Life and death and grief

Angel_of_Grief_by_earlierbirdscenicI cried after reading an essay today, written by a lady I had never heard of. Her name is Sheryl Sandberg and she is now a widow. Suddenly. She lost her husband at his tender age of 47.

Ms. Sandberg has penned an essay about grief that is beyond moving. It hurts to read.

For me, it spawned an inner whirlwind of past grief and past losses and present voids in my life. A storm of emotions that can only be stilled with written words here. So this is going to get personal. I do not apologize for spilling my heart and soul here, but I understand if you choose to leave now.

My dad died at 55 when I was 26; I have lived longer without him than with him. My mom passed away suddenly at 68. A brother and sister were lost at 49 and 52, I think, although I am not sure, and I am not proud of not remembering. Lou and Anita withered away in pain and suffering as the Scourge of our Age – Cancer – knocked incessantly and harshly at their life’s door until it needed to knock no more. I have already lived longer than they.

So I have experienced grief time and again. The experts say that grieving is necessary, and for those grappling with it in the dark of nights and in the black places of their hearts, grief is a process. You are familiar with Kubler-Ross’ five-stage model, as am I: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Cold, clinical words. But in reality a lonely, aching walk through a long gauntlet of dank hollowness.

For a Christian on such an arduous journey, the treacherous walk can be handicapped before it ever begins. Because fellow Christians, with pure intent and loving goodwill, try to help the griever with comments like: “Well, he’s in a better place now.” or “You will see her again someday.” That these are absolute Christian beliefs and values, I have no doubt. But when these well-meant consolations were said to me in the black wanderings immediately after the death of my dad or mom or brother or sister, I understood them only as platitudes while I was on some stroll through a fleeting page of my life. Like the grieving process wasn’t normal for a Christian.

I know full well the well-meant gospel offer. I know in my heart and soul the covenant promises. But in those immediate after-days of death and despair, I didn’t care. They produced only anger, a bitter rage of insolent accusations – I was mad at God. Spitting mad. In those demon-filled days, God’s love toward me – one of His children, for heaven’s sake! – was a vile traitor in sheep’s clothing. “You will see her again someday” meant nothing because I want to see her TODAY! How dare he take her away?

Grief is so hard and loss so overwhelming that I couldn’t see God’s love, let alone comprehend and treasure it, at that time. “He’s in a better place now” was nothing but a spew of empty words. Vanity. All they were was vanity.

And yet, grief is a biblical concept. Jesus wept. And before He wept, he saw all of the family and friends of Lazarus weeping, and “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. Jesus, who knew intimately the promises of God, wept. He wept, and God didn’t step in to whisper “There-there son, you will see Lazarus again someday”.

A Christian wrestles with grief, but he or she also wrestles with God during the squally days of loss. If you love me, God, why this bitter quaff of darkness? Why drown me in this wave of death?

I would rather Christians comfort their brothers and sisters in these stormy days not with platitudes to remember this is all part of God’s plan – I know it is but I hate the plan right now! – but with an honest and caring question: How are you today? As Ms. Sandberg writes, “…a simple ‘How are you?’—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with ‘How are you today?’ When I am asked ‘How are you?’ I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear ‘How are you today?’ I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

Getting through each day – when the hurt and rage and hollowness staccato on my psyche like so many lightning stabs and thunder cracks – is a mountain to climb, every day. But it too is biblical; think of many of the psalms. Think, for instance, of Psalm 31: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief, my soul and by body also.”

Yes, in my days of distress do not tell me about better days and happy family reunions that will happen someday. I know about them and I believe them. But those thoughts will fill my soul and warm my heart when the anguish abates and the mourning has passed, on crystal clear days when I can see the horizon with dry eyes and clear mind; when I can see heaven and earth meet on that horizon, and know that tears and sorrow and grief will be forever gone on that new cloudless morning.

But in those first too-many days after I have lost my loved one, I am cannot see clearly yet. So please, only ask me sincerely: “How are you today?”

(Ms. Sandberg’s powerful essay can be read here.)

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