I watched recently as one of my twin nephews, both starters on their high school football team, went down with a season-ending knee injury. In the scheme of the world’s problems, a torn ACL may not sound like much. But in the world of a high school athlete, it’s devastating news. You have only one senior season.
In the scheme of the world’s problems, a torn ACL may not sound like much. But in the world of a high school athlete, it’s devastating news. You have only one senior season.
I knew the tears Joshua shed while lying on that table had little to do with his hurting knee. His heart was broken. He is grieving a lost opportunity that will never again come his way. His brother is grieving too, over the loss of sharing the playing field with his twin.
We experience grief when something meaningful in our lives is lost: an opportunity, good health, possessions, financial security, a job, hope, dreams, a friend or a family member.
As a pastor, part of my job is to be sensitive to the grief people experience. I listen a lot. I encourage healthy expressions of grief and remain sensitive to signs of depression, apathy, bitterness, anger, denial and acceptance–all very common emotions associated with grief.
I am always aware of my limitations during such times, but I am also aware of God’s presence more than any other occasion that I have to minister to others.
If you’ve never experienced deep grief, the following paragraphs might help you understand some of the emotions of grief. For those of you who are grieving, I pray these words of Andrea Tew will bring you comfort. A few months ago Andrea lost her husband to cancer and is now raising three young children as a single parent.
“I have often wondered which would be worse–to lose a loved one suddenly, without warning, or to lose a loved one after an extended illness. I know that some extended illnesses can be long and hard on the patient and the family. However, I am thankful every day that Eric’s death took place over an extended period and not suddenly. I know that I am going through the grieving process now. And part of that process is unpredictable–down one week, up the next. But I feel like I was also given the wonderful opportunity to do a lot of my grieving alongside of Eric.
“Although we did not spend every moment of every day talking of his death or our love for one another, we were able to go through stages of grief in which we were able to grieve the loss of the life we once had, the possible loss of one another, and the loss our children would have to endure. I have realized that this grief will always be a part of my life. I will manage it in different ways as I pass through different stages, but I do not believe it will ever completely go away. I will learn to live with it, yet I will always carry it. My life, like it or not, will never be the same.
“It changed even before Eric died. It changed on April 28, 2002, when the surgeon sat across from me and confirmed what I had dreaded so. I will never have the love of my life again on this earth. We will not grow old together. We will never be able to do just the simple, mundane, everyday activities of life together again. I will never be able to ask his opinion on things. My girls will not have their daddy to walk them down the aisle as they marry the love of their lives. My son will not take his first hunting trip with his daddy. But in many ways, it also changed for the better.
“I now think a little longer before I get so angry about such stupid, insignificant problems. I consider other people’s feelings more now. I have a deeper walk with God now. What I used to consider a major catastrophe isn’t such a big deal anymore. I have a new measure for ‘having a bad day.’
“I was able to see my husband in a way that I would have never seen him had we not walked this path together. I have met people and had opportunities that would never have been mine had I not faced this trial. I can easily dwell on the negatives of this change in my life. But in order to survive, in order to make some sense of life again, I must focus more attention on the positives. I must learn to grow through this process. Grieve, yes, by all means, but also grow.”
Most of us will not make it through life without significant loss. If we do, it means that someone will be grieving losing us prematurely. Grief is a part of life. We have no choice about experiencing loss. In time, everyone loses someone or something meaningful.
The choice we are left with is how we will respond to grieving times. Will grief consume us? Will we be swallowed into its dark abyss and never emerge? Do we conclude that we will never be happy again? Will we allow ourselves permission to cry and mourn? Will we become and remain angry at the world and at God because our lives have been forever changed?
The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept with Martha and Mary as they grieved the death of their brother Lazarus. Jesus wept even though he was about to call Lazarus from the grave. Jesus was about to display his divine powers, yet prior to doing so he showed his human emotions.
God created us with the capacity to grieve. Though the emotion is very healthy, we can get stuck in various stages of grief, cutting off the growth process so necessary for us to find joy, peace, and meaning as life continues.
Jesus taught Martha and Mary that even in the midst of grief, our faith in God can grow. Because of Lazarus’ death, Martha and Mary had an opportunity to grow in their faith in Jesus. Those mourning with them had the same opportunity, witnessing Lazarus come forth from the grave as Jesus called him out.
Lazarus eventually died again. Jesus’ miracle didn’t spare the family of Lazarus from future times of grief. Nor will our Lord spare us from grief. We will grieve at significant loss. But will we grow? Will we look for the good amidst the bad? Will we allow God to mold and shape us into the persons He wants us to be? God can use a time of grief as clay in His hands to shape a grieving experience into something useful in our lives. That’s not to say that life will be the same. It is to say that God can take significant loss, even death, and help us to find hope, peace, and eventually joy.
Andrea Tew writes: “It is hard for me to imagine the future now, because I cannot imagine it without Eric. But at the same time there is a certain anticipation to see just how God is going to provide for us spiritually, physically, and mentally. I want my children to be able to look back when they are much older and be able to see how God carried us through a difficult time in our lives. Without the promises that God gives us, that desire could never be fulfilled. But, because we know He holds our future in His hands, we can trust Him to see us through.”
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appeared in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.