A Time to Cease from Weeping
After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, together with his brothers and all the others who had gone with him to bury his father.
Life must go on. The thought offers little comfort to one who is grieving over the loss of a parent, spouse, child, or good friend. It is true, nevertheless; and it is good that it is true. No one should grieve forever.
Joseph did not grieve forever. He had grieved with tears for three or four months. But the time for grieving passed, and Joseph at last returned to Egypt. The text in Genesis says, “After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, together with his brothers and all the others who had gone with him to bury his father” (Gen. 50:14).
It must have been hard for Joseph to return to a land where he had experienced so much suffering, difficult to leave a place where his hope of God’s promises was focused. He was seventeen when he had last seen Canaan. What memories the visit to old haunts, particularly the cave at Machpelah, must have had for him. Now he was leaving. One commentator wrote, “It is almost like a second selling to the Midianites, a second going down to captivity. It is as if he were a second time exchanging Canaan’s bright promise for Egypt’s dark and bitter slavery!” Yet Joseph set out again for Egypt.
Those who have lost someone very close to them must do something similar. Perhaps not today, perhaps not next week or next month. Dealing with grief takes time. But life must resume in full someday, and the knowledge of that as well as consciousness of moving toward it is part of the healing process.
Death and Dying
In recent years there has been considerable study of the process of dying from which helpful, recognizable steps have been formulated. The person best known for this is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who has highlighted five stages:
1. Denial. In this stage the person’s typical response is “No, not me!” According to Kübler-Ross, denial helps the person deal with the shocking news and begin to collect the necessary defenses for what follows.
2. Anger. This second stage is expressed in the response “Why me?” Anger can be displayed in many directions: toward doctors, nurses, family, friends, even God.
3. Negotiation. In this stage a person attempts to postpone what is now seen to be inevitable. This can take the form of trying to make a deal with God to serve him if more time can be given.
4. Withdrawal. This is a time of preparation in which a person begins to cut himself off from relationships that are going to be severed ultimately.
5. Acceptance. In this stage the emotional turmoil subsides and is replaced by what Kübler-Ross calls “a certain degree of quiet expectation.”
Today it is being recognized that there are also stages in the process of grieving. Unfortunately, this has not been so neatly spelled out or so widely recognized. Putting a number of sources together, I would say it goes something like this:
First, there is the shock of death itself. Sometimes, as in the case of a long illness where the outcome is not really in doubt, the shock extends from the time the survivor learns of the coming death of the other until death comes. Often, as in the case of an accident, the shock is sudden, intense, and shattering. Nothing so characterizes this stage as a turmoil of conflicting emotions, like having an eggbeater thrust into the mixing bowl of our emotional life, as one writer put it.
There may be fear. This was the emotion that most confronted C. S. Lewis at the death of his wife, Joy, though he said it was not fear, but only something like it. There may be anger. Wives have been angry at their husbands for leaving them. One accused her dying husband, saying, “You … you’re not going to be there for me when I die.” There may be guilt. Many feel that the death is their fault or that it would have been less painful if only they had shown more love, had more time, or displayed more understanding. Paul Tournier said, “There is no grave beside which a flood of guilt feelings does not assail the mind.”
Usually there is just bewilderment. “Where am I? What has happened? What should I do now?”
These feelings will pass; the emotions will settle down. But this takes time, and other people have a role to play in the transition. Statements of fact should be made: “Mary is dead, John. It’s time to go home. We need to sleep. We need to get something to eat.” Friends can encourage the shocked survivor to cry or begin to express his or her thoughts in words as much as possible.
Second, there is numbness, in which nothing seems quite real and the person who is grieving withdraws. C. S. Lewis’s reactions were like that. He wrote on the first page of a journal he kept in the months following his wife’s death, “There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” In this stage the person is aware of what is happening but is detached from it. The numbness is like that of a wound healing.
Third, there is renewed activity, an attempt to get back into things. This is what Joseph was doing in his return to Egypt. In this stage the threads of life are again picked up, and the work that had been properly interrupted goes on.
The last stage is adaptation. It is evident at this point that life will not be the same as it was formerly, but there is an acceptance of this and recognition that there are still good experiences ahead. One writer speaks of this time as bringing a sense of liberation (“The person feels free of the image of self as mourner”), new perspective (“The loss is now seen in a new light”), and a fresh focus on reality (“Earlier distorted, simplistic thinking gives way to rational reasons and biblical truth”). This last stage may be delayed. Some never reach it. But most people, particularly Christians, come through the grief process and find life enriched with the close presence of God and the joy of serving him again.
Help Through the Valley
But the question is how? How does one who has lost a person dear to him or her, one who seems the very essence of life itself, get on with living? Knowing the normative stages may help. Friends, if one has them and if they are perceptive, count a great deal. But grief, like dying, is still a path that one treads alone. What is it that helps a person move from the initial shock of death to the fullness of life again?
I have been helped greatly on this account by Elisabeth Elliot, who has suffered the loss of two husbands. The first, Jim Elliot, was killed by Auca Indians in Ecuador while trying to reach them with the gospel. The second, Addison Leitch, was slowly consumed by cancer. What helped Elisabeth Elliot through the grief process? She cites six scriptural ideas.
