Losing a loved one can be tough even when they have lived a full life and reached their Biblical span of three-score years and ten or more (Psalm 90.10). But losing a loved one when they are still young or in their prime is another ball game. How in such a context should we as Christians react?
In the first place we need to be honest. Their death is a tragedy. Let’s not faff around with any sentimental nonsense that they have simply slipped into another room – death has taken them forcibly from our presence. I find it significant that the Bible is quite realistic in its view about death – it describes death as “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15.26), cutting down not just the old, but also the young. Death is the greatest ‘adulterer’, destroying relationships, tearing apart husband and wife, parent and child, friends and lovers. Death is a cruel, nasty business. In the words of the great Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung:
Death is indeed a piece of brutality. There is no sense in pretending otherwise. It is brutal not only as a physical event but far more so psychically: a human being is torn away from us, and what remains is the icy stillness of death.
In the second place, we need to be real with our sense of loss. There is a place for grief and for tears, even where there is faith. I find it significant that on the very occasion when Jesus spoke of his being the resurrection and the life, Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus (John11.35). If Jesus could weep, then so too may we. Not to grieve is not to be real. Grieving is part of the cost of loving, and is the normal response to the loss of a significant person in our lives. True, we may not grieve as those who have no hope (see 1 Thessalonians 4.14), but this does not mean that we do not grieve. Of course we grieve, of course we weep. In this respect I believe that the wife of the British entertainer, Roy Castle, got it wrong when after his death she said to her friends: “No flowers, no fuss, no mourning, just lots of joy”.
In the third place, we need to express our anger and our sense of injustice. We need to rail against the unfairness of it all. One of the most moving books I have read is entitled 23 Days: A Story of Love, Death and God, (Darton, Longman & Todd, London 2004) by Francis Bridger, an Anglican minister and principal of a theological college, who tells the story of how his wife Renee was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and then 23 days later was dead. He recounts the devastating grief he experienced.
Grief has only one goal: to usurp your love’s place. It wants to become your new companion, your new best friend. This is what it lusts after. But – and here’s the real cruelty – it doesn’t even attempt to play the seductress, enticing you into its presence with promises of consolation. No, it waits in hiding until it can steal up, knock you to the ground and stamp all over you as you writhe in agony. Then it delights in kicking the living hell out of you until your guts are bursting and you can take no more, leaving you a sobbing wreck crying out in desperation for your loved one to hold you in her arms and make everything right. But, of course, she can’t. How I hate that bloody cancer.
Francis Bridger railed against death. He even railed against God – and understandably so. It was all so unfair. And yet, in the midst of his despair he discovered that God had not abandoned him. So in the final paragraph of his account he was able to write:
In the midst of human emotions of the most overwhelming kind, it is possible to know God… He enfolds our emotions, however negative, in his love and deals gently with them. He does not leave us or forsake us, whatever our feelings might tell us. And he does not desert us because we express them honestly. As I have discovered, it is in the storm centre of confusion and pain that he meets us… He invites us to discover him there… It is an awesome and challenging thought.
I would not blame anybody for railing against God. There are no easy answers as to why God should allow our loved ones to die before their time. Why do bad things happen to good people? The fact is that we do not know.
But one thing I do know is that God loves us – and that there is nothing, not even death, which can ever separate us from his love (see Romans 8.39). So keep believing. Indeed, that is what Jesus said to his disciples. “Do not be worried and upset… Believe in God and believe also in me” (John 14.1). Or rather Jesus said: “Keep on believing in God, and keep on believing in me”. The present tense is what is used. The reality is that when we lose a loved one, we find ourselves treading a lengthy path of grief. You don’t just get over your loss within a matter of days and weeks – it takes months, sometimes years. But to those who mourn Jesus says: “Stop letting your hearts be in a turmoil. Keep on believing in God, keep on believing in me.” And you will find, as Gordon Bridger found, and many others have found, that God is there – he is there for you.