Jonathan Pitts, a bestselling author and executive pastor at Church of the City in Franklin, Tennessee, said he wants anyone who's facing grief this holiday season to know that “it comes in waves” and it’s OK to feel what you're feeling.
"Feel what you feel, experience what you experience, and know that if you're not in that place [of grief] it's going to come, so be prepared. But if you are in that place of grieving deeply and it feels like it's never going to go away, just know it will,” Pitts, a widower, told The Christian Post. “The waves will go soon enough as they crash in the shore start to go back out and you'll experience some moments of relief."
Pitts' late wife, Wynter (niece of Tony Evans), died unexpectedly in 2018. The couple were married for 15 years, had four daughters, and shared a heart for ministry. Pitts is now sharing his experience in his podcast, The Journey, on the Christian Parenting Podcast Network, and will also take readers into that journey of hope and grief in his upcoming book, My Wynter Season: Seeing God’s Faithfulness in the Shadow of Grief.
Wynter died suddenly in her sleep at the age of 38, and since her death, the family has had to learn how to navigate life without her.
"For me, writing has always been therapeutic and so when Wynter passed away, I just began writing because when I write, I actually feel quite deeply more so than when I just think, so writing has been therapeutic,” Pitts told CP of his decision to pen his new book. “I typically tend to write to someone else and I've also always been an open book. I've always been very vulnerable and transparent.”
The executive pastor at Church of the City said being vulnerable in his writing has always been his “brand.” He described his writings about loss and the road thereafter as “healing.”
Pitts explained that the last two years have been a process of learning how to balance his grief.
"It's just been a helpful perspective for me, and it's helped me be patient in the moments where the grief is really heavy. Also, just be mindful when it feels like the grief is totally gone because it always comes back at some level,” he added.
"Be where you are, feel what you feel. But also, I feel like the closer you are to the Lord, the closer you are to understanding God's Word, and the more you understand about life and death and how God can bring hope in both, the better off you'll be,” he said.
Understanding grief does not make it go away, Pitts said, but the perspective gained is beneficial.
His late wife, who was a well-known Christian author, speaker and founder of For Girls Like You magazine, died before the holidays in 2018. Pitts says the happy occasions have now changed without Wynter.
"The holidays are always interesting. The biggest thing I do is I expect that my girls are going to have some grief in the holidays,” he said. “It's always a reminder that their mom isn't there. So for me, preparing is being mindful.”
Although not “easy” for him either, Pitts said he's learned to figure out.
"They say that adults grieve more linearly, and kids grieve more cyclically,” he added. “So for me, I've kind of gotten to a place two years in, where the holidays aren't hard, and I can enjoy them.”
"I think the moments that are beautiful to me is when we honor Wynter. We'll light a candle for Thanksgiving and that candle will be a reminder of her life,” he said. “We'll talk about memories of her at Christmas. So we'll do things to engage symbolically to invite Wynter's presence, so to say, into our space, to be reminded that she'll always be with us because we're in Christ and she's in Christ.”
Pitts said he is sure to have moments where he and his daughters peel away from the rest of the family and regroup.
Therapy and counseling have been very helpful for Pitts and he urges others to really discover their own grieving process.
"God's built us different ways, He's wired us different ways,” he stressed. “I know how He’s wired me and I know the benefits of how He’s wired me. I know the disadvantages. For me, the benefit was I always have a forward vision for my life, and so from the very beginning of losing Wynter, I never lost a vision for what God might want to do. So I always had a hopefulness about that.”
“But the challenge for me is, it was hard for me to access emotions at times or feelings at times, or hard to stay where I was. Because I felt like for healing, I had to move forward,” Pitts continued. “I had to push forward. So it was hard for me to sit still in my grief. So the way I grieved first was almost denial, I guess. There's a benefit to that because the benefit was, I was encouraged. The difficulty was, I never stayed in the past long enough to really grieve.”
Pitts took six months just to “sit still” and the following year he “grieved pretty well.” He described his experience as being “really present.”
"Other people have the opposite problem where they dwell on the past too much, they can't get a vision for the future. So the beauty of that is you probably grieve more quickly because you're there. But at some point, you're going to have to move into the future,” he advised.
Ultimately, Pitts advises that when mourning the loss of a loved one, to have an understanding of their identity.
"I think knowing who you are, knowing how God's wired you and looking for your pitfalls, but also the benefits of the way that He's built you, will be helpful,” Pitts assured. “So just being aware of who you are.”
"I also think counseling is really important,” he stressed. “Counseling helped me understand that I was super rushed and that I was needing to slow down in order to access my grief. So I would say counseling would be another part of that."
Pitts said he's had a strong support system following the death of his wife, including her relatives, which include Pastor Tony Evans and his children, Priscilla Shirer and Anthony Evans.
"Their support has been invaluable. It's been unbelievable,” Pitts said.
“What was really beautiful is, we moved to Nashville just a couple of weeks before Wynter passed away. So we moved away from our family but I had worked with them. So the beauty I found is that God allowed them to become family to me again and not necessarily co-laborers in the Kingdom work,” he said.
They've supported me in every kind of way you can think of — spiritually and emotionally. They've been there for me physically, they've flown into Nashville to help me at times. Anthony, Priscilla, Crystal and Jonathan, they've all been to my house and invested in my family. Anthony actually stayed with me for the first couple of weeks after Wynter passed, which was really beautiful.”
Tony Evans, senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, is also grieving the loss of his wife of 49 years who died on Dec. 30, 2019, from cancer.
"It's been beautiful to walk with Dr. Evans through his grief, just like he walked with me through mine. So it's been an honor that God has given me with the loss of his wife. God gave me the honor to walk with Him and I'm really grateful for that,” Pitts told CP.
"If you have a relationship with God, I would say, practice pursuing Him through a devotional life and time with Him, with just you and the Lord where you ask Him just to speak to you. Where you open your ears and say, 'Lord, I'm listening, speak to me, and I'll speak to you. And talk to Him like you would a friend, or talk to Him like you would a dad, or both, because He is both.
So I would say just start where you are but take the next logical, intentional step,” he added.
Pitts said everyone should seek the Lord because He gives hope in all hopeless circumstances.
“He's given me hope in my hopeless circumstance. He's doing the same for me and COVID right now,” he said. “There's definitely a weariness. ‘That song, 'The Weary World Rejoices,' those lyrics couldn't be more true than right now. That we, as believers, get to celebrate our King that came, our Emmanuel, God with us came and the weary world can rejoice because He came and hope came with Him.”
"I would just say, find hope in Jesus because He's the only hope that's lasting. Even as the weary world is here, I can rejoice, and so I rejoice,” Pitts said.
Pitts’ book will be released in 2021.