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when you lose someone you love
comfort for those who grieve
By richard exley
David C. CookCopyright © 2009 Richard Exley
All rights reserved.
When Death Comes
The first letter
* * *
How often I think of the loss of your beloved and the anguished grief to which it gave birth. The initial moments have been indelibly imprinted upon my mind. I can still see you smiling bravely as you rose to greet me when I came to give what comfort I could. Somehow that brave smile was even more heartrending than the sobs that came later. Even in the moment of your loss, you still wanted to be the caregiver; you wanted to make my task easier.
In your grief, you said that you felt handicapped, that you had never had to deal with anything like this before. How right you are. Nothing in life really prepares us for the death of a loved one, especially if that death is totally unexpected. Although we know that people—even children—die every day, we never think it can happen in our family. And with good reason, for it has been estimated that the average person can go through a twenty-year period without being exposed to the death of a single relative or friend.
Still, sooner or later all of us are confronted with the inevitable. It may come unexpectedly. A phone call in the middle of the night notifies us of our brother's sudden death. A uniformed police officer quietly informs us of a fatal car accident involving our son or daughter. Or it may come as the long-awaited blow at the end of a lengthy illness. However it happens, it is always painful and inevitably followed by grief and an almost overwhelming sense of loss.
I won't pretend that I know entirely what you are feeling or that I can fully comprehend the depth of your grief. Nor will I pretend that I have all the answers to your tormenting questions. In truth, all I really have to share is my love and the painful lessons I have learned while dealing with my own grief and while helping others deal with theirs.
My first experience with death came when I was just nine years old. Mother was taken to the hospital sometime in the middle of the night, and Grandma Exley came to stay with my two brothers and me. For the next two and a half days, Mother struggled to give birth to her fourth child. She succeeded only after the doctors belatedly performed a cesarean section. I was too young to understand any of this, but I can remember the laughter and cheers when Grandma told us that we had a baby sister. In minutes we were announcing it to the neighborhood.
Sometime later, Dad came home and gathered us three boys around him. He was bowed with weariness and grief. With great difficulty, he told us the painful news. Yes, Mother had given birth to a daughter, our long-awaited sister, but things didn't look good. The baby was hydrocephalic and wasn't expected to live. Even if she did live, she would never be normal.
Tears were running down Dad's cheeks when he finished, and I seemed to be smothering. I couldn't get my breath. I sat there numbly for a minute; then I burst off the couch and ran through the dining room and kitchen, choking on my sobs. I flung open the screen door, making a frightful racket, and stumbled down the back steps toward the garage.
For the better part of the next hour, I lay facedown on the dirt floor. Great heaving sobs convulsed my small frame, and it seemed like everything in the universe withdrew, leaving me alone with my pain. The dusty floor mingled with my tears, becoming mud, and I pounded my fists into the ground until I had no strength left. After a long while, my grief seemed to exhaust itself, leaving me with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I think I accepted Carolyn's death that afternoon, but it wouldn't become a reality until just before Christmas, three months later. The intervening weeks were filled with several crises. Once, Dad and Aunt Elsie rushed to the children's hospital in Denver. When they arrived, Carolyn was critical, at the point of death. The doctors were able to stabilize her condition, and after she had spent several days in the hospital, they brought her home for the last time. I vaguely remember Mother placing Carolyn in my lap as I sat in the armchair. She watched with a painful love as I fed my baby sister a few ounces of formula.
It seemed that each day brought some new disappointment. Soon we realized that Carolyn was both blind and deaf, and her head, larger than the rest of her tiny body at birth, became increasingly disproportionate. With a pain that still lingers, I remember watching Mother as she bathed Carolyn tenderly, then carefully measured her head to see if, by some miracle, it was any smaller. It never was. Mama would bite her lip, and silent tears ran down her cheeks as she put away the cloth tape measure.
Carolyn died in her sleep at home early one morning. Our family doctor and Aunt Elsie arrived at about the same time. He confirmed the death, and Aunt Elsie fixed breakfast, which no one ate. A short time later, the mortician came and took Carolyn's tiny body away, and the gray December day passed in a maze of necessary activities.
The funeral service and the trip to the cemetery have been completely blocked from my memory, leaving me without a single detail. However, I do remember eating supper after the funeral. Grief rendered the food tasteless, but we ate anyway, mechanically, out of some misbegotten sense of obligation. We ate in the kitchen with one small lamp as the only light. It cast deep shadows around the table, shadows that matched the sorrow in our hearts. To this day, I have not had a sadder meal.
