When You're Grieving

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Today I want to talk about grieving and the difference it makes in our grief when we have hope. I speak of this as a preacher of the gospel, as a friend of many who grieve, and as one who has sometimes walked through that valley myself. The biblical word comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 4, verse 13:

We would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

WE ALL GRIEVE

Grief, if we live for very long, visits all of us. It knocks at our door whenever we experience a loss. Your dog, tail-wagging companion of countless happy hours, wanders off one day and never returns. One of your best friends moves to a distant city and you lose contact. You’ve had a good job, but now you’ve been let go. You sorely miss what you’ve lost, and by whatever name you call it, you’re grieving.

Maybe you’ve been deprived of your sight. Maybe your family ties have been broken by separation or divorce. Maybe you’ve had a limb amputated or suffered a disabling injury. You’ve had to give up some activities that gave you great pleasure. Someone you trusted has turned against you, has almost become your enemy. Or maybe you’ve been required to move away from familiar surroundings and supportive friends. You’re going through what we call grief.

Its most acute form, of course, comes to us at the death of a loved one. That’s what we usually associate with the word grief, isn’t it? The grief-stricken are those who mourn the dying of someone dear to them. I believe that everyone in a situation like that grieves. Some may be more conscious of it than others, some may express it more, some obviously talk about it more openly, but all go through it in one way or another. If someone close to you has died recently, you can be sure, whatever your present feelings, that you are in the midst of grief.

In your case, it may lead to weeping. Now and then the tears start, and seem as though they won’t stop. Or, you may never cry at all. You may feel that you want to be by yourself, that you can’t handle being around people much. Or you may feel so lonely, so desolate, that you can’t stand to be alone. You’ll probably tend to idealize those who have died, to remember them in an unrealistic way, magnifying their virtues, forgetting their common human frailties. And, along with that, you may experience feelings of guilt about the way you treated them. “If only I’d been more thoughtful . . . if only I had expressed appreciation . . . I wish I had done this or that.” You may find yourself questioning God’s wisdom and love, crying out, “Why? Why did this have to happen?”

Little things may unexpectedly remind you of the one you’ve lost and bring fresh twinges of pain. Birthdays and holidays may be the worst times of all because they remind you of special joys you can’t recover. When you’re with others who still have their families about them, you may feel a rush of sadness, or even bitterness, that you have been deprived of what they have.

Or maybe, friends, you scarcely have any feeling. You’re almost numb. You go on about your business doing the things you have to do, trying to keep up a brave front. But the zest seems to have gone out of life for you. Nothing looks like fun any more. Maybe all you want to do is sleep.

Or, it’s possible that nothing may seem to change for you at all. You feel no differently than you did before your loved one was taken. You’ve gone through the funeral arrangements, the memorial services, the subsequent adjustments, with amazing ease. Friends marvel at the composed, cheerful way in which you’ve managed everything. Now you’re right back in the midst of your busy life, going on as if nothing had happened. But it has. You’ve been grieving, whether you know that or not. And you may grieve a good deal more. In fact, the process may go on for months, even years. The grief process may affect you profoundly for the rest of your life.

WE NEED TO GRIEVE FREELY

What does the Christian faith have to say to people who suffer these major losses, who go through grief? For one thing, it says: “Grieve freely.” We haven’t always understood that, have we? We’ve sometimes had the impression that to be deeply religious, to have strong faith, was to maintain control over one’s emotions and not let them be expressed. When losses come, we were told, the mature Christian should praise God and comfort others, not giving way to feelings of sadness, surely never presuming to question the ways of God. Whereas the Bible tells us not to grieve in the wrong way, we’ve sometimes told ourselves not to grieve at all! But that message was not from God, not from the One who made us, who knows us altogether, and who reveals himself in Jesus Christ.

The Scripture passage that has most helped me in dealing with grief is the shortest verse in the Bible, only two words long, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). That speaks volumes. The Lord had come to visit a family in the village of Bethany. Lazarus, a man he had loved very much, had just died. Jesus saw the sisters of the dead man and many around them crying. He was so moved that he wept too.

Think of what that means for us. We can be sure that expressing our grief in tears is right and good. Sometimes we’ve been given the impression that it isn’t manly to weep. In many cultures, young boys are taught from infancy that “real men don’t cry.” Maybe that’s one reason we “strong” men often prove to be so weak. We, with our vaunted self-control, end up having more ulcers and heart attacks than those “frail” females who give way to tears. We’ve got things all wrong. Here was a man, the man, God’s idea of a man, and he wept unashamedly.

