I was senior pastor of a growing church. I had just lost my wife to cancer. He was one of my church elders. And he told me, “You need to get back on the horse as soon as possible.” I believe he had my interests at heart. He was definitely concerned for the welfare of the church. But it was the last thing I needed to hear. His intentions may have been good. But what I heard was, “Don’t grief. Return to normalcy as soon as possible.” As H. Norman Wright says: “… people lack an understanding of the process of grief unless they have been through it.” (Recovering from the Losses of Life, New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1991, p.59.)
Bernice and I have walked the journey of major loss. We both lost our first spouses to cancer. Which is why we made sure we were with a friend when he commemorated the first anniversary of his wife’s death. We were late for the commemorative dinner. We knew we would be. We were relocating to a new home that very day. All our earthly belongings were in boxes. We were desperately trying to bring order out of chaos. But we knew we had to be with him. The first anniversary can be a killer. Again Wright is helpful.
Here he describes the usual journey of grief:
The pain and grief actually intensify at three months and then gradually subside, but not in a steady fashion. They go up and down. Most people don’t need a reminder of the first-year anniversary of the loss of a loved one. The intensity of grief comes rushing in with pain that rivals the initial feeling of loss. If anyone attempts to tell you that you should be “over it by now” or “feeling better” at any of these times, you may become quite upset with them. (Recovering from the Losses of Life, 59)
We understand that everyone’s journey is unique. Not everyone follows the “usual” pattern. But clearly my friend was going through a hard time. From his blog:
It’s been a really tough week for me. Emotionally the roller coaster ride has begun again. Dates and memories are intriguing. The brain is fascinating. How the linkage is made between a date and the trigger of memories is mind boggling. That’s exactly what I’ve been going through…It’s come to a point where I wished I didn’t have to feel anymore. Wished that I could press the ‘fast forward’ button or the ‘erase’ button perhaps.
What do we do with someone going through such anguish? I get asked this very often. What do we do? What do we say? My usual answer is that there is nothing we can do or say. What we need to do is to give people permission to grief. Some things are beyond words. Sometimes all that we can do is to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15b). Grief is a valley that has to be traversed. There are no short cuts. You cannot wish it away. But you can walk through it to the other side.
Mourning with those who mourn is hard work. Mourning is not a feel good experience. Mourning reminds us of our own losses. And our mortality. And our helplessness. Which is why the uninitiated want the grieving person to get over it as soon as possible. It is as much an expression of their own sense of discomfort as it is an expression of concern for the person who is grieving. It also explains why some stay away completely.
“Mourning with those who mourn” ought to be a compulsory subject in Life 101. There are few things in life more basic. In the end we all go through major losses. Perhaps the world shies away from the subject because it has no answer to the question of death. It has no hope. But as Paul reminds us, as followers of Jesus Christ, we do grieve, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Jesus Himself shows us how to mourn with those who mourn.
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. (John 11: 33-35 TNIV)
Jesus mourned with those who mourned. But Jesus goes on to do something we can’t do. He goes on to die on the Cross so that death would no longer be the last word. He then makes us this offer: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; … (John 11:25 TNIV).” We know it is not an empty offer because Jesus rose again from the dead. We commemorate this every Easter. We commemorate this every Sunday.
In many ways, it was appropriate that my friend commemorated the first anniversary of his wife’s death with a dinner. It brought back memories of the meals they used to share. (The menu consisted of some of her favourite dishes.) It reminded me also of the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples after He rose from the dead (John 21:1-14). And the dinner looked forward to that eschatological banquet in the new heavens and the new earth, where we will once again be reunited with Jesus, and with all who belong to Him.
And so I mourn with my friend, but I mourn with hope. I know, and he knows, that his wife is with Jesus. I also know that things should get better now that he has survived one year and reached the first anniversary. Somehow, after going through one cycle of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, we come to a point where Spring can be experienced again with new hope. So hang on my friend. No, the road will not be easy, but it should begin to get better from here on in.