The Burden of Grief

In reading Martin Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Council,” I was struck by how profound many of his insights into healthy grieving were. Since I currently work as a hospice chaplain, I spend extended time with patients and families both before death occurs and up to 13 months after it happens, I see many types of grieving behavior. Those who grew up being admonished for not “getting over” the loss of a loved one quickly or for grieving “inappropriately” would benefit from reading his wise words. Far too often, Christian leaders have used 1 Thessalonians 4:10 (do not grieve as those who have no hope) out of context. This verse does not preclude mourning, wailing or giving lament to one’s loss. It does prohibit the giving up of one’s hope of ever seeing a fellow believer again or losing one’s self to self destructive despair.

Luther insists that while we should not become hysterical, there is nothing disgraceful about mourning, nothing unfaithful in giving vent to one’s feelings (just read Job or Habbakuk.) The stiff upper lip mindset we inherited from Victorian England should have been retired long ago. Indeed, a Christian can grieve harder over death because he or she knows that death is unnatural, a consequence of the Fall. Death is described in the New Testament as our enemy. We mourn over what should have never been — separation in this life. We grieve hard over the death of non-believers, knowing their fate. The fact that they are lost to us forever cuts us deeply.  Luther, in fact, suggests that it is a sign of unfaith when people never mourn.

In “All Our Losses, All Our Griefs,” by co-authors Kenneth Mitchell and Hubert Anderson, there is this quote: “To be a follower of Christ is to love life and to value people; things that God has given us in such a way that losing them brings sadness.” p38.

Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death. Jewish people and many other cultures hired mourners and grieving went on for several days, sometime weeks. A whole book of the Bible, Lamentations, deals with loss as do many Psalms. Scripture records that the mourning for Jacob’s death lasted 70 days and for Moses 30 days (Genesis 50:3 and Deuteronomy 34:8) Why would we think that a few days off of work is all a person needs to come to terms with a significant loss.

We mourn – not at the thought of a person being lost to us forever (with the exception of non-believers), nor because we do not know where they are. We mourn because we valued them as a person made in God’s image, a unique person. We miss their camaraderie, their love, spontaneity,  friendship and a thousand other things that made them special to us. We need to let people grieve fully. We need to stop telling them to “get over it” and “move one.” Let God work the healing process. He is far better at it than you could ever possibly be. There is a time for everything, including mourning. It doesn’t last forever — one morning joy will come again and surprise us when it does. The deeper one loves the deeper one grieves. The deeper one loves God, the better one can lean on Him for strength in times of sorrow. He is well acquainted with grief. Jesus is described as a Man of Sorrows and one who suffered many losses.

I mourn my losses deeply, more deeply as the years go by, but I don’t fly into hysterics because I know my God and He is good. I trust in Him to make sense of it for me when I can’t see any sense in it. I have faith that He is both just and merciful in equal measure and that He knew what was best for my loved one’s life.

When you council with the grieving, let them know that they have permission to cry, to feel lonely, to hurt, to vent feelings without being judged. The best way to help them grieve is to help them remember the loved one. Share memories, share experiences with them. This sharing time helps to normalize the reality of death and allows the griever to know that their loved one’s life mattered to others. By talking about them, sharing pictures and moments about them it keeps alive, in a way, and diffuses the pain. Many times it allows laughter to mix with the tears. We are called to share each other’s burdens and the burden of grief is one that all of us can use help shouldering.

 

Allowing Grief to take Place

I ran across a quote the other day that speaks volumes: “For those who love life, immortality is no consolation in death” – Simone de Beauvoir. We understand, as Christians, that death has lost its ultimate power over us. We know, from Scripture, that our immortal soul, once redeemed by Jesus, will spend eternity with Him. We are even told that it will be reunited with a new body in heaven. Yet, we still grieve over the death of a loved one. This is appropriate on two levels.

First, if the one we have lost was not a believer in Jesus Christ, we grieve because they are truly gone. There is no meeting them again in the afterlife. Their death, for all intents and purposes, is final for us. That relationship we had with them has been sundered forever. Truly, it is appropriate to grieve for them.

Second, even if the person was a believer, even with the hope we have of being reunited with them in heaven, it is appropriate to grieve the loss. For now, the fellowship has been broken, Things are not the same. While we do not grieve as those who have no hope this does not mean we cannot or should not grieve. Death is an intruder, an interloper. It is not without reason the New Testament calls it “the last enemy.”

We grieve over loss because we have been cut off, at least temporarily, from the ones we love. For instance, we may be glad that a child is doing well at college across the country. We expectantly look forward to Christmas break when we will see them again but it doesn’t mute the emptiness of their bedroom we pass everyday. Death magnifies those feelings because we cannot call them on the phone and hear their voice like we can one separated only by distance.

