The Bustle in a House the Morning After Death
Is the solemnest of industries enacted upon Earth.
The Sweeping up the Heart and putting Love away
We shall not want to use again until Eternity.
Those elegant words of Emily Dickinson contrast sharply with the stark, clinical words used by today’s scientists in their discussion of death and grief. Indeed, no phenomenon has received more study in recent years than the study of how people react to the loss of those we love. Scientists have dissected grief into a series of categories, stark and clear: shock and denial, guilt, anger, depression, and reorientation. Shock and denial, guilt; anger; depression; reorientation! The impression given is that grief is a sad amusement ride that moves one more or less automatically through all of these stages of coping with loss. That is a dangerous impression. The truth is, any of these stages can arrest and claim us. We can become encapsulated, fixated, imprisoned by any of these stages. We don’t smoothly glide through such stages. Any of them can trap us.
Take the stage of shock and denial, which is, I remind you, God’s good gift. Shock is God’s good gift! I can testify that in the immediate wake of death, you wander around in a bit of a fog. People in the wake of death often say, “This feels like a dream. It doesn’t seem real. It hasn’t hit me. I feel like I am viewing the world through thick, dull glasses.” I call that numbness, “God’s anesthesia.” God’s anesthesia allows us to absorb the pain of separation from a loved one slowly and by degrees. God’s anesthesia is a divine kindness that allows us to process the harsh reality of loss by appropriating it slowly and gradually. Yet there are those who become lost in the stage of shock and denial, who in the face of a painful present choose to become lost in unreality. Early in my ministry I witnessed a young husband telling his young wife in the midst of her post-partem depression that her mother had suddenly and unexpectedly died. She proceeded to cover her husband’s mouth with both hands, screaming, “No! No! No! It can’t be true!” She lapsed into an inconsolable funk from which she took months to emerge. I’ve encountered a mother who lost her young daughter suddenly and preferred to believe that the girl actually lived in a foreign country and was not really dead. I’ve known a husband who lost his beloved wife and created a shrine to her in his living room, spending every night talking to her picture for hours. Shock and denial is God’s good gift, but for some the pain of grief is so fierce they prefer to disassociate from reality and become lost in a miasma of denial.
Others dwell instead upon what they regard as their own guilt and complicity in a love one’s death. Guilt is a natural part of the grief process. In death’s wake many of us want to assume some responsibility for a loved one’s loss. I think of L. D. Johnson, a former Furman chaplain and prominent pastor who lost a daughter in a car accident when she was driving from Richmond to Greenville. L.D. had seen the reports of bad weather and meant to call that morning and have his daughter fly home, but then he became so embroiled in mundane church details that by the time he called, she was already on the road to her death. L.D. was haunted for years by the recurring question, ‘Why didn’t I call earlier?” He saw his daughter’s death as his fault. His reaction is not uncommon. Many of us magnify our role in a loved one’s death. I hear all the time such statements of remorse as, “If only I’d made him go to the doctor sooner or more often.” “If only I had made her stick to his diet.” We heap upon ourselves responsibility for circumstances that are often inevitable.
Often guilt gives way to anger. People turn that anger away from themselves and prefer to aim blame for their loved one’s passing toward somebody or something else – or even God. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross talked of working in a hospital when a woman came to her and said, “Do you have a screaming room?” Kubler-Ross said, “No, we have a chapel.” The woman answered, “I need just the opposite; I need a place where I can go and scream at God for letting my child die.” Kubler-Ross responded, “Then come to the chapel and scream at God with me, for that’s better than screaming alone.” However, the truth is, many of us are not self-aware enough to know that we are angry. We are angry at someone, or some institution, or even God, but we won’t admit it. So that anger eats at our soul and personality like an acid.
Then comes depression, which is a natural element of the grieving process. Yet, depression, though a natural part of the grieving process, can exert an unnatural influence. When you find yourself enduring a prolonged period when you cannot eat, you cannot sleep, you cannot work, you cannot function, then you need to seek professional help for your depression. L. D. Johnson admitted he couldn’t reorient his life after the loss of his daughter until he took a sabbatical and went to England and visited the college where his daughter had studied. There he wrote a book about her life and about his grief. Not everyone can write a book about a lost loved one. But we can journal. We can get our feelings “out of ourselves” and onto a piece of paper or computer screen. But in every healthy grief one has to reach the point where one resolves to say, ‘I can no longer live backward; I have to live forward. I cannot change what has happened. I have to incorporate it into my life and direct my energies forward.’ Such resolution is extraordinarily painful, but absolutely necessary.
