Face to Face with Grief

May 2nd, 2012

Other than our own death, grief is the most equal-opportunity experience we will ever encounter in life. At some time, we will all know the sorrow and pain of grief. And the reason is this: we grieve because we love. If we did not love, our hearts would not be broken by the death of one we love.

In 2004 my beloved husband, Leighton Farrell, a United Methodist minister for over fifty years, died ninety days after the sudden, unexpected onset of pancreatic cancer. He was the great love of my life. When he died, my heart shattered into a million small pieces. And only eight short months later my loving father died. In quick succession I lost the two people I loved most in the world. My heart was utterly and completely broken. For a while, I was certain I would die of a broken heart.

Though my soul survived largely intact, I found myself in frightening, unfamiliar spiritual territory. As I sat alone a few days after Leighton died, immobilized by shock, a tidal wave of emotion engulfed my entire being. I came face to face with the inescapable reality of grief.

There was no other name for that indescribable sense of helplessness, the utter hopelessness that threatened to overwhelm me completely. From deep within I knew that I must go through grief. I knew that I could not deny it or delay it. And so over many months I worked at grief. I read about grief. I strained to understand grief. Its compelling urgency became my relentless companion.

Many would-be comforters tried to encourage my faith with bereavement platitudes. Those who grieve likely have heard many of the same empty words that often hurt us more than they help us. What I came to understand rather quickly is that grief is not a crisis of faith; it is a crisis of the heart. When we grieve, generally it is not our faith that is broken; it is our heart. More importantly, though, grief is a matter of faith. The long journey through the valley of the shadow of death is, in fact, the most arduous walk of faith imaginable.

In faith we accept the vast mystery of both life and death. Our lives are shaped by how we deal with the unalterable circumstance of death. What we discover as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death is that grief never leaves us where it finds us. It may leave us fearful and disillusioned or more fortified in our faith. When we come face to face with our grief, we determine whether faith is a superficial ornament of life or the essential foundation on which all of life is built. Ultimately our attitude about grief is emboldened by our faith; indeed, it is a measure of faith wherein we may find our deepest experience of God.

In grieving the profound loss of my beloved husband, I knew that something good must come out of his tragic and untimely death. To me, the only way this seemed possible was to write about the pain and suffering of this enormous loss to my life and find a way to share in the experience of grief with others. Over time I came to understand more fully the power of Romans 8:28 (RSV): “We know that in everything God works for good.…”

A number of months after Leighton died I felt God asking me to start a grief group at our church for those who, like me, had lost a spouse. From my own experience, I know the courage it takes to open our hearts and acknowledge our grief by sharing our most private pain with others in a group. But when we do, we are blessed by the comfort and care of others and by the grace of God. And when we share our love and the experience of our love with others, we grow together in God’s love for us, especially as we grieve.

God used this first opportunity of leading a group to inspire the ideas and topics that ultimately led to the creation of the Beyond the Broken Heart grief program. When we grieve, we need the support and encouragement of others who know the pain of grief. In leading grief groups, I have seen again and again that men and women of all ages, whatever their grief, are hungry for the kind of spiritual direction and emotional support offered through the Beyond the Broken Heart group experience.

Another thing I realized on my own journey through the valley of the shadow of death is the importance of the promises of the Bible. The Beyond the Broken Heart program is based in scripture, using an abundance of verses and passages to support and illustrate the topics of grief and many of the practical issues of grief. The hope is that the promises of the Bible will meet those who grieve at their place of deep spiritual need to offer comfort and encouragement through the journey of grief. My experience is that in the assurances of scripture, we grow in our faith and discover new strength through our faith. 

At its core, grief is really a show of faith. When we grieve, we trust God to hold us at our most vulnerable, when our life is in pieces and our strength is gone. “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27 NIV).

Through the promises of scripture, we are assured that God is with us through our grief as we struggle in our brokenness. God shares our tears and sadness. God feels our pain and sorrow. God promises that grief will not last forever. God promises that we will be restored and made whole again. “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:22 NIV). 

When we listen to what grief has to say to us, we realize that God uses our grief to teach us more of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23 NRSV).  Through grace God works to transform that which changes life forever—the death of our loved one—into a deeper, richer faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV). In grief we learn absolute trust.

On the last occasion that Leighton was in the pulpit, he offered this pastoral prayer, a benediction to my own journey through grief: “We have come this far by faith, and we will continue to walk with our hand in yours wherever you lead us.”

In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.

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