I know that many folks who are grieving and suffering this Christmas season were unable to attend our Service of Consolation. If that is you, let me offer this reflection as a word of encouragement…
“We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t the fish.”
So goes the quote attributed to Marshall McLuhan. It is not until a fish is flopping on the ground with gills flaring that it understands what water really is…at least what it really is to the fish. So also with us humans, it is only when we find ourselves experiencing real, intractable pain that we begin to discover the deepest truths about our own reality. Steve Leder, in his book on suffering, More Beautiful Than Before (2017), puts it this way:
“Through sickness we discover the blessing of health, through loss we discover the true depths of love, through foolishness we know maturity and wisdom. Pain shocks us and propels us from where we thought we were—who we thought we were—to something far more real and true.”
Leder helpfully teaches us that we journey through pain, even the deep pain of grief, in three stages: surviving, healing, and growing. Each of us fellow sufferers are in one of those three stages right now.
Surviving. When we are at this stage, we just do the next thing. Even if we don’t feel like it. We get out of bed. We get dressed. We go to the store. We go back to work. We feel hollowed out, empty inside, but we are surviving by taking one more step…then the next one. Even that is exhausting. Grief, as C.S. Lewis observed, is physical (A Grief Observed). Whether we lost our loved one last night or last year, we are still carrying the weight of grief. If you are in the surviving stage, know this. It will get better.
Death is a weight we were not designed to carry. We were made to live! When we face death, it is an intrusion, an almost unbearable burden precisely because we were not created to carry it. But just like physical weight, our strength grows up to it. The strain of just doing the next thing is forming a strength that no one can take away from you.
Jesus developed that strength too. At Lazarus’ tomb, He wept (John 11:35). Why? Why would the one who just declared, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the one who has the power of resurrection at his disposal, weep? For two reasons. First, He knew the piercing pain of grief. As He saw Mary and the others crying, He felt the loss too. He knows the hurt, so He wept. Second, He also knew that we were not created for death. He was there, in the beginning, causing life to emerge from nothing (Colossians 1:16), and He knows that we were not made for death. My suspicion is that Jesus decided that day at Lazarus’ tomb to put an end to death…whatever the cost…even if it cost Him His own life. Jesus survived…the same way you and I do…by just taking the next step. You can do it too.
Healing. It is hard to say when healing begins. It’s almost as if you can only recognize it after the fact. The light flickers back in the eyes. The pain is not quite as bad. It often begins with a simple, subtle step. Acknowledge that you are hurting and grieving, admit that you need help. There is a danger in the early stages of healing that you may feel guilty for not hurting as bad, for being able to celebrate the holiday, for feeling joy again. Some will cycle back to surviving because the pain has become a sort of security blanket. Be careful here. You may succeed in holding onto the pain, but you are exchanging the feeling of control for the freedom of growth. Not hurting as bad is not a sign that you are forgetting your loved one and certainly not dishonoring them. It is a sign that you are healing. It is evidence that you are entrusting your loved one…you are entrusting yourself…to the Creator who loves you. This is the hidden work of healing. Trusting again. Trusting God, your family, friends, church, community. Trusting another person enough to risk loving them, holding them, investing in them even though you know that you cannot ultimately protect them. Healing is an act of faith.
Jesus was fond of saying, “your faith has saved you.” Ask the women of ill repute (Luke 7:50), the four friends of the paralytic (Matthew 9:2), the blind man on the road (Luke 19:42), the bleeding woman who secretly touched the hem of His garment (Mark 5:34), or the ten lepers (Luke 17:19). All of them would say the same thing, “when He healed me, He said, ‘your faith has saved you.’”
If you want to begin or move down the path of healing, the first step is to acknowledge your hurt and trust Christ in dependence and faith. Prayer has long been the expression of trust and dependence. So the psalmist cries out,
“Lord, I call on you; hurry to help me. Listen to my voice when I call on you. May my prayer be set before your as incense…” (Ps 141:1-2).
You too can cry out and take another step on the journey of healing.
Growing. There is much to learn from our suffering. Comfort teaches us nothing. But pain is a powerful teacher. Pain sharpens our focus, clarifies priorities, cuts through our self-deception. When we allow it to do so, pain becomes our servant not our master.
When you examine the lives of those who have suffered, survived, healed, and are now growing do you know what you find? Humble, servant-hearted people. Pain tunes our hearts to the subtle, yet divine music of compassion. The music of compassion played by the Divine One that sent Christ into the world is still playing all around us. Most will drown it out with excess or distraction, but pain teaches us to tune into His frequency. We see the person in need. We sense the one carrying the silent burden. When you hear the music of compassion, it is an invitation from the Divine One to join in the music. To help, to encourage, to serve, to move with compassion the way that He does.
In what stage are you? Surviving, healing, growing? Regardless of your stage, know that you are loved. You are invited to trust, to heal, to grow. You are invited to take one step toward turning your grief to gratitude, to say thank you to God for the great gift that a husband or wife, son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister, grandfather or grandmother, or anyone else that He has given to us really is. Will you pause and pray a prayer of gratitude? It may be as short as a simple, “Thank you.” Entrust yourself, your grief, your pain to Him, and let Him carry you.