Skip to main content

Finding Joy in the Midst of Grief

January 12, 2022
Photo: Calvin University

With only a few dollars to her name, Angela Williams Gorrell was deeply grateful to be hired a few years ago as an associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

Having just finished her Ph.D. at Fuller Theological Seminary, she needed work. This position would allow her to pursue research as part of Yale’s Theology of Joy and the Good Life project.

“I was starting to feel that everything would be all right. I was going to get paid to investigate joy from diverse perspectives,” said Gorrell, the opening speaker for the Calvin University January Series 2022.

Ironically, soon after she had begun her new job – and over the span of just a few weeks – three of her family members died. One died from suicide, another died of a heart attack, and then her father died from opioid abuse.

Through it all, said Gorrell, family members turned to her and her husband for support – and the couple did what they could. Still, the going got tough.

“I struggled to find the meaning in any of that and didn’t want to go to church,” she said. “I felt disconnected and overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness.”

Gorrell is now an assistant professor of practical theology at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. She is also author of the Gravity of Joy, a book that chronicles her struggle with the death of her father and other family members and discusses how her Christian faith – along with the research she was doing at Yale – eventually helped her to find joy again in her life. “Gravity of Joy” was also the title of her January Series talk.

The 2022 January Series runs every weekday from January 10-28 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. (EST). People can join the event live at the Covenant Fine Arts Center on the campus of Calvin University or watch from one of more than 50 remote sites across the continent.

A “Watch Now” button on the January Series website allows visitors to tune in to the daily presentation live. In addition, each day’s presentation will be available on demand from 2 p.m. (EST) until midnight (PST) on that day.

In her talk, Gorrell said it was difficult to focus on her research work on joy while she was going to and speaking at funerals for her loved ones. Especially difficult, she said, was the death of her father due to his addiction.

Recalling how things went in the last year or so of his life, she said, “I would call, and my father would slur his words. He would fall asleep and forget what we talked about.” Over time, her father – an attorney – showed a loss of interest in life. “He stopped going to work and wearing suits,” she said. “He forgot about me and withdrew from family and friends.”

She was with her father in the final hours of his life.

All of this hit her hard, Gorrell said. Seeking relief, she turned to reading psalms and words of the prophets in the Bible. But she continued to struggle with grief and said she vowed “to be anything but joyful.” “The word made me cringe,” she said.

A way out of what seemed to be an enduring sadness didn’t come easy, she said, and she would never have predicted what would prove to be an antidote to her ongoing pain.

Looking back, Gorrell said, three experiences stand out. First, she became a volunteer chaplain, coleading a Bible study in a maximum-security prison for women.

“Most of the women had been addicted to heroin or crack and many were dealing with mental illness,” said Gorrell.

They studied the Bible and slowly got to know one another. And Singing became an important part of their time together.

Wary at first, thinking there was no way she could sing in such a public setting, Gorrell joined in and soon found herself clapping, dancing, and singing out with the others.

“I found that the joy they got from singing was not trivial but vital for those women – and it is not trivial for our families or for ourselves,” she said.

“We gave each other permission to be ourselves, and in our singing we made space for one another” to sing as loud as they wanted and to dance in whatever ways they saw fit, she said.

“I watched with amazement the joy in that room. One time, a guard came in to find out what all of the noise was about – and ended up dancing right along with us.”

While she sang and danced along with those women, said Gorrell, “they became my ‘cloud of witnesses.’ I felt like our singing and dancing pushed against those voices that said, ‘You don’t matter.’”

Another experience had to do with her father, she said. She was able to recall a time from her childhood when she had a special surgery to cure her deafness.

Coming home from the hospital back then, she said, she had climbed out of the vehicle and had suddenly heard a loud noise and had covered her ears in pain. But her father had knelt down next to her and told her that the sound was from crickets.

“I had never heard crickets before,” she said. “I remember feeling my dad’s presence. I remember his smile, his bright joy over this new life I would be living.”

Recalling that memory brought her father back to her, she said. She could imagine him smiling again, and she could feel the love he had for her. This helped her to start moving forward and to give her a richer recollection of her dad – not just the man who was lost in his addiction but a dad who loved her and took great joy in his daughter’s newfound ability to hear those crickets.

“My dad was rejoicing over the miracle of the surgery and that I could hear,” said Gorrell. “Remembering that was [an experience of] redemptive, restorative joy for me.”

The third experience, she said, had to do with remembering the nights she and her sisters spent together before one of the funerals they attended.

“We were able to rejoice and laugh together around the counter in my sister’s kitchen,” she said. “I began to recognize that feeling joy, even in the midst of sorrow, does not betray the truth of what happened.”

Crucial in all this is to recognize that God wants us to feel joy even as we struggle with loss, said Gorrell, an ordained Mennonite minister.

“We can choose to rejoice over the truth. God is joy. [We can] live awake and exposed and realize, even as we live deeply and with vulnerability, that grace is also the joy that is freely given,” she said.

“Joy doesn’t obliterate grief,” she concludes in her book. “Instead, joy has a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside sorrow and even—sometimes most especially—in the midst of suffering.”