Some people feel that if we “break down,” if we dissolve in tears of grief, we are displaying weakness of faith. But you can never accept that if you know that Jesus wept. “Weak faith,” you say? In One whose whole life breathed trust, who leaned hard upon his Father every day? No, the Christian faith is not stoic resignation, not a denial of human feeling. Some may greet the worst of woes with a shrug, with a stiff upper lip, but that doesn’t necessarily testify to strong belief. Faith and apathy are by no means the same. The Christian gospel was never meant to stifle emotion, to quench the springs of deep feeling.

I have known people who were uncomfortable at expressions of grief because they feared that such outbursts might lead to mental illness. These distraught persons, they feared, might lose control, “go to pieces.” But that is a serious error. The real danger usually lies in the opposite direction. Did you know that a remarkably high percentage of those admitted to mental hospitals are suffering from difficulties directly related to grief? Their problem is not that they have been overcome by tears but rather that they’ve been unable to recognize and express their grief adequately. Sometimes weeping, weeping freely, can be a blessed release, and can open the way for our spirits to be healed. So let’s forget those well-meant myths about tears. Jesus grieved. The Lord of glory wept. Never let anyone persuade you that it isn’t manly or healthy or Christian to cry.

It helps to talk out what you’re feeling too. Never mind if you’ve spoken about it before, if you’ve told the story of your loss a number of times. That’s what grief is like. You go over the same ground again and again. But as long as you feel an inner need to share, to unburden yourself, don’t hesitate to do it. The time may come when that inner pressure will begin to diminish, but it will come sooner, and in a far healthier way, if you don’t try to hold in what’s clamoring inside you to be said.

And by the way, if you know someone who’s been grieving, will you try to remember that? One of the most kindly services you can render to such people is to help them feel free to keep talking, to give them a listening ear even though you’ve heard it all before. Their wounds are deep and need not to be covered over but to heal gradually from within.

WE CAN GRIEVE WITH HOPE

In many ways, grief is universal, the same for all peoples. But in at least one vital respect, it’s different for those who believe the gospel of Christ. They do not grieve despairingly. Christ and his followers say: Grieve freely, yes, but do not sorrow as those who have no hope.

Many people do grieve hopelessly. A woman who had just discovered that her child had leukemia said this to a noted Christian writer: “When he dies, I’ll just have to cover him up with dirt and forget that I ever had him.” Then, tormented, she went on, “You look like a rational person. How can you possibly believe that the death of a man or a little boy is any different from the death of an animal?”

There, that’s the heart of the issue. She believed that death ended everything. It meant the obliteration of personality. It meant final separation. The one we loved has ceased to be; the relationship had ended forever. That living person so precious to us moments before, so intertwined with the longings and affections of our hearts, has now been swallowed up by nothingness.

Who wouldn’t despair at that? How can life seem anything but meaningless if it’s going nowhere? What value can there be in growing bonds of closeness that are doomed to be torn apart forever?

But have we any solid reasons for believing differently? Doesn’t that woman’s anguished question have weight? What assurance is there that we and our loved ones can survive death, can have existence and identity beyond it? Nothing in ourselves can support that hope. Not our fondest wishes, our most grandiose dreams, not even the intriguing reports of those who have been near death. Our hope lies not in a theory but in an event, not in some capacity of ours to sustain life but in God’s renewing power. Our hope is in Jesus Christ himself, crucified for us, risen from the dead.

According to the Bible, physical death is the outward sign of a deeper dying. We have lost our true life because we have turned away from the one who made us. We have thrown off his authority, forfeited his fellowship, and gone our own way. But God in Jesus Christ has come to make things right. He has shared our humanity, stooped under the load of our sin, and tasted death for us all. Now he lives and reigns, conqueror of sin and death, the Savior of all who believe. Trusting in him, we have eternal life now and rejoice that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Those who follow Jesus have been born anew to a life full of hope. They look forward to his return, to the full coming of his kingdom, to resurrection and yes, reunion. If you have never taken that most important step, let me urge you this day to commit yourself to Jesus Christ, to invite him by faith into your life to be your Lord and Savior. He calls you through his gospel to trust in him and then face the future with radiant confidence.

So grieve freely, friends, but not despairingly. Tears are right and good, but one day God is going to wipe them away forever. C. S. Lewis, the late English literary critic and lay-theologian, was a man who knew first-hand what grief could be. Married late in life, he found undreamed-of happiness with his beloved, only to see her taken away three years later by a lingering, painful illness. He wrote about it honestly and poignantly in a little book called A Grief Observed. Two thoughts come shining through it. One is that God can sometimes seem to be a terrible antagonist, letting us be hurt more than we had thought possible. But the other is a refrain of hope: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” We grieve now, but that sorrow – even that – can be swallowed up in the joy of a Resurrection Morning!