared: You’re listening to Faith for Normal People, the only other God ordained podcast on the internet. 

Pete: I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Intro music plays]

Jared: Alright, folks, it’s time to tell you about our April class, which is part of our spring semester in the Old Testament, taught by our very own Pete Enns. This April class is called Divine Violence in the Old Testament: Exploring Violence in the Biblical Text. 

Pete: How do we make sense of the many stories in the Bible that portray God as, at best, ignoring violence, and at worst, explicitly calling for it? Is God violent? These questions have plagued readers of the Bible for centuries, moving beyond theory to practical and devastating applications, including the justification of human acts of violence. So in this class, we’re going to challenge simplistic interpretations that assume that we need to accept these depictions of God as violent, just uncritically.

Jared: Because we’re so generous, this class is available for you to watch instantly when you purchase it. And like always, it’s pay what you can, but only from April 1st to 15th, and then it will cost $25 to download. As with all of our spring classes, it comes with a study guide, so you can stay engaged while you watch. And so you can write down your questions for the live Q&A with Pete that’s coming at the end of the semester. 

Pete: And if you’re a member of our online community, the Society of Normal People, you’ll get automatic access to the class and study guide on the 1st. Plus an exclusive video of our Nerds in Residence having a wild roundtable discussion about the class. Membership to SoNP costs just $12 a month. And when you sign up, you’ll get access to all of our classes, an online community to talk about the Bible with, live podcast recordings and more. 

Jared: For more information and to sign up for the April class, go to

Today on Faith for Normal People, it’s just me, Jared, and I’m talking about grief with J.S. Park. J.S. is a hospital chaplain and writer who writes about his many years dealing with grief and loss as a chaplain. Don’t forget to stay tuned at the end of the episode for quiet time when Pete and I will reflect on the conversation. Hope you enjoy this interview with J. S. Park. 

[Transitional music plays under teaser clip of J.S. speaking]

J.S.: “It was Christ who said we serve God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, which means that we’re made of many parts. And so when I look at someone who is grieving, each of us, we have different needs. I’m always asking, ‘What can I do for this person right now?’ And I attune myself to that person so that I’m not burdening them. But if I’m already life and life with them, is there a way that I can serve this entire person because they are a holistic being?”

[Ad break]

Jared: Well, welcome to the podcast, Joon. It’s great to have you. 

J.S.: Jared, it’s an honor to be here. Thank you for having me. 

Jared: Absolutely. We’re going to talk about grief and I’m really excited. That’s an interesting way of saying that, I’m excited to talk about grief, but I think it’s an important topic. But before we do that, can you maybe just give people a little bit of your background? Why are you equipped to talk about grief? 

J.S.: Yeah. For almost nine years, I’ve been a hospital chaplain. I work at a level one trauma center. And so most of what I see is death and dying and sitting with people who are often living the worst day of their lives. It’s a heavy job. It’s very, very difficult most days, but it is, uh, what I’ve been doing for almost nine years now. When I say level one trauma center, I also work in the ER and we see level one traumas, which are gunshot wounds, stabbing, fire, fall, car accidents, stroke, as you can imagine, very, very difficult crises in a patient’s life. And so I go sit with the dying. I’ve sat with dozens, if not hundreds of deathbeds. And we offer and provide assistance for end of life care, spiritual counsel, grief counsel, sometimes just sitting with a patient as they tell their story. Sometimes we get into the more technical matters of what happens when a person dies and what are the next steps. And so I guess that makes me intimately familiar with grief and loss, death and dying. 

Jared: You’re no stranger to it. You’re in the trenches. And so that, that’s why I’m eager to unpack some of this stuff with you because I think it’s not just theoretical for you. It is in your day to day. So, can you just talk a little bit, give us some context of what is grief? Like how does it function as you’ve experienced it and see it?

J.S.: The clinical technical definition of grief is our body’s, our mind’s, our heart’s response to loss. Our entire response to loss. And not just death, but it could be the loss of dreams, could be the loss of a job. It could be the loss of a relationship, the loss of a home, loss of our connection with people, with pets, with things that are familiar to us.

And the way I’ve seen it in the hospital, I’m dealing with very extreme crisis, the moment of illness and injury. And I’m seeing people in various stages of recovery, but being in a hospital, it’s very acute care. And so a lot of the grief that I’m seeing is from the patient or from their family and their loved ones. And so that response to grief, I think when I started almost nine years ago, I had maybe a very narrow definition of what grief looked like and what grief is. Maybe sort of a somber, sad, even composed Hollywood type of reaction. But what I found is that grief can run a very extreme range of seemingly 0ver the top emotion, all the way to shutdown fatigue, cognitive fog, sitting in a chair, no tears.

And so, certainly my range of “acceptance” of what grief is, has expanded and continues to expand. I continue to see different kinds of reactions, whether that’s shouting, screaming, rolling on the floor, dancing, rocking back and forth, chanting. I’ve seen it all and I keep seeing more. And so grief is, I believe, what our body needs as we experience that loss. It is our almost natural response to when we see something irrevocably taken away from us. 

