Death? What exactly is it? It is the absence of life. It is foreign to the human psyche and being. It is an invader, a consequence of disobedience. Atheists and transcendentalists know this to be true. If it were not true, if this is part of the evolutionary process, if your loved one transitioned to oneness with the universal Om, or on to the next life in the karmic cycle, then why do they and countless others grieve? This is why death cross culturally causes manifold manifestations of grief.
Grief….what is it? It is the logical response to an illogical experience. Why is it? We grieve because we know death is not what we were created for, not why we exist. We were created for life, unending life.
If this is true, then grief is normal...it is ok. There is no sin in grief. As I reflect on my reactions to grief, I realize I have sought to deny that I feel anything in the loss. It is not that I do not feel anything, but...maybe I am afraid that if I show grief I am weak, and Lord knows only the strong survive...right? :(
I have been hard on others who have grieved. Not because I was trying to be callous, but rather because life does not stop for grief. Things still need to be done. There are no time outs.
This is all good and true, and yet, when I address those who grieve, I am speaking from outside their grief, as a onlooker. Even if I am correct in my surmising, in my encouragement, in my exhortation, I am still speaking from outside. I have not earned the right to speak to another’s grief, to tell them how they should or should not respond to loss and death or even to encourage them.
There is a danger in always being objective. one appears insensitive, robotic, forensic, sterile...lacking any feeling or emotional connection to the loved one now deceased.
Not only is it dangerous, it is ungodly. In Genesis we see God standing beside the void of chaotic darkness speaking light. But it was The Word that entered into the darkness to produce it. In redemption we see that The Word became flesh, and entered into our experiences. God always enters in. Sin caused Eve to stand objectively separate from Adam and give to him the fruit whereby he can raise himself to God-likeness. Sin always seeks distance, separation, no relationship. There is power in objectivity, but no compassion or patience.
What would happen to me if I lost my wife, my child, or my brother, or a parent? How would I respond? I would be an absolutely depressed, edgy, raging lunatic! Especially if I thought an injustice had been done. What would I not want to hear first?
I would not want to hear objective, authoritative, un-relational God-talk!: “We are praying for you.” “God collects your tears in a bottle.” “He who touches you touches the apple of my eye.” “You will see then again at the resurrection.” “God will comfort you.” “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord!” The list is endless. It is not that these things are untrue or bad of themselves. Rather, it is that we tend to use these and other phrases like them as emotional bandages through which we hide the other’s pain so that we don’t have to feel it or deal with it. It is easier to slap a Bible verse on it, to get theological, than to walk with those hurting through the valley of the shadow of death.
When we allow ourselves to consider how we would feel if the loss were our loss, we begin to enter into the world of the hurting. I say begin because none of us can or will truly entirely enter, we can only empathize. But this empathy begins to allow us to see and feel a little of what the hurting see and feel. If we allow ourselves to feel this, then we can begin to speak the language of the grieving, and walk them through this horrible valley into brighter and greener pastures. Entering in builds a trust relationship in grief which, if permitted, will allow hope be spoken in seemingly hopeless situations by those who have lost hope.
Don’t get me wrong: grief is no excuse for being a jerk. There is no justifiable reason to be mean, rude, lie, steal, manipulate. I am not reasoning for vigilante-ism, revenge, quitting on your family and walking out, etc. Nor am I supporting the bad to horrible decisions made during times of emotional duress and grief. Yet there is nothing reasonable about death. Death is unreasonable, and it is sometimes hard for people in unreasonable situations, confronted with unreasonable realities, to think and act reasonably.
- How does a parent who has lost a child feel?
- How does a child who has lost a parent feel?
- How does a sibling who has lost a sibling feel?
- How does one who has lost a spouse feel?
- Are there actually appropriate responses to grief?
I wonder if the only inappropriate grieving activity is to not acknowledge grief and loss at all.
One minister said to me, “Grief is the hearts thanksgiving for the gift of love, given by God, which has been taken away. Tears show God that we valued His gift.” Tears, sadness, grieving...it all shows how much we value what has been taken. The reality, however, is that our grief does not return our loved ones to us to us, nor does it give us permission to stop living because they have died!
I am encouraged by Lamentations. There the prophet is in the throes of grief and loss, and yet he still manages to have some hope in chapter 3.
I am encouraged by Job. Despite tremendous loss, death, and grief he still looks to God for answers. And he got it all returned to him, plus additional children!
I am encouraged by 1st Thessalonians 4. There the apostle, in the face of countless deaths, gives the church permission to grieve, even as he gives them the hope of the resurrection. There is life after grief!
Even with the knowledge of the resurrection, the grief of God quaked the earth and produced darkness at the death of Jesus. And Jesus did get up!
Finally, even at the inauguration of earth-made-new (Revelation 21), after the destruction of the wicked (Revelation 20), and although knowing their destruction was the righteous judgment of God in response to obstinate rebellion, there will be tears God will wipe away.
Death will always bring tears... BUT once these tears are Divinely wiped away, there will be no more tears because Death will be dead!
Christians of all people should be willing to enter into the sorrow of another, because that is what Jesus did with us:
“He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief...Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried.”
Isaiah 53: 3-4
“Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.” Hebrews 2:17-18
This text says there is temptation in suffering, and Jesus was being tempted when suffering. What was his temptation? He had two:
1) “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." Matthew 26:39
2) “...Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" (which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). Matthew 27:46
Jesus was tempted with trying to escape suffering, denying his grief, and with thinking God had abandoned him when he suffered.
I wonder if the primary Christian responsibility in grief should be 1) entering into the suffering of another like Jesus, for the purpose of adequately comforting and interceding for them, so that they 2) won’t seek to bypass or deny the grief and 3) won’t think that God has abandoned them in their grief and suffering.
I wonder if the Christian thing is to be the interceding presence of God for them, and not the exhorting voice of God to them.