Writer Rachel Held Evans died unexpectedly on Saturday morning. She was a popular progressive Christian who wrote books about redefining her faith after being brought up in the Evangelical church. She was 37 years old and is survived by her husband and two children, ages 11 months and 3-years-old.
On April 18, my husband Josh turned 35. We celebrated by going out to eat and, in the car ride home, our daughter leaned forward to ask: “So, which one of you is going to die first?”
Josh and I exchanged smirks. We were getting older, sure, but death at 35 seemed cute coming from the mouth of our seven-year-old. I said something like, “I’m not sure. But hopefully neither of us goes for a long, long time.”
Later, after the kids were in bed, I even tweeted about the exchange using the hashtag #mementomori, which means “remember your death.” It was a funny story, I thought.
On April 18, the writer Rachel Held Evans was in a medically induced coma, but I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that, a few days before, Rachel tweeted about missing the Game of Thrones season premiere because she was in the hospital with a “severe allergic reaction” to antibiotics. When news broke that her condition was more serious, that she was experiencing near-constant seizures, people started to pray for Rachel online using the #prayforRHE hashtag. I, too, offered up a Twitter prayer for her, but the whole thing felt performative. I assumed in a few days we would be seeing Rachel’s tweets again, about how she was recovering in a hospital room while streaming Game of Thrones.
I woke each morning and checked her blog for updates, hoping for good news.
But as days passed, the dread grew. I woke each morning and checked her blog for updates, hoping for good news. I never expected Rachel to die two weeks later. It’s the least funny thing I can imagine.
“Rachel is dead, how can this be true?” I said to Josh when I heard the news, my face red and splotchy. If Rachel is dead at 37, if a writer my age with small kids who loves Jesus is dead, if that is possible, if this is real, then my world has shifted on its axis.
Josh gave me a long hug, and I clawed at his back, willing him to live forever. Josh isn’t a Christian anymore, and I don’t know what that means for his death. Death is not cute, it’s a terror. How, how can Rachel be dead?
As I write this, there is a ceramic skull on my desk. I bought it last year after a nun I follow on Twitter suggested that having a visual reminder of death would help me to live a better life. But all I want to do is pick it up and throw it through the window. I want to see it shatter the glass.
I can’t stop thinking about Rachel’s kids, about how young they are. Will they have any lasting memories of their mom? And then I remember my seven-year-old’s question: which one of you will die first?
In the 48 hours since Rachel’s death, the internet has flooded with remembrances. Every time I log on, I am swept into a new wave of collective grief. One hashtag, #becauseofRHE, has been used by thousands to recount how Rachel influenced their lives. Many have written how Rachel’s book Searching for Sunday brought them back to church after years away, or how her book Inspired helped them pick up the Bible again. Some credit Rachel as the reason they went to seminary. Rachel helped me, too, by sharing the very first essay I wrote on her “Sunday Superlatives” list, a round-up of her favorite writing of the week. I didn’t have my own blog, but when Rachel celebrated my work, she gave me the courage to start one.
Though I never met Rachel, I knew her through her books, her blog posts, her kind yet fearless online presence where she never hesitated to jump into debates. I read what she wrote and respected what she said, even while some labeled her a heretic. She was a conversation starter, at times an instigator, and razor sharp with her critique of theological gatekeepers. As my friend Amy tweeted after her death: “I feel like we were still in the middle of conversations that we won’t get to finish for a long time now.”
It’s hard to overestimate the influence Rachel had on people like me who struggled with the church.
It’s hard to overestimate the influence Rachel had on people like me who struggled with the church. Her death hits hard not just because she is my age, but because she showed me how to hold onto faith when my black and white Christian worldview no longer fit.
It may seem strange to actively mourn someone you only engaged with on Twitter. But our lives on the internet are as real as any other part of life. Rachel mattered to me.
Saint Benedict told the members of his monastic community to “keep death before your eyes daily.” This admonition is there to encourage monks to live each day more fully, to not hold onto the things of this world too tightly. How can I not hold on to my children tightly? I feel like screaming. I love this world. I don’t want to leave it.
On Ash Wednesday this year, I insisted on bringing my kids up to the altar at our church to receive ashes. Afterwards, we walked to a donut shop. The cashier’s eyes flitted from forehead to forehead when we stepped up to order, taking it in. Here stood a middle-aged mom with two young kids marked visibly with the sign that they will, one day, die.
Rachel’s death opens the real possibility of my own death, not when I am old and gray, but today.
But I don’t want to fully reckon with what losing Rachel means. Her death has wrecked me in a way Ash Wednesday never has. It opens the real possibility of my own death, not when I am old and gray, but today. Tomorrow. I could tweet about breakfast cereal, or something cute my four-year-old just said, and be dead in two weeks.
Rachel died during the 50 days of Easter, the season where Christians celebrate the Resurrection. It’s not much comfort. I want Rachel to be alive, I want her kids to have their mother back, I want her husband to have his wife warm in his arms.
Rachel’s last blog post was on Ash Wednesday. She closed the blog with this: “My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate [the reality that ‘death is a part of life’], and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.”
She made so many of us feel less alone. Because of Rachel, I keep writing through my questions, keep loving the church as best I can, keep asking God for more faith. It’s what she showed me how to do.