Ecclesiastes declares that there is a time to be born and a time to die. If that is true, then there is also a time to grieve. Make no mistake, for many of us, grief is the most formidable challenge with which we will ever grapple. Yet, terrible and painful as it is, grief can leave us stronger, wiser, more profound individuals. Grief can open our eyes to dimensions of depth of meaning which we have heretofore failed to plumb. Grief can make us treasure our other relationships and grasp how precious and fragile is every day of life. I think of Thornton Wilder’s story, The Angel Who Troubled the Waters, in which a physician who had long borne a burden of hurt had waited around the Pool of Bethsaida for the angel to trouble the waters so he could step in and be healed. But when his time came to enjoy the waters, the angel refused to let him enter. “Without your wound,” explained the angel to the physician, “you would have no power. Without your wound you would not know how terrible is the suffering of others. Not even an angel can minister to the sufferers of earth as well as a person who knows what it is like to be wounded.” Wounded healers know how best to love, how best to heal. The wounded healer is the person best-equipped with empathy and compassion for others who suffer. I say to you again, grief is terrible, a formidable ordeal; but grief has the utility of taking us into the deepest dimension of life and enabling us to share our wisdom with other lives.
Strange to say, but there are those who find our spiritual preoccupation with grief inexplicable – an attitude that I find inexplicable. But those who have divorced life from any sense of divine origin, and who deny that life is infused with any sense of divine purpose, they see no reason to grieve for a loss. This view of death is profoundly puzzling to me. I would think that those who deny any thought of the afterlife would treasure life on earth all the more. But when you divorce life from God, when you deny any divine purpose in life, then life has no real meaning, which means death has no real meaning — so why grieve?
On the other hand, some Christians contend that grief is unnecessary because God has prepared for us a wonderful heavenly future. Rather than grieve, we should focus upon the glorious beyond. Focusing upon the loss of one’s loved one discounts the value of God’s promise of eternal life. So goes their argument. To which I respond, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept! When Jesus suffered the loss of his great friend Lazarus, his response was to weep. He was moved to tears in the depths of his being. I believe that scene says to us that our Lord weeps with us when we weep and suffers with us in our pain upon losing a loved one, even as he points our vision beyond to God’s eternal promise. The truth is, grief is an ineluctable element of every stage of existence. When we move from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from adulthood to middle age, and from middle age to senior citizenry, we experience grief at every stage of transition, because every stage has its own privileges, its own opportunities, its own special meaning. And when we move from one stage to another, we experience grief, because grief is a natural constituent element of life, and when our loved ones take leave of our presence and enter God’s presence, we do right to grieve.
The Sadducees of Jesus’ day scorned at any concept of an afterlife, and tried to undermine Jesus’ belief in the resurrection of the dead. In response, Jesus probed their disbelief. He said, “You men have studied the books of Moses. Do you not remember that Moses called on the God who addressed him from the burning bush, ‘You are the God of Abraham, you are the God of Isaac; you are the God of Jacob.’ So Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must be alive, because our God is a God of the living and not the dead!”
God is a God of the living and not the dead. What God touches, lives. What God embraces, flourishes.
What God resurrects, death cannot hold. We cannot fully grasp that our earthly body is but a seed. Our earthly body is perishable. What is raised is imperishable and beyond our imagination. But know this! Our God is a God of the living and not the dead. Our Lord declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who live and believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live. Indeed, those who live and believe in me never really die.” Then he asked the question, “Do you believe this?” Our Lord promises, “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you will be also.” Do we believe this?
Those of you who are my age or older remember the old 8 millimeter film on which family gatherings were captured photographically. In those old films, every single picture was framed by a black border on either side. Every film we watched from that era had interstices of blackness spaced between each photographic frame. Yet the film was run at such a speed that we never noticed the blackness. From God’s perspective, seeing what always lies beyond, death is something akin to the black borders surrounding each frame of a film. Death from God’s perspective is that brief moment of blackness framing transitions to new stages of life. From God’s perspective, death is but the little interstice of blackness interspersed between the scenes of movement in our pilgrimage toward life in God. Our Lord goes to prepare a place for us, for where He is, we will be also. I believe that promise of our Savior. That is why I can stand before you this morning in the wake of my father’s death and deliver this message: our God is a God of the living, not the dead.
When my father breathed his last after more than two days of struggle, I considered his death a release. I was relieved more than pained. That moment of his homegoing called to mind a story I encountered years ago. It seems that many years ago a little boy was orphaned, and his aunt agreed to raise him. The little boy grew to be a preacher of great renown. Late in her life, the aunt wrote him a letter asking him for words of comfort as she neared death. The great preacher wrote this reply: “I remember vividly that day you sent a servant to fetch me from my house to yours. I remember how I cringed and cried in the servant’s presence until I saw the lights of your house, and you took me in and comforted me by your fire until I fell asleep in your arms. I write this to you because soon God will be sending you a servant to bring you home unto Himself. Do not fear this servant. For the God who sends this servant for you can be trusted just as surely I found you trustworthy so many years ago.”
Our God is a God of the living and not the dead. Because of that fundamental truth I can stand before you and say, ‘There will be an ultimate morning after death!’ And yes, there are stages of grief that must be navigated, and doing so is not easy. But losing those we love is a part of life, and a part of love. And God will grant us the strength to see this process through to completion.