Although it has gotten easier I'm still grieving over the loss of my wife of more than forty years, who went to be with the Lord more than three years ago. I’ve counseled others who have lost loved ones, but I’ve never thought it was enough. This recent loss was so unexpected and tragic that I don't know what to say or when to say it.
I found the words to say to my friends, to others, and to myself who are struggling with grief.
The following are excerpts from the sermon, Good Grief, delivered by Kathleen Peterson pastor of Palos Heights United Methodist Church in Palos Heights, IL. The grief associated with the loss of her grandfather many years before this sermon, and how she worked through it, is evident.
I thank God that He knew that these times would come so He placed others in the church who have had similar experiences, and who He has given gifts that enable them to communicate His love for all His children.
While the emphasis of this post is the grief associated with the death of a loved one. It's applicable to grief associated with other losses; things like the loss of a job, a divorce, the separation of a child leaving home, or even a major financial loss.
This post is for my friends. May God bless you, comfort you, and give you His peace which passes all understanding during this most difficult of times.
Philippians 4:6-7 NLT Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
(Bold emphasis mine)
Isaiah 43:1-5 NIV But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west.
Revelation 7:16-17 NIV Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ ”
John 11:28-36 NIV After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 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. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Grief is so complicated. My grandfather had died, and we knew he would die, but the way he died was hard to take. And our grief was filled, as it always is, with guilt – much guilt.
Now, why do I tell you all this? This experience of grief in my own life. Well, I share it with you because I think in many ways our experiences with grief are all the same. We all go through the same stages of shock, denial and guilt.
First we say: “It couldn’t happen.”
Then we say: “It didn’t happen.”
Then we say: “Oh, if only I had . . . Oh, why didn't I. . . . do this or that?” We somehow feel responsible for everything. We take the whole thing on our heads. We even imagine we somehow could have leaped into the breech and changed everything, if only . . .
When we experience a loss in our lives and have to go on living ourselves, we experience every emotion we know in that grief: anger, love, fear, hope, insecurity, abandonment – you name it. And we all have our losses. They come in many different forms. They come as separation, children leaving home, moving, conflict, job change, retirement, aging, disappointment. And these are all experiences in which we feel real grief, and all our strong emotions rise up in us and flow over us like the deep waters that Isaiah talks about going through.
And we wonder: If we start to cry, will we ever stop? Or will the flood tide take us with it. We hold back and hide our grief because we imagine that once we begin to really feel it, we won’t be able to bear it.
You know the scripture story about Jesus’ dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The 2 sisters had sent word to Jesus that their brother was dying. But Jesus had been busy and couldn’t come immediately. By the time He got there, Lazarus was dead. And as Jesus looked at those people He loved and saw their suffering, He felt all the same things you and I feel when someone we love dies. And He wept. The people said: “See how He loved him.” But others said: “If He loved him so much, why didn’t He save him from this death?” And that’s the question we all ask in that situation: If God loves us, why did He let this happen? Why didn’t He get here sooner? And why wasn’t our love enough to save this person?
“If only I had known,” we say. But do we think Jesus didn’t know? Do we really think the Lord didn’t know all of that? Not a sparrow falls without the Lord knowing it. He knows the number of all our days, and He is there.
Now that doesn’t mean things don’t go wrong or that there will not be evil that affects our lives and our deaths. The Lord has told us that there is evil. But He has also assured us that before it even happens He has already overcome all of it and is able to bring good out of all of it for those who love Him.
John 16:33 NIV I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
He is there before and during and after. “As you pass through the deep waters, I will be with you, and they shall not overwhelm you.” For the person who has died, no matter what the cause, there are green mansions on the other side, where the lawn is not so hard to mow. So let us be clear that when we grieve at the death of someone, we grieve mainly for ourselves, for our loss, because, as Paul said: “For me, to die is gain.”
Philippians 1:20-21 NIV I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
As we deal with our own pain and anger and guilt at our loss, as we really deal with it and express it, gradually we begin to see that these things separate us from the one we loved as much as the death itself. We have to go through these feelings and come out on the other side before we can again be close to that person. We have to go through these deep waters and let go of the bad grief before we can enter into the good grief.
After the pain and guilt and anger, then there is an awakening – a morning when you remember the good memories that bless and finally no longer burn. There’s a morning when we can let go of all our bad feelings about death and know that life goes on. Then the good memories can flood back into our lives again, stronger and stronger, giving us strength to go on. We can be close to that person again because we let go of the bad grief that was blocking out all the goodness we cherished of that person’s life.
Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and do you think anyone of us will be any less raised? “If we don’t know where our loved ones are,” Jesus says to us: “How can you not know, when I have told you? I have prepared a place for you, and if it were not so, I would have told you that too, He said.”
John 14:2-3 NIV My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
For all our “if onlys” the Lord says: “I knew that too, and I can make all things work together for good, if you can only let go of that and leave it in my hands.”
John 10:28 NIV I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
We must weep; it’s very important to express our grief. But then we can allow ourselves to be comforted. After the weeping at my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother lifted up her hand as they were carrying out the casket and stood up and said in a loud voice: “There goes Harvey! Goodbye Harvey!” I’ll never forget it. Everyone was a bit shocked, that she could face the parting so openly. But to me she leaned down, with a twinkle behind the tears in her eyes and whispered: “He’s not really gone.”
What we will not part with, we have kept. And the Lord has promised that will never be taken from us.
We only grieve where we have loved. Seeing where we are called to love now, that enables us to live through grief. And one of the very good things about grief is that it teaches us a little better how to treasure and cherish what we love in the short time we’re given.
The hollow in your heart where pain dug so deeply, is the same place where you now have room to receive and truly cherish that much more joy. Those who have deeply grieved know the true depths and heights to which love can go. Blessed are those who mourn, because they shall be comforted and their joy shall be full.
Kathleen Peterson is pastor of Palos Heights United Methodist Church in Palos Heights, IL. (For the complete sermon click Good Grief