FOR WHEN YOU LOSE SOMEONE YOU LOVE
Dear Sister, Dear Brother, Dear Friend,
I am so sorry for your loss. Grief is one of the great burdens of life. There is no way to prepare for it. Sometimes we lose someone suddenly through an accident, act of violence, or health emergency. Sometimes we watch a loved one suffer and die slowly through serious illness. Regardless of how it happens, the harsh reality of death changes everything. The pain of it cannot be fixed or chased away. It hurts, or it leaves a terrifying emptiness. When we lose someone to death, there remains in our hearts a yearning ache to speak with the person who is missing, to complete the business that was left undone, to ask for forgiveness, to offer mercy, to say I love you, to have one more moment being together and breathing the same air. We want things that seem impossible. The beloved seems to be gone in a way that feels overwhelmingly final.
As Christians, we believe in resurrection, yet death remains a great mystery. We cling to hope that passing away is not the end, that death is the door that unites us with God, and that we will be raised again by God through Christ. This faith is our only hope. We must trust in things we cannot see and cannot understand. But even if we believe in life after death, we still find ourselves today at a juncture of devastation and loss. We hold onto the promise of eternal life, but it feels like our little boat is trapped in the heart of the storm. With wind this strong and waves this deep, how can we be expected to walk on water?
Jesus, being fully human, grieved in his own lifetime. The Bible tells us that “Jesus wept” when he stood outside the tomb of his friend, Lazarus (John 11: 35). His conversation with Lazarus’ sister, Martha, stands across time as a powerful witness to the hope that we have through Jesus: “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world’” (John 11: 23-27). With Martha, all we can do is place our hope in Christ.
Yet even the disciples who met Jesus face to face struggled with fear, doubt, and heartbreak. Listen to how some of the disciples grieved after the death of Jesus in Luke 27: 59-61: “Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.” The truth is once the work of honoring the dead through burial is done, all we can do is sit and face the tomb. We need to abide with our grief and face it. Our only hope is to wait on God for the promised resurrection.
What is it like for you to sit with grief? The loss of a loved one sometimes leaves us feeling empty or depleted. There are times when it feels like nothing around us is real, or like everything around us keeps moving while we remain frozen and numb. Sometimes we are overcome by rage and the unfairness of life and death, or deeply depressed and unable to imagine any happiness in a life without the person we lost. Sometimes we feel guilty when we think about the possibility of being happy again. We wonder what kind of person could be happy in a world where their mother, father, lover, friend, or other loved one is gone. We may also feel intense guilt for something we feel we did or did not do while the person was alive.
Grief becomes complicated and confusing when there was conflict or tension between the survivor and the deceased. As gay Christians, we are not strangers with conflict and tension. Perhaps you felt rejected by the person you lost, or perhaps they passed away before you were able to fully trust them, open up to them, or share with them some essential truth about who you are. Perhaps forgiveness was never offered or received.
What should we to do with emptiness, anger, sorrow, unfinished business, guilt, and despair? We must begin by being honest with ourselves and turning everything over to God. There is a great temptation to run away from our thoughts and emotions, to drown everything in drugs, alcohol, sex, or too much work. These unhealthy behaviors will only bring more problems, and the grief will still be there when the high wears off. It is important to practice healthy coping skills at this difficult time. Exercise, go for walks, pray, talk to loved ones, write, sketch, paint, read, and stay engaged in everyday life activities like school or work.
However, also give yourself time to face what has happened. Give God your struggles and your doubts. Ask Her to guide you on your journey of healing. If you are angry with God, pray about it. God can handle your anger. If you find it hard to believe in God, pray about it. God can handle your doubt. If you have no idea where to go from here, pray about it. God can handle your confusion. If you want to give up, pray about it. God can handle your despair. God will always meet you where you are if you let Her. Whatever you are going through, give it to God, talk about it, and open your heart to transformation, growth, and healing. Talk with trusted loved ones as well, for God works through the people in our lives and God works through us. We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ for each other.
Everyone grieves in their own way. As long as you avoid hurting yourself and others, let yourself be sad when you need to be sad, angry when you need to be angry, and confused when you need to be confused. Let the emotions be storms that come and go, and try to remember that no storm lasts forever.
In your grief, remember and honor the person you lost. Meditate on who they were, the good and the bad. Share stories with others who loved them. Write down your memories. Look at pictures. Thank God for everything they taught you, the happy times you had together, and the ways this person helped you become the person you are today. Pray for them. Ask God to hold them with a tender love that never dies.
When you are ready, talk to the person you lost. Visit their grave, write them a letter, or speak to their spirit directly from your heart. Ask for the apology you deserve or offer the apology you need to give. Tell them the secret you want them to know. Ask the question you wish you had asked when you last saw them, face to face. Listen to whatever message comes to your heart. If you hear nothing, then sit in the silence with God, and try to believe that your answer will arrive with time.
As Christians, we have faith that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are made for eternal life. Death does not end life, but death changes it. Death does not end our relationships, but death changes them. I hope and pray that as you move through your journey of grief, you eventually come to trust that your loved one is at peace with God. We must have hope that in the fullness of time, death will be no more. As is written in 1 Corinthians 15: 26, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” With hope in the resurrection given to us through Christ, we can say with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15: 55).
And yet, sometimes we must weep, because while death does not hold eternal victory, it still hurts us today. This pain of separation and change is temporary, but it remains deep and unfathomable. What can we do? As Jesus carried his cross on the day of his crucifixion, Luke 23: 27-28 tells us, “A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children…’” These tender and poignant words of our Lord affirm that while we remain alive on earth, it is right to weep and mourn at times of loss. Jesus’s incarnation and resurrection shattered the veil that separated human beings from God, and we meet God throughout the moments of daily life. Yet the fullness of the Kingdom of God has not yet come to be. We still build it together with God, day by day. And so there are times when the pain of sin and death cut deep. And so we weep, because we know deep down this is not the way things are meant to be.
