On Good Friday, 2018, the Reverend Liz Tichenor, at 33 years old, stood tall and poised beside a barren altar, a blood-red stole draped over her neck and shoulders. With a solemn tone, she imagined aloud how Jesus’s mother, Mary, might have beheld her son crucified upon the cross. As Tichenor continued, Mary’s story began to blur into her own: four years earlier, Tichenor had beheld the death of her own son, a newborn infant. She knew firsthand the pangs of love and loss. But somehow, she was also able to tap into the promise of rebirth and resurrection.
Tichenor, rector at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Pleasant Hill, California, was called into the priesthood as a “wayward teenager” of 17. Her parents had divorced, and her mother’s alcoholism was worsening. Tichenor found at a parish in her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, a sense of community, stability, and “a way through to a life of health and wholeness.” That summer, she served as a youth counselor at a church camp and found herself stepping in as an unexpected substitute to assist the priest in passing out the Eucharistic bread. Tichenor had received communion countless times and knew what to do. But as it turned out, many campers opted not to receive the bread; they preferred a blessing instead. Having no easy way to direct them through the crowds to the priest, “I raised my hand to their foreheads,” Tichenor says, “and in that act, I knew in my body that that was exactly what I was called to do.”
She went on to study Spanish at Dartmouth College, where she served as the Episcopal campus minister, then moved west to the Bay Area to start seminary, her new husband beside her. She received a Masters of Divinity at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, followed by a Masters of Arts in Ethics and Social Theory at the Graduate Theological Union. Between the two degrees, she and her husband started a family and, reminiscent of the very setting that awakened her to her calling, she took her first position as the resident chaplain at a summer camp near Lake Tahoe. Tichenor was ordained as a priest at 27, almost half the average age of others ordained in the Episcopal Church.
In the midst of all this, though, life was intervening: a few months before her ordination, Tichenor’s mother committed suicide after decades of battling alcoholism. A year and a half later, her infant son, just 40 days old, died in their bed, from a likely curable but misdiagnosed medical condition.
This unimaginable grief—from not one, but two experiences, the likes of which most are terrified to consider, much less confront—plunged Tichenor into the Great Unknown, even as her new role as a priest pressed her to guide others in their grief with some kind of resolve and solace. Through community, compassion from others, and brushes with the mystical divine, Tichenor and her family not only survived. They emerged with faith, hope, joy, and laughter, seemingly greater than before. She chronicled this inner and outer journey in a new memoir, The Night Lake: A Young Priest Maps the Topography of Grief.
As an Episcopal rector, Tichenor models the importance of showing up with authenticity for one another, especially in these times of personal and global tumult. She also enjoys “wrestling with the sacred texts” and building community through fellowship, shared vulnerability, and good humor. She lives with her husband and two children, and nourishes herself with long-distance running, fine baked goods, her tomato garden, a rambunctious puppy, and “ethical pranking.”
Please note: this conversation may touch upon sensitive topics including suicide.
I come alive when I'm brought back into my body, and into acute awareness of it. This can take many forms: losing total track of time gardening until the sun is low in the sky, leaving my the phone behind and hiking up in the hills above my house, playing with my spastically affectionate puppy, singing in swelling harmony with a group, making art that requires my full concentration. I cherish these varied ways of being led back into my breath, into listening, into laughter, into extended movement. I depend on them to reset me apart from screens and back towards life.
I chose to have children relatively young, at least by the standards of my community, and as a result I had really only just gotten my feet wet as an adult when I was diving into to being a parent. The intimacy, responsibility, and soulful magnitude of being a parent shook me and turned me inside-out in the most wonderful (and exhausting) ways. Having an infant while I was still finishing seminary served as a sieve, forcing me to consider far more carefully what my real priorities were, and how to seek some semblance of balance and wholeness when it seemed that there was always far more that needed to be done than I had time or energy to do. Now that my kids are older (6 and 9) I find the ongoing transformation tugging in new ways, in particular as I take in their commentary on our shared life, and strive to be the person they imagine me to be -- both because I want to do right by them, but also because I want to be fully myself all along the way.
One of the particularly painful parts of my son's death was how isolating it felt. While it was true that others didn't know exactly what I was going through, many were also quick to tell me that they simply couldn't imagine it, that they'd never survive a loss like that, and so on. I remember going on a snowy walk with a friend that winter after my son died, and while we walked, my friend described to me how she had been actively trying to imagine what my life was like now, what this loss would feel like for me. She was trying to put herself there, and I received this as absolute and sacrificial kindness: she was willing to feel more pain as she pulled herself into this place, in order to join me there and have a better idea of what it might look like to support me in my grief. She didn't have to suffer, and yet she was willing to seek it out, even just as an imaginative exercise, in order to love me more fully.
Do a long backpacking trek (like the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, etc.) as a family.
If we show up with our full selves, chances are good that more often than not, others will join us there.