Have you ever encountered those well-meaning people who, after you suffer a loss, try to comfort you with words like, “There is a purpose, God’s purpose, behind everything”, or, “Don’t let it get too close to you,”, or “You’ll get over it,” or, “It was for the best”, or, after a young person dies, “The good Lord just wanted one more flower in his garden?”
I don’t know how such words make you feel, but such words make me cringe. And I appreciate the goodwill behind such words, please don’t get me wrong. But the message that I am hearing is, “Everything needs to make sense, even if it’s bad,” or, “Come on, pull yourself together, it’s not that bad- get over it.”
And maybe we hear such things because people just don’t know how to handle someone else’s grief, someone else’s hurt; and it’s not just others, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit: we don’t want to deal with it, it is scary, I don’t know what to say or do, and because I can’t deal with it, you better get over it so that I can relate to you once more.
There is a reason why we have so many grief counselors in this country. It’s so hard to find real support when we feel loss. Or we may find support in grief groups, together with people, who are just as raw and forlorn as the next person in the room, people who are capable of true compassion.
And how do we deal with our own grief? Often we are influenced also by our environment, and strength seems to be so important in these parts of the world. To carry ourselves with composure, dignity. To put a smile on our face, even when we feel hurt, when grief and loss tear us apart.
And let’s think about how we react to all the horrible things happening around us and in this world. We usually don’t allow ourselves to grieve over these thing, we have hardened ourselves in such a way that not much seems to touch us anymore. I always realize that when I read the newspaper, a magazine, internet headlines, or watch a news show. Violence in the Middle East and parts of Africa, the ongoing complicated war in Syria, refugee crises in Europe and other parts of the world, almost daily violent crimes in our own neighborhoods – it’s just too much. I can’t take it in anymore, I have to protect myself from all this terror and suffering in this world, and I don’t even try to understand what is happening.
But then, once in a while, violence and death hit close to home, and the world as is catches up with us. And then, we have to confront the fact that there is evil and sin and death in this world. And all defense mechanisms come down. No, we cannot pretend that we are strong, that nothing can touch us, and that the death we experience in this world doesn’t have an impact on us.
So we have a very complicated relationship to our own feelings, our own grief. And we don’t know how to deal with it. I, e.g., don’t allow myself to cry very often. And I am afraid I am not the only one, but that we all have, to a certain degree, adopted the idea of strength, of being rational rather than emotional, the idea of happiness as the ultimate goal in life; and we tend to think that’s something’s not right with us if we don’t feel happy. Oh, if we could only allow ourselves to show all the hurt and pain and anger and confusion we feel when we are grieving!
I know, it’s out of fashion in our day and age, but I think it made so much sense when people would wear black a while after a beloved person died; for once, it reminds the grieving one, that it’s okay not to get back to normal ASAP, but that there is a time to grieve; furthermore, wearing black in mourning was a visible sign for others: I am not doing well. Please be careful with me.
Loss, grief, death – what have we done with them and to them in our time and society?
We hide them. We deny them. We use euphemisms to describe them and thus minimize them. We don’t allow them to hit us with their full force. And guess what: whatever we suppress tends to come to the surface at some point with a vengeance.
And maybe even we, as Christians, play a part in this unhealthy relationship to death and grief: Even and especially in our Christian culture we tend to jump much too quickly to the glory of the resurrection, often bypassing the realities of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Jesus overcame death, yes, and death has lost its sting, yes. Yet: death is still a reality. The Apostle Paul is very clear about it: death is the consequence of sin (Romans 5), death affects every living being, and nobody can escape the feeling of forsakenness in the face of death. Death, so Paul, is the ultimate separation from God. Even Jesus himself experienced the desperation of death on the cross, the feeling of being lost and forlorn: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The power of Easter morning can only be experienced to its fullest when we acknowledge the reality of Good Friday.
Death is not God’s plan. Jesus is greatly disturbed, we read in today’s Gospel. Maybe a better translation would be frustrated, agitated, as he encounters all those who mourn the death a Lazarus, especially his sister Mary. Jesus is frustrated about the death of a good friend, and even more so, the power of death itself. Jesus is frustrated about the fact that the power of sin is able to get such a grasp on humanity – that death is a sad everyday reality- that humanity is not spared from experiencing the ultimate separation from God. Jesus doesn’t have easy words of comfort for those who are bereft. Jesus grieves with them and as one of them. And he begins to weep.
Jesus weeps. It is one of his most human moments, when he shares in our experience of grief. Jesus weeps, one of us.
Jesus weeps, and is vulnerable, shows his despair, his weakness as a human being. You probably have all heard the phrase WWJD, what would Jesus do? What would Jesus do, looking at the suffering and dying in the world today? I suspect Jesus would cry – or better, I believe Jesus is crying – showing us that death is destructive, ripping people out of relationships, leaving enormous gaps behind, and that grief and crying are appropriate responses to hurt, loss, and death.
What Jesus wouldn’t do: tell us in our own suffering and grief, o, well, it’s not that bad after all, pull yourself together. I have overcome death, why are you crying? God cries with us. God knows our pain is real. And God shares in the pain.
Some of my most favorite words from the Bible are from today’s epistle. Here John the visionary talks about the New Jerusalem: God himself will be with the people, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
We come with tears. We come with our hurts. That’s good, and it’s salutary. We don’t have to hide it from God, who knows what it is like to weep, to mourn, to grieve. And God, like a mother, embraces us in our pain, holds us, and wipes away the tears with a gentle hand. It is a God who touches us, who is close to us, and who shares our pain. And it is the same God who promises: I will be with you always. Death and mourning and crying and pain will end. Just trust in me and my promises: I have been with you in and through your pain, even death itself on the cross; come, now walk with me a new life, because I am making all things new.
I died with you; now live in me.
This post is also available in: German