I’ve always felt uneasy about how one should really feel about “celebrity” deaths. When an actor, writer, or musician you love dies, going through a full-on mourning process seems inappropriate. Maybe you had the opportunity to meet them or interact at an event, but at the end of the day you didn’t have a personal relationship with them, and they wouldn’t know you if you passed them on the street. I can understand feeling bummed out, but most reactions are extreme to me, especially when the person’s body of work still exists for the world to continue to hold dear.
I think I understand it a little better now, though my feelings around it are still complicated. When Rachel Held Evans passed away, it wasn’t that I broke down crying and spent the day grieving. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to live my life without her. It felt more like a weight. Because of her loss, we all have a greater burden to bear as we try to pick up the mantle she left behind.
Reading the tweets, articles, and comments about Rachel after her death, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my grandfather. He lived in a town populated by less than 700 people and didn’t have delusions of grandeur, but he lived his life making small, meaningful differences in the lives of everyone he met — and I mean everyone, from the stranger in the paint aisle at the hardware store to his community bank teller. They all showed up to his funeral, and they all spoke of the level of care and intentionality he put into their relationship. I had no idea he made such an overwhelming, lasting impact until he was gone.
Rachel seemed to have the same effect. She didn’t just use her own voice to speak truth and justice to power, but she made space for the voices of others and listened to voices that challenged her own. Every word was put to paper with purpose, and she used her platform to bring light — light that continues to outshine the hateful critics who tried to silence her for so long.
The #BecauseOfRHE tag is filled with testimonies that will forever memorialize the effect she had on others.
She encouraged people to embrace community while still questioning problematic and hurtful power structures.
She championed men and women to stand up for themselves and what they knew to be true.
She listened to communities that felt isolated and told them they had a home.
I was especially touched by a piece about Rachel’s effect on journalists. Having come from a journalistic background herself, Rachel understood and appreciated the work that goes into journalism, and apparently she reached out to journalists to encourage them and help them when she could.
“She is the first person I have known in the church who was truly affirming of the work journalists do…she knew that the search for truth — any truth, regardless of the answers we find — was compatible with the faith journey.”
As a journalism student, I constantly felt I had to justify my career choice within the church. I was casting my lot with “liars and cheats,” after all. Rachel’s perspective was that I belong, and that everyone can belong — an unfortunately rare opinion that needs more power behind it than Rachel alone could provide. She was one of the firsts, but we need to make sure she isn’t the last.
If only life could stop moving forward when we lose someone. It would make it much easier to take the time to pause and mourn. But life never stops moving, and at a certain point we have to pick up the pieces and move again, too. But that doesn’t mean we have to leave anyone or anything behind; in moving forward, we can still carry those we lost with us, and choose to walk along the path they paved.
For me, moving forward after Rachel’s death involves stepping up to the plate as a writer.
I may have majored in journalism and I may call myself a “writer,” but I have always made a thousand excuses to not jump into writing with both feet. I am not particularly a go-getter by nature, and while I want to be accomplished, I have never felt the drive to put in the work to actually accomplish.
If I ever had a swift kick in my butt to, well, get off my butt, it was hearing of Rachel’s death. I hate every fiber of myself knowing that it took Rachel dying for me to really get it, but at the very least, that hatred of my lack of motivation can be used to motivate me now.
And what a motivation she was. In addition to the thousands of people who were personally impacted by her life and her words, the sheer amount that she accomplished in such a short time is nothing less than a force to be reckoned with. In ten years she published four books. In five years she posted over 250 blog entries. In three years she added two kids to the mix and never, ever slowed down.
Rachel published her first book at age 27, and of course had no idea she only had ten years left. I turn 27 this year, which raises the question: what would I do if I only had ten years? What would I do if I only had one? What do I want people to say about me when I’m gone?
I don’t know if I have all those answers. I don’t know exactly how to make the impact I want to make. I don’t know exactly how to carry this weight.
Thanks to Rachel, I think I can figure it out.