213 – Holiness and Grief with Guest Karen Stiller

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Holiness with Guest Karen Stiller Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungThe Bible tells us to be holy, and that without holiness we won’t see God. But what part does holiness play in the face of utter devastation? And how do we write through it? Guest Karen Stiller shares wisdom and encouragement from her difficult journey through grief and pain.

About Karen Stiller

Karen Stiller is an award-winning writer, a senior editor, and host of the Faith Today podcast. She’s written about being a pastor’s wife, and her newest book, Holiness Here, offers practical and inspiring ways to transform your life by helping you see the holiness within your ordinary, everyday life. You can find out more about her at Karenstiller.com. 

Thanks to our sponsors on Patreon, we’re able to offer an edited transcript of the podcast!

Erin: Welcome, listeners. We’re glad that you’re here in the deep with us. Today we’re continuing our conversation with Karen Stiller.

Now, Karen, you did mention grief. Let’s go there, because you had said before, when we were doing some emails, that you had to complete this book during a season of grief. First, how in the world did you do that? How did that affect you and the book? 

Karen Stiller: Yeah, I’ve been thinking so much about that because sometimes I think, over the last year and a bit, I think, I don’t know how I did it either, sometimes. And yet I do.

My husband had a kidney transplant, which should, for most people, be routine. You know, it changes your life, but it’s not a thing that will kill you. But that did happen with my husband.

My husband experienced a very severe and rare side effect of post-transplant lymphoma. He went into the hospital in the end of November, and he was dead by mid-January. He never came home again.

Karen Ball: Oh my gosh.

Karen Stiller: Yeah, it was very unexpected. The way he experienced lymphoma was on his brain, so it was a rocky path. As anybody who has loved anyone into heaven with brain cancer, it’s…well, I guess it’s probably different for lots of people…but it was hard. Very hard.

Karen Ball: Yeah.

Karen Stiller: I had written up till then. When I signed my book contract, I immediately set up a writing schedule. I signed in July, and I was going to do three chapters by the end of July, two by the end of August. One by the end of September, October, November, and December.

The book was due in January and I had built in time for revision. I felt really confident. I’m a big list person. I make lists and I make schedules, and that’s the way I get things done. I love a deadline.

When Brent went into the hospital, I think I was around chapter eight. I just obviously set the book aside. After he died, you know, actually there was a time where I thought, “I’m never gonna write again.”

I just couldn’t imagine…I couldn’t imagine a way forward in many things. But I also thought, “How will I ever find the desire or ability to write again?”

My agent knocked on my door at some point. The timelines are a bit off for me. It’s all a big blur in some ways, but she basically said, “If you can finish the book by a certain date, we can get back on the same timeline. Editing will be shortened. But there’s no pressure.”

My publisher was amazing and said they’d take the book whenever. They were, of course, wonderful during that season. They had sent a bouquet of flowers once, and I remember that theirs was the only one I carried upstairs to my bedroom. I think now that those flowers were like a symbol of hope for me. There is a little dot of light off in the distance if I can keep that alive.

I was off my day job as an editor and podcast stuff and all that for about three months. I just slowly picked up the book again and thought, “Can I?”

I dipped my toes in, and what I found was that writing a few mornings a week gave me a shape to the sort of endless days and weeks I was in.

It kind of woke me up a little bit, and it gave me a sense of purpose, which I had lost, and it changed the book. I would be interested to hear from listeners who maybe made, or would’ve made a different choice, or have thoughts on this, or have gone through this. But my husband was very much part of my writing, obviously in The Minister’s Wife, but again, in Holiness Here.

My husband was very much part of my formation as a follower of Christ. I’d quote him throughout the book, or I’d tell a little story about something that happened in our church that involved him.  All of a sudden he died, and I didn’t know how to handle that as a writer in terms of the actual material.

I talked to a few people and I had in my head—I don’t know if people have heard this writing advice—write from your scars, not your wounds.

Karen Ball: Right.

Karen Stiller: I thought, “Well, I’m bleeding. I am deeply wounded, but yet I can’t not write about this huge thing.”

I felt like it would not have been honest to finish those last chapters without telling some, without sketching out a little bit of what had happened. This has been a big knock for me. I’d love to say that I’ve just been a conqueror in Christ through this, but no. I am pulling apart what it means to trust God and realizing that maybe I did think some things that weren’t true.

I never would’ve thought that, because my husband was a very, “Why me, why not me?” kind of man. He had a very robust, sound theology of suffering, which I thought I believed, too.

Then when he died a very hard death, I just…I just couldn’t believe it.

Karen Ball: Right.

Karen Stiller: I felt like I couldn’t finish this book about holiness honestly without tackling that. I wrote a chapter called “Sorrow,” and I wrote it very carefully because I knew I was writing from my wound.

