Understanding Grief Part 1
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by Alan Bester.
By Michael Ca.s.sidy.
It is a privilege to write these words of commendation for Alan Bester's splendid booklet on Understanding Grief. Understanding Grief. He writes these words which he had already spoken into the lives of his congregation, in the aftermath of the loss in their congregation in a short span of time of three little babies. So the words of these pages come out of the existential context of a church community overwhelmed with grief, but also caught up in entering into profoundly the grief of those parents who have lost their little ones. So these pages are not full of theory but of deep spiritual reality and comfort.
What is very special here is that Alan writes so deeply as a pastor and counsellor. Here are the words and the heartbeat of a shepherd of G.o.d's people and one whose human understandings have made him a deep and effective counsellor to those who are grieving.
In these pages Alan does not bring forth simplistic or superficial answers. What he shares comes out of deep wrestling with the issues raised by suffering as undoubtedly the deepest philosophical question before the human race. Alan's words are not only spiritually relevant, but practical. People are helped to work through the issues of their grief, even as they are brought face to face with the glorious Christian world view of a G.o.d who is really there, and of a Heaven which is really there, in addition to our own world which is really here. In other words, we are challenged to take seriously what the Bible tells us about Reality and shown how to apply it.
Alan also very helpfully enables us to see how grief and suffering can even become spiritual friends taking us into some of the deepest places of divine blessing. Alan helps us grasp how we need to allow grief to enable us to discern in new categories what really matters in life.
Beautifully written as this little book is, it cannot of course bring all the answers to all the questions. But for myself I always rejoice that in our mystification and in our overwhelming "WHY'S'", nevertheless even our Lord has entered into such questionings and such mystification when on the Cross He not only bore our sins and transgressions, and our griefs and sorrows, but also all our questionings when in His humility He cried out: "My G.o.d, my G.o.d, WHY...?"; thereby gathering up all the why's that ever tumbled from the human breast. This is comforting indeed.
Alan really helps us all to lay hold of these truths. In so doing he opens the way for us to G.o.d's comfort and blessing.
The Lord bless you as you absorb the message of these pages.
This booklet is written in response to the grief of the Metro Methodist family, Pietermaritzburg. My thanks to Cliff Allwood for the affirmation and the prompting to commit a couple of sermons into written form to reach people beyond one congregation. The reality is that the one common experience of every human being is grief. Grief is painful and very often grief leads to more questions than answers. Our community has grieved. We have prayed earnestly that little babies born into our Church family be healed, but these babies have died. We grieve and to emphasise the point again, there seems to be more questions than answers. While this booklet is written in the context of our babies that have died, the lessons I've learnt and share may be applied to all forms of grief in which we feel that the loss experienced is beyond bearing and understanding.
Special thanks to Michael Ca.s.sidy, a wonderful mentor, for writing the foreword. I am so humbled that Michael has taken the time to first read this booklet and then write these words. Michael has been a constant source of encouragement. My grateful thanks to my family who I love so much, Sophia, Kieran and Darien without their support, ministry would not be possible.
I have often said that a woman is most beautiful in two special moments of life's journey. The first is as a bride on the day of her wedding. The second, when carrying the promise and hope of life during pregnancy. For me, these two life moments fully reveal G.o.d's love as a gift of love. The gift of love shared between a wife and husband, and the gift of love that brings new life into the world. It is little wonder that these are among the happiest moments of life. It is also little wonder then that the grief of losing a spouse, and most especially that of losing a child is among the most heart breaking of all grief.
In my 26 years of ministry there have been incredible moments of joy, but there have also been moments of deep despair and grief. The hardest of all moments has been to conduct the funeral services for babies and small children. I do not know how to describe the agony of standing beside a coffin that can be carried with two hands. These are moments in which I have desperately wanted to understand the purposes of G.o.d. These are the moments in which there were far too many questions and too few answers. This book is not an attempt to understand the mind of G.o.d, but it does offers the lessons I have discovered which I pray will offer comfort and hope to others in life's darkest moments.
This book is written out of the grief of a community in which three babies of the Metropolitan Methodist Church family, Pietermaritzburg, died in the s.p.a.ce of a few short weeks. This book is written out of a desperate need to understand how G.o.d allows little innocent children to live several months and then for these children to die. This book is written out of the wrestling with G.o.d in which we celebrated miracle upon miracle in these babies' lives, only for their families to still carry tiny coffins into a funeral service.
The word miracle is not an exaggeration. One Friday morning the doctors, who were no longer able to do anything for one little boy, placed him in his mother's arms to die. He was dying, and we prayed for a miracle. And a miracle occurred. His breathing and heart beat normalized. But this same little boy died. Where do we even begin to understand what's happening here?
