During my forty years of pastoral ministry, I led many funeral services and so met with many grieving individuals and families before and after the services and on through the so-called time of grief. Certainly grief varies in nature and intensity according to circumstances and relationships, but where there is deep grief there is not likely to be an end point while life lasts. The pain may dull with time, and hopefully appreciation of good times shared is able to emerge and take over most of the remembering so that smiles supersede tears, but grief does not just disappear.
I believe it important for all who love to realize that we human beings are quite capable of holding contradictory thoughts and feelings as a person we love is dying and on after that person has died. That’s okay, and we do not need to resolve those contradictions. In truth, we probably should not resolve them because love is complex and so, therefore, is grief.
When someone I love is going through the process of dying, I do not want that person to die, but neither do I want him or her to continue on and on in the process of declining and suffering. I want it over but do not want life to end. What I really want, of course, is for the person to recover and be restored to health and vitality. When such recovery is no longer possible, I am thrown into contradiction. Do I want the person I love to die? No! Do I want that person to endure increasing pain and distress with no relief in life? No! Do I want to lose him or her to death? I do not. Do I want to lose him or her to the living death of being present before my eyes in body but gone from me in mind, without memory or awareness in the fog of dementia? No, I do not. I can still love someone who no longer recognizes me, but would I myself want to linger in that state? For the sake of those who love me, I would want to die if I could understand and want anything.
But let’s go further into the contradictions. We can get angry at people we love. We know that commonplace truth. Our anger does not mean we have lost love or given up on it, and we may well be angry because of the love. Well, we can also get angry at people we love who are dying or have died. Children may get angry at the parent who died and left them. Even older adults may still get angry sometimes at their parents who died years or even decades earlier. Painfully, parents may get angry at the child who died in a car crash or from an overdose or suicide. The anger may seem to contradict love, but it does not.
Caring for a very sick and dying loved one is draining, and the care giver will probably have times, perhaps never admitted even to self, of wondering how long he or she will have to carry on. Compounding the problem is the possible stress upon finances and family relationships. A man once told me sadly and bitterly that he had lost his son by taking care for decades of his father with Alzheimer’s disease. It is not unloving to dread the loved one’s death but also feel the increasing need for life to return to normal and so to feel relief when death does come. Hospice can be a great help in this contradiction, but the tension remains between wanting life to go on but the process of dying to be over.
I find it very important to recognize the distinction between extending life and merely prolonging the process of dying. Before the Hospice movement and living wills, many in medical professions and many others in the general population did not seem to have understood that distinction, and so the clinical definition of death was allowed to supplant a realistic and compassionate understanding of the process of dying. Biblically, death is not seen as just the moment after the final moment of life but as something dynamically destructive that invades life. Sickness is seen as a working of death from which a person can recover life. Death is at work in all that hurts and destroys the living. Thankfully, the medical professions and much of the public have accepted that dying is a process (long or short) that all who live must undergo, and so those who love them must also undergo. Grief does not begin when the loved person dies unless the death is sudden and unexpected. Grief begins for us as we realize someone we love is being taken from us. It is grievous to watch the strong grow weak, the intelligent go blank, the vital subside before our eyes. It is grievous to lose relationship to dementia or narcotic pain relief.
We can be thankful because the struggle has ended and, at the same time and with the same love, be grief-stricken because the person has died. To love, that contradiction makes sense beyond the reach of mere logic.
I object strongly to the religious notion that faith can or should cancel out grief. No! As a Christian, I am grateful that in the Gospel of John Jesus weeps and shudders before raising his friend Lazarus. If he didn’t feel grief, how could he be one of us? But I had a friend and colleague who tried to explain away those tears by saying Jesus was crying, not because of his friend’s death and the grief of Lazarus’s sisters, but because of the people’s unbelief. Nonsense. If that were true, he would have been crying all the time. Besides, John gives us no such way out of our human contradiction. Love subjects us to grief, and even Paul of Tarsus, the great champion of faith, insists that love is greater than anything, even faith and hope.
Please, let us stop trying to resolve grief’s contradictions, especially in other people who are hurting. “She’s in a better place.” “(unspoken) Damn it, I don’t want her in a better place but here with me – alive and whole and loving me as she did!” “God needed her as an angel.” Nowhere in the Bible or in the church’s faith will we find even the suggestion that God takes people to turn them into angels, but more importantly, as Christians we believe that God’s true will is revealed in Jesus, who came to give life not death.
But I hope we can, at least somewhat as we are able, also be patient, forgiving, and understanding with ourselves when we experience the contradictions of grief. You can be angry with someone you love. You can feel relief that the suffering is over and still hate that he or she had to die. You can be free to feel what grief makes you feel without judging yourself to be a bad, shameful, or unloving person. You can laugh, and I hope you will, at recalling your loved one’s foibles, old jokes, mishaps, or capers. You can also cry at odd times, need to be with friends and then suddenly need to go off alone. You can forget a special day without beating yourself up for it as though it meant you had forgotten the person. And you don’t have to “get over it” as though grief had an expiration date. In short, you can be human, and if you’re Christian, you can be human and know you’re in good company.