We grieve, but not “as others who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13).
No one volunteers to become knowledgeable about grief. Life hands you the assignment by robbing you of someone whom you love dearly. Suddenly, you find yourself missing a major part of your existence–an arm and a leg come to mind–and trying to figure out how to go forward.
You discover this ache in you goes by the name “grief.” Synonyms include mourning. Sorrow. Loss. Bereavement.
Without warning, you find yourself experiencing an entire new lineup of emotions–all of them devastating–about which you had heard only rumors before.
The second discovery you make is people think you ought to be able to help others deal with it. Surely, they imply, if you have come through it and lived to tell about it, you must be wise.
I’m so unwise.
People are kind. To this date–and I’m almost eight months into this bizarre condition called widowhood–people I hardly know continue to send notes that they’re praying for me. I thank them for their kindness and stand in awe.
As a pastor, I never kept on ministering to the hurting this long after their initial loss.
I didn’t know.
I’m now getting invitations to speak to groups of ministers on the subject of grief. “Grief and humor.” “How to have a grief ministry.” “How to deal with loss.” “Getting over the death of a spouse.”
Margaret would smile at that. Dealing with emotions of any kind was never my strong point. My wife of 52-plus years was the one who felt deeply, thought profoundly, and analyzed everything, while she would have said “Joe denies he has any emotions.” I would protest, but her point was that I had learned to discount my feelings–they can be so fickle and counterproductive–and to go forward, ignoring them.
There is truth in that. Pastors learn to stifle their feelings if they are to minister to church members who have been working to get them fired but who suddenly find themselves going through a crisis of some kind. Pastors learn to stifle their feelings when they make pastoral visits into the homes of leaders who battle them on every side. Pastors learn to stifle their feelings when they walk into the pulpit to preach God’s Word five minutes after hearing from a committee that they are being terminated.
Pastors learn to stifle their feelings when they leave an angry wife at home in order to drive to the nursing home or hospital to minister to the hurting. They send up quick prayers for help to the Father of all comfort, and they walk into the sick room ready to love and care and serve.
Pastors learn to stifle their feelings when they preach the funeral of a precious child they love as they do their own. They learn to stifle their feelings when they go from a heart-wrenching funeral of a beloved young adult, raised in our church and killed suddenly and tragically, to a wedding two hours later involving other members of our church. In every case, you “suck it up,” to use a crude expression, and give it your best.
The veteran minister thinks he has this down to a science and that he can endure anything.
Then he finds out how mistaken he was.
Suddenly, life pulls the rug out from under him and he finds he’s the master of nothing. He cries like a newborn.
To say I’m no authority on grief is the understatement of the year.
Readers who have spent their whole careers studying grief, reading the endless books on the subject, writing and teaching and counseling, will smile at my naivete, no doubt. Perhaps it’s like cancer. There are so many different kinds and the treatments vary. After my little bout of cancer in 2004, I feel guilty when friends tell me of the scary aspects of their cancer with radical surgeries, bizarre procedures, stem cell transplants, and the constant trips to Anderson or Sloane-Kettering. Mine is hardly worth mentioning.
Maybe it’s that way with my grief. Like the suffering Paul mentioned, my grief is momentary and light (2 Corinthians 4:17) compared to so many. Certainly my understanding of it is so limited.
Here are six realities I’m learning about grief…
1. It’s different for each person. There does not seem to be one kind of grief for mankind. The length and depth and degree of grief all differ.
2. Isolation is the worst possible choice while one is grieving.
The Lord added believers to the Body of Christ, the Church. We need each other for mutual comfort, teaching, encouragement, and a thousand other things.
However, a grieving person is not going to call friends with “Hey–let’s get together.” They have to take the initiative. And at times, to be insistent. “Come on, friend. You need to get out of the house. My wife and I are taking you to dinner. We’ll be over in 30 minutes.”
Friends don’t let friends sorrow alone.
3. The Lord’s disciples will still grieve, even while holding firmly to the teachings of eternal life, eternal presence with Christ, the defeat of death, and the resurrection.
Just because I believe my loved ones–my parents, two brothers, my wife–are with the Lord does not lessen the sorrow caused by their departure.
4. Grief seems to come in waves.
I can go an entire week with hardly a thought about Margaret, but then every day something triggers the memories and I weep.
In the months since she was taken, I have preached in numerous churches from California to Florida. Almost invariably, when I leave a church and climb into my car to travel home, my reflex is to call Margaret and report in. She’s been praying and will want to know how things went and when to expect me home. Then it hits me.
Darn. There go the tears again.
5. Grief never completely goes away. We just learn to cope.
After Margaret’s death, my friend Joyce called from Orlando. Her evangelist husband Jim was a precious friend. I said, “When do the tears stop?” She answered, “I don’t know yet. It’s only been fourteen years.”
What are the skills we need to cope? I don’t know, but these come to mind…
1. A strong belief. The sorrowing survivor will learn quickly whether he/she believes the promises of the Lord Jesus. And since “faith comes by…the Word of the Lord” (Romans 10:17), the best thing is to stay in the Scriptures, reading, thinking, digesting, believing.
The gold standard for believing in the face of adversity comes from one who knew a depth of suffering the rest of us can only imagine. And yet he said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).
2.. Self-talk. The ability to get tough with ourselves and say what our drooping, sagging spirits need to be told.
The Psalms are saturated with examples of great self-talk. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:1-2).
And another favorite: “Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with you” (Psalm 116:7).
3. A willingness to deal with our anger.
My friend Jude said after her husband died, she was so consumed by anger concerning the mistreatment by him and then the financial mess he had left behind, she knew she had to do something. “I got two boxes,” she said. “I marked one anger and the other thanksgiving. Every time I got angry at Bob for something, I wrote it on a slip of paper and dropped it into that box. Then, I made myself write out two things for which I was thankful and put them into their box.” She had intended to do something important with them, Jude said, like have a bonfire for the box of angry memos. “But Katrina took care of that.” Her home was destroyed by the hurricane.
To friends who are having a hard time sorting through their emotions and dealing with anger, guilt, sadness, sorrow, and sometimes relief and gratitude, I suggest they get a wordless book and start a daily journal. (Handwriting their feelings seems to be more therapeutic than typing into a word document, but perhaps that’s just a personal choice.) In most cases, no one will read it but themselves.
5. Community. We need friends.
(See #2 above.)
6. Laughter. Sharing memories.
A merry heart does good like a medicine? (Proverbs 17:22) It does indeed.
One of the sweetest things I will ever hope to see in this lifetime happened a few hours after my wife’s funeral. Our three children were in my house with their families. At one point, when laughter erupted from the living room, I stuck my head in to see what was going on. The grandchildren–all eight of them–were on the floor in a circle, playing some kind of game. They were laughing, touching, and loving being together. It must have gone on 15 minutes. Our two sons and daughter live hundreds of miles apart and these children see each other so seldom.
Meanwhile, about five feet behind them on a small round table, sat the mahogany box containing the ashes of the grandmother who adored them so much, and whom they loved fiercely.
She would have loved this.
7. A counselor or therapist.
Twice since my wife died, I’ve made appointments to visit Beverly, her pastoral counselor for several years. Beverly knows our family inside and out. When we had our fiftieth anniversary dinner for the extended family, Margaret invited Beverly and her husband. The counseling sessions did me good, and I’ll be going back.
I know so little about this subject, but I’m so grateful for family, for friends, and for the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. After all, He assures me, from the moment of salvation and from then on, “it is well with my soul.”