Jared: So I’m funneling a lot of our listeners coming from a more religious background. It was interesting that it seemed like you talked about it kind of in the broader culture too of how there’s many unhelpful ways that people deal with the grief that others are going through. It’s almost like we’re uncomfortable with other people’s discomfort, and there’s the sense of, let’s be quick about this grieving thing. Yes, take the time, but I think even in our structures of how much time we get off of work for when a loved one dies, it’s sort of like, there’s boundaries to it. Take three days off. That’s plenty of time, right? And then you need to get back onto it. So can you say something about these unhelpful ways that you’ve seen? Maybe not the people who are going through the grief but the people who are trying to support the people going through the grief have dealt with, kind of grief adjacent maybe as a way of saying it.

J.S.: Yeah, that’s a great question Jared. You’re talking about uh in the religious context, you know in the book I talk about that pastor who came alongside with my patient who was suffering something very severe and the pastor gave, uh, sort of those pat answers and sort of almost suppressed or denied my patient’s grief, their parishioner’s grief. And you know, I used to get so mad about that kind of thing, those sort of cliches and platitudes and the bypassing. And what I’ve come to understand, I think what I have a lot more empathy for—even though I think it’s still fundamentally wrong to, of course, steamroll somebody’s grief.

When we see someone in pain, we so badly want to fix it, or we so hurt when someone hurts, that we may think that a particular phrase or a combination of words will somehow act as a balm to this person’s suffering. And so loved ones that I see come alongside, I used to get so angry and outraged whenever they would say those things like, “well, at least heaven’s getting another angel,” you know, or “this is God’s will to refine you in the fire.” You know, those sort of unhelpful things. And what I found is that loved ones at bedside, they’re attempting to insert hope into a very difficult situation in an attempt for that person who is hurting to cling on to something as they’re falling into the abyss of their own mortality and frailty. 

And what ends up happening is that the person offering that, they think they’re doing something good. And in some ways, there’s a bit of a self centeredness to it because it’s a way to soothe themselves because they’re hurting seeing that hurt. And the thing that they’re offering to their loved one, the patient, the person in the bed, it’s little more than cobwebs. It’s not really going to help. But I do have a lot more compassion for that because what I’m seeing is loved ones at bedside who give that sort of advice and cliche, they’re in a sense also looking into the abyss and there’s an almost existential panic that they’re going through as they’re seeing suffering. 

So I have a lot more kindness towards that. And I try to navigate very carefully. Okay, the loved ones are also hurting, seeing their loved one hurting. And so how can I both face the reality of what this person is going through in their suffering and also offer something to this family who is so afraid of going there, into that place of mortality? And I think in some, you know, many religions, I would say, many worldviews are not afraid to face suffering. I think every single worldview talks about at least two things: sin and suffering. And what ends up happening, though, is that when you take just half the religion, the hope part of it, instead of confronting the suffering, many people will pull the eschatological curtain of hope over a person’s suffering, thinking that they’re doing that wounded person a favor, and they’re really not. They’re just smothering them under sugary cliches. And so, hope is real, I believe hope is real, and at the same time, how can we enter that person’s hurt in that moment, now? 

Jared: It seems like there’s hope, but hope has a time and a place, and we often want to shortchange the process. There’s a process that needs to be gotten through to get to the hope, and it’s like, we don’t want to wait. We want to bring that as close to the moment as possible, because it’s uncomfortable, and it is, it’s painful. I guess, what’s a way to, in those moments, for you, you said entering into that space with them. What has been helpful? What have you learned when someone is in grief, they’ve lost something, they’re responding to that loss. What’s been helpful in your experience for that? 

J.S.: Yeah, very quick upfront answer that I can give. I always think of these two words when I’m in a room: name it and validate it. So anything that person is going through, sometimes we think, oh, if we name the sadness, if we name the suffering, then we’re introducing negativity into the room, and somehow we’re speaking death into the air.

And I have long now since believed that naming it, in some sense, gives us a grip onto what is happening. It sort of puts an anchor down and puts a flag down and almost says, All right, I don’t have to look away from this anymore. Because we expend so much energy with denial and suppression that actually naming it, saying, this is really sad, this is devastating, or that loss is hard, or I can’t believe that he’s gone, this is unthinkable, this is, you know, horrific. Being able to name that almost gives a person suddenly like a window into what they’re facing. Because when it’s unnameable, it almost feels like we’re drowning. It’s like being out in the ocean and all the stars look the same. But if you’re able to at least connect a very simple constellation or find a glimpse of a north star, even if that North Star is buried under a storm, just being able to name that, hey, there’s a storm here. 

There’s something about that, and maybe I’m being too poetic, there is really something about that where I’ve seen suddenly the patient, not that they’re fixed or cured or anything gets solved, but there’s almost a composure that occurs, or almost a solidifying of that person’s narrative.

Like they were just drowning under something unnameable. So you know, it’s the same with like, uh, when you think of a patient who they’re waiting for test results, and they’re hurting, there’s something going on in their body, and they need a diagnosis. Is it scary to get a diagnosis? Absolutely it is. But as soon as the physician can name something with the test results, it suddenly gives a name and almost like a fixture to what is happening to that person. And it’s scary to say the C word, cancer. It’s scary to say I have this virus or bacteria, but now suddenly I can face it. 