As a beginning writer who would get an assignment from an editor, I would often write the angle on a post-it note and stick it on my computer wall so that I would stick to my assignment. Now I had a post-it note in my mind where I was like, “Your assignment is holiness. Your assignment is not writing a book about grief. Your assignment is holiness. So where is the holy in this horrible mess?”

I kept my lens tightly in on that, and it was good for me. It was good for me to write that. I offered to show it to all my children. Only my eldest son accepted the invitation. I just wanted their blessing. He thought it was honoring to his dad and to what we had gone through, so that made me feel comfortable, and I trust the editors.

Karen Ball: Mm-Hmm.

Karen Stiller: Where would we be without people telling us hard and wonderful things, right?

Karen Ball: Right.

Karen Stiller: I submitted my work to the process. I also knew that it is a privilege to have a book contract. My husband would’ve kicked my butt if he knew I had let it float away and that I couldn’t finish it.

I knew last year when I was doing this work that this year I would be glad I had done it. There was a discipline there, actually, which we have to have as writers, right? We know that a working writer knows how to work, and that woke me up. That woke me up.

I also thought that if I was a chef, I would be cooking. If I was a painter, I’d be painting. If I was a baker, I’d be baking. I’m a writer, and I’m writing. 

Erin: Wow. Well that was a lot to have to deal with.

Karen Stiller: It was a long answer.

Erin: No, I mean it was a great answer but a lot for you to wade through in trying to deal with that. I think your process was amazing. Just the notion of using holiness as a lens, because writers go through all kinds of things in their lives as they’re trying to write something.

It isn’t always as awful and traumatic as losing a spouse, but if we were able to realize that there is something to be said for just the discipline and the lens and trying to turn this book in even though this, this, and this is happening, because our lives may always be this, this, and this.

It doesn’t mean that we’re not supposed to write, it just means we’re supposed to be learning how to work through that.

Karen Stiller: I think that’s so important.

Erin: I was curious if, after you had been through this experience, when you went back in revisions and in other places in the book, how did your experience through this grief and this theology of suffering, like how did that maybe change other things in the book?

Karen Stiller: Wow, that is a very perceptive question. I did a lot of work. I went back and in every sentence I asked myself, “Do I still believe this, and if I don’t, is this because I’m just in this terrible situation and I will come back to this and I will recover from this?”

I made a lot of phone calls. My husband being a pastor, we had a lot of pastor friends. I probably need to apologize to a bunch of people for all my questions like, “Hi, do you have twenty minutes to talk to me? Okay, tell me why my husband died. Tell me what heaven is like. Tell me what he’s doing right now. Like, what do you think? What do you think? What do you think?”

I did a lot of those kinds of conversations with people to try to sort through my stuff and my pain, and partly so that I could try to understand what was happening, and then have that help me look at the work and say, “Yeah, I can still say this. I can still stand here.”

I think we all have fences in our writing lives, probably, of things that we won’t do, or won’t write about. For me, again, married to a priest, that was very much part of my calling, too. I always had a very simple way kind of guardrail for my life as a pastor’s wife.

It was: Do no harm. Do no harm. I’ll not harm my husband’s work. I will not always say what I want to say. I will do no harm. That probably has seeped into my writing life, too. I would think like if I had just gone full-wound bleeding on the page, it wouldn’t have helped anyone. It certainly wouldn’t have helped the book.

I knew that I was on a journey of hopefully recovery and healing. You know, you always live with grief. I’ve been told that, and I see that that is true. So I just wanted to be really careful, and so I did interrogate the whole book again.

I did make some changes. There are some statements I changed into questions, but that’s the kind of writer I am anyway. I am not an answer giver. I’m a question asker and so I’m pretty comfortable with that. 

Erin: Yeah. What I love is—I know this seems awful—but this was also a gift in terms of how you had to go back and ask yourself those questions.

Karen Stiller: Yeah.

Erin: Not every believer faces that kind of a situation where they’re forced to go back and say, “Do I still believe this? In light of what’s happening in my life, do I still believe this? Do I still believe this?”

I think that is one good thing that came out of that and can come out for other people who are going through these kinds of issues.

Karen Stiller: Yeah. One really big thing I learned…I’d spoken with a spiritual director for writers a couple years ago, and she kind of set me up to think in this way because there was a time, like when I was writing the Minister’s Wife, if I had a little fight with my son in the morning, I’d think, “Oh, there goes my writing day.” Like,”I’m in a bad mood now. I can’t write.”

My spiritual director for writers, she had helped me dig into that a little bit and think about how that kind of compartmentalization cannot help us be writers. Everything does not have to be perfect for me to write. That set me up well for believing, and for the questions we were talking about in the last episode, “Anxiety, what do you have for me? Fear? What are you bringing to the table?”

I had to believe that my grief was then and is now, in there doing something that I will write out of, even if I don’t write about it. I think that’s important for writers.

Karen Ball: It’s a thread. Everything that we’re faced with, everything that we experience, is a thread in the tapestry that God is weaving of our lives. Every single thread adds an element that we may not understand, or see, or appreciate until we see the completed tapestry.

