Liz Tichenor’s The Night Lake: A Young Priest Maps the Topography of Grief surprised me. I felt surprise at the grace with which Tichenor shares her walk through shadow. I was surprised by how deeply Tichenor’s articulation of her experience of faith resonated with my own, and by her brushes with the mystical divine that jolted me and left me feeling uncertain. Some might feel surprise at priests cursing in the face of unimaginable grief.
Whatever your experience of grief, and whatever your experience of faith, The Night Lake will manage to surprise you, too. But it’s not easy reading.
On the night Tichenor raced to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying her 1-month-old son, she was a fledgling priest in her late 20s, living with her husband and their two young children at an Episcopalian summer camp. This was her first job flying solo, and her life seemed to be at that early stage when anything could blossom at any moment. But in truth, Tichenor was already acquainted with hardship before she found her son unresponsive in their bedroom. Her mother, after years of dealing with pernicious and unrelenting alcoholism, had taken her own life only a year before.
So when Tichenor’s son died suddenly due to an undiagnosed medical condition, she plunged into the deep end. In the months that followed, she was buoyed by the love and support of her husband, daughter and community of friends, but Tichenor could not always keep her head above the waves of depression, her own relationship to alcohol and an emotional hangover from years of being mothered by an addict.
As Tichenor moved through her grief, she longed simply for someone to sit with her in her pain. Early in the book, she discusses the roots of the word “com-passion” (to suffer with) and in so doing reveals an important truth: To live in connection with others in an imperfect world, we must suffer with them. Readers practice that com-passion with Tichenor as they read her story. None of its events are hurried, and so you feel suspended with her in each stage of her grieving.
This is not simply a book for those who have found themselves mired in such grief. It teaches all of us how to be with those who are going through tragedy, how to be vulnerable and how to practice com-passion.