“How wonderful! How wonderful!” He looks up and gasps these words with the little oxygen he can muster. He is approaching the threshold of heaven—release is finally at hand for his pain-wracked body. His final exit is not sudden. Very gently, it seems, the Hand of Providence pries the fingers of his loved ones loose so that he can be free at last. In the dawn of a new day, his rattled breathing ceases to disturb the apartment walls. A peaceful stillness envelops the room where his wife wakes suddenly to the sound—of silence.
As my mother enters that moment her heart quails at the thought of life alone. She pushes aside the fear and acknowledges the peace so evident in the room. Weeping wonderingly, she holds her husband of forty years and waits.
What will it be like, this thing called grief? When will its crushing weight grow lighter? Will there ever be a ‘normal’ day again, a day when all has not been ripped from her hands? A glance in the mirror brings the shocking reality home. She is still alive. He is not. As she begins to call her children, her voice sounds strange, distant, as though not belonging to herself.
As my brother, sister, and I join our mother in the grieving, we find ourselves wondering. What is our response supposed to be? Should we turn our backs, pretending we have lost nothing, laughing at anything just to avoid the truth? Should we busy ourselves as though we have come to terms anew with the brevity of life? Or should we go through the motions ignoring the wave of despair sweeping over us? What if we were to face the wave? Would it not overwhelm us? Perhaps, if we neatly package our pain in a wrapping of spiritual explanation, could we then avoid the turmoil?
People can say, “He is in a good place now. He gave his heart to God serving as a Bible translator for forty years in Colombia, South America.” But what matters to his family is that HE IS NOT HERE! The vital part he played is vacant. Though we try to fill his shoes in this or that arena, we cannot bring him back.
It is a testimony to God’s amazing creative genius that we are, each of us, so unique that no one can replace another. This is a hard, cold, wonderful, warm fact! What are we to do with this gaping hole in our lives?
My thoughts so often go back to childhood days when my parents were doing linguistic work in the jungles of the Amazon basin. I used to watch with an inquisitive mind as the Wanano people worked. One day I noticed that some women were weeding a very thorny plant by placing their hands firmly around the prickly stem and pulling with the thorns pressing into their hands. I marveled at the explanation I received, that grasping the plant firmly was less painful than gingerly trying to work around the thorns. I experimented and discovered this to be true!
I think of grief in the same way. Grief is the inevitable thorn I must embrace in order to move forward. Should I gingerly tiptoe around it, I would find myself wounded even more deeply, while achieving little progress.
Mary and Martha fought their grief rather vehemently in the story of Lazarus’ death. “If you had been here,” they each wept to Jesus, “my brother would not have died.” Jesus’ troubled response might have been full of sorrow that they understood so little about life and death, but that was not the case. Many people will miss the rage on Jesus’ face in the modern day accounts of this story. Tyndale’s New Testament Commentary states that the original language of the text for John 11:33 that today states, He groaned in spirit and was troubled could be more accurately written He was enraged in spirit and troubled Himself. For that one symbolic moment when he called Lazarus out of his tomb Jesus defeated death. He would do so again in His own resurrection, and He will defeat it yet again in the time to come when death will be no more.
As I traveled across the United States and China in the months after my father’s passing, God seemed to pursue me in the titles of the messages being delivered at each church service I attended. In California: Are You Disappointed with God?; in North Carolina: Disappointment with God; in Florida: Are You Angry at God?; in China: What to Do When God Disappoints. The story of Jesus’ response to Lazarus gives me my final answer. HE is angry with death. HE dislikes death even more than I do. HE cannot wait to finish off the fight to put this enemy to sleep once and for all!
Though I was on the other side of the world in Asia when my father slipped into eternity, I see my mother in that waiting moment of discovery, standing as a young woman at a river’s edge. Jungle camp, a required course for Wycliffe translators, provided instruction on surviving whitewater. Mom did not believe the instructor when he said, “You cannot swim whitewater. You have to let yourself go under. Conserve energy so that you can swim when you come out of the whitewater.” Mom discovered firsthand how lacking in substance whitewater truly is—she came out sputtering, having overexerted herself trying to stay on top of the bubbling water.
Holding my father’s lifeless form, my mother stood by a different river’s edge—the river of grief. The tumultuous whitewater of death and separation threatened to swallow her whole. But in Christ, death is but a bubble of little substance! To confront this bubble the same whitewater rules apply. Surrender to the pain, conserve energy, begin to swim when the bubbling water ceases and the smooth, clear water of everyday life emerges. Expect to go under. Expect to be unable to breathe. Expect to make it through.