And then the other thing I said is validating it. Not taking away from what this person is experiencing, not steamrolling, not suppressing, not bypassing, not spiritualizing, not moralizing it, but just being able to say, that is really hard, or sometimes I’ll say, you know what, I would be sad about this too, or I’d be screaming about this too. And those are not little tricks that we can do. I mean, it’s something sincerely that we need to be completely present in, to be able to name it because it’s scary. And then being able to validate it completely and genuinely. 

Jared: Well, and also if you grew up in a tradition, you know, like I did where, like you’re saying, like to be a faithful Christian was to have hope, which was to always be positive, which was to look at the bright side of things. And then if that’s the worldview that you have, then you could also feel like something’s wrong with you, like you’re broken or you’re all alone because you have these feelings that don’t feel positive. You feel sad and you feel alone. But instead of that being validated, like that’s okay to feel that way, you’re immediately like isolated from everybody around you because they’re saying, you know, heaven’s gained another angel today or look on the bright side at like, well, how can you be that sad? He’s in heaven now, that kind of stuff. There’s a disconnect between how I’m actually feeling and what other people are telling me I’m supposed to be feeling.

And so that validation can also bring just a level of, Oh, maybe I’m not broken in how I feel. That my feelings can just—it is sad. And I think that can be healing in a situation where you can’t force your feelings to be positive. And I feel like that’s kind of the message I had as a kid was like, no, you, you just speak it, kind of name it and claim it. If I say it positively, I should feel positive about it. So, I think that’s another, I don’t know if you have experience with that kind of toxic positivity and how naming it and validating it can bring that kind of healing, but I think it’s also, what we don’t need in those moments, I guess is what I’m trying to say, is also a feeling like I’m broken, like I’m not supposed to be feeling these ways.

J.S.: Yeah. Yeah. There’s an old subreddit, I don’t know if it’s active anymore, or, or even a hashtag that’s like, “Thanks, I’m cured!” It’s like, you know, you just say the positive thing. It’s like, Oh yeah. Oh, I should have thought of that earlier. Just don’t do it wrong. All right. Thanks. I’m cured. You know? Right.

Yeah. And you know, even going back to like, my favorite Bible character is Elijah, you know, and in 1 Kings 19, you know, the infamous story of when he sits under that broom tree, maybe cause all the other good trees were taken. And you know, he says the thing where he says, um, “Take my life, Lord. I’m no better than my ancestors” because he’s just so discouraged and he’s running because there’s a hit on his life.

And then, you know, he falls asleep and the angel comes. And what’s so interesting is that God does not come with a lecture or a lesson and not an epiphany, not some kind of moralizing, but instead the angel comes with food, you know, soup, bread, hot water. And then, uh, I like Elijah’s reaction, he eats it all up and then he falls asleep again. And I’m like, man, that’s a grief reaction if I’ve ever seen one, you know? Just, you’re tired, you’re fatigued, you get up, you eat, you go right back to sleep. And I think that, you know, God doesn’t say anything negative about that at all. And then when Elijah wakes up again, the angel touches him. Which is great also, you know, meeting his physical needs.

And then says, uh, “Get up for this journey, it’s too much for you.” And I love that that’s named. This is too much for you. And then also the implication of that, you’re not going to be alone in this. And what I’ve found is there’s so much naming and validation just in that simple story. And I feel like I’ve told that story a thousand times, but I go back to it often in that even in scripture, when we think, oh, scripture is all about jumping towards the positive, it really isn’t. There’s so much naming and validating happening all throughout its pages.

Jared: Moving to the practical, because I think there’s a lot of people who want to be a truly helpful presence with somebody who’s grieving. How did you get comfortable with the discomfort? Because I think sometimes it’s just the awkwardness and the discomfort of not knowing what to do. And if it’s like, if I don’t know how to fix it or solve it, I get uncomfortable, and then that’s going to lead me to leave sooner than I wish I would have or say things that I’m going to regret. How did you kind of work through in your own way, like, your own feelings of discomfort around people who are grieving? 

J.S.: Yeah, you know, I can give you a practical and then sort of an internal answer to that, I think. The practical being, whenever we feel that impulse to try to fix or try to say something, I think in the moment there needs to be a practice in which we say, wait a minute, let me just put a filter on this real quick. Is this going to be helpful for this person and it will help bear them up or will it be a burden on them? To sort of always ask that question. And I know that can feel like second guessing or that can feel like, Oh my gosh, am I always going to have to do that? But it is a very precarious situation when someone is grieving. I think it’s very important to ask that question. So there’s the practical part of it in the moment. Let’s just ask ourselves, is this going to be helpful for this person right now? And it’s going to be a different answer for every person, because just as we all need differently, we all grieve differently.

And then the other question to ask internally is “what is it in me that is so quick to want to fix this, and what is the internal work that I need to do?” Chaplains, we get this year and a half training. We did six months of an internship and a year-long residency. And all of it, I was not surprised to find, I guess, I would say, in fact, probably three fourths of it was internal work. Getting to work on how I confront and embrace my own grief. And what are the obstacles that prevent me from grieving fully? What I found is that I grew up in such a turbulent, abusive, and traumatic household that I found myself in my, my group can tell you this. My supervisors can tell you this. I found myself in the training that I jumped to positivity because in my home, there was very rarely a bow tie at the end of the night. My parents, it was traumatic, it was abusive.