1. To be still and know that God is God. This response to death or some other tragedy comes from Psalm 46, in which the writer thinks of the earth giving way, the waters roaring, and the mountains quaking and falling into the heart of the sea. This is not a bad description of the way one feels in the first shock of a loved one’s death, Elliot notes. Everything that has seemed most dependable has given way. Mountains are falling, earth is reeling. In such a time it is a profound comfort to know that although all things seem to be shaken, one thing is not: God is not shaken. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). Therefore, it makes sense to “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (v. 10).
“Stillness is something the bereaved may feel they have entirely too much of. But if they will use that stillness to take a long look at Christ, to listen attentively to his voice, they will get their bearings.”
2. To give thanks. There is much we cannot be thankful for, or at least cannot see how to be thankful for: death itself, grief, loneliness. But we can be thankful for the promise of God’s presence through the valley: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). We can be thankful that in the face of life’s terrors God is still in charge.
3. To refuse self-pity. Self-pity is one of the most destructive, paralyzing forces of life. “It is,” says Elliot, “a death that has no resurrection, a sink-hole from which no rescuing hand can drag you because you have chosen to sink.” Self-pity must and can be resisted. When some great sorrow enters our lives we want to think that it is a greater burden than we should ever be called upon to bear, that it is a greater sorrow than anyone has ever borne. But that is not true. Death, suffering, and sorrow are the common lot of humankind.
Failing that line of thought, we argue that we do not “deserve” such suffering. But what are we saying when we voice an opinion like that? That we deserve better? That we deserve anything? No true Christian can think that way for long. We deserve nothing. We stand where we do solely by the grace of God. And if we suffer, well, it is only what our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, endured in a far more intense manner before us. We were not called to escape life’s sorrows, but to suffer as he did, following his steps.
4. To accept one’s loneliness. This is one of the hardest things of all, because God has made us social beings and our hearts naturally long for social interaction. But loneliness has uses and graces of its own. It is a stage when we are aware of our own helplessness. It is a stage when we can become increasingly aware of God’s presence and be drawn to him more closely.
5. To offer one’s loneliness to God. Loneliness is not something a normal person chooses. But if it has been given to us by God, the only reasonable procedure is to offer it back to him to use and transform as he wishes, just as we would offer any other of his gifts back to him. “But my loneliness is so little. It is such a ‘nothing’ thing.” True, but so is anything else we might offer. What makes something useful to God is not the size or importance of the thing itself, but whether we place it in his hands. The small boy’s five loaves and two fish were paltry enough. But in the hands of Jesus they were used to feed a great multitude. Think how many people have been helped in their grief by those who, like Elisabeth Elliot, have offered their loneliness back to God and have allowed him to work through their emptiness for the benefit of others.
6. To do something for somebody else. In my view Elisabeth Elliot speaks best on this point.
There is nothing like definite, overt action to overcome the inertia of grief. The appearance of Joseph of Arimathea to take away the body of Jesus must have greatly heartened the other disciples, so prostrate with their own grief that they had probably not thought of doing anything at all. Nicodemus, too, thought of something he could do—he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes—and the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee went off to prepare spices and ointments. This clear-cut action lifted them out of themselves.
That is what we need in a time of crisis. An old piece of wisdom is “Dow the next thynge.” Most of us have someone who needs us. If we haven’t, we can find someone. Instead of praying only for the strength we ourselves need to survive this day or this hour, how about praying for some to give away? How about trusting God to fulfill his own promise, “My strength is made perfect in weakness”? Where else is his strength more perfectly manifested than in a human being who, well knowing his or her own weakness, lays hold by faith on the strong Son of God, Immortal Love.
It is here that a great spiritual principle goes into operation. Isaiah 58:10–12 says, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not, … you shall be called a repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in [or, in another translation, ‘paths leading home’].”
The condition on which all these wonderful gifts (light, guidance, satisfaction, strength, refreshment to others) rest is an unexpected one—unexpected, that is, if we are accustomed to think in material instead of in spiritual terms. The condition is not that one solve his own problems first. He need not “get it together.” The condition is simply “if you pour yourself out.”
This is what St. Francis of Assisi was talking about in his classic and much-quoted prayer.
Make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, …
Grant that I may not so much
Seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and
It is by dying that we are born to eternal life.
Not only grief, but most of the troubles of our lives would be utterly transformed if we would only learn to think of others first and then serve them before ministering to ourselves.
Death and Resurrection
In Christianity the ultimate answer to death is resurrection, and we therefore rightly look forward to the resurrection of those we love and to reunion with them. It is a strong source of comfort:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
The resurrection of believers at the last day is a great hope, as I said in commenting on this passage in the previous chapter. It is a comfort. But there is another kind of resurrection that is no less part of the Christian hope and no less a comfort. It is a resurrection we know now.
When a loved one dies, it is not only the person himself who dies. There is a sense in which the lover also dies, or at least a large part of him dies. Part of Joseph was buried in Machpelah’s cave when he placed his beloved father next to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. Part of us also lies interred when we bury a spouse, child, or other loved one. Thus, we also need to be resurrected.
As we stand at that grave and hear the words of the service assuring us that the one who has died shall rise again, let us hear them not only as a promise for the deceased but as a promise for ourselves as well. Today a part of us is buried. But we shall live again. Grief will be overcome. Sorrow will be conquered. Why? Because God will see to it. He will yet unfold the riches of his blessing in our lives.