20 September 2017

Finding Comfort in Grief

The shake in my dad’s voice as he answered the phone told me something was desperately wrong. A relaxed Sunday afternoon turned into a hurried trip to the emergency room, but nothing could be done. My friend Alice, who was one of the healthiest people I knew, was gone. An autopsy revealed a cerebral hemorrhage.

“God must have wanted another angel,” a lady in the waiting room told me. I didn’t respond. Sunday was not the first time I had received the sudden shock of having someone I loved dearly die with no warning. On a Sunday almost 17 years ago my twin sister Allison was taken just as unexpectedly. “God, why?” I asked in that waiting room. “Why does life have to be so painful?”

I am sure the disciples were asking a similar question on Easter Sunday, “God why? Why now? Why so suddenly? Why did you not stop this obvious tragedy?” God, of course, sees the big picture. Nothing is ever a surprise to Him, but, as humans, we only see a piece of the picture and that piece is often very different from how we would have planned it.

Death is ugly, something that people frequently have trouble being around or talking about even in the Christian community. At the crucifixion, John is the only one of Jesus’ twelve disciples who is said to have stayed with Him until his death. Several of the women who followed Jesus were present as well. After Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in his own tomb, Matthew 27:61 says Mary Magdalene and another Mary stayed close by the tomb. After a death, it feels good to be close even after the person is gone.

It is tempting to never want to love again after losing someone dear. There are times that the phone rings, and I am scared to answer it. I do not know if I can handle another piece of shocking news. Life is just so fragile and often so much shorter than expected.

There will always be grief, but as the disciples found out on Easter morning that grief does not last forever. Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Jesus knew that death is a hard process to work through. It is good to mourn, even as Christians who know they will see their loved one again in heaven; and yet just having the hope of the resurrection does not instantly remove all pain. The deep pain of grief is nothing to be ashamed of or avoided. Jesus wept when he lost a dear friend, so why should we not weep as well.

It is interesting to observe how different cultures mourn. My friend who died was a Kenyan student studying abroad. The other Kenyans who gathered at the hospital gave me a hug and let me cry. Later we shared a meal together as we planned the memorial service. Several Scripture verses were read and then we sang. It was not rigid singing taken out of a programme but heartfelt songs as one person started a song and then someone else jumped in with another.

When I attended a middle of the week service at my church, there was a much different response. Only one person even mentioned what had happened even though everyone had heard the news by then. Several of us were grieving on the inside, but no one brought it up. Death is one of those topics people are often afraid to touch. It is messy, people cry, and then what do you do? A lady who lost her son in a car accident shared that one of the hardest things to deal with for her, was how people related to her after the tragedy. She said that some people avoided her completely because they did not know what to say. Other people glossed over the painful affair acting as if nothing had happened.

I have been asked before, “What do you say to someone who is grieving?” Honestly, I do not know, but I know a lot of things not to say. When my sister died someone told my parents, “Well at least you have other children.” Another couple I know lost a  baby before birth and was “comforted” with the illustration that life is like a football game. Sometimes you just get a bad bounce. It is tempting to get frustrated at such insensitive responses. Frequently, people want to give comfort but do not know what to say. When it comes to comforting someone, I would advise not saying a lot. Listen, hold them, share memories, and just be there.

The disciples found being together, comforting. I do not know if they were talking much, but when you lose someone, it is good to be close to those who are also grieving. In Jewish culture when a death occurs, a Shivah takes place after the funeral. During this seven-day period, friends and family stay with those who are grieving offering condolences and simply being there for the family.

The disciples did not remain long in their grief, and as Christians we can hold on to the hope of the resurrection. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 says, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.”

Christians need to take the job of encouraging one another seriously. It is hard to know what to say, but as the body of Christ it is important to be there for each other during times of grief. We are not meant to grieve forever. Just as Jesus’ followers’ grief disappeared when He rose from the grave, our grief is also temporary. Isaiah 25:8 says, “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove the disgrace of His people from all the earth.” In the meantime, follow the instructions of 1 Thessalonians 4:18: comfort one another and look forward to the hope of the resurrection.

By Ruth Uehle