As a child, I was able to accept Carolyn's death without affixing responsibility. It was enough to know that she was with Jesus, in heaven, where there is no more sickness or pain, no more sorrow or crying. By Christmas her death was already becoming a painful but fading memory.
The questions came later, after I became a pastor and found myself ministering to families in similar situations. Their desperate questions gave birth to my own: Was God to blame for Carolyn's death? Did He kill her, or at least allow her to die? Questions like these drove me to my knees. Desperately I searched the Scriptures for understanding.
After months of painful agonizing, I concluded that sin, not God, is responsible for disease and death. That is not to say that Carolyn's death was the result of her own personal sin, or even—God forbid—the sin of her parents. Rather, it means that sin has tainted the entire human race, and diseases and death are the inevitable consequences. Romans 5:12 (KJV) declares, "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men."
As I counsel those who question why humans must suffer, sometimes I simplistically explain that we inhabit a planet which is in rebellion, that we are part of a race living outside of God's will, and that one consequence of that rebellion is sickness and death. God doesn't send this plague upon people, nor does He will it. It is simply a natural consequence of humanity's fallen state. Although as believers we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), we remain a part of this human family—a family that is tainted by sin and death. As a consequence, we, too, suffer the inevitable repercussions of that fallen state, even though we may be personally committed to the doing of God's will and the coming of His kingdom.
In truth, the cause of sickness and death is not God but the hated enemy, sin. Not necessarily our personal sin, nor a specific sin—for life and death cannot be reduced to a mathematical equation—but the fact of sin.
Jesus addressed the relationship between personal sin and death in Luke 13:1–5: "Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you no!'"
Jesus does not tell us why these particular individuals died while others equally sinful were allowed to live, but He does make it clear that the reason for their deaths is far more complicated than mere cause and effect.
As you well know, David, when death strikes unexpectedly, we long for a reason, an explanation, but often there is none. In desperation we try to make some sense out of it, but often there are simply no pat answers, no ready conclusions. In times like these we must always resist the temptation to speak where God has not spoken. Beyond the simple explanation that death comes as a result of humanity's sinful state, God has not given us any insight into the "why" of individual deaths.
In many ways, David, death remains a mystery, even to the Christian. Why is one child taken in infancy and not another? Why is a good man stricken in the prime of life, leaving behind a wife and children, while other vicious and cruel men live to a ripe old age? Why? Why? Why? The questions are almost endless, and I must admit that I am often without answers, but of this one thing I am sure—God is not to blame! In fact, when tragedy strikes, when a loved one dies, God's heart is the first of all hearts to break!
In His comfort, Richard
* * *
Lord Jesus, my grief is unspeakable; the pain never goes away day or night. I can't sleep. It seems I watch the clock tick away the minutes all night long. I have no appetite, no interest in food. The tastiest meal is tasteless in my mouth. All the color has gone out of my world, leaving it bleak and barren. Worst of all are the tormenting questions. Why did this happen? Why didn't You answer our prayers? Where are You when I need You?
Yet even in the darkest night I cling to You. I trust Your love and wisdom even when I cannot understand Your ways. In my heart of hearts, I know You are too wise to ever make a mistake and too loving to ever cause one of Your own needless pain. When I weep, I choose to believe that You are weeping with me. Knowing that You share my grief gives me comfort even if it doesn't take away the pain. The promise of Your presence and the hope of eternal life give me the strength to go on. With Your help I truly believe that my mourning will one day be turned into dancing, and until that happens, I will trust You. In Your holy name I pray. Amen.CHAPTER 2
The second letter
* * *
In my first letter I talked about the unspeakable pain of losing someone we love and the inevitable questions that always accompany their death. Although I did not address your situation directly, I hope and pray that you found the universal truths about God's faithfulness and compassion helpful. For my part I am strengthened, somehow, when I know that God shares my pain. The knowledge of His nearness does not render my grief painless, but it does give me the strength to bear it.
"Death," as Joe Bayly so aptly put it, "is a wound to the living." Yet, like all wounds, some deaths are more severe than others. For instance, the death of a child is more painful than that of an aged parent. And an unexpected death is almost always more traumatic than one that comes at the conclusion of a lengthy illness.
Having served as a pastor for more than twenty-five years, I have had numerous occasions to walk with families through "the valley of the shadow of death." I have wept with parents following the accidental death of a beloved son. I have held the hand of a grieving widow as she tried to imagine life without her husband of nearly fifty years. And I have stood beside a tiny grave with a grief-stricken couple as they laid their stillborn child to rest. Although each experience of death is unique in its own way, in another sense, all grief experiences have many things in common.
