Grieving with Hope
“Every loss needs to be grieved. Every loss has its season of grief. A loss that is not grieved will eventually come out, often in unhealthy ways. - Dr. Terry Wardle
This week in our Monday Afternoon Bible Study I told the story of Lazarus and asked the class to consider what it meant that “Jesus wept.” As we told stories of tears and of not-tears—how we have been conditioned not to show grief and have been told the lie that “only sissies cry,” one of the stories that several of us told was how we had cried copiously at the death of a pet, because we had been unable to cry at the death of those people whom we love.
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in her November article in The Lutheran describes the culture of happiness that is an obsession in our society to the point that we abuse people who are not happy, despite having minor problems like weekly chemotherapy treatments. A happy culture does not cry and does not grieve.
The story of Lazarus teaches us that if Jesus can cry, so can we.
Every loss needs to be grieved. Grief is a purging of the emotional energy that is generated by loss and death. Some deaths are catastrophic, such as the bicyclist killed this week when a semi-trailer crushed him to death. The human body’s reaction to such loss is to go into shock, that paralysis of body, mind, and emotions that allows the extent of the loss to gradually enter in and to allow the person the ability to absorb the blow.
This initial stage of grief, however, is meant to last only a short time. Sometimes we need help to begin to grieve. In Jesus’ day there were professional mourners who would come to the home where a death had occurred and would wail and keen in such a way as to give permission for the mourners to cry and express their grief emotionally.
Contrast that with our culture where the soft music during the visitation hours at the funeral home reinforces the idea that this is a time of silence, quiet, and reflection. No strong emotion encouraged here. Not that I blame funeral home directors, they are only doing what we want. In fact, most of our practices around death move it out of our homes and out of our lives into that building on the edge of town where death lives.
When Lazarus died Martha and Mary would have washed his body within a couple of hours of his death, anointed it with myrrh, and wrapped it in a clean sheet. Burial would have happened in less than six hours due to the inability to preserve bodies and the putrefaction of bodies that happens quickly, especially in extremely hot environments like Israel. The mourning and visitation and funeral services would have happened over the subsequent days as the news spread by word of mouth.
Because our culture has this fixation on happiness and denial of death, I invite folks when a death occurs to:
1) Know that you have permission to be sad, cry, and mourn for as long as it takes.
2) Offer prayers of lament in which the outpouring of sadness, rage, and pain are directed to God. Around a third of the psalms are laments, for we need that ability to express our grief. The good news is that God is big enough to take whatever we dish out without being offended, getting mad or breaking off the relationship. Instead, God leans in closer.
3) Know that not only big “D” Deaths are to be grieved, but also little “d” deaths need grieved too, such as the break-up of a boy/girlfriend relationship, retirement, house fire, divorce, secrets told, friendships betrayed, etc.
Every loss has its season of grief.
This is EVERY loss. When great-grandmother’s hand-painted ceramic turkey—the only possession of hers that you own—gets knocked off the end table and smashed, it is a loss. That tangible reminder of her love of beauty, her joy in crafting, and her love for you in gifting you is gone. It is worth grieving even in a small way. A multitude of un-grieved small losses stores up unreleased emotional energy.
It is a SEASON. How long a person grieves depends on a multitude of factors, but what is important to know is that it is a season. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. When we are in the middle of deep grief it can seem as if it’s never ending, and so it helps to know that hope and life will return.
However, in our culture it is also important to know that the season is generally longer than our culture allows. There was a reason why previous cultures wore black for a year or more. They recognized that it takes time, a lot of time, for a person to move through the stages of grief. I often tell folks two stories to illustrate this.
Julie is my first cousin and her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack. A number of years later I broached the subject of his death and how she handled the grief. I have never forgotten one of the things she said, “It had been over a year after David had died when I read the book The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), by Joan Didion. It was then that I realized how that first year you think you are doing OK, but you are not. Fortunately I only made one foolish decision in that time period and in the end it did not make that big of difference. But I can see how people get in trouble when they make decisions for it truly is a year of magical thinking. You think you are thinking well, but you are not.”
Second, in order to give people time to grieve, I tell the story of a pastor who wrote on article on the time it takes to grieve. He and his wife were in their 30’s when she was killed in a car accident. The line that I remember from that article was, “It took me five years to heal and feel fully alive again.” I tell folks this story for our culture allows five days to mourn. In five weeks those who are not closely connected with the deceased have made it a part of their past, but for those who deeply loved him or her, it is just as present as if it happened yesterday.
A loss that is not grieved will eventually come out, often in unhealthy ways.
Here is where Terry Wardle’s model, Structures for Healing, explains the connection between losses and unhealthy behavior by getting at the root of the problem. Unresolved losses cause us to believe lies about ourselves, others, and God. When we try to live according to false beliefs we find ourselves being willed with emotional upheaval as nothing works out like we think it should. This anxiety causes us to engage in dysfunctional behavior which in part relieves the anxiety but results in unhealthy living.
The following example comes from a Guideposts story I read once. A mother recounted how the family home burned to the ground with the loss of all their possessions. The family was returning from eating out and saw it all. So they themselves were safe. The mother then told how she was the model of efficiency, arranging a place to stay, contacting the insurance company, making sure the kids got to school and all their activities as if it had never happened, replacing clothes, and making plans to rebuild their home. She never shed a tear, never grieved, and everyone commented on how wonderfully she was coping with it all. Until the day she went grocery shopping with her husband, reached for a grapefruit on a stack, and caused the whole stack to go rolling every which way down the aisle. She fell to the floor and began sobbing hysterically. A stock boy came running to restock while her husband sat next to her bewildered by the extent of her outburst. He patted her back and said, “It will be alright. It’s not that big of a deal.” She sobbed, “No, no, no! It’ll never be right again.”
The loss caused her to believe the lie that “it is only stuff” which created great emotional upheaval as the enormity of all that is irreplaceable began to sink in which drove her the dysfunctional behavior of over-functioning and not grieving until one small incident became a major crises.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” - Jesus
Jesus wept. He experienced loss and grief as we do. The first thing we need to recall when we are grieving is that God knows. God understands. Jesus, true God, has been where we are and is with us in the midst of all circumstances. Jesus is not at all like the well-meaning but foolish friend who says, “I know what you are going through as you mourn the death of your daughter. My mom died last year.”
Most of all, however, Jesus is the resurrection. Jesus died and God raised him from the dead. God continues to raise the dead, and while it is a comfort to know that the one whom we love and who has died has also been resurrected, the work of Jesus is that he brings us resurrection life now. He heals us from the bottom up.
When the mother in the fire experienced the depth of her loss, she also opened herself up to asking Jesus to fill her with himself and to heal her loss. Jesus granted her an awareness of his presence and gave her a spirit of gratitude as she was able to appreciate that which was really important was saved, the lives of her children and husband. In addition he taught her the truth that life is transient, that each moment is to be lived fully and that “even when one has an abundance one’s life does not consist of one’s possessions.” The presence of Jesus replaced her fear and anxiety with peace, enabled her to receive the help of family and friends, and to live a more wholesome life.
The Scripture passage that has given me great encouragement as I practice grieving, as I ask God for the gift of tears, and as I seek to be aware of the presence of the resurrected Jesus is from 1 Thessalonians 4:13. It says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”