Can "The Shack" help a grieving heart?

Can “The Shack” by William P. Young help a grieving heart?   When the best-selling novel came out in 2007, it took me months to gather the courage to read it because like in the story, I too had lost a child to a criminal act.  The tale pulled me in when I did read it.  As I turned the pages, I wept about Mack's loss and his pain of the broken heart and I wept about my loss too.  It helped me and healed me.  It can do that for you too.  

The Story

The story is about Mack, (spoiler alert ahead) who lives with the Great Sadness after his youngest daughter was abducted  from the family campsite.  He walks with stooped shoulders and silent despair crushes his heart.   One day, he receives a peculiar invitation to the shack where she was killed and later to a beautiful cottage. 


This is where the story unfolds, as Mack comes face to face with God as a loving Trinity depicted by unexpected characters who radiate their care.   Knowing all about his baggage, they anchor and comfort him as he walks through the smoldering pain, guilt, anger, disappointment and heartbreak of his haunting loss.  Whether in a garden, under a starry sky or eating pie, they penetrate his defenses, face his questions together and bring healing to his heart.

Imagining the Joys of Heaven

It is an imaginative story that includes looking through a waterfall to see his happy daughter playing in heaven and describing the people there as rainbow lights bobbing and sparkling.  That made me smile.  I could envision my 25 year old son, Ben as a joyful orange lightening bolt break-dancing with Jesus!  (Yes, I am a proud "Mama Ben", my nickname by his Rwanda friends.)

Questions, His and Mine

When my son was killed, I asked the same kinds of questions that Mack did, and I banged on God's door as my tears ran under it.  The story gives language to these questions,  “Where was God when..., why did He not stop it, was this a punishment? ”  Thankfully, the novel does not spout neat and tidy clichés.  Instead, it reveals a God of compassion, who is with the broken hearted, binds up their wounds and collects their tears in a bottle.   He is a comforting friend engaged in relationship with us even in our doubt,  brokenness and tragedy.

As a coach for people in grief,  I hear these difficult questions often.  People struggle to find meaning in their loss, and to make sense of their devastated world, their image of God and their spirituality.  It takes courage to face them: of our own mortality, if life is just random, of the hugeness of our pain and of trusting God again.  Sometimes lies cling to our soul because of what was said or done to us, just as the author experienced.  In this book, I loved how “Jesus” kindly explains about fears, “All I want from you is to trust me with what little you can”.

Unforgiveness Hand-cuffs

The criminal and brutal killing of Mack’s daughter is a big issue.  Somehow, Mack needs to be unhand-cuffed from the weight of his (false) guilt of failing to protect, and his on-going anger and pain.  For many grieving people, it is a real struggle to forgive, whether themselves, their loved one, the medical system,  God, etc.  This is where The Shack really shines, by explaining, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person's throat,”  and that it is a decision that is made over and over to allow the poison of bitterness to finally drain away. 

I know this from experience.  Before the five-day trial of the driver who killed my son, I had worked hard to forgive him but I when I heard the testimonies of worse details and new information, I was a wreck.  I was so grateful for the friends that were a God-sent support.    The driver got a jail sentence but I had to get out of my  “shack” of new levels of anger and bitterness by repeatedly releasing those things to God and trusting him to make it up to me one day. 


The Shack has kicked up a lot of theological controversy which is not my focus in my loss blog.  However,  I will add a disclaimer:  Please do not expect this fictional book to be a theological treatise any more then you would read Star Wars novels expecting accuracy about space.  When the dust has settled, I imagine it will find it’s place with the "edgy" fiction of Tolkien and, C.S. Lewis, or J. Bunyan where God shows up in different forms.  However, if you are looking for non-fiction Christian grief reading, try C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Ronald Dunn’s When Heaven is Silent or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, all very good books.  

Is it for you as a bereaved person? 

In the early days of loss,  it is hard to focus, especially on a heavy story.  Light-hearted humor is a better choice for a little break from the intensity and daze of early grief.  But if your loss is not fresh, and you are pondering meaning, spirituality or forgiveness, The Shack, is a very creative engaging story that speaks a honest language of loss in a culture that avoids it.  It has the potential to bring great comfort and launch you into deeper relationship with God.  The book format allows you to put it down if you need a breather.  I haven't see the movie yet, so I can not speak to that.

In The Shack, questions are wrestled with and forgiveness rises.  It is a story of wonders, water is walked on, heaven is imagined, burdens lift and freedom is found.  All this ripples out of the pages and embraces the reader in hope.   Thank you, William P. Young for this remarkable story, The Shack.



Big hugs and love, 


If you are facing loss, get the support you deserve.  For a no-obligation "Rebuilding Life Again" session with Helga Bender, MThS, e-mail me click here.   

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