I know that great authors and scholars have tackled this subject of grief, and I humbly offer my own experience of grief. This book is in two parts. The first part is the attempt to find understanding in grief. The second is a practical response to grief. Both parts have their seeds in the sermons I preached at the Metropolitan Methodist Church to a grieving community. While this book is written in the context of the death of our community's babies, the lessons herein can be applied to any loss that creates grief. I pray that these words will bring you comfort, peace and hope.
Part One: Understanding Grief
Father's Day, 21 June 1992. My first father's day. I will never forget the day because it was the day our first son, Kieran, was born. Is there a greater joy for a parent? I can remember every moment the first glimpse of our child all the months of expectation realised in a perfect little baby boy. But that same joy leads to a pain-filled question. Can there be a greater grief for a parent than that of a child who dies?
And as a church congregation we have experienced the grief of babies who died. Three babies of two families in a couple of weeks. One family have now over the last couple of years carried five small coffins into the church. The natural order of life and death is that children bury parents, not parents their children. It is not only the grief of loss that we deal with, the grief of living without these children among us, but all the questions that arise. Why does G.o.d choose to heal at times, and then not at other times? Why does G.o.d allow the death or suffering of the innocent, especially little children?
These are real questions and the truth of the matter is that very often we don't have the answers to these questions. But just because we don't have answers to every question, it does not mean we have a reason to give up our faith and trust in G.o.d. Sadly, I have heard it all too often proclaimed that there is no G.o.d in a world of suffering and death.
We live in an age of reason that so often seems to claim that what the mind cannot understand or prove doesn't exist. This led to the popular theology of the 1960's that boldly proclaimed, "G.o.d is dead". All through the ages the Scriptures and belief in G.o.d and belief in an afterlife have been challenged. Because we do not have the answers we seek about dying and death, the world has too often come to the conclusion: Either, G.o.d does not care or G.o.d does not exist. And if G.o.d does not exist there is no heaven.
Sadly, the mind and reason which may rightly challenge old thought, wrongly discards the truth. For example, people once believed in a simple universe. Heaven in the clouds and h.e.l.l at the centre of the earth. But telescopes and astronauts prove to us that there is no heaven above the clouds. There's only s.p.a.ce, filled with galaxies of stars and planets. Deep shafts drilling kilometres into the earth haven't revealed caverns of fire and demons. But to claim that there is no heaven or h.e.l.l is to deny the revelation of Scriptures. So where is heaven and h.e.l.l? I don't know. If the world demands scientific proof, I do not know how to offer such proof. But equally so there is no scientific proof to counter a belief in G.o.d or of heaven and h.e.l.l which is not part of this created reality and which is not bound to our laws of nature and science.
The apostle Paul knew this. He writes to the Corinthians, "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. ... For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."1 Paul refers to the understanding of reality as trying to make sense of an image that we're seeing in a poor reflection in an ancient mirror. We can see the form; we know it's there but we cannot see the details. We don't have all the answers one day in heaven, yes, there will be full understanding but not now.
But, for as much as we don't understand, and for as much as the questions for which we don't have answers, there is so much we do understand. Here is what I do know and what I do believe.
Understanding Faith First, I truly believe that it is so important not to think our faith is any less because we don't have all the answers to life and the universe. In fact this is the very basis of faith. The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way, "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."2 Think back to Paul and his poor reflection in an ancient mirror. We do not fully see. We do not have full understanding. This doesn't not mean our faith is any less. In fact, this is the basis of faith. Think back to Paul and his poor reflection in an ancient mirror. We do not fully see. We do not have full understanding. This doesn't not mean our faith is any less. In fact, this is the basis of faith.
Do not make up answers Second, do not try and make up answers that perhaps are not yet meant to be found. These answers can often cause more hurt and harm than they help us to ultimately understand the grace of G.o.d. In one book I was reading I came across this attempted understanding of why children die, "How true it is that the Lord must love little children, because He calls so many of them home." I cannot accept the theology that says that because G.o.d loves children so much he lets little children die. If we do not have the answers let's not try and make up an answer. As said in point one, our faith is not dependent upon answers.
Be Free to Question G.o.d Third, be free to question G.o.d. If you're angry at G.o.d tell him you're angry. If you don't understand his actions, or his seemingly lack of action, then ask him why. One of the greatest hindrances to coping with grief is feeling an anger within that we believe we cannot express, or questions that we need to ask and yet feel we cannot question G.o.d.
