I woke up to a call at around 3:30 am. It was my mom. “Dad passed at 2 am. Please come.” I dry swallowed and hung up, only to see that I had missed two of my mom’s earlier calls, and two texts. One from her and one from my brother. Half asleep, I threw on some joggers and made my way to the hospital.
When you experience the loss of someone, you don’t only lose what you had, but everything you looked forward to. My father had just moved back to Montreal. He had been living in Italy for around 7 years. Before that I had lived in the States, and then moved to Vancouver. I looked forward to finally living in the same city, seeing him eventually slow down, and have more time to spend with his kids and grandkids. There were hopes. But those hopes were interrupted.
In November, just as he received the keys to his new home nearby, he heard the news of his deteriorating health. We had hope that he’d be okay, but it got worse as time progressed.
Throughout this process I was reminded how much people have a hard time being sad, or being in the presence of sad people. For some, too much sadness is a sin, while for others it’s just too uncomfortable to bear. So they try to help by alleviating the discomfort, by focusing on the “bright side.” Here are some lessons I learned about death, dying and helping those who experience loss.
1) Maintain the tension of hope and compassion.
While my dad was in the hospital, well-meaning visitors would offer a positive and hopeful attitude. They’d say that they were not worried about him and were “believing for a miracle" and would “declare” that he’d preach again.
There’s a good intention there, and that kind of talk is often celebrated as Christian “faith,” but it often overlooks one important Christian ethic: compassion. It seems incredibly easy for Christians to be “positive” and hopeful and yet forget to show compassion.
The word compassion means to “suffer with.” It means to enter into the pain. To feel what one feels. To carry another’s burden with them. To “grieve with those who grieve.” When you offer hope for future, it should never whitewash the pain of the present.
2) Don’t deny the ugliness of disease and death.
When my father passed away I found that most people preferred to cover up the ugliness of death and disease. Untimely death is harder to prettify, but some people always find a way to accentuate the silver lining. I can’t tell you how many people told me that my dad was in a better place. Or that God was in control. Or that at least he wasn’t experiencing pain. Those thoughts may all be true, but they’ve missed the mark, and though they intend to be “helpful” and offer hope, they often only make things worse.
The pain of loss and the ugliness of death should not be sugar-coated. The reality is that my father didn’t want to go to that “better place.” He was 58. He wanted to live, and we his family wanted him to live. . He wanted desperately to get out of that hospital bed and “feast” with his friends and family. My dad did not want to die. This was a loss not just for us, but for him too.
When we find the silver lining of death, we often ignore the ugly pain of loss.
3) Don’t equate grief and anger with small faith.
Some Christians I know confuse grief and anger with a lack of faith. They've been told all their life that sadness and anger are sins to be avoided, so instead of living in the truth of their emotions, they find ways to cover them up. It's not a sign of Christian maturity and strength to be unemotional, and always “looking on the bright side.” Indeed, from cover to cover the Bible is replete with stories of people who loudly lamented their grief. David grieved the loss of his son. Naomi (who changed her name to Mara because she was bitter towards God) grieved the loss of her husband and sons. Jeremiah grieved the injustice and sinfulness of Israel and wrote Lamentations for the world to remember it.
Not even Jesus avoided grief. He is described as one “acquainted with grief,” and experienced the fullness of lament on more than one occasion during his lifetime. One of the most important stories in the Bible is when Jesus weeps and mourns the death of his friend Lazarus. When Lazarus dies and his sisters cry to Jesus, knowing that he could have prevented all of this pain, Jesus enters that lament and weeps. When Jesus wept, he revealed God’s posture towards death and pain in the world. He weeps with Mary and Martha at the death of their brother, but he’s also weeping at the brokenness and pain in the world that is yet to be made new. He is weeping for a world marred by sin. He weeps with me, as I lament the loss of my father.
If Jesus weeps because his friends are hurting, we ought to learn to do the same.
4) Beware of using Scripture to "fix" someone's feelings
One thing that people say when things aren’t going well is, “God is in control.” I think what is meant is that God can bring comfort and redemption even in the saddest, and most broken situations. That is why throughout the Bible God is identified as a Redeemer and Comforter, but never a controller. God is not the cause of pain and death. I don’t believe that God caused my dad to suffer and die. God did not “call him home.” The biblical story suggests to me instead that it was neither His plan nor His will. It just was--some things just happen because the gift and beauty of life is fragile and feeble.
Untimely death and disease remind us of the fragility and finitude of our lives. When bad things happen you are not meant to numb your pain and fake a smile because of an easy explanation—you are to enter into that pain. In other words, we are to feel the finitude, experience the fragility, learn to “number our days” as the Psalmist petitions (Ps. 90:12, cf Eccl. 7:1-2).
5) Welcome God’s comfort in times of lament.
I've learned that to avoid the grief and the lament in loss is to miss out an important way that God wants to meet us. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Not those who “stay positive,” who “never get sad,” or who “deny their emotions.” It’s unfortunate that most people won’t experience the comfort only God can give because they refuse to mourn. By honestly acknowledging the tragic nature of human existence before God, we allow Him to raise us up.
6) When you eliminate grief you eliminate compassion.
When we avoid painful emotions like grief and sadness, there are costly implications. The extent to which we can grieve our own losses is the extent to which we can comfort others who suffer.
Henri Nouwen writes, “There is no compassion without many tears… to become like the Father whose only authority is compassion, I have to shed countless tears and so prepare my heart to receive anyone, whatever their journey has been...”
When we refuse mourn our own losses, we render ourselves unable to comfort others who are mourning theirs. To develop compassion for others, we'll need to learn the practice of lament. Not only for our own sake, but because the pain, regret, and loss we experience point to a marred world yet to be redeemed in full. As Paul declares, with the creation, we patiently, hopefully and eagerly await the redemption of our bodies. This kind of waiting involves grief that makes room for compassion.
7) Practice presence presence presence.
Ultimately, helping those who experience grief and loss doesn’t happen by taking away their pain but by entering into it. Resist the temptation to offer an “answer” to the problem, or offer a “positive perspective,” but be willing to offer presence instead. The Jewish tradition of “sitting Shiva” is the practice of sitting in silence with a person who’s grieving. Not offering any words but mere presence. Practically that might look like offering a meal, free childcare, or just a silent embrace.
Stanley Hauerwas writes, “to be kind is the willingness to be present when nothing can be said or done to make things better.” The sadly forgotten virtue of kindness finds its embodiment in quiet presence. Be willing to simply be there, without offering a quick fix.
The mystery of the incarnation is God with us. God with us in our joys and sorrows, our wins and losses, achievements and failures. He was and is fully and utterly present to us, and we, his hands and feet ought to continue his mission to offer hope with compassion, to acknowledge the ugliness of death, and lament in our full humanity. So if you're experience loss, tragedy, or any kind of burden, use your God-given lungs to lament, shed tears, write about your anger, change your name to Mara and carry your loss in its fullness. Only when we live in the fullness of our humanity--climactically manifested on Good Friday--can we experience God’s comforting blessing and joy of Easter, which ultimately equips us with the capacity for compassion and kindness to others.
Can you relate? Share your thoughts in the comments below!