The text for the morning is complicated, and I do not have time to explicate it in its entirety. (I promise to do so during our ongoing Bible study in 2 Samuel.) Suffice it to say that King David thought it morally correct and politically expedient to hand over to the Gibeonites seven of the grandsons of Saul, that they might be summarily executed as an expiation for Saul’s slaughter of that community at an earlier time. David thought this expiation would bring some measure of peace to the land, and it did. But David had not reckoned on the power of one mother’s grief. Rizpah, a mistress of Saul, was forced to hand over to David two of her sons. After her sons were executed, and their bodies left in the open air, she went up and set up a vigil beside the bodies, protecting them from the ravages of wild beasts. She didn’t move from her spot for eight months. Her eloquent, steadfast grief changed the tenor of public opinion. Shrewd politician that he was, King David realized that a shift of policy was in order. He gathered the bones of the executed men, gathered the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and gave the whole family a public royal funeral full of pomp and circumstance. Needless to say, this magnificent honor of a posthumous celebration would not have happened without the persistent and expressive grief displayed by one bereaved mother who changed the heart of a nation.
In my initial sermon on grief last week I talked of how the scientists studying our reactions to death have dissected grief and described it in clear, delineated categories. They have maintained that we experience grief in terms of shock and denial, guilt, anger, depression and, eventually, reorientation. Shock and denial; guilt; anger; depression; reorientation. That, say the scientists, is how grief is supposed to be universally experienced. And hear me saying clearly that I in no way want to disparage marvelous books on grief. Many of them are quite accurate and helpful. Many of them have the advantage of clarity. However, they also suffer the disadvantage of clarity. Part of the premise of the books is that if we are just aware of grief’s hold upon us, that we can then escape its influence. I would counter that even when we are aware of it, escaping grief’s impact upon our souls and personalities is no more possible than escaping oxygen’s hold upon our lungs. The impression given by books is that grief is something of a tram ride through which we progress through the stages of grief more or less automatically. That is a dangerous impression, for the truth is, we can become trapped in any of these stages of grief. If you hear nothing else I say this morning, hear this: while there are indeed definable stages that we must progress through in our grief, the truth is, grief affects each one of us in different ways. Each person’s experience of grief is personal, singular, and idiosyncratic. Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprints.
First, know this about grief: grief does not fight fair. We tend to think of grief as something that attacks us head-on, like the flu. We tend to think, I will face my grief squarely, deal with it, and then be done with it. That is not the way grief works. People often ask me these days, “How are you doing?” My honest answer is, “I’m doing fine – except when I am not.” If grief attacked us straight-forwardly, we would be able to deal with it more easily, but grief often attacks us obliquely. Grief often ambushes us. Grief often hits us in ways we do not expect. I am two weeks removed from my father’s death, but yesterday as I was watching basketball I reached for the phone at least six times, eager to call him. Then I realized, “Dad’s gone.” I felt the pain of grief afresh. Often those of us who are very busy people pretend that we can be too busy for grief. I think of a businessman who thought exactly that, who threw himself into his work passionately, in the assumption that he could make himself so busy that he wouldn’t have to deal with grief. Two months later he is driving down the road and passes the greasy spoon restaurant where he and his dad dined frequently. Suddenly he cannot see the road because his eyes are too full of tears. Why? Because grief hits us obliquely, attacks our consciousness at angles – and grief doesn’t fight fair. We may think we have wrestled grief to a draw – but it will hit us again, often when we least expect it.
Why is this? Because, second, grief percolates. Grief percolates. Grief seeps down through levels of our being like water trickling down through geological strata. That’s why someone who has lost a loved one six months ago can hear an old song or encounter an old friend, and suddenly feel as if the death of their loved one just happened. The pain is just as fierce and fresh. That person thinks, ‘I haven’t progressed.’ No, you have progressed. But the grief had percolated down through deeper levels of your consciousness. The truth is, grief is often more of an active influence at a subconscious level than it is at a conscious level. Grief percolates, and it keeps percolating, trickling down through levels of our consciousness, sometimes for years, until it finally hits bedrock. Then the deep wound scars over. Even so, sometimes, when you touch the scar, it hurts.
Third: know that unacknowledged grief can kill you. Unacknowledged grief can slay something vital within your inner being, sentencing you to live the rest of your days without joy or trust. Some years ago I chatted with a friend of mine, a college president, who shared with me the kindness of a mutual buddy who called him and said, “What are you doing for lunch today?” My friend checked his calendar and said, “Amazingly enough, nothing.” “Great,” said the other voice. “You’re taking me to lunch.” They met shortly thereafter, and halfway into the lunch the instigator of the lunch said to my college president friend, “What’s bothering you? What’s wrong?” As best my friend knew, nothing was bothering him. He thought he was doing perfectly well. Then the man said, “It’s your mother, isn’t it?” Without warning, without expectation, my friend’s eyes filled with tears, his voice choked with emotion, and his lips quivered. His mother had passed away six months before, and he thought by his own reckoning that he was doing fine, but his friend had sensed that he was not. My friend realized that unacknowledged grief was eating away at his personality, and though he couldn’t see it, other people could. Unacknowledged grief can destroy your ability to move forward in life or derive any enjoyment from it. I watched one of my close relatives sentence herself to twenty years of grief imprisonment because she never had the courage to acknowledge her grief in any frank and effective fashion. Unacknowledged grief slowly ate away her joy and took her life by degrees.
