(Note: This message was originally preached as part of an annual county-wide memorial service for families of traffic fatalities.)
Grief is an experience common to all of us. We all lose someone we love at sometime. The difference lies in the names and circumstances of our losses. Like many of you, I too have lost a child. There’s something terribly wrong with the scene of a parent standing over a child’s grave. It’s supposed to be the other way!
Others of you have lost a spouse or a sibling or a friend or a parent.
To lose a parent is to lose the past. To lose a spouse, sibling or friend is to lose the present. To lose a child is to lose the future. Each of us has loved and lost and, now, the grief we feel is overwhelming sometimes and persistent at all times.
I believe the depth of our grief arises from the depth of our love. When we lose someone we greatly love, how can we not deeply grieve and how can that grief quickly pass? Deep grief never passes quickly and never passes completely. My loss occurred almost 20 years ago; your loss occurred this past year. Yet, our common grief persists. How should we, how can we, respond to our losses?
Here are three responses to loss that deal with the past, present and the future of our lives. Some people respond to their loss with regret as they focus on the past. Their grief is defined by their guilt about what was but should not have been or their guilt about what should have been but was not. The words they often think and say with respect to their deceased loved one are “if only.” If only I had not let him take the car that night! If only I had told her I loved her more often! If only I had done more for him! If only…
If only you and I could change the past, if only we could alter the circumstances that resulted in our instant loss and constant pain.
We cannot change yesterday; we can only live today. To live today, despite our loss, we have to begin to replace the regretful words “if only” with the grateful word “nevertheless.” Sure we could have placed more protective rules on our children; nevertheless, we loved them with a freedom that they needed and appreciated. Sure we should have told her more often that we loved her; nevertheless, we did speak and show our love and she knew it. Sure we could have done more for him; nevertheless, we did much for him and he was grateful.
Nowhere in the Bible does it speak in the language of “if only”; however, frequently the Bible uses the language of “nevertheless.” We cannot change the painful past or bring back our loved one; nevertheless, we can live with gratitude for the love we had and for the life we shared – even though that love and life ended too soon. How will we live with the grief that has rocked our world? Will we get stuck in yesterday with the words “if only” or will be move ahead toward tomorrow with the word “nevertheless”?
Twenty years ago, the Challenger space shuttle exploded claiming the lives of the seven crew members. The day after that tragedy, a TV crew was interviewing residents of Concord, NH, home of teacher and crew member Christa McAuliffe. One old timer was asked how the tragedy would affect the residents of Concord. He answered, “We will grieve our loss, but life will go on.” That statement needs to describe us who have loved and lost.
We do grieve our loss; nevertheless, life must go on.
Another response to our losses deals with the present moment. How are we handling the emotion of our loss right now, today? The emotion that accompanies the death of a loved one can be so intense that we do not know how to handle such feelings. Afraid of what might happen if the pain within us comes out, we try to bottle up our emotions and not let them out. We wonder: what happens if I let my emotion out and I begin to cry and I can’t stop crying – if I can’t regain control of my emotions?
The bottom line is that painful emotion is within us and it will come out sometime, somehow, somewhere. If we don’t allow ourselves to grieve with tears over our loved one, our grief may come out in inappropriate and damaging ways such as misplaced anger toward a loved one still with us or as destructive actions toward ourselves. Divorce, excessive drinking or drug use often follows tragic loss.
We need to find positive ways to let the pain within us come out. If not, that pain within will build up like gas under pressure and will eventually explode, with collateral damage to others or to us. If we don’t find healthy and healing ways to let our pain out today, that pain will emerge in unhealthy and destructive ways that can destroy other relationships and result in losing other loved ones as we drive them away in our anger and frustration. But this doesn’t have to happen. And it won’t happen if we allow ourselves to let out our pained emotions. Yesterday’s loss doesn’t have to create more losses today.
At the church where I serve as pastor, we offer a grief support group to help anyone who has lost a loved one to release and deal with the bottled up emotional pain. I encourage you to find such a support group somewhere and get involved with it for your sake and for your family and friends.
The third response to our loss deals with the future. How will our loss change us, redefine us, as a person? One thing is sure: Our loss will change us! The question is: will the change be positive or negative?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his best seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, tells about a Chinese mother whose son dies. She goes to a holy man and asks him for a magic potion to bring her son back to life so she can get beyond her paralyzing grief. The holy man says that for such a potion he needs her to bring him a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow and loss.
So she sets out to find such a seed. She goes from house to house asking if the home has known sorrow and loss. Regardless of where she goes, whether the house is a mansion or a hovel, every home has known some sorrow and loss. As she hears people tell her of their losses, she thinks to herself: “Who better to help these grieving people than I who have lost my son?” So she spends time in each home listening and helping those who have loved and lost. She never finds the mustard seed, but soon it no longer matters. Her loss changes her in a way that enables her to help others.
Will our loss lead us to be open to that which can never be lost? Will our loss lead us to be open to God? When God is mentioned in connection with our loss, most of us immediately want to ask: Why? Why, God? Why did this happen? Why did you allow this tragedy? I have come to realize that tragedy is a price tag for freedom.
Like you, I have asked that “why” question often and in anger. What I have learned from my loss is that more than needing an answer to my question about pain, I need a presence in my pain. More than needing an explanation of my tragedy, I need to experience God’s presence in my tragedy. For me, Christ on the cross reminds me that God knows my pain.
I believe that my tears and my pain over my loss are exceeded by God’s tears and God’s pain over my loss. God knows, for God has been there where we are in our loss. Tragedy can drive us away from God in bitter disappointment or tragedy can lead us to God in longing hope. The choice is ours!
For me, a change occurred in my grief as I changed my thinking about my three-year-old daughter who died of a brain tumor. Formerly, I had thought about her as being MINE, MINE by right — she was MY daughter. Thus, I felt justified in my anger and bitterness because, after all, I had been robbed of what was MINE!
But when I began thinking about my daughter as a gift to me, a gift that ultimately belonged to God, not to me, then my anger over losing her from my life began to give way to gratitude over having had her in my life at all. When I changed how I viewed my daughter, my grief changed from bitterness over my loss to gratitude for her life; and I changed as I stopped demanding a big answer from God. Instead, I allowed myself to be in the bigger presence of God. We need something to believe in that is bigger than this life alone. We need to believe in something, someone, who cannot be taken away by life’s tragedies.
Grief is an experience common to all of us. We all lose someone we love sometime, somehow. All of us grieve but not all of us grieve with hope. My wish for you is the wish that the Apostle Paul had for the grieving people of his day. (1 Thessalonians 4:13) May you grieve with a sense of hope for this life and beyond.
The basis for my hope, even in my grief, lies in this faith claim: In life and in death, we belong to God. I believe that claim from the bottom of my heart and from the top of my mind; and I believe it most passionately when I stand over my daughter’s grave and think about what could have been.
Through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, God spoke to the people of Israel when they had lost everything and were exiled in a foreign land. To those ancient people grieving their loss and to us modern people grieving our loss, God says: “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your well being and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
You and I, who have loved and lost, need a future with hope.
Daniel T. Hans is Pastor of Gettysburg Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, PA.