A Grief Observed
Every weekend my wife and I visit my father. Last weekend was no exception. My pregnant wife sat next to me on the picnic table, watching our three-year-old son play on the playground tucked between the apartment buildings where my dad lives. The sizzle of hot dogs wafted through the air as the autumn breeze cooled the shaded pavilion.
As I watched my son play, hearing his boyish shrieks of laughter as the children chased each other, an intense contentment settled over me. I found myself reminiscing over the previous year. The more I reminisced, the more I became profoundly aware of my mother’s absence. My heart wanted nothing more than to see her. I had so many things to say to her:
I wish you were here now. I wish you could see your grandson – he’s grown up so much since you’ve last seen him. He looks and acts just like me when I was his age. We’re having another baby, a daughter. We wish you could be here to see her. We need you. We need your advice and encouragement. It’s hard to make it here without you. I miss you.
I can still vividly remember her passing. My mother had developed acute leukemia. She had tried everything, but nothing took. Last year, in mid-August, she quit the blood transfusions that were keeping her (temporarily) alive. We spent nearly every moment of the remaining weeks of her life together. Our evenings were filled with food, talking, and watching the children play. We laughed, we told stories, she admonished us, and we stayed up way too late watching movies. Through all of it her strong, steel-blue eyes communicated a loving, hopeful sorrow.
Her last day with us was abruptly bitter sweet. She was no longer able walk or talk. She was propped up in bed, in the back bedroom of her apartment. The day passed like that. No one spoke. Evening fell, and then eventually night came. The hallway light cast a dim glow into the dark bedroom. I sat next to her and spoke gently to her. I held her hand and told her that I loved her – that she had been a good mother. In a moment – a moment that nearly eluded me – her breathing ceased and she passed into eternity. It is a moment I will never forget.
TRIED IN THE SCHOOL OF AFFLICTION
It has been a year since my mother’s passing. Like Lewis, my soul still resounds with the sentiment that, “Her absence, like the sky, is spread over everything . . .” Over the past year I have had the pain and privilege of experiencing all the peaks and valleys that naturally come with the passing of a loved one. And though there are still difficult days, I have made it to the other side.
The American statesman Thomas Jefferson, too, felt his share of loss. Over the course of a short ten year marriage, Jefferson lost not only his wife, but also four of his six children. These losses so shaped him that he was able to offer the following words of comfort and encouragement to a grieving friend:
Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicines. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although sincerely mingling my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit […] our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.
In the same vein, having been tempered by the school of human affliction myself, I wish to offer some helpful thoughts, reflections, and biblical admonitions regarding loss. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it proves useful in finding joy and satisfaction in God in the midst of loss.
1. Joy Comes in the Morning
If I could get you to grasp anything, I want to affirm that there will be joy again. Don’t lose sight of it. Even if you don’t feel like believing it, even if you have to coldly preach it to yourself every day, be patient. The Psalms remind us, “weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” and just a few verses later, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
I like to think of grief like an ocean storm. In the beginning large, daunting, towering waves come – and they come frequently. Many times you struggle to keep afloat in the turmoil of your grief. Just as one wave overtakes you, another one is already building. Be patient. As more time passes, the waves become both less frequent and less intense. There might be the occasional rogue wave that threatens to overtake you on a holiday or anniversary, but eventually life is bearable again.
Even if it is hard for you to believe, hold fast on to the promise that Christ is working everything – even our loss and intense grief – for our delight in God.
2. Weep with those who weep
This advice is mostly geared toward those who are watching and comforting a person who is experiencing a grief. There is a natural temptation to jump in and say something – anything. And I believe that it is a good temptation, because it shows our hearts are in the right place. However, I want to urge caution. Too often, speaking prematurely or speaking without the discernment of the Holy Spirit can actually cause deeper hurt for those who are grieving. Often times, especially in the immediate aftermath of a loss, there are no words that bring comfort. My default advice (unless specifically moved by the Holy Spirit) is to simply empathize with the grieved. Feel their pain. Follow the biblical admonition to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).
In other words, be like one of Job’s friends. What!? Didn’t Job’s friends make his problems worse? And didn’t God discipline them because of what they said? Yes. Be one of Job’s friends before they got it wrong. Because, despite their mistakes later in the book, Job’s three friends got one thing right – they suffered in silence with Job:
When Job’s three friends, [Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar], heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13)
3. Blessed is he who perseveres under trial
Grief can be an unpredictable monster. People react differently to loss – some become angry, some live in denial, some stay in periods of prolonged depression. In the midst of their anguish, grieved people can sometimes act hurtfully. It’s not right. In fact, it is sin. However, we are called to “bear with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13)
Our duty to bear the hurts and sins of others do not stop with only our fellow brothers and sisters. Even when we are insulted or hurt by those who have no hope in the gospel, God admonishes us to “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9) Forgiving their outbursts may be hard, and they may not even apologize, but considering the weight of sin from which we have been forgiven, how can we not be moved to forgive them as well?