Yet, fourth, for all of its potential destructiveness, grief is a natural element of our life. This is true because grief is just love. If we didn’t love, we would not grieve. Love is from God, and grief is simply love in a different form. The truth is, any of us who love, we surrender part of ourselves so that we can allow someone else to come into our life in an intimate way and make us whole. When we lose that person, we feel as though a part of us has gone. My great friend and mentor, the late Dr. Frank Tupper, lost his young wife to breast cancer, and a few days after her death he confided to me, “I cannot think of any significant event in my life over the last twenty-five years that doesn’t involve my wife. How am I going to cope with that?” (It took him a long time to do so.) Grief is just love in a different form! Grief is a natural constituent element of life, and making ourselves totally vulnerable to someone else means that their loss feels like a key part of our lives has been lost with them. Yet, would we not have risked making ourselves completely vulnerable so as to experience the enriching love of someone else, even if it means that losing them entails our suffering a gut-wrenching grief?
Fifth, because grief is a form of love, grief is not competitive. What do I mean by this? Simply this: I hear this all the time from grieving people: “Mrs. Smith is getting over the loss of Mr. Smith so much faster than I’m getting over the loss of Mr. Jones.” That’s tantamount to complaining, “Mrs. Smith is falling in love so much faster with Mr. Smith than I’m falling in love with Mr. Jones.” The truth is, Mrs. Smith’s love for Mr. Smith cannot be compared to Mrs. Jones’ love for Mr. Jones. If grief is a form of love, then our grief will be as idiosyncratic and singular as our love relationships. We cannot compare our grief to that suffered by our friends or our next door neighbor. I say again, your grief is as unique as your fingerprints. You cannot measure your grief by somebody else’s experience of grief, any more than you can compare the nature and narrative of your love for someone with the nature and narrative of someone else’s love for another. Grief is not competitive!
Sixth, though grief can be a helpful goad, it is a terrible governor. Think of grief as a riptide. Grief is as natural to our being as a riptide is natural to the ocean. Sooner or later, all of us find ourselves in grief’s throes. We all have to swim in it. But grief is riptide we must swim through; grief is not something we can stay in; we have to swim out of it. Grief is natural, and can be an extraordinary goad – but it is a terrible governor. I noted last week that grief can exert a positive power: it can make us treasure more profoundly those relationships around us, can draw us into an appreciation of the deeper dimensions of life, can make us more empathetic and compassionate. When properly processed, grief can serve as a catalyst for goodness. The mother who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving was goaded into doing so by her grief over the loss of her daughter to a drunk driver. Rizpah’s grief changed the mind of a king and the heart of a nation. Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s stubbornness to refuse to come under the protection of his wings like chicks would a mother hen, but his grief for his people goads him to die for them. Jesus grieves for his disciples, who he knows will be unable to handle the horror of his Good Friday experience, but grief goads him to gather them together and promise, “I will not leave you desolate. I will not leave you alone. I will send you the Comforter of my Spirit who will empower you to move forward as an evangelical force.” Grief should never govern our lives, but it can serve as a useful goad.
Finally, seventh, we cannot get through grief adequately on our own power. We need the help of God to defeat it. For years I kept a Peanuts cartoon in my office: Charlie Brown is reading a letter to Linus, a letter from his grandfather, who has just lost a tennis match in the finals of the city championship. Linus says, “I guess your grandfather is pretty upset.” Charlie Brown responds, “He says he is sad – but that handling loss is all a part of growing up.” Living with loss, struggling with grief, is a part of growing up. Yet grief allows us to crystallize our absolute dependence upon God. The death of a love one impresses upon us our helplessness, and thus throws us more profoundly upon the trustworthiness of God. Some of you would recognize the name of John Wooden, perhaps the greatest college basketball coach ever, and after he lost his wife, he would every night put a peppermint on her pillow beside his pillow. A sports writer asked, “Why do you do that?” He replied, “Because I look forward to the day when I will see her once more.” The sports writer pressed him, “Do you really believe that will happen?” John Wooden replied, “I trust that God will grant me the joy of seeing her again.” In the final analysis of our faith, we really do wager our lives on the promise of Christ who assures us, “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you will be also.”
As Christians, we grieve for our lost loved ones. But as Christians we do not grieve as those who have no hope. For our God summons us to cast ourselves in absolute trust upon the trustworthiness of the Divine. We trust that our God will indeed grant us life that is everlasting in Jesus Christ. And so, at the end of all of the stages of grief, there is reorientation, not just of our lives to the loss of a loved one, but a deeper reorientation around our dependence upon God. The books won’t tell you this. But the heart will. The heart will.