And so I think I’m quick to jump to positivity as a way of almost maybe reflexively fixing my childhood trauma. And so I need to wrap things up like a 30 minute sitcom. I gotta make sure everything’s bowtied. I gotta make sure we’re all cool. Like if somebody’s got an issue with me, I have to talk it out with them. So i’ll bring them coffee and tea, pick one, take both, you know [laughing] here take my wallet! I’m so wanting to make sure that there’s no issue Instead of just letting things be unresolved, and maybe no bow ties at all. The dishes not clean and stacked. So, for me, that was internal work that I needed to do. And that’s the longer work. I think we can do the practical in the room, but the longer work inside our own basement to confront ourselves on that. 

Jared: That’s really helpful. How much of that is, you’ve mentioned, kind of confronting mortality. Is that a big part of learning to grieve and learning to grieve alongside others who are grieving well? Is confronting that reality of mortality, is that something that you found people do well or do poorly? 

J.S.: Jared, I, I wish I could tell you that I have aced, uh, confronting mortality because nine years, almost nine years later, and hundreds of patients later, hundreds of deathbeds later, I wish I could tell you I got this on lockdown, I’m an A plus at looking death in the face, and I’m not, really. In fact, if anything, I think you’ve read through the book, I talk about my death anxiety and what ended up happening to me, how much my vision changed, how much my perspective and worldview changed. And that I lost my faith in fact more than once and came back, but differently each time. Yes. To answer your question, there’s certainly—all of us have an innate fear of mortality and loss.

You know, there’s an old philosophical theory that every religion exists as a way to manage our own terror of death. And so, uh, that’s called terror management theory. But it’s really one of those things where it’s like, there’s always a worm at the core is kind of the central thesis of, you know, everything eventually evaporates into loss. We’re all headed towards entropy. So because of that, humanity’s response philosophically, and I’m getting probably really deep in the woods here, is anthropologically we’ve all come up with these kind of frameworks and worldviews to deal with that. And yet, you know what? I think most of us are, in fact, if not all of us, are afraid of mortality, afraid of change, afraid of confronting ourselves because something has to change.

Even people who get promoted. You know, even good change involves loss. You know, when people get promoted, they grieve something too, even people who move to a city that’s better than, you know, the ideal city that they wanted to move to or an ideal home, there’s still feelings of grief there. And so, I don’t think there’s ever a place or a time where I can say or people I’ve seen can say, I’m comfortable with it now. I’m totally cool with death. You know, but maybe that discomfort, maybe that terror, rather than it being something that is a constant dread, even though we can’t necessarily get rid of it, maybe we can see it a little differently than before. You know, eventually my death anxiety gave way to almost like this intense presence of mind, like, any minute, any one of us can go. I could, after this interview, walk outside, and on a walk, there’s an aneurysm in my brain waiting to take me. You know, and that’s very morbid to think, but I’ve, I’ve seen it now dozens of times, you know? And so that gives me this almost intensity about, really, it’s all short and it can all go. 

Jared: Yeah, reminds me as a, when I was a kid, it’s, uh, my background is actually in philosophy and my obsession with the fact that I was going to die as a kid is probably a lot of what motivated that sort of going into a kind of the existentialists and trying to figure out like, how do we confront this reality?

I mean, as a kid, I always liked to be in control. And death was this thing that kept me up at night all the time because it was like the one thing. I kept trying to like, manipulate it in my mind as a, you know, nine or ten year old. I’m like trying to, it’s like this wall that I can’t get around and I never could. It’s just, it is the thing that’s coming for you. And that always, you know, spurred me on to philosophy and all these other things. 

So besides that, you mentioning you, your faith, and I want to maybe tie these two things together because we have probably a lot of listeners whose faith is shifting and changing, and they’ve probably lost a faith that they’ve had. And maybe they’re cobbling together a new faith or maybe not yet, or maybe they won’t. And there is a grieving in that. There is a loss in that. Can you speak to, given your experiences as a chaplain with loss, but also your own faith journeys, how have you figured out how to manage the grief of a faith transition?

J.S.: Yeah, you know, I didn’t expect to be so angry as I started losing my faith. And I think the anger had a lot to do with the faith that I learned from pastors and from churches is not holding me through crisis and through suffering. And I was so upset that it was almost like I was handed something that was never gonna work.

Like, here’s this parachute, but actually it’s just a, it’s just a knapsack. You know, that old joke. Yeah, for me it was, uh, after seeing so much, anyone can die at any time, it seemed to be random, haphazard, and chaotic. It was almost like there’s no order to any of this. And then what can faith in itself really do for me?