This moment of Jesus’s passion also teaches us that while we carry our own grief, we must also open our hearts to encounter others who are hurting. As he suffered, Jesus told others to weep not for him, but for themselves. He saw their anguish and he ministered to them, even at the moment of his own great agony.
Like Jesus, we are also called to minster to others while we suffer. We cannot let ourselves be so lost in grief that we abandon our duty to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves. We are not the only ones who lost a loved one, and so there are others who need our love and support. When people hurt together, they are sometimes tempted to push people away. Therefore, we might feel inclined to say or do cruel things to those around us to keep them at a distance.
But we can overcome these urges. We do not need to hurt others in our grief. We can choose to open up to one another, care for one another, support each other, and carry each other through this hardship. We all make mistakes. We need to give each other grace, especially during times of emotional turmoil. Maybe you have lashed out in anger at others, or maybe others are pulling away from you and shutting you out. We cannot tell others how to grieve, and sometimes their actions will hurt us. You might need a parent, sibling, or friend who is letting you down. Pray for them. Try to see their actions as tragic results of grief that have nothing to do with how much they love you. If you think it would help to talk to them, then give it a try. Set healthy boundaries and take space from people if they are saying or doing anything that hurts you. All the while, pray that you may follow in the footsteps of Jesus and minister to others in their grief as he ministers to us from the cross.
Once again, it can be tempting to try and escape pain or emptiness through any means available, even if the method is destructive to ourselves or hurtful to others. We may want to numb ourselves to pain or shake ourselves from the fog of apathy with drugs, alcohol, or loveless sex. We may choose to rail against the unfairness of death by fighting, bickering, or seeking to control other people. We may engage in self-harm or fantasize about escape through suicide. If you find yourself coping in these or other unhealthy ways, please seek help right away. Talk to a family member or close friend. Talk to a trusted teacher, pastor, or mentor. Connect with a counselor, or if you are seriously thinking about ending your own life, go to a nearby hospital. You are precious and the world needs you. God will take you home when the time is right, but there is a lot of life for you to live until that day comes.
It is hard for me to write about the moments of my grief, but I do so in order to show the healing power of God’s love in my life. My sister, Kerry, carried baby Henry for just over 20 weeks. He was not born yet, but we all loved him fiercely. He was my parents’ first grandchild. Kerry and her husband, Jared, had so many dreams for the life their son would lead. They would read him stories, teach him to play football, and have him baptized in the church where they got married. He was my little nephew, and I was planning to go part-time at work so that I could help take care of him two days a week.
I got the phone call late one afternoon a couple days before Christmas. Kerry called me from her doctor’s office and said they could not find Henry’s heartbeat. I met her at the hospital and we wept together as the midwife confirmed that Kerry’s baby boy had died. There was nothing poetic or romantic about the pain that followed. Henry was dead. He never got the chance to take his first breath, lie in his mother’s arms, play with his father’s beard, or bounce on his uncle’s knee. He would never grow up and be the man he was meant to be. His death was harsh, sudden, and cruel. It was not right. It reminded us of so many other unfair deaths that have touched my family- my mother’s two miscarriages, a child my mother tutored in our home who was killed by a drunk driver, the daughter of one of my beloved teachers who died of cancer, a family friend who died of a gunshot wound, a classmate who was killed by an infection from a feeding tube that was placed after a tragic accident, a preschool student who died of sudden illness, a co-worker who died of cancer two years after getting married while she was trying to conceive a child.
We did what we could to support Kerry and Jared. They were strong through their grief, but there were so many questions for us to face. Why did this happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? Where is Henry now? Can he hear us when we talk to him? How do we make it through this tragedy, and why should we keep going?
The only thing that kept me alive through it all was the love of God. I do not know why God allows bad things to happen, but I firmly believe that She holds and heals us when they do. My only hope is that Henry lives on with God. I like to think that Jesus and Mary care for him as he plays with the babies my mother lost. I like to think they will watch over us until the time comes when we are all reunited.
It is important for me to remember that Henry’s life on earth had meaning. He brought joy to his entire family every day he bounced around my sister’s womb. I will never forget him and I will never stop loving him. I know the same is true for Kerry, Jared, and the rest of my family. Losing Henry hurts, but I am thankful I had the chance to know and love him while he was here.
And so, through your grief, cling to God. Offer all you think, feel, and do to the one who created us and gives us everlasting life. Even when it seems impossible, believe that your loved one remains safe in the hands of the Creator. Remember the words of Revelation 21: 3-4: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’”
We need to carry each other through grief, and we need God to carry us through life. Ultimately, we must remember that the reason death is so painful is that life is good. The reason loss is so painful is because love is good. I am deeply moved by the following poem, written by Ellen Bass (2002):
The Thing Is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
Between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again. (p. 72)
We must choose to love life, for loving life is indeed a choice. It is easy to succumb to doubt and despair. It is easy to give up. But even when we feel hopeless, we must open our eyes and search for goodness in the world. There is love to heal every shattered heart, and there is life beyond the grave. As we read in Psalm 118: 24, “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad.” Try even in the midst of grief to embrace the day. Cling to your loved ones and believe that God will wipe every tear from your eyes. Someday, death will be no more. Hang in there.
Bass, E. (2002). Mules of love. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd.
Ellen Bass, “The Thing Is” from Mules of Love. Copyright © 2002 by Ellen Bass. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions Ltd., www.boaeditions.org
“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’”
- John 11: 23-27