Look again at the incredible relations.h.i.+p between Jesus and his friends in John 11. Lazarus dies and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, do not understand what has happened. They sent word to Jesus that their brother was sick. They question why Jesus didn't come when they called him? Why did Jesus allow Lazarus to die? Looking at verses 21 and 32 we see how both sisters have the freedom to question, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Have we ever been in a similar place in which we have also wanted to ask, "Lord, what's going on here? Where are you? Why has your healing not come? Why has death come? Lord, if you had been here this would not have happened."
Mary and Martha teach us that grief is real and that Jesus understands our grief and we need the freedom to come openly and honestly before G.o.d and ask, "Why Lord?" We may not receive the answers we are looking for but at least we are being real to our grief and we are sharing that grief with G.o.d.
We can learn from David whose Psalms are filled with similar questions, Psalm 22:12, "My G.o.d, my G.o.d, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? My G.o.d, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest."3 Can you identify with David? Can you identify with David?
As David is honest with G.o.d something happens. Let's consider two more examples from the Psalms.
Psalm 10:1"Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?"
Psalm 13:1"How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?"
And as David is honest before G.o.d something happens. He doesn't remain stuck in his grief. Look again at these two Psalms.
Psalm 10:1 "Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?"
And then read, Psalm 10:16 "The Lord is King for ever and ever".
Look again at Psalm 13:1 "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?"
And then read, Psalm 13:56, "But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord's praise, for he has been good to me."
There is hope in knowing that in response to David's questions and honesty there is given to him incredible rea.s.surance and hope.
If you're not honest with G.o.d you're going to find it so difficult to move forward and cope with grief. G.o.d is already aware what's happening within each one of us so it is not going to be a surprise to G.o.d when he hears what we have to say. But when we say it, we are going to open a means for G.o.d's healing work within our lives.
You are not alone in your grieving Fourth, you are not alone in your grieving. We grieve together as a community and as you weep Jesus weeps. G.o.d is not removed and distant. G.o.d is right here and G.o.d weeps. As Jesus sees the grief of Lazarus' dying, we read, "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. Jesus wept."4 This, for me, is the most powerful picture in the life of Jesus, the Jesus who weeps. This, for me, is the most powerful picture in the life of Jesus, the Jesus who weeps.
We might not understand why Jesus has allowed little children to suffer and die; we might not understand why Jesus has not answered our prayers for healing; but we do understand that Jesus is present and sees our grief and weeps with us. We do understand that as G.o.d chooses to present with us in our grief that G.o.d comforts those who grieve: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."5 Jesus is the resurrection and the life Fifth, Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life."6 As much as your grief is real so is the certainly of an afterlife. If we accept the Scriptures as revealing G.o.d's purpose, we must also accept the picture it offers that death itself is a moment of healing; of being fully reconciled with G.o.d; and living in the joy-filled presence of G.o.d for all eternity. As much as your grief is real so is the certainly of an afterlife. If we accept the Scriptures as revealing G.o.d's purpose, we must also accept the picture it offers that death itself is a moment of healing; of being fully reconciled with G.o.d; and living in the joy-filled presence of G.o.d for all eternity.
Here are some of the promises of Scripture: Isaiah 25:78 "On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people's disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken."
John 3:16 "For G.o.d so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
2 Corinthians 5:1 "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from G.o.d, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands."
Revelation 21:4 "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has pa.s.sed away."
In the name of Jesus there is salvation. No matter what this life may offer or take, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of G.o.d that gives us a guarantee of life eternal. 7 7 Paul is so convinced of this truth that when he writes to the church in Thessalonica he chooses to use the word "asleep" to describe those who have died: "Now we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers [and sisters], concerning those who have fallen asleep fallen asleep, so that you will not grieve as also the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, thus also G.o.d will bring those who have fallen asleep fallen asleep through Jesus together with him." through Jesus together with him."8 (Emphasis mine) (Emphasis mine) In the early church, the congregation at Thessalonica was struck by a number of deaths. These were possibly the first people to die as Christians. And naturally, as we all do, they grieved the loss of their loved ones.
Paul writes to them, not only to give them words of comfort, but also to give them a new understanding of death in the hope of all that Christ has won.
Paul says, first, that death is a sleep.
Paul writes: "We do not want you to be ignorant ... concerning those who have fallen asleep." What is there to be ignorant about a loved one who is taken from us? Where does ignorance lie in that?
But Paul is not saying that we are ignorant about the loss of someone we love, but rather that we are ignorant about those who have fallen asleep. Paul purposely uses this word "asleep" to reveal the ignorance that so many people have about death and with one word Paul wipes out any idea of the finality of death. As one awakes from a night's sleep so those who die in Christ will awake with Christ.