I think one of the pointed questions that I asked was, you know, I see physicians and nurses doing something, even machines doing something, but what does God do here? And so, that was a horrifying thought to me. I mean, I grew up atheist and I came to faith very late in life. But I think what ended up happening was maybe this was like a blessing in disguise like they say, or hidden mercy. I had to shed, almost like a snakeskin, all those old ideas of faith that were not working at bedside. Even those things like “oh, well don’t say that now you can always say that later” and I’m like, well if If it doesn’t work right now, why would I even say it later? [Chuckles]

You know, those kinds of things. And so maybe this is sort of, uh, like a, an unoriginal thing that I’m going to say, but what I learned was that if the theology, if it’s something that I have to hold up, I just let it go. But if it’s something that could hold me, that’s what I kept. And if it’s something that can hold my patients through their suffering and my patients’ family, then yes, that’s the thing that will hold you and keep you. And that’s the thing worth holding on to. Everyone eventually will come to a point, whether it’s trauma, crisis, tragedy, sickness, illness, injury, abuse, seeing the cruelty of the world, something where the veil is peeled back, and we see the harshness and coldness of reality, and how hard it can get. And then whatever worldview we’ve had, whether that’s faith or something else, some kind of belief, it’s going to be challenged.

It’s going to be put through a fire. And some people will decide “I don’t want to believe any of it.” And I’ve worked with chaplains who over time, their faith has changed so much. And I think I’m just trying to make more and more room for—however you find yourself in your belief, the most important thing is, uh, I’m going to keep being there with you. Like my supervisor said, you know, every chaplain who goes through this, their faith box gets exploded, you know, but she said, but however you turn out on the other end, I’m going to be there for you. And that for me, what was most important is that presence. 

Jared: Yeah. It sounds like there’s, it’s important to have somebody in your life that can say that to you.

J.S.: And the reason that’s so important, I think, you know, sometimes I’ve seen how clergy, pastors, churches—if they see a church member who’s losing their faith because they’re experiencing something hard, it seems like the goal is, let’s throw apologetics at them so they don’t lose their faith. Instead of, hey, how can we be present for this person no matter what they end up believing? And that, that to me is the priority. 

Jared: Right, and, oh, if only we had communities of faith more and more that would, would do that. I just, you know, with our audience here, just having, I’ve had dozens if not hundreds of conversations with people where that’s exactly what didn’t happen. Is their faith starts to shift, their faith, they start to have questions, and they’re immediately excommunicated. Because they’re seen as, it’s almost like they’re contagious, their doubts and their confusion about this faith that was supposed to hold them up, that’s not doing what it seemed like it was promised to do. And they just, even asking the questions are contagious. And now sort of like we have to not, we can’t associate with you anymore. I’m sorry. Like, and then there’s, there is an idea that to truly wrestle with your faith can’t come from a genuine, uh, set of questions, but there’s usually some ulterior motive.

You know, you’re just trying to like, do things your own way, right? Or you’re not trusting in God. You’re just trusting in yourself. And that just kind of doubles down this pain that people feel. So for me, it comes back to what you just said of like, for some reason, the way you said it, I just thought, Oh my gosh, if everybody had this supervisor who said your faith box is going to get exploded, but I’m going to be here for you no matter what comes out the other end is just such a, it sounds so simple, but what a profound thing that I think a lot of people are missing. 

J.S.: Yeah. I mean, you know, ironically for the church and for pastors, it’s like when I see God the least, I will again see God the most when people hang in the most, you know, but unfortunately, when I tell someone I’m not seeing God anymore, and then there’s that withdrawal, there’s that dismissal. There’s like, you know, I’m just going to take steps back. Oh, because we don’t believe the same thing anymore. And it’s like, ironically though, I would see God the most if you hung in the most, you know, at that moment when I see God least.

[Ad break]

Jared: How do you, and maybe this is a personal question that you can answer or not answer or evade however you want. In kind of your faith journey or just amongst other chaplains that you’ve seen, just the amount of suffering that you see, there was this—in your book this phrase that I thought was really profound talking about God. You said “my trust in this person is broken” and it just it was very personal in a way that struck me. How have you seen for yourself or others walk through that level of suffering, either experiencing it or seeing it and and coming out with a faith in God?

J.S.: Yeah, it is true what my supervisor said. All of us who have been through the chaplain program, by the end of the training, we’re all a little bit different theologically, spiritually, or if we hold on to our faith and our faith tradition, we at least approach people in a way that is much different than maybe how we started.

I wish I had an easy answer for you that, you know, the people who came out the other end holding more or less a faith, that there was some sort of pattern that I saw. I’m not sure if that’s a question that you’re asking Jared, but yeah, maybe the quickest way to answer this is I guess when I said my trust in this person was broken, it does seem all of us eventually get to a point where we shake our fist at God.

It’s one of those things where it’s like, I want to believe, maybe faith is the only thing keeping me together. I’m so mad at you right now, God. Because this prayer, it would have been a simple prayer to answer, just this one treatment that would have worked, just this one person, just, just another chance. Or, gosh, two more minutes and this family member could have said goodbye to their loved one, but their plane showed up a little bit late. God, you could have just answered that at least. And it’s not just about, God, do what I want, you know, or God, answer this prayer like that. It’s just we’re seeing so much of almost the degree of suffering, the extremity of suffering. It’s like, God, can you just a little bit just ease up, you know? And so I would say all of us, even if we continue to believe, even if those who have kept their faith and certainly I have seen chaplains who have lost their faith or their faith just completely changed, we’ve all, in turn, have probably shouted at God.

And you know what? I think, you know, at least in scripture, there’s a prescription for that. There’s lament, you know, there’s imprecatory prayers. There is a way to shake our fist at God that’s still communicating with God, I think. And so the times when I lost my faith, I sometimes wonder, uh, did I lose my faith, or really, did I lose ideas that I had to lose?