In this whirlpool of grief, I found the need to simplify life, to leave margin for the waves of grief to take my breath away without causing me to take someone else down with me. Times of solitude, times of peaceful fellowship with a good friend, time to immerse in family, time to read—these are a must for the grieving soul. Commitments have to be loose ones, adjustable to the tone of the moment. Family and friends need to set emotional barometers for each other, measuring carefully to see if this is a time to grieve, to celebrate, to laugh, to weep, to forget, to forgive, or to move on. Any manner of physical disturbance should be anticipated and adjusted to. We cannot always express the depths of our souls in explainable ways.
In his book about losing his wife, A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken describes the “flooding back to me of all the Davys I had known…the young girl of Glenmerle, the blithe spirit of the Islands, the helmsman of the schooner…now they were all with me—forever” (p.185). The author discovered the whole of his wife in the completion of her life. Even in Jesus’ death and resurrection, He did not tarry on the earth. Rather, He told the apostles, In fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I do not, the Advocate will not come (John 16:7). We could not fully know Him had Jesus not departed. In order to honor and to fully know the one we have lost, it is important to experience every nuance of the grief fully—the numbness, the anger, the loneliness, the precious memories. There is new knowledge of God and of the loved one we lost on the other side of this journey. Do we not want to see Him more clearly? Let us faint not in the face of mortality’s awfulness. God is still bigger. Trust Him to be bigger and let the waves immerse you in their heavy power. He will make Himself known to you even if His silence is at times deafening.
Though every one of us will experience loss at one time or another, some of us will lose loved ones for an eternity. The grief of the physical loss added to the eternal loss can seem too much to bear. Our eternal Creator’s justice and love are incomprehensible, and there are no simple answers. The depth to which we allow our hearts to despair may determine the depth to which we can taste His love. Faint not, and grasp the thorn of loss firmly! I love the parable of the vineyard owner in Matthew 20. He pays equal wages to workers who toiled all day and to workers who came in the last hour of the day. Even as the penitent thief cried out to Jesus from the cross and received the assurance of salvation in his last moments, I believe we will be joyfully surprised at who He has quietly rescued in their final hour.
Why did He create us to love and depend on each other, only to experience such great pain? This is where the spiritual and physical realms meet. We push such knowledge aside, assenting only with our minds, until we are inevitably propelled beyond the threshold into eternity when a loved one enters. There are others who have gone before us and documented their wrestling match with God. Philip Yancey addresses such pain in Disappointment with God, C.S. Lewis cries out in A Grief Observed, and Jerry Sittser journals grief richly in A Grace Disguised. These writers do not try to deliver pat answers. They provide honest acknowledgment of the terribleness of loss while earnestly seeking God in their pain.
Every response to death is valid. It might be convenient if we all had the same response to losing a loved one, but the bereaved person who wants to move on and the bereaved one who longs to linger each need to make room for the other. Family bonds can deepen when members listen and learn from each other as they process their pain.
My mother recently sent me this quote which she adapted from the writings of
H. Norman Wright on grief and loss: “This past year I have suffered a devastating loss.
I do not apologize for my tears, since they are not a sign of weakness or lack of faith. They are His gift to me to express the extent of my loss, and they are also a sign that I am recovering. If I do not always make sense, please be forgiving and patient with me. And remember me, that I will see meaning in my loss and that I will continue to know His comfort and love. So thanks for listening, remembering, and comforting. Your concern is a gift for which I will always be grateful.”
Cancer sent my father home a year ago. We are still stunned. My family will be together soon for our first reunion since his funeral, and we will all be in different places in our grief journey. I look forward to a time of learning from each other. We will tell stories, we will remember, we will laugh and cry, but we will likely never come to terms with him being gone. Though time may make the hard fact more bearable, years from now it will seem as unnatural to us that he is gone as it does today.
You ask why? Because we are made in God’s image. We are made for fellowship, and we are mortal shells with immortal souls. This is the puzzle of grief. Once you are stamped with it, a part of you has already departed into eternity, never to return. A part of you is heading home!
As a young man, my father had memorized The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson. One of his favorite stanzas in the poem expresses the words I hear Jesus saying to me as I expect, embrace, and experience this sad but hopeful journey of grief.
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!