Last Good Friday, at 12.46 pm, I received an SMS from a friend informing me that his wife had gone home to the Lord. She had been fighting cancer and it had been rough near the end. I suspect my friend will have mixed feelings; relief that his beloved wife is no longer suffering, and deep grief as the finality of death begins to sink in. I lost my first wife to cancer too, in 1993. All grief journeys are unique and I have never assumed that my own experience made me an expert in anybody else’s grief. Still, I recall that when I lost my first wife, the most comfort I received were from guys who had also lost their wives. There was a shared experience of loss. We were members of ‘the same club’. I also recall that there were very few widowers who walked with me. I remember only two.
Widows seem to have better support networks, both formal and informal. Well, guys don’t do too well in bonding with other guys to begin with. And we are hotwired to see life as a series of problems to be solved. To walk with a fellow sufferer requires a high degree of openness and the realization that we cannot ‘fix’ our friend. We are called to enter into his loss and helplessness and walk together with him till the days get brighter. There is more support for widowers now, but walking with the bereaved, especially with widowers, is not something that many guys find comfortable doing.
The truth is, if a marriage is a reasonably good one, and the couple has been married for a while, losing a spouse is the most traumatic loss a person will experience. The Bible was not kidding about this “one-flesh” thing. Losing a spouse is the equivalent of been hit by a tsunami. There are the well-documented stages of grief, first noted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, [New York, NY: Macmillan, 1969] ). Anyone who has gone through grief and who has walked with people who are grieving will know that the progress of grief is not so neat and tidy. Even if acceptance comes, there is still much work ahead. Accepting that you have been hit by a tsunami is a starting point. Then comes the work of clearing the debris, and rebuilding your life. Here is one helpful summary of the journey of grief:
The process of grief is just that — a process. Visualize the grieving process not as linear stages to grow through, but rather as layers of an onion unfolding, or as a spiral, or roller coaster. Few experience the process in the linear way presented here. Many will report living one or more stages at the same time, or rolling through parts of the process again and again.
Allow the bereaved to inform you of where they are and what they need. Although grief is universally similar, it is also vey personal. It is continually impacted by individual as well as systematic dynamics. The entire grief process normally takes from 1 to 3 years to resolve and must be respected as part of living. (Sharon Hart May, “Loss and Grief Work.” In Caring for People God’s Way, ed. Tim Clinton, et al., [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005], 366.)
One key truth that must be borne in mind by all is that there is no shortcut in the grief journey. It pains us to see a loved one in pain and we may wish for that person to feel better as soon as possible. Not only is this not possible, a premature attempt to avoid the pain of loss may actually delay the recovery. It is only in the new heaven and the new earth that there will be no more tears. This side of heaven, tears have their place. Paul does not forbid us to grieve but he only tells us that we should not grieve as those who have no hope.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For 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. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14 NIV)
I think the Lord was especially merciful to my friend, to take his wife home on Good Friday. It was a powerful reminder that we who are in Christ share in His experience of Good Friday and Easter. We die with Him, and we shall rise on the last day. (The funeral was on Easter day.) Therefore I am not worried about the long term. When Christ returns or if we return to Him, all wounds will be healed, all questions answered. It is the days and nights in the immediate future I worry about as my friend walks the journey of grieving, and rebuilding his life without his beloved wife.
I remember that in the early days of my widowhood, a brother would come to see me once a week, the late Mr. Lee Hong Kwang. He wasn’t a widower but he was a wise pastor and friend. Once a week he would take me out for dim sum. He wouldn’t say much. He was just there, practicing the ministry of presence. It didn’t take my pain away but I was a little less frightened. His presence reminded me of the presence of Christ. This Monday I will be having lunch with my friend who lost his wife on Good Friday.