Jared: Right. Well, that is a great segue into the next question I had, was, it just seems there’s a, there’s a profundity, there’s a depth to sitting with people in their suffering that changes you. And we’ve talked about how it can change you in this way of loss of faith. And, but I, I can’t but help think that there are also some really positive, you know, like you said, even the people who hold onto their faith approach people in suffering differently as chaplains, as people who’ve experienced this level of suffering. So how has being a chaplain changed you? How has it changed how you show up in the world? 

J.S.: You know, I wish it didn’t take suffering on our part to understand someone else’s suffering. I wish it didn’t take trauma or a loss or something hard in order to empathize with someone. However, having said that, when we do experience suffering, trauma, loss, when we are sitting at bedside seeing it all the time, there is something that fundamentally internally shifts where hearts, our hearts can expand and make room for a person’s response and deepen the reservoir of courage that we have or compassion really for people that we see suffering.

So in that sense, and I hope I’m answering your question, Jared, I think I’ve made this joke before. I would wish that everyone would have to serve at a restaurant for six months, do chaplaincy for six months. I think it would change all of us. I did work as a busboy at a restaurant for four months, and I don’t tip less than 20 percent after that. Even if the service is not the best, as long as they don’t like, insult me or something. I just assume something happened in the kitchen or they’re short-staffed and they’re struggling. So, you know, when, when you kind of, you’re able to see that this is not the most original thing, but just being, having somebody else’s shoes thrown on you, being able to step in their shoes for a little bit. Even being in the vicinity of the very hard and broken road that they’re walking, there is a deeper compassion that we all gain, and it is difficult to judge someone when you see their suffering up close. 

Jared, this may be a little bit tangential to the point, but you’ve probably heard that old story, it’s like a parable almost, where a bunch of people came to a table, they’re all wearing backpacks, and in each of their backpacks they carried their suffering. So they all lay down the table. They’re suffering, you know, opening their backpacks, but they’re suffering. And then somebody at the head of the table said, if you want to exchange backpacks with someone now is the time. And they all looked at each other’s suffering, and then they all picked up their own backpacks and left.

Jared: Mm hmm. 

J.S.: Yeah, because they understood. They looked at each other and said, okay. You’re carrying a heavy load too. And, uh, I say that story to say, you know, we’re all carrying something and how can we look at each other with that sort of compassion and look at each other, not in light of our failure, not in light of our morality, but in light of how much someone suffers. It changes us.

Jared: Well, thank you so much for jumping on and talking to us about grief. And there’s just so much more we could talk about in terms of this. Uh, I just think it says the church, at least in the tradition I grew up in, is so bad at grieving and so bad at allowing people to feel loss. I just think there’s a lot of work to be done.

So maybe my, my last question for you is on that. Just how do we make changes in a culture that is just not good at this, who doesn’t have the time and space for grieving, um, and for loss. What are ways if we’re in positions of, you know, leadership where we can make a difference, where we can kind of help create spaces, what are some ways we can do that so that we can help make more room for this in our culture?

J.S.: Yeah, I would say at least two things, Jared. I can speak directly to the church, but also, you know, the broader culture. How do we serve the whole person? Churches and pop culture, maybe there is a very narrow way in which we serve a person. Maybe in the church, it’s, I gotta get this theology to this person, almost like a drive-by sermon, and then I’m out.

You know, but even in that story with Elijah, God looked at, Elijah has physical needs. Sleep, his hunger, words of encouragement. So how can I, with this grieving person, is there a way that I can come over and clean up their house? Can I cook meals for them? Is there something that would lift the burden off of this person? Instead of just the theology, which may be important and helpful, is there a way that I can serve this entire person because they are a holistic being? 

It was Christ who said we serve God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, which means that we’re made of many parts. And so when I look at someone who is grieving, each of us has different needs, I’m always asking what can I do for this person right now? And I attune myself to that person so that I’m not burdening them by saying, what can I do for you, because sometimes that can also burden them a little bit in that they have to come up with something. But if I’m already, you know, life and life with them, then I may know what that person needs. 

Yeah, and then I think the other thing that I would say to church culture and the broader culture is just to expand our definition of what this person is going to experience, and in their experience, how they’re going to react and respond. You know, because it may be very extreme. There may be in, for example, American church culture, there may be some churches that look at someone’s grief response from a different type of culture and say, wow, that’s too much. Or say, I’m not used to seeing that. But I would say, just expand a little bit. And have a wider vision about what it might look like for this person in this culture to grieve. 

Sometimes we look at the way that someone honors someone for, you know, there are some cultures where they may grieve somebody by wearing black for a year. Or they may talk to their loved one who is deceased every morning. Something like that, there may be certain churches that say, wow, that’s very morbid or that’s leaning too much towards death or something like that. We need to let go and move on. But is there a way that we can respect that? And is there a way that we don’t look at that and just judge that person and try to make it a moral, spiritual, theological issue? But how can we embrace all of it? 

