Author Mike Nappa recently wrote Reflections for the Grieving Soul: Meditations and Scripture for Finding Hope After Loss. Recently, he told The Stream’s Nancy Flory about that process and how he hopes others will learn to grieve well through his story. Here is what he had to say.
Nancy Flory: You wrote Reflections for the Grieving Soul in a unique way. Can you describe how this book came about and why you wrote it?
Mike Nappa: I lost my wife, Amy, to cancer in September 2016, almost 30 years to the day from our wedding in October 1986. There was about two weeks from the time Amy died until her funeral, and during those two weeks I was surrounded by this great cloud of people who loved and supported me, cried with me, and encouraged me. Then the funeral came. It was beautiful, and 400 or so people came to celebrate Amy’s life with me. And the next day, all those people went back to their own lives (which was good and right and appropriate), but I found myself suddenly facing a distressingly new “normal” — and I was facing it all alone.
Finally, after some weeks, I went my friends on Facebook and told them, “I’m really struggling, so I want to ask you to send me any Scriptures you turn to in times of difficulty.” And they did. They sent me dozens and dozens of encouraging words from the Bible. Amy also had left me some Scriptures in her journals, and I had my own favorites as well. I collected all those verses, printed them out, and pasted each one on a 3×5 card.
I decided I would read one Scripture each day for 100 days. So I kept the stack of cards by my bedside, and in the morning I’d reach over and read the top one before I got up, sometimes using it as a prayer, other times just reading it. Then I’d read/pray it again mid-morning while I was crying, and again in the afternoon, and evening, and basically any time I felt like I needed it. So I’d read a card 8, 10, 12 times a day — sometimes reading the same Scripture three times in a row before putting it down.
About nine months later, I realized that I was still reading a new card each day, even though my original 100 days had long passed. In fact, I kept reading a new card each day for several years. Though now I only read them a few times a week, I still have the cards. I keep them by my bedside, so they’re nearby any time I need them.
During that first year, when I felt like I had no one to talk to but God, I would often read a Scripture and then, at the end of the day, write down some of my thoughts and prayers in response to it. I wrote those things down for myself, not expecting that anyone else would read them. But in the end, I collected 100 of my Scriptures and 40 of those “reflections,” and that became the book, Reflections for the Grieving Soul.
Nancy: What is your goal with the book?
Mike: When people ask me what Reflections for the Grieving Soul is about, they expect me to tell them something like, “It’s seven steps to conquer grief,” or “It’s 29 prayers to eliminate grief from your life.” But this book is NOT that. I’m not interested in making people “get over” grief; I’m interested in helping us all to grieve well.
So this book aims to give a safe space for people to walk through long-lasting sorrow, and a traveling companion who will walk alongside. A place to help them express the thoughts, prayers, and sorrows that they are feeling, but may not know how to articulate — and which they may feel ashamed to say in public.
Nancy: Describe the person for whom it is written.
Mike: After Amy died, the hospice company that cared for her recommended that I attend their free, five-week grief support group. So I did. And, as expected, it was filled with people who had just experienced tragedy, who had just lost a loved one.
So, I was sitting in that circle one night listening to tragic story after tragic story, and a man named Bruce began telling about the sorrow of losing his son to drug overdose. I was praying silently, and I said, “God, somebody needs to do something to help these people. To help people like me.” In that moment I felt God speak into my soul, and He said, “You’re somebody.”
Honestly, I laughed in God’s face. The idea of trying to do anything but breathe at that time seemed ludicrous to me. I was pretty sure God was making a sick joke at my expense.
A few months later, I was at church when one of the associate pastors ran up to me. “Mike!” he said happily. “I want you to meet Jason!” (I think Jason was his name, but I don’t remember exactly, so let’s just call him Jason.) And my pastor beamed at me with pride. “He’s going through what you went through — his wife is dying too! So, I knew he should talk to you!”
Inside I cringed. What was I supposed to do? Start a club of guys whose wives were dead? But I tried to talk to Jason anyway. I wasn’t much help. Finally I just said, “It’s going to hurt. For a long time. And there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m sorry.” He nodded grimly, I think because he already knew that, and he walked away. I’ve never seen him again since.
As Jason was leaving, I was frustrated, and I prayed, “God, somebody needs to do something to help people like Jason. To help people like me.” In that moment I felt God speak into my soul. “You’re somebody,” he said.
I didn’t laugh that time, but I wasn’t happy either.
