God and grief

grief2Tuesday evening. The phone rings. My brother’s voice. ‘Joe’s been killed.’ Three words that change the world. I didn’t know what to say. ‘I don’t know what to say.’ That’s it.

Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

So wrote Dylan Thomas about his father dying in old age. How much more should we rage at the tragic death of a young man in his prime. Joe was 27, full of life. He died riding his motorcycle, on his way to dinner with his parents. When he did not arrive, and the next knock on the door was a policewoman, they knew immediately.

And yet, at the time, you cannot rage. You cannot do anything—there is no energy.

Time seems to slow to a crawl. The next day took a week to pass.

The world has changed; the landscape is all different now. It is not so much that you do not have a map to navigate this new territory—you simply cannot see any of its features. The swirling chaos of shock and grief is like a blizzard, as if you are locked into a giant snow globe which someone (God?) has given a very vigorous shake, and the flakes continue to swirl and play and take an agonisingly long time to settle before you can see anything.

And what will God say? What can God say? Can anything be said that will make sense, or be of help? It’s like watching a magician do the impossible and turn a circle into a square. You know it is just a trick, an illusion, and it has not solved anything in the real world.

Why wasn’t he a minute earlier, a minute later? Even a few seconds? Why did the car pull out to turn at that moment? Any number of things could have been different, and we would not have entered this parallel world to normality. In this moment there are no words to explain, because what has happened does not make sense.

Of course, there are the usual reassurances. ‘Death is not the end’. ‘Because Jesus died and rose again, there is hope beyond death’. It’s not that these things are not true; just that they don’t do anything right now. When you sit in the darkest moment of night, knowing that (at least in theory) dawn will eventually come does not make the darkness any less dark.

And yet…

As I was making the endless journey down to see them, my mind kept going back to the story in John 11, where Jesus meets Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus had died. It is all there. The regrets. ‘If only you had been here…’ The articulation of belief, forming a thin crust over the reality of grief. ‘I know the dead will be raised…’. Tragedy. Lazarus is mentioned third, after his sisters (John 11.5), so is almost certainly a younger brother—possibly not yet 20, certainly young like Joe. A life ended prematurely. Incomprehension in the words of the disciples.

And Jesus’ response?

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. (John 11.33–35)

Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible, and rightly so. Few words are needed.

But the enormity of it! Can it be true that the God who made the world shares our grief? The unmoveable first mover is now ‘deeply moved?’ The one who was God’s speaking of the cosmos into being wept with those who were bereaved—and does so again today? ‘Man of sorrows—what a name for the Son of God who came.’ What an extraordinary thing this is. God does not simply point forward to the dawn that is to come, which yet we cannot see; he sits in the darkness with us, silent, grieving.

Paul Butler, now Bishop of Durham, wrote about death when he was newly Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. It is a reflection on the metaphor of ‘tasting’ and ‘swallowing’ death.

I enjoy food. I like the huge variety of tastes that exist. I will always go for savoury rather than sweet, whereas Rosemary goes the other way. Our taste buds are a small part of the extraordinary way that we are made.

But we have all experienced tasting something that is ‘off’ or simply unpalatable because it is too bitter (or sweet). Death has a bitter taste. I have sat with people dying and heard death; both the very quiet, still final breath and the horrible death ‘rattle’. I have seen death; finding two of my best friends lying dead in the road when I was a teenager is an image that has never left me. But so too sitting by my Dad’s bedside waiting for him to wake up, yet knowing he would not, is imprinted on my brain. I have smelt death; it is not pleasant. On that occasion I also tasted something of it; the stench in the air was so strong that it affected my taste buds.

On Good Friday Jesus ‘tasted’ death. He willingly approached death, gave himself up to it and tasted it. He did not simply take a small bite and then spit it out because the taste was too unpleasant. He knew it was going to taste foul but he went right on and consumed it all. Consumed it, ate it up, until there was nothing left on death’s plate.

In tasting death Jesus dealt with death for us all. God raising Jesus from the dead on the first Easter Day was his way of saying ‘Yes’ death has been consumed; it has been overcome; it has been defeated. All that now lies ahead is life, resurrection life, Jesus kind of life.

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13 thoughts on “God and grief”

  1. Ian, thank you for this. Thank you for sharing this time, for allowing us to sit with you in the darkness. It hits hard. ‘Jesus wept.’ So powerful – heartbreaking and wonderful, distraught beauty. I have experienced grief – my parents died when i was young – one suddenly, the other after a battle with illness – nothing makes it better, but knowing that Jesus wept, and that Jesus had been weeping with me in the darkness that envelops (and when the darkness returns), has been part of healing, processing, accepting, living.
    Know that I am with you and your family in prayer…

  2. I’ve thought of you often this week since hearing this very sad news via Facebook. This is a very helpful post and I particularly appreciate the picture of grief as a blizzard. Prayers for you and the family.

  3. I’m very sorry for your loss.

    Condolences are the most awkward feelings to convey because no matter how sorry I feel, it’s of no help to you in your grief and loss.

    I hope you find the strength to deal with the loss of your brother and that your other relationships, your job and your ministry do not suffer too much as a result of your grief. The pain will pass. It never goes away completely, but it does transform into something you’ll learn to live with and even value.

    I don’t mean to trivialize your pain and I apologize in advance if you find this trite or even offensive, but comfort can be found in the weirdest places and when I lost my parents, I found solace in music.

    Not in anything grand or orchestral, although anyone experiencing deep grief might find Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, op. 85 or the Adagio from Barber’s String Quartet, op. 11 (or its choral setting “Agnus Dei”) worth a try.

    Oddly enough, for me it was a throwaway 80s pop tune by Carly Simon, “Coming Around Again”, that got stuck in my head when I was lost in grief. Mainly because through all the schmaltz and cheesy 80s synth riffs, one line really stood out. There really is “more room in a broken heart”. When we lose those we love, somehow our capacity to love seems to grow exponentially. I still tear up whenever I hear the song. But not so much from pain any more, although pain there still is and probably always will be. Rather it’s the good memories and how they live on even though my parents are gone that can bring tears to my eyes. Good tears. Tears of remembrance, and thanksgiving, and love.

    May you come to that place where the memory of your brother will fill you with a joy that alloys and alleviates the pain of his loss. Each of us comes there differently and in our own time. But I hope your journey will be a swift one.

    Best wishes

    Etienne Bredskov

  4. Ian, not much I can say or would be able to say, lost my brother through tragic circumstances, our prayers are with you and your family and also know the in the time of great pain and numbness God is there with you by your side and the family. Our prayers are with you and your family,.

  5. Ian, so sorry for your loss. My parents have been gone for years, but circumstances have made me feel their loss anew recently. Thank you for the reminder that God shares our sorrow and our grief.


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