In my culture, the Korean American culture, many Koreans are also Christian. We celebrate the death day of our patriarch and matriarch every year. And there may be some Christian churches that say, wow, you’re not supposed to pray to like, you know, or something like that, you know, you’re not supposed to pray to ancestors or wow, you’re not supposed to look back on death that way. But we actually do a Korean Christian service commemorating and honoring our matriarchs and patriarchs. And that’s almost a way of saying, thank you God for allowing this person into my life. We can celebrate them once a year. The pastor comes over and we have a meal and there’s both sorrow and celebration.

And I think the church and the broader culture would do well to be able to ask, in what ways can I serve this person and understand that my definition of grief may not fit theirs, but still I want to carry them deeply with compassion and with grace. 

Jared: Well, that’s great words to end on, Joon. And thanks again for jumping on. I said it, I think, before we actually hit record, but, uh, your book is beautifully written and I really, I really enjoyed it. So thanks for writing it and thanks for coming on and talking to us about grief. 

J.S.: Jared, thank you. Appreciate you and much gentleness to you and everyone who’s listening.

[Music signals beginning of Quiet Time segment]

Jared: And now for quiet time…

Pete: …With Pete and Jared. So, Jared, in your interview with Joon, he defines grief as our total response to loss. And, I mean, just personally, what kinds of losses have you endured and what was your response? 

Jared: Yeah, I appreciate this. I think I’m a pre-griever. And so I think that’s, since I was a young kid, I don’t like to feel surprised or out of control. So, I would often pre-grieve things. Like, I was a little obsessed with, you know, death when I was probably nine or ten and I spent a lot of time like imagining my parents dying and imagining people I love die. Because I wanted to kind of process, I think I had this intuitive need to process my feelings about it over a long period of time so that when the time came, I was ready for the loss, but I think that’s important because I’ve seen the value of having the time to grieve.

And I’ve also seen the resistance of that where people think that’s weird or morbid, or they don’t want to talk about it. They are uncomfortable talking about it. And in my other life, as a family business advisor, you know, we’re often doing like crisis planning of people and it’s amazing how much they resist the idea of, Hey, you know, you’re going to die someday. Can we plan around that? And it’s almost like, no, the planning of it, there’s just this superstition that the planning of it will bring it about, or something. But there’s just a resistance to talking about loss, and then knowing what to do with it when it, when it comes. How, but what about you? How have you, how do you respond to loss?

Pete: I think in a similar way, and I would strike it up to anxiety, like I’m always, I’m scanning the horizon for all the most horrible things that can possibly happen, and I land on those, and I anticipate how to handle them, and that sort of thing. So, I think what that does, I mean, from, I don’t like that. I actually don’t like doing it. I’d rather just be present and let the grief come authentically when it happens. I also respond not so much the grieving, but more, okay, we have a problem now. How do we address it? How do we, like when my parents died, for example, you know, it’s like, okay, this is happening. This has happened. What do I do?

And you know, it’s been my mother, like 12, 13 years, my father, like 16 years. And I’m now starting to think more about that and missing them in ways I didn’t allow myself to miss them early on in that process. 

Jared: Yeah, that’s a great way of saying that too. I’m not guilty much of the spiritual bypassing as Joon, you know, we talked about where we just, we placate and give a lot of positive things in the midst of loss. I am much more prone to covering over loss and grief with work. It’s like, well, let’s get we got it. We have things to manage. I don’t have time to feel about this. When my dad died I planned the funeral. I did the eulogy, I was like the pastor on call, I did all of it and in some ways It’s out of a desire to want to participate and be helpful and all that and a good thing. But yeah, you’re right, for me it’s like I wasn’t really grieving that until two or three years later when it’s like…Or 10 years later, like you said, where it’s like, now I’m starting to just be like, I think I was avoiding something.

Pete: You’re like, wait a minute. Wait a minute. I missed a big thing here. 

Jared: While we’re on this, maybe I can just flip this question to you. Are you afraid of your own mortality? How do you think about your own death? 

Pete: Um, I think that’s a complex question. I, and I have been thinking about that for some, I’m 63 now. I’ve been thinking about this for several years, but not, I don’t think it’s in a, in a fearful way. It’s more of a curious way, you know, and, and very much coming to terms with like everything dies, everything in the universe comes to an end and I’m not going to get out of it. [Laughing] So, um, but that’s where I’ve been attracted to the curious question of like, what does happen to you, right?

So I do think about that. And I’ve written a little bit about that in Curveball and, and there are other things out there that I just, that interest me. I’m always trying to think to myself, okay, why are you looking at that stuff? Is it because you’re already anticipating something that you might not like and to put a nicer spin on it or is it genuine curiosity?

And I’d like to think it’s the latter. Like I just, I’m not freaking out. I just want to know, you know? And I think, you know, the idea of dying and then finding out whether you were right about stuff is interesting to me too. That sounds rather selfish, but like, yeah, Pete you’re so screwed up in you’re thinking, but not as screwed up as some other people, but man, you just don’t get it. So, yeah, yeah. 

Jared: Yeah. And I think there’s something with age too that for me and, and people that, you know, friends that I know and things. I think there’s also as you get older, depending, I guess, on, on the ability to confront your own mortality through the years. But there is a sense, too of, oh, no, I get it as I get older. Like, I get it. I’m getting more tired. I, there’s a sense of being ready. 