One of the tragedies of our society, as well as today’s church, is not allowing people to adequately grieve. Because we are embarrassed for them or because we have not processed our own grief, we do not allow them to fully grieve and begin the road to healing. When Lazarus died, it wasn’t just Mary and Martha that mourned. Jesus did too. He knew He could resurrect Lazarus. He knew He was going to resurrect Lazarus and yet He still grieved. Knowing that it was okay for our Lord to grieve should be good enough for allowing His children to grieve also. It is a natural response to loss that must be allowed and there is no right way or wrong way to grieve, nor is there a time frame after which it is not allowable. The only restriction placed on grieving in the Bible is that we are not to grieve without hope, as a pagan might.

Modern psychology doesn’t help either. Since Freud’s time it has looked upon grief as a disease, as though it were a sickness like mumps or chicken pox, easily cured with the right combination of drugs or therapies. Only when we accept that for now, until a new heaven and earth are made by God, that suffering and loss are a normal part of our existence and grief is a normal reaction to loss, will we be able to help individuals cope with grief. We will sit with them, cry with them, wonder why with them and listen to their pain without offering stupid, meaningless platitudes. In short, we will experience their life with them and, in doing so, enrich both ours and theirs.

I leave you with this quote:  “We are told that it is perfectly legitimate for believer to suffer grief. Our Lord Himself was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Though grief may reach to the root of our souls it must not result in bitterness. Grief is a legitimate emotion, at times even a virtue, but there must be no place in the soul for bitterness.” R.C. Sproul, The Dark Night of the Soul, Tabletalk, March 2008

Hymn Devotions Day 30 – Take My Hand Precious Lord

DAY 30 – TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD

 

Many hymns were written out of tragedies, and this one was no exception. Thomas Dorsey was a fantastic musician and song writer who was devastated when his wife died giving birth to their child, who also later died. Filled with despair, he lost faith in God being a good and caring God. Deep in his grief, God reached out to him one as he sat at a friend’s house, overshadowing him with peace and filling his heart with love. Immediately he started playing a melody and these words welled up from inside him.

We can all empathize with him at times in our life. Few us there are who have not been touched with death or tragedy. Few of us there are who have not known despair at the circumstances we find ourselves in. Like the disciples on the boat in the storm, we have a feeling that any moment life is going to drown us. Thankfully, God is in control. He does have a plan, and it is a good one because He is good.

We can, like Peter found out, grab hold of His hand when we are in danger of drowning and He can lift us up to walk above the storms of life. He is all we need. When He is all there is we find Him to be more than sufficient, more than enough. He is God. All-knowing. All-caring. All-powerful. All-wise. All-good. He is God.

When we are overwhelmed we need to simply cry out to Him, “Lord, take my hand.” He will. He will lead us to Himself, where we will find rest for our burdened souls. “Come to Me” is His invitation. He will never turn us away.

 

Lord, take my hand today. Lead me to You. I do not know what today entails for my life, but You do. I can easily lose sight of You, lose perspective, lose hope. Keep me in Your hand, so that I am not overwhelmed by life, but so I can rest in You. Amen.

 

TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD – Thomas Dorsey

 

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I am tired

I am weak

I am worn

Through the storm

Through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand, precious Lord

Lead me home

 

When my way grows drear

Precious Lord, linger near

When my life is almost gone

Hear my cry

Hear my call

Hold my hand

Lest I fall

Take my hand, precious Lord

Lead me home

 

When the darkness appears

And the night draws near

And the day is past and gone

At the river I stand

Guide my feet

Hold my hand

Take my hand, precious Lord

Lead me home

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why You Can’t Disappoint God

One of the cardinal beliefs we hold about God is that He is all-knowing. That means that He knows everything that you or I will ever do. He knows this in advance from the day you were born, stretching into infinity. One of the ramifications of this is that He can never be disappointed in us. Disappointment, by definition, means to be discouraged or saddened by the failure to live up to hopes, dreams or expectations. Since God knows everything we will ever do in advance, He cannot be disappointed by our failures, simply because He isn’t expecting us to do anything other than He already knows we will do.

He knows these things, and yet loves us anyway. We can sadden Him, grieve Him, anger Him – but we will not disappoint Him. This is both exhilarating and sobering. It is exhilarating because I don’t have to carry around a false sense of guilt of causing Him disappointment. It is sobering, though, when I realize He couldn’t expect better from me because He already knew when and where I would fail.

The amazing thing of all this is that is shows God’s grace standing above all. Despite knowing my failures in advance, He still calls me to ministry. He still empowers me. He still loves me.

One of the other things you can’t do to God is surprise Him. That, though, will be a subject for another day. Praise God for His omniscience.