It’s a relatively little known fact that this youth ministry professional spent enough time in undergrad as a math education major that I finished undergrad with a major in religious studies and minors in both recreational ministry and mathematics. That’s right: a religious studies major with a mathematics minor. It seems almost contradictory. Like one doesn’t belong with the other.
And even though I don’t do a lot of calculus in my day-to-day life, and the content of that terrible history of mathematics course I took during my junior year doesn’t often come up in day-to-day conversation, I do my fair share of math on a regular basis: Budgeting. Making sure there are enough drivers and seat belts in vehicles to get our students to a retreat while also taking into account luggage and gear (and the differences in packing between girls and boys). Calculating how much pizza to order using a complex formula based on what time it is being served and how many people are coming to an event (also taking into account how many girls vs. boys and how many middle schoolers vs. high schoolers). Figuring out how long it will take to get students from church to an event taking into account speed limits and bathroom breaks. There’s all kinds of math involved in youth ministry, and sometimes that minor in mathematics comes in fairly handy.
However, in the past eight months, I have become familiar with a much different kind of math. The worst kind of math.
It’s a math that involves the counting of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months. It’s a math that reminds me regularly of my sweet son Alexander and of how different my life should be right now.
It’s a math that reminds me today that it has been thirty four weeks and six days since we found out that our sweet Alexander’s heart was no longer beating. And that on that Tuesday, when we found out his heart was no longer beating, I was thirty four weeks and five days pregnant. It’s a math that reminds me that as of today it has been longer since my son died than it was that he was alive.
This isn’t the natural order of things. Children are supposed to outlive their parents–not the other way around. The reality is that I will spend the rest of my life measuring time since losing Alexander. As a parent, I will be able to measure my own lifetime in segments equal to my son’s lifetime. The 33 years and 5 months that I have lived and breathed and walked on this earth is more than 48 times my son’s lifetime in the womb.
That kind of math can make your head spin. It is the worst kind of math.
Counting the weeks since my son died. It is the worst kind of math.
Counting the months since I held his lifeless but perfect body in my arms. It is the worst kind of math.
This is not the kind of math I ever imagined having to do as I sat in calculus for non-majors, yet it is the kind of math that has become my daily reality. It is the worst kind of math.
This past weekend was excruciatingly difficult. I was away from home on a youth retreat with high schoolers (and adult leaders) who I love dearly. We spent the weekend digging into the theme of metanoia–orienting ourselves towards God and towards home in our souls. Claiming reality. Wrestling with the truth. Responding to God. Experiencing restoration.
It was a great time of retreat for our young people, and as a youth ministry professional, it is one of my favorite events that we get to be part of each year. Yet, the whole time I was away, my mind was occupied by math. By counting months and weeks and days and hours and minutes. I was totally overwhelmed. I felt disconnected and aloof, overwhelmed by a cloud of grief. On Saturday evening while our students were in small groups with their college student leaders, I had a breakdown and cried harder than I have in a long time, while my friend and fellow adult leader SC just sat with me and held me. I had to pull myself together to get back in time for evening worship, during which I chatted with my friend and colleague JJ about just how hard it has been lately to balance grieving and youth ministry.
On Sunday morning as we were getting ready to load up vehicles and leave, SC pulled me aside and said to me: “I’m going to say this as lovingly as I can. But you need to stop being so hard on yourself.” Those were hard words to hear, but I know that they were spoken in truth and love, and that I need to hear them on a regular basis. And they have been echoing in my head and heart ever since.
This terrible math–the absolute worst kind of math–is part of my reality these days. It’s become so ingrained and part of who I am that I cannot help it. Some days, I am completely overwhelmed by it. And I need to stop being so hard on myself for that. I need to stop being so hard on myself for needing to shut down once in awhile and take that four hour nap after a weekend away and then go to bed at 10:00pm and and sleep until 9:00am. I need to stop being so hard on myself for feeling a little more distant from people than I’d like to be. I need to stop being so hard on myself for still grieving the death of my son. I need to stop being so hard on myself for being overwhelmed by the worst kind of math.