Pete: When my grandmother, when she was 93, she was the last one left. She was in Germany, really living by herself. She was like, I’m done. I mean, I’m, I’m fine with this now, you know, a lot of people don’t have that experience. They die unexpectedly, suddenly, or whatever, but, but still, yeah, I think, and I sort of, I remember her saying that, and I think to myself, well, yeah, maybe that’s me one day. And when you’re ready for what people sometimes call the transition, you’re ready and you go. It’s other people dying that freaks me out more than my own kids. 

Jared: Well, because you still have to, again, you kind of come back to, you have to deal with a loss. 

Pete: Right. 

Jared: When you die, you don’t really have to deal with a loss. I think for me, when I was younger, my, I never was afraid of dying, but I was very sad about it, very sad because I loved life. 

Pete: About your own death? 

Jared: Yeah, my own death. I just thought about the fact that I would be missing out and I loved life, so I was really sad about that. And that’s more for me, you know, with other people dying, yeah, why I’m, I’m more upset by that. Because I’m going to be alive to have to deal with the loss and the grief of it. 

Pete: Were you gaslit at all? Like when your, after your dad died, did people say unhelpful things to you? 

Jared: Yeah, yeah, this kind of spiritual bypassing where it’s like a lot of positive—

Pete: Yeah. 

Jared: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think growing up in the, you know, in a more conservative evangelical tradition, that’s just the common way of doing it. And even, like, my dad would have been more explicit about like, we don’t, I don’t want anybody crying at my funeral. I want this to be a party, kind of the, I’m, I’m headed to heaven. 

Pete: That’s the classic evangelical gaslighting, isn’t it? Of, you know, just as a service of celebration of life. Right. Instead of just being darn sad.

Jared: Instead of being sad. Yeah. And it’s almost like, I think it causes harm and Joon and I talk about this in the episode because it doesn’t give any space to validate what seems like a very reasonable feeling. Like, someone I loved and cared about and talked to regularly and leaned on is dead. And I’m only supposed to be happy about that?

Like, it just makes no sense to me. And then you feel so alone, especially if that’s your community, where everyone else seems to be happy about it, and you’re really sad. And it’s like, I don’t know. Is that—

Pete: Are they happy though? Are they happy? Or are they not? 

Jared: Or it becomes a faith thing of like, I guess I don’t have enough faith because all these happy people seem, you know, and again, like you said, are they really happy or not? I mean, it seems like it’s a, yeah, it seems so backwards to me. It’s like, why, if someone’s close to you and then you don’t get to be around them anymore, why isn’t sadness an appropriate, reasonable feeling? So, did you have much of that? I know you didn’t grow up as evangelical as I did, but.

Pete: Well, I just avoided the whole topic. I was terrified of death. You know, I didn’t think about it because my father was 40 when I was born. So he was always older than my friend’s dads. And so I did the math. I was like, he’s going to die before my, I mean, who knows? And it’s this weird thing. I had this thought once that my father is 53 years old. But he wasn’t, he was 51. I got the age wrong. And so it got into my head, Jared. That this is a premonition that my dad’s gonna die when he’s 50. 

Jared: Because you got his age wrong once. 

Pete: Yeah, exactly right. And this, my brain just latches on to dumb stuff like that. And so, you know, I never wanted to go, I mean, I, I just would avoid…just the thought of going to a funeral. Most kids, who wants to go to a funeral? But for me, it was like, it was almost like a pathological fear. I didn’t want to go. And it really took into my adult years. Really, in my 20s, I had to confront death for another unrelated reason, but that’s when I started thinking differently about it, and as something that I’d have to really encounter.

And I think, teach us to number our days, right, as the psalmist says. I think that’s a good idea, because you’re realistic and you’re not avoiding it. And all the anger that comes through that, and just not living authentically because you’re avoiding thinking about the inevitable, like the people you work with, you know, who don’t want to think about planning for their own death.

I mean, the first time I had to do an insurance policy with my wife and I, and, and the kids was like, I don’t wanna think about that. I remember my mother and father having an insurance agent in the house and they’re, my mother’s bawling her eyes out thinking about dying. It’s like, you’ve never thought of it either, right? This is not helping me, mom, you know, anyway, but—

Jared: Well, I mean, I think it is good for people as they, you know, listening to Joon talk through this and there is a wisdom I think that comes with acknowledging grief, sitting in our grief, feeling sad, and working through that, I think there’s a real wisdom and value and maturity in learning to do that.

So I would just encourage, um, if you’re not there yet, if you’re more like Pete when he was a kid, and it freaks you out, and you can’t get there, you know, I think there’s something to working with a therapist or working with a spiritual director or figuring out ways to accept and integrate this part of life. Like death is a part of life. And grieving and loss, whether it’s not, doesn’t have to be death. It can be relationships and other things. We lose things all the time. And I do think it brings harm to us when we can’t fully recognize it, be grounded in it and work through it and let ourselves do that. 

Pete: So, all right, thus endeth the sermon, Jared.

Jared: Thus endeth the sermon. Peace be to you. 

[Outro music plays]

Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to

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Jared: And lastly, it always goes a long way if you just wanted to rate the podcast, leave a review, and tell others about our show. In addition, you can let us know what you thought about the episode by emailing us at 

Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of Faith for Normal People. Don’t forget, you can catch our other show, The Bible for Normal People in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for normal people team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jared Cazel, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.