Probably few things hit us as hard as the death of a loved one. The painful absence of someone whose presence added joy and richness to our lives leaves a void no one and nothing else can fill. And while they say time heals all wounds, grief leaves us with scars that never seem to go away entirely. Next to breathing, losing someone we care about is probably the most common human experience. That commonality of shared suffering doesn’t always make it easier, however. While there is some comfort in knowing you’re not alone in what you’re going through, the pain can still be acute.
In our culture, death and dying are especially complicated realities to deal with because we are often so much farther removed from death than people in generations past. Life-expectancy is much higher thanks to improvements in medicine and health care. Each of us can anticipate a much longer life than our more recent ancestors. But this also means we all potentially experience a greater number of health issues. Indeed, the line between someone who is genuinely alive and someone who is not has become a thorny ethical conundrum that is only going to grow thornier in the future.
And thanks to our culture’s obsession with youth and the desire to escape the trappings of age, we have the tendency to cordon off those who remind us of our own mortality. Nursing homes and hospitals are filled with people who may not be terminally ill but who are elderly enough to need round the clock care immediate family is either unable or unwilling to provide. Seeing once vibrant family members and friends succumb to diseases and conditions that rob us of who these people once were frightens us. Such experiences become a mirror into which we dare not gaze. Seeing them, we see ourselves. We see our future. We’d rather not look.
For those of who are Christians, handling issues surrounding death and dying, the suffering and loss of loved ones, isn’t necessarily any easier. Even believing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life doesn’t exempt us from grief. Indeed, when Jesus went to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, John’s Gospel tells us “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And Jesus wept even while knowing he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So when we lose someone to cancer or to aging or even to a seemingly meaningless accident, we also weep. We grieve. And when we’re brought face to face with the possibility of our own death, fear can become a storm that threatens to capsize the boat of faith.
Yet Scripture reminds us that even though we grieve, we do so as people of hope. The apostle Paul says as much to believers in the city of Thessalonica: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Our grief shares much with the grief others feel. Yet, there remains this tinge of hope, of knowing that new life emerges from the tomb for those who know Jesus as the resurrection and the life. Like Jesus tells Lazarus’ sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25—25). Then Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe?”
But in the meantime, we comfort one another. We encourage one another. We weep with those who weep. But we weep as people who know the grave cannot hold us, who know that, thanks to Jesus, the last enemy—death—has been defeated. And this is no small thing; in fact, this is everything.
Trying to think about this in a practical way, as a pastor I struggle with how to counsel and help believers whose grief is so great that it keeps them from living life. For instance, imagine trying to worship with hope in the same place where the funeral for your son or mother or wife was held. There’s no way this would be easy. It’s like returning to the scene of a traumatic experience. Associations abound. Everything is a reminder of who you’ve lost. No longer a safe refuge, it is instead a symbol of what we’re seeking refuge from.
What’s difficult is that it’s possible to reach a point where what we once did as a means of dealing with our loss becomes an obstacle to healthy grieving. In other words, we might be avoiding the very thing that may help us on the road to healing. Not to say that wounds of loss ever heal completely; scars will always be there. There is a kind of healing to be found, however. The mourning can turn to rejoicing once again. But it might mean having to disinfect the wound of loss, and this process can also be painful.
Sometimes we cling to our grief as means of honouring the one we’ve lost. We desperately want there to be meaning in the face of such suffering. If nothing else, our ongoing grieving shows that this person meant something to someone. Relaxing our grip on grief feels like we’re doing the deceased a disservice.
Sometimes we’re afraid of forgetting the pain because it seems to mean losing why someone meant so much to us. When pain over loss is an indicator of the depth of our love for the person in question, letting go is unimaginable. Moving on because “life must go on” seems to trivialize our pain and our love.
Maybe this is what provides content to the notion of grieving with hope. If we refuse to face the possibility of healing, if we allow our pain and grief to continue to define us, then hope is simply a future reality, not one that has any real power in the present. Hope is only about eternal life, not about how we live now even when facing loss. We take comfort in the notion that the person we love is with God and that one day we will see them again, but the shelter we hide in now is not God himself and the hope he provides but our grief.
What concerns me, therefore, is when our grief overshadows our hope. And certainly there are a myriad of interconnected things to consider in dealing with loss even from a Christian perspective. But even believers who have suffered loss are still called to worship God, follow Jesus, and allow the Holy Spirit to shape them and use them. If our faith cannot survive such pain, our hope is insubstantial.
One of the things churches perhaps fail to do is to allow people genuine space for grieving. Mourning used to be something of a public reality. Widows would wear black for a period of time. But like death, we want grief to be hidden. We’re largely uncomfortable with pain, death, and grief. Such realities disturb how we want our lives to be. There is the sense that when coming to church we all have to be happy and put smiles on. We even offer theological rationales for such attitudes. We’re called to express the joy of the Lord. We’re called to offer praises and thanksgiving. Church is only an hour a week, after all, and we don’t want it to be a downer.
You see, the truth is God can take our anger, our pain, our cries, and our incomprehension. Church worship ought to be—at least in part—a safe place to express and deal with our pain: the pain of loss, of suffering, of grief. The Psalms are filled with lament over pain and struggle, over loss and confusion, over God’s apparent absence to those who are in “the valley of the shadow of death.” If our hymns and gospel songs and church experiences don’t give us opportunity to work through our pain in a way that genuinely reflects the good news of Jesus, we may end up with a lot of people who feel as though God has nothing to say to people in such circumstances. There will be this dissonance in their experience between what the gospel says and what they’re going through. Dissonance will lead to disconnection and a distancing from the church—and the people in question may not even consciously understand why.
I’ve noticed a trend in recent years. There seems to be a decrease in the number of funerals. I say this with only anecdotal evidence, but more and more it seems that fewer and fewer families are having funerals for loved ones. There might be a brief memorial service. And even that might be a family-only affair. Or there might be nothing at all. To the extent that this is so, it strikes me as potentially unhealthy. Grief is an experience that we have to process. And we need community support to do so.
Certainly the church ought to be a place where people can find help and support during this process. The freedom to continue praising God, even if through tears of sorrow, may be the healing balm many hurting people need but are unable to find elsewhere. Real hope, steadfast hope, hope that Jesus is the resurrection and the life can and should be a real experience even for those whose grief is deep and profound. After all, if even Jesus—who is himself the resurrection and the life—wept at the loss of a loved one, surely we should be able to do so in his presence. I have no doubt that is the place where our hope comes alive.
[Note: This will likely be the last post until late August or early September. That’s why I’ve posted a couple of reflections today. One of today’s posts has been recycled from an older article in a local paper; the other is one I’ve been working on for a few days. This second one (on grief) is longer than others are and I wasn’t even sure I would post it. But it seemed to come together well enough. As always, feel free to comment on any of the posts. Feedback, particularly thoughtful feedback, is welcome.]