I'd like to tell you about a particularly tragic experience because I think it may help you to better understand your own grief. It involves the unexpected death of a twenty-three-year-old woman, following a brief illness. Her family had no warning and no time to prepare for their tragic loss. In that sense their experience is not unlike your own, and, like you, they were left reeling. One minute they were a happy family, and the next moment their world was shattered.
Sherry's fatal illness began innocently enough one evening with a headache that grew more severe as the night progressed. Twice she telephoned her sister Corrie, who prayed with her and told her to try and get some sleep.
Later, after the extent of the illness had become known, Corrie told me that she had considered getting up and going to her sister's apartment but had decided against it. Sherry, she had reasoned, was a registered nurse and was fully capable of taking care of herself. Besides, it was probably just a migraine headache—extremely painful but not dangerous.
There were no more calls that night, and Corrie awoke in the morning feeling somewhat the worse for wear, but relieved. Routinely she prepared breakfast and got her girls off to school. By midmorning her house was straightened and she thought of calling her sister, but decided against it. Sherry, she reasoned, had probably had a rough night and was undoubtedly getting some much-needed rest.
When Sherry hadn't telephoned by noon, Corrie decided to go by her apartment and see how she was feeling. After ringing the doorbell several times without getting a response, she used her key to let herself in. Anxiously she called, "Sherry?" When there was no answer, her anxiety deepened. Moving into the bedroom, she noticed that the bed was unmade but empty. Then she heard soft moans coming from the bathroom where she discovered Sherry, on the floor, unconscious.
Rushing to her side, she tried to revive her, but to no avail. Quickly she dialed 911 and requested an ambulance. While waiting for the paramedics to arrive, she called her husband who, in turn, called me. I arrived at the hospital just minutes after the ambulance and spent the next hours trying to comfort the family while the doctors performed a battery of tests on the still- unconscious Sherry.
Several hours later, the doctor came in looking grim. "The diagnosis is not good," he explained to Corrie. "Your sister has spinal meningitis and is in a coma. We are moving her upstairs into ICU. If her condition continues to deteriorate, we will have to place her on a life-support system." Corrie collapsed in her husband's arms and sobbed for several minutes. With a seemingly determined effort, she got hold of herself and took charge. Phone calls were made to family and friends, locally and across the nation. As word of the crisis spread, Christian friends began coming to the hospital to offer comfort and encouragement. Within hours the family arrived from out of state, and the vigil was underway.
For the next two and one-half days, we virtually lived at the hospital. Exhausting hours were spent in the intensive-care waiting room, interrupted only by brief visits to Sherry's bedside. Her room was deathly quiet, the only sound the soft whoosh of the breathing machine. Occasionally her mother or Corrie would kneel by the bed to pray or softly plead with her to get well, but all to no avail. Her condition remained unchanged.
Slowly, reality began to sink in. Sherry was not going to recover apart from a miracle. With that knowledge, our prayers took on a new urgency, then a certain desperation, and finally a painful resignation. Then the inevitable moment came. After consultation with the doctors, a decision was reached. There was no reason to continue to pretend that Sherry was alive. In truth, she was already dead. There was absolutely no trace of brain activity, and there hadn't been for two days. The medical staff disconnected the life-support system, and the family struggled to accept the unacceptable.
Life continued, but with a certain surrealism. The tragic truth was simply too painful to be comprehended, just as it was too real to be denied. A healthy twenty-three-year-old woman doesn't just suddenly contract a deadly disease and die. Not in America, not with all of the advances made by medical science. Yet Sherry had, and she had died. While her body was being prepared for burial, her stunned loved ones tearfully planned the funeral.
As atypical as Sherry's death was, the grief experienced by her loved ones was not unlike that which follows every death. As you may well recall from your own experience, David, bereavement is first encountered as a shock that somehow numbs the pain. You feel as if you have been swathed in great bands of cotton. You continue to comprehend reality and interact with the world, but as if from a great distance. Life goes on, but in slow motion. Everything seems to be filtered through layers and layers of insulation.
You can probably remember how the first two or three days passed in a maze of necessary details, which served to distance you from the reality of the death even as you seemed to be dealing with it. The details themselves were a sort of mandatory escape, a legitimate way of postponing the full force of your grief.
Every decision took on a special significance: What should your beloved be buried in? Who should you ask to give the eulogy? What Scriptures should be read, and who should conduct the service? Should you have the service in the funeral home or in the church? Should it be held in the morning or afternoon? What about special music? Should you accept flowers or establish a memorial fund? Who should pick out the casket and the burial plot? The list went on and on.
Excerpted from when you lose someone you love by richard exley. Copyright © 2009 Richard Exley. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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