A few weeks later I was looking at my stack of Scripture cards, and I decided to curate them down to my 100 favorites. That took some time. Then I went back through the “reflections” I’d written, and pulled out 40 of them, editing them for others to see. Then I organized it all into a book manuscript. When I was done, it was about one year after Amy’s death, late in 2017. I looked again at the manuscript, and thought, “I think this might be helpful to some people, but …” I remembered what a cruel, hurtful business book publishing is. I just didn’t have the heart to endure that again, so I filed the manuscript away in my “someday” file and …
Honestly, I forgot about it. I went on with my life.
Then, about five years later, in 2022, my friend Neal died, leaving behind his wife Lois and their daughters. At the funeral, I was watching Lois and her girls, and (because I’m not very smart, apparently) I prayed, “God, somebody needs to do something to help these women. To help people like me.” In that moment I felt God speak into my soul.
Yep, once again he patiently said, “You’re somebody.”
So, I finally gave up. I opened up the half-decade-old file and reread it. And I thought, “This might be helpful to somebody like Bruce … like Jason … like Lois…” So I sighed and started showing it to publishers until Zondervan generously offered to publish.
That’s the long answer to a short question, I suppose. So, here’s the short answer:
This book is for Bruce, Lois, and Jason — and anyone else who knows from experience what the word “grief” really means.
Nancy: What should readers take away from the book?
Mike: Grief is normal. It is healthy, even though unpleasant. It’s not something to avoid, but to embrace and accept and live out well. When we do that, we actually become healthier, better people.
We need to remember that God is also a griever. The first time grief is mentioned in the Bible, it’s ascribed to God the Father (Yahweh), in Genesis 6:5-6. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth … and He was grieved in His heart.” Fast-forward to the Gospels, and we see in Matthew 26:38 that Jesus, God the Son, experienced deep grief in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before His crucifixion. He said to His disciples, “My soul is crushed with grief … .” Moving into the letters of the Apostle Paul, we discover in Ephesians 4:30 that the Holy Spirit can experience grief. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” Paul instructed.
This witness of Scripture says three things to me:
- God experiences grief in the totality of his being, on an eternal scale, in all three Persons of the Trinity.
- When you and I grieve authentically, we are imitating God, actually becoming a living reflection of who he is.
- Because our loving God knows intimately the pain of grieving, God can be thus trusted with our deepest sorrow, for as long as it takes, for however much we need him.
Nancy: What will readers experience through reading your book?
Mike: My prayer is that they’ll find a safe space to grieve, with me to grieve beside them, and through that experience they’ll rediscover the relentless nearness of Christ’s Holy Spirit in each moment.
Nancy: What does grief teach us?
- Grief teaches us that we are like God.
- Grief reminds us of the deep, deep cost of sin — both original sin in the Garden of Eden, and the awful consequences of our casual compromises made each day today.
- Grief proves, again, that we are lovers — that we are made to love. We do not grieve that which we do not love. So if we grieve deeply, it’s because we have loved deeply — because we actually have capacity to love. This is a precious gift, to be able to love enough to grieve.
- Grief is a catalyst for gratitude. In the loss, we learn to be grateful for the giving, for the blessings we previously took for granted, to which we once stupidly felt entitled.
- Grief can drive us into a more passionate pursuit of Christ — and awaken us to His unexpected nearness in times of deepest despair.
- Grief keenly emphasizes our need to be others-centered more than self-centered.
- Grief clarifies meaning behind our priorities in life.
- Grief teaches us that every moment matters.
- Grief inspires us to be the kind of people that others will someday grieve for losing.
- Grief bestows on us an ironclad promise from God: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes …” (Revelation 21:4).
(For more, please see: https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/unexpected-benefits-of-grieving-well.html)
Nancy: Is there hope after loss? Is there purpose after loss?
Mike: I get this question a lot, typically in the context of a discussion about suicide. After Amy died, anytime I talked about how I missed her and looked forward to one day being reunited with her in heaven, people would panic. They’d immediately assume I was contemplating suicide and would start listing all the reasons to live, and telling me to go to counseling or whatever. They thought that missing Amy deeply meant I wanted to die, which, to me, was an absurd leap of logic.
I know this is a real concern for some grievers, and I don’t want to simply dismiss it. I do not know another’s experience, so I can only share mine, and here it is.
First, for me, suicide seemed a senseless choice. Why add tragedy to tragedy? If I’m feeling this deep despair at the loss of someone I loved, why would I want to force anyone who loves me to endure this same kind of sorrow? That just seems incredibly mean — like kicking the puppy because you stubbed your toe. Doesn’t make sense to me.
But more importantly, when Christ welcomed my girl into His arms, I’m fairly certain He didn’t get halfway to heaven, and then grimace and say, “Oh crap. I forgot to get Mike.”