Then we can look at that and say, “Ah. Okay. That’s why that was there, because it needed to be there to compliment this, and to bring this out, and to enhance this, and to clarify things.”

I think when we face these difficult questions, ”Do I still believe this? Is God who he says he is? Is God’s goodness real?” And I’ve heard believers say, “I’m starting to doubt the goodness of God…” I listen to those things, and I think because I don’t have a theological mind, I have a simple mind, a simple faith of trust because I saw such a powerful example of that in both my parents. I was raised with the sure knowledge that God is who he says he is.

But when my husband and I were separated, and I had been emotionally abused and all of those kinds of things, I had to acknowledge that…I’d always thought that when I finally came face to face with God, I would run and leap up into his lap, like a child, just grab him and hug him. One very dark night, I was talking with him and I said, “I don’t think I know you well enough to jump into your lap, and I’m not sure that I trust you well enough to do that, because this was not the cruise I signed on for.”

I’m not at the end of it. Don and I still work through things. We’ve been married for either 45 or 46 years—I’m not a math head. But as I I look at it, I think to myself that I wouldn’t have known God to the depth and the certainty that I know him now, at sixty-six years old, had I not gone through all of that.

All of it, every single thread needed to be there for me to be able to say with absolute certainty that God is who he says he is, and God is good, and all things do work together for our good as followers, because it’s all about him.

It’s not about me. It’s all about him and how I can reflect him. When you’re talking about working toward holiness, that self-examination, that coming to understand ourselves in light of who he is, it’s vital.

Karen Stiller: Yeah. 

Erin: We’re coming to the end of our time here. Do you have any final words of wisdom you want to leave with our listeners?

Karen Stiller: I’m struck, from what you just shared, Karen, about the work of finding meaning and that we can find meaning without getting into causation. For example, I can believe that I will find meaning that will show up in my writing out of what we’ve gone through as a family, and that doesn’t mean that’s why it happened. You know what I mean?

Erin: Right. 

Karen Stiller: The two things do not have to equal, but we will not waste it.

When my husband was dying, and after he died, throughout that time I kept speaking with my children, who are young adults, because Brent could not communicate what he would’ve wanted to communicate. I knew him so well, I knew what he would’ve wanted said, and I said those things.

One of them was that we have to honor what has happened here, this terrible tragedy and pain, by not letting it go to waste. We have to make this mean something, and that hopefully makes us more beautiful people, and more empathetic, and all of those things, and aware of the suffering of the world, and aware that God is with us in that. He is with us.

That is a big faith thing to say.

Karen Ball: Yes.

Karen Stiller: Even that little thing, it sounds so little, but it’s really big. So I guess I would encourage writers, whatever you are going through…you know, we can be like hungry hounds for material, right? Well, you are your greatest material.

It doesn’t mean you have to write about yourself. Of course, we’re not all going to do that. But you can honor what is happening in your life by allowing it to become part of the garden of your writing. I think that’s a beautiful thing that artists do, whatever kind of artists we are.

Writers are artists and makers, which reflects something of God’s creative nature. Don’t build those walls inside yourself. Tear those walls down and see what grows there. I think that can be a beautiful thing. 

Karen Ball: I love the imagery that you mention of it becoming a part of the garden of our lives.

I live in the northern part of Washington state, and right now we’re seeing some blossoms in the garden, but it’s still pretty barren. During the winter with the cold and the snow, it’s easy to believe, to look at it and to think, and I confess, I thought it a few times, “It’ll never be beautiful again.”

A garden has to die in order to come to life. It’s the cycle that God has created. In our own lives, some things have to die before he can bring it to the full, bright, fragrant bloom that he intends for us to be in him. And that he intends us to see him in all that beauty and in all the growth that comes from the death.

Thank you so much for being with us, Karen. You have been a phenomenal blessing, and I pray that God will continue to guide and to touch and be present for you.  

Karen Stiller: Thank you Karen and Erin, and thank you on behalf of writers everywhere who listen to this show and the wonderful guests you bring on and the way you minister. And again, that idea what you said at the beginning that you’re chaplains to writers? Writers need chaplains, so I’m really thankful.

Karen Ball: Thank you.

Guest @karenstiller1 shares wisdom and encouragement from her difficult journey toward holiness through grief and pain. #amwriting #christianwriter Share on X

Holiness Here: Searching for God in the Ordinary Events of Everyday Life by Karen Stiller

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Have you had to write through grief? What helped you move forward?

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3 comments

  1. Oh, wow, a painful, lovely reminder of how grief shapes us and how we are invited to use all of life to inform our stories. With His help. My early years involved deep grief I was only able to release when later in life another deep grief threatened to drown me. God’s goodness came through it all as I depended on Jesus as a new believer in the Redeemer.

    My ears perked up at “a spiritual director for writers.” I so want one! How did Karen Stiller find hers. 😉

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