G.o.d's Good Purpose Sixth, G.o.d doesn't allow a life, even a brief life, to go unnoticed. Paul a.s.sures the Romans, "And we know that in all things G.o.d works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."9 And again to the church in Corinth, "However, as it is written: "What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived- these things G.o.d has prepared for those who love him"". And again to the church in Corinth, "However, as it is written: "What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived- these things G.o.d has prepared for those who love him"". 10 10 Again, we do not yet fully understand the actions, or in some cases the seemingly lack of action, of G.o.d. But we have the promise that in all things G.o.d works for the good of those who love him. Looking back at the brief lives of the babies who died in our community I believe that these little children have done more than many others, in their long lives, in bringing people and communities together. Their brief lives have moved people to incredible acts of care and empathy, their lives have united people across churches, cities and even nations. Their lives have compelled so many people to take account of G.o.d's gift of life and his many blessings.
My own growth and understanding, who I have become, is all partly as a result of these little lives and the impact they have made upon me.
Summary There is so much we don't understand about suffering and death. But there is so much we do understand, and it is on this that we must build our faith and trust in G.o.d.
One, we don't have answers to everything that happens.
Two, don't try and make up answers, be real to the grief and loss.
Three, if you need to be angry at G.o.d be angry; if you need to question G.o.d, then ask. Be honest with G.o.d.
Four, G.o.d is present in our grief and he comforts the grieving.
Five, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. There is salvation in his name.
Six, as strange as it may seem to be, despite the most tragic of events, G.o.d will still work his good.
Part Two: A Practical Response to Grief
When we plan a trip, we study a road map (or depending upon which generation you represent, look at a GPS). We plan in order to make sure that we have chosen the best roads to our destination. Have you ever planned such a trip to only discover along the chosen way that there are now long and rough detours? The one certainty we all face is that the journey of life will have its detours and rough patches.
While writing I have ministered to several members of our church community. One of our members tragically lost a sister who has left a husband with small children; an elderly member has undergone major surgery; a mother of our community has been diagnosed with cancer; another elderly member has suffered a stroke all this in the s.p.a.ce of just one week. And it wasn't even an extraordinary week. Each week is filled with crises. No matter how carefully we lay our plans, a single moment can change it all a phone call to announce a death; a doctor's visit to diagnose a dreaded disease. Following on from the first part of this book that offers an understanding of grief I would like to answer the question, "How do I respond to grief and suffering?"
There's a verse of scripture from James that I have pondered long and hard to the extent of wondering if James was really aware of the extent of the suffering he readers experienced.
James writes, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds".11 The JB Phillips translation expounds, "When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers [and sisters], don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!" The JB Phillips translation expounds, "When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers [and sisters], don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!"12 Welcome trials as friends? Can I ask the question again? Is James aware of the extent of suffering that people face?
But James is fully aware of sufferings. He writes to a persecuted church that is trying to survive after the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the many Christians who were put to death after him.
I believe that James is presenting us with a choice. Grief and suffering can be an enemy that robs us of everything that is dear and valuable, or it can be a friend that grows us and realises the full purposes of G.o.d. Enemy or friend, the choice is ours.
Just one word of caution. Because I believe that suffering can be a friend to grow us does not mean that we should choose to suffer in order to grow. I really don't want anyone to suffer, but we need to be ready to make the decision what to do with suffering when it comes our way.
What does the challenge of James teach us?
Priorities and Values In the midst of grief and suffering we are forced to stop and in that moment realise that life's detours can be opportunities to learn some of life's most important lessons.
The reality is to ask how many people are so busy "living life" that their relations.h.i.+ps, with each other and with G.o.d, suffers?
These detours force us to stop and they compel us to answer one of life's most important questions: what really matters to me?
Crisis, illness, bereavement and grief, all become opportunities to rea.s.sess our purpose, our goals, our relations.h.i.+ps. We are compelled to answer: what is most important to me?
All too often I have heard the sad words of someone, sometimes a spouse, sometimes a parent, who having lost someone very special to them regret not having spent more time with them, or saying certain things to them.
Many years ago, but as clear as yesterday, I remember the first funeral service that I conducted for a family whose little baby had died. I remember rus.h.i.+ng to the hospital after hearing the news that a little boy of our community had been in a home accident. Arriving at the hospital I discovered that the child was already dead and the parents had returned home. It was just before midnight that I knocked on the front door of the parent's home. The mother had been given a sedative and was asleep. The father was crying and spoke words to me that are both haunting but yet at the same time have been an incredible gift because they have helped me prioritise what is most important to me. The father spoke and said, "I didn't know my son. I left in the morning before he woke. I arrived back in the evening after he was already asleep. I did all this work to provide the very best for my son; and now I have lost my son."
I am not saying that work is not important. I am not saying that it must not be a priority to care for and provide for your family. I am saying that nothing should ever stand above what should be most important to us.
Understanding Grief Part 1
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