That means that as long as there is breath in my body, there is purpose to my life. It’s His breath and His purpose in me, for as long as He wants, for as much as He wants, for however He wants it. After all, Acts 17:28 reveals that it’s “In him we live and move and have our being” — not “In Amy we live and move … .”
So, though I miss Amy with every heartbeat, she’s not my reason for living. Christ alone is my reason for living.
Romans 8:29 also tells me that I live so that God can shape me into a person like His Son. That’s all my life needs to be about, and it’s enough. Apparently Amy was just better at that growing-to-be-like-Jesus thing, so she was able to finish sooner that I. I must be patient and trust that He who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it, in his good time, not in mine (Philippians 1:6).
And what’s true for me is also true for you:
- You are not here by accident.
- Your pain is not enough to extinguish God’s work in your soul.
- Death is not your only option.
- Your life matters.
And, just so I answer clearly the question as it was asked:
Yes, there is hope after loss.
Yes, there is purpose after loss.
The proof of this is that God has kept you breathing.
Nancy: Talk about how the Scripture verses helped you during your most difficult days.
Mike: Those moments in God’s word are precious to me now. They were a lifeline when I was drowning, kicking, screaming, and — unexpectedly — daring to hope. Sometimes I didn’t even believe the promises as I was reading them, but I kept reading them anyway, kept praying them, and surprisingly, began to believe them in spite of my wishful disbelief.
I remember once I was reading Isaiah 60:20 (for about the 50th time), and saw, as if for the first time, these words, “The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.” Something caught inside me, and I thought, Is that true? Is it possible that my days of sorrow will actually, someday, end? And almost against my will, I feel the flicker of … something … burst weakly into flame inside me. Did I dare to hope, in that moment? No, not really. But for the first time in a long time, I dared to entertain the idea that someday I would have hope. That meant something to me then, and it still does now.
Nancy: What would you say to someone who has just experienced the loss of a loved one?
Mike: I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
It’s going to hurt for a long time, maybe your whole life. Sure, the intensity of the grief you feel right now will mellow with time, but if you have loved, you will always grieve, in some way, for as long as love lasts (which, ahem, is forever).
And that’s OK.
You never have to stop loving the one you lost, and you will always find Jesus near to your sorrow. I don’t hold anything back from Him in those moments; I just launch headlong into His presence. I’ve found He’s not overwhelmed by grief, nor offended by pain. And even though He may not always “fix” what you’re feeling, He will always, always weep with you when you are weeping. You never have to cry alone.
Now, don’t worry about “getting over” grief, but instead focus on grieving well. Don’t shortcut the process, don’t run from that which is normal human experience. Give yourself permission to grieve honestly, authentically, without embarrassment or shame or time limits.
Take all your sorrow, repeatedly, frequently, directly to Jesus — for as much as you want, for as long as you want, even for years or a lifetime.
And, well, I’m so, so sorry.
Nancy: Is there anything else that you would want our readers to know about loss or your book?
Mike: I think it will be important for you to go ahead and accept the fact that some part of you will always mourn the loss of your loved one. Sure, you’ll eventually get back to your routines, your work and family and friends and so on. But when it comes to losing your loved one, you’ll never fully “get over” it — and you shouldn’t have to.
I compare it to the soldier who goes to war and comes back wounded, with a limp. That soldier is no longer in battle, but he or she will still always walk with a limp. We’d never tell that person, “It’s time to get over it. Stop limping already! It has been years.” The wound is permanent, and the soldier learns to live with it, even to find joy in it.
Similarly, when you lost a loved one, your soul endured a permanent wound. You will always, figuratively, “walk with a limp.” That’s OK. Your life will still be full of meaning, replete with moments of joy, and even gratitude. You’ll just know a little better than some others what it means to love, to cherish those around you, and to make every moment matter.
Remember: Great love always leaves a mark. The grief you feel now is not too high a price to pay for that kind of love.
Nancy: What is your favorite memory of Amy?
Mike: Amy always smiled whenever I walked into a room. Didn’t matter if I’d been gone for hours or days or only minutes. She was always happy to see me. You’d be surprised what that does for a man’s soul, to see a beautiful woman smile when he walks into a room. It is health and life and hope and love all wrapped up in a curve of lips and glint of enamel.
As she neared the end of her life, Amy slept for long periods, and was awake for only minutes at a time. Even then, when she’d sigh and wake, she’d raise up in bed and see me sitting nearby. And she’d smile. Then she’d sink back down into sleep again. She didn’t say a word during those moments. She didn’t have to, because in my heart, I still held her smile.