4. Blessed are those who mourn
God loves the broken. Not in a “I like to kick wounded dogs” kind of way. Consider with me, for a moment, the number of times that God addresses brokenness:
For I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit (Isaiah 57:15)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matt. 5:4)
The Lord is near the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18)
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit (Psalm 51:17)
Take comfort in this: God loves broken hearts. But why? Does He take delight misery? No. On the contrary! He takes delight when we experience and enjoy him as the only one capable of fixing us. By fixing and filling empty, broken people He shows himself to be glorious. We get the joy, He gets the glory.
5. I will give them mothers and brothers
Sometimes, the promise of reuniting with loved ones can seem “pie in the sky.” One of the things that define the Christian is delayed gratification. After all, the bible admonishes us to “store up for yourself treasures in heaven” because that is where our ultimate joy is.
That said, God is not unaware of our current sufferings. God promises to set things right not only in the next life, but in this life as well:
Consider the words of Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, […] and in the age to come” (Mark 10:29-30)
Did you catch that? God sees our losses. He promises to make up for our losses not only in heaven, but now. I understand the objections, “But Jeff, that sounds really prosperity-gospelish. How does he do that? How does he repay me ‘a hundred fold now in this time’ when I’ve just lost my one and only mother!?” I don’t presume to know all of the possible meanings of that verse. I’m certain that in heaven we will see manifestations of that verse that we could never fathom. However, I’m certain of at least two things: First, that God will repay our losses in the age to come; and second, that He repays us now by giving us the church. He gives us a body of believers who become our surrogate homes and families.
6. The Lord gives & the Lord takes
Whenever we suffer a loss, it seems that we often have two gut reactions: We blame, argue, or feel that we have been cheated by God; or we diminish the role of God in taking life. “Oh, well they were old and it was their time to go” or “God only does good, so her tragic death is really the handiwork of Satan.”
A biblical view of loss must acknowledge that God is the sovereign orchestrator of all that happens. Whether He is proactively arranging everything, or whether he is permitting bad things to happen, everything ultimately comes from the sovereign hand of the Lord. As if that weren’t enough, God owns you. He is the sovereign creator of the universe, and all that is in it. If you are a Christian, God double owns you. And as sole owner, he has the right to do with our lives as he pleases – and no one has the rightful authority question his sovereign will. We must reorient our thinking, and accept our positions as created beings. We must realize that in every moment God is up to trillions and trillions of things to accomplish his purposes – most of which we can’t see. But everything, good or “bad” comes from the hand of God, just as Hannah prayed in 1 Samuel:
The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to Sheol [the grave] and raises up.
The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
He humbles and He exalts.
(1 Sam. 2:6-7)
7. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing
What is the purpose of life? Ask one hundred different people and you’ll get one hundred different answers. For a Christian, the answer is clear: We exist to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Notice what is important here: We exist to glorify God. Consider the weight of that statement for a moment: We exist to Glorify God. That should be a huge, life altering statement, and should make your soul tremble.
It’s easy to talk about glorifying God – but what does it mean? What does it look like in action? Take a look at the second half: and enjoy Him forever. These two statements are not at odds. It’s not either/or. We do not either glorify or enjoy. It is rightfully both. We glorify god when we live our lives in such a way that shows that He is our highest treasure. Everything we are given in life – whether food, money, cars, houses, possessions, family, or children – are all given to us so that we can enjoy them in such a way that shows that Christ is more satisfying than any of those things. Because, whether you intend it or not, the world is watching your value system.
How do we show God to be supremely valuable in the midst of a devastating loss? When you are so broken that you can barely pick yourself up? I’m not advocating for trying to assume some kind of mask – some kind of false, superficial joy. We glorify God in the midst of our loss when we grieve in such a way that shows that although we are deeply wounded by the loss of our loved one, Jesus is better. Paul states that one of the markers of a christian life is that we are a people who are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”
It makes God look valuable and praise worthy when we can say with the Psalmist, in the face of our loss:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
8. Behold, I make all things new
I am convinced that grief never truly goes away this side of heaven. It may subside, and it may ebb and flow in decreasing measures, but a kernel of grief will always remain. And that’s ok. It’s what happens when you live in a broken world. The truth is that nobody makes it to the end of their life without bruises and scars.
God cares about the here and now. So yes, take heart that God promises to be all satisfying in this life. But God cares more about the joy he has set before us – unending joy in the life to come, unblemished by sin and death. So let your heart be affirmed by the promise of a magnificent, trustworthy God:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”