As a young girl I joined my eighth-grade class in attending the funeral of a fellow classmate’s mother. It was a sad and confusing time, as none of us had ever considered the death of a parent before. But what I remember most of that time was my classmate’s response to his loss. “I’m so sad that your mom died,” I offered. “My dad says we shouldn’t be sad because she’s in a better place. If I cry that’s because I’m selfish,” he said.
Even then that perception of faith and grief left me feeling cold and confused. But as I matured in my understanding of death and grief, I came to see the unique journey we each take after our loss.
Some Christians believe that if their faith is strong enough they should not feel the sorrow naturally associated with a loss. The belief in the glorious eternal life awaiting all of us should dispel any sadness, anger or loneliness.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to play that out grief is avoided, repressed or denied and may become distorted.
Others hold fast to their faith and believe that all will be well. Jerald says of his faith walk following the death of his wife of 43 years, “I instinctively kept on going to church instead of turning away. Perhaps more a gut reaction than a conscious choice although it was a choice I continued to make.”
Though he never felt abandoned by God he says, “I think that when you are grieving you feel isolated from everyone and everything at times … including God. I think that is when the faith part kicks in and helps you cope, if only a minute at a time. Slowly the feeling of isolation lessens and perhaps that is when or why people return to God. “
Then he adds, “Or does the feeling of isolation cease because of God?”
An interesting question! I have come to believe that God is always present in our need. It is perhaps the weight of our grief that cuts us off from the very connection to our Redeemer that would ease our heavy burden.
Some of us who have experienced a life-altering loss have found ourselves in what 16th century Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross described as “the dark night of the soul.” It’s a time that is marked by a sense of loneliness, introspection and desolation. What better way to describe the grief journey.
Facing the soul work of grief requires courage. It involves experiencing deeply felt emotions including anger, sorrow and confusion. The search for meaning becomes the very catalyst for change. When we allow ourselves to ask the hard questions and reevaluate our lives and our world view, over time we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of how we fit in the universe as well as our faith in its Creator.
Following the death of my husband, I found myself searching for a constructive reason why he had to die so young. Questions like “Why did this happen to my family?” and “How will we live without him?” swirled long after not only in my head but in my conversation with others. And I felt isolated and abandoned by God.
At times I felt a burning anger at God for leaving me stranded in a life I didn’t choose. And as I railed at Him for taking my husband too soon I recognized that my anger was justified. God and I became much closer as He held my tender heart in His healing hands and embraced me as I tantrumed.
The very act of communicating with God, though at times excruciatingly painful, gave me hope that a future did exist. And as I searched for my future, a deeper, richer faith rose up from the ashes of my loss. It was my husband’s final gift.
David Wolpe suggests that we “have faith in the searching. Loss is the platform on which we build a deeper, sturdier faith.” I have found that to be true for myself and others I’ve encountered in grief.
Another wise man, R. Scott Sullender, offers “Faith is hope in a new tomorrow in spite of one’s present sorrow.” Faith in the redeeming power of God does bring us hope for the future, but it doesn’t mean we can avoid the soul work of grief. It’s natural to doubt and question the meaning of life and our faith, and encounter all the pain and sorrow that comes after the loss of a loved one. We must allow ourselves to ask those hard questions and trust the process.
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