Grieving with Hope

On Sunday night I watched a “60 Minutes” piece on a couple who had lost their daughter in one of the senseless mass shootings that has plagued our world.  Years later they still feel the pain, but they have channeled their grief into an effort to assist other families of mass shootings.  I admired their dedication and compassion.  There task is a difficult one.  No one is unphased when loss, especially unforeseen, untimely death enters our lives; but many people are less prepared than others.

As a pastor I have been privileged to be with many people at the lowest and highest parts of their lives.  I have often asked myself, “How would I handle this?” What understanding of life can prepare you and how should we think about such a tragedy?   I think it is a good thing to ask such questions before having to face your own tragedy.

Let’s start by talking about loss that is a shock and trauma–like a mass shooting.  This kind of grief often is accompanied with ongoing uncontrolled symptoms that we now call PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder).  PTSD is a maladaptive attempt by your brain to protect you.  It doesn’t of course.  I gives you an additional problem.  But the neural pathway that develops is supposed to prepare you for a similar tragedy, which most likely won’t happen.  Can we be inoculated at all against PTSD?  I think so.

We need to have a very grounded and complete understanding of how the world is.  There is profound evil in our world. We should not be kept naïve about evil, how bad it can be, and what is possible.  On the flip side, we don’t want or need to live fearfully or be indifferent to pain.  In short, we need a theology about evil and death.  Kids need a theology about evil and death.  If we understand evil and death, they should not surprise us. The shock of the reality of evil in this world causes the involuntary reactions like PTSD.

Death is to be understood as a part of everybody’s life eventually.  The Bible attributes most evil to a corruption that is part of every human being.  It’s called sinful nature.  Ultimately, evil can be traced back to a source, Satan.  It is real and sometimes very ugly.

We also need hope.  In this context, I don’t mean wishfulness.  I mean confidence that God is greater than Satan and good is more powerful than evil.  Hope stands on a promise of eternal life through Jesus, and God is faithful.  When you have this hope, you can know that the evil and ugliness of this world is temporary; and you can have confidence that those who lose their lives but have Jesus are moving on to Heaven.  This kind of hope is key to getting past any type of mourning.

The final part is renewed purpose.  Death changes our lives.  We lose a part of us when we lose a role, whether that was as a parent, child, friend, co-worker or whatever.  Jesus said,

But everyone who hears these words of mine but does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, and the streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a mighty crash.  (Matthew 7:26-27)

As much as we love people, our lives cannot depend on our relationship with them for purpose, happiness and meaning.  That is the “sand” in the passage above.  Those things must be founded on our relationship with God.  We will lose relationships, sometimes to death, but we will continue to have a God-given purpose that transcends those relationships.

We recently had some suicide deaths among the survivors of mass shootings in our country.  Survivor’s guilt and an unrelenting sense of loss can drive a person to try to escape the pain by any means.  We should grieve.  Love will eventually necessitate grief.  But if we understand our world, still have hope and have a purpose that is resting on the Word of God; we can grieve, honor the dead and rediscover how to be happy.

Do the Dead Watch Over Us?

When we lose somebody in death, we often are desperate for any sign that we are still connected.  Some of theses signs are quite baseless.  For instance, I have noticed recently a mime on facebook claiming that a cardinal at the bird-feeder is a loved one checking up on us.  Even if it helps, this is bad idea to perpetuate.  Where would an idea like this come from in the first place?  It comes from the New Age movement and intentionally manipulates our wishful thinking.

Another idea is that our dead loved ones are watching us and that we can speak with them in a fashion similar to prayer.  The likely source of this idea is Hebrews 12:1:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The picture is that the living are on the field and the dead are in the stands watching.  This, however, is a misinterpretation of this passage.  The “witnesses” are not people witnessing us but rather witnessing to us.  This refers to all the stories of people of great faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11, not deceased loved ones.

When somebody dies, it is unbiblical to say that:

  • They have become an angel (Angels are not humans)
  • They are assigned as our guardian
  • Or that they are hanging out with other dead relatives

These ideas are merely comforting projections of things for which we still long.

The connection that does still remain is this:  we are still part of the Body of Christ together.  Both the Christians who occupy Heaven and those who still occupy Earth are all a part of the Kingdom of God and all are united to Christ.  As such, we all are concerned for the ongoing work of God and we all are eager for Christ’s return.

Might information about our actions and well-being be shared with those who went ahead of us?  Sure.  I would expect that to be likely.  Might God give our loved ones some opportunity to encourage us or help us grieve?  That does seem like the type of being God is.  He is compassionate and understanding.  So then, maybe the cardinal could a loved one?  No,  I’m pretty sure it is just a bird.

 

Grief

Death isn’t meant to be celebrated.  It only exists as the wages of sin.  The body wasn’t initially created to be mortal.  When humanity essentially rejected God, the results of their actions introduced a biology that could die.  We’ve been dying ever since.  To die and have your body undergoing decay, even if your conscious soul is somewhere much better, is a consequence that is tragic.

It is right to grieve.  Many people want their funeral to be a celebration of their life.  Even more, for a Christian, we want it to be a celebration of the fact that we are liberated from our sinful nature and from a body under God’s curse.  But if we were valuable at all to the people we left behind, there will be grief.

How can we survive grief?  The victory over grief starts with an understanding of your own God-given purpose.  Life isn’t the prize.  Life is the time of accomplishing God’s plan for you.  As we navigate through this world, we are blessed to have people we love and who support us on our way.  They are valuable, but they will all die either before us or after us.  They may be dependable, but we can’t depend on them absolutely, because they are mortal.  We must depend on God.  Perhaps through a part of your journey, God will be the only one you have on which to depend.

The second necessary ingredient to surviving grief is hope.  This should be the understanding that you will have eternal life with God through Jesus.  All of life’s losses are temporary.  At least their impact is temporary.  When we leave this life ourselves we will leave behind every loss.  A clear certainty that we have eternal life and that we have a God-given purpose takes most of the sting of grief away.  The rest heals as we walk with God.  Jesus died so that you can have that hope, that reality.  What He has for you will overwhelm all sense of loss.

This is true even if we have reason to doubt that the person we are grieving has been saved.  While we live, we want to do whatever is possible to bring the Gospel of Jesus to those we know and love.  That doesn’t mean that they will believe it.  It is wrong to absolutely judge a person as damned.  You can’t always see what God has managed to do in the soul of a person.  Still, you might have a pretty good idea that there was no connection with Jesus from the words and actions of the person.  I have that situation personally.  I could be wrong.  I hope I am wrong.  What I have found is that God has given me peace.

Unexpected, tragic death can put an extra dimension on grief.  We recently had the tragic death of a beautiful young woman in our congregation.  Her loss is a grievous loss for her parents and the community.  There are many layers to pain that people are feeling, too.  There is grief, guilt, anger, confusion.  In addition to the self-understanding and hope mentioned above, a person needs to talk through their pain and experience the love of those around them.  They need to forgive and be forgiven.  And they need to reimagine life without her.  In this case, that life includes an eventual reunion, thanks to Jesus.

If we get stuck in grief, if we tell ourselves we will never get over this, then we might not.   Grief hurts.  But not progressing through grief does not honor the person you lost, nor does it serve God, nor does it help you.  Be determined to get beyond grief.  It is possible.