I remember the Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial on the TV the night my mother died. Linda Kash was holding a perfectly smeared bagel and saying something, though given what we found, I don’t recall her words.
I was fifteen and my brother nineteen and, in many ways, our lives slammed to a crashing halt that night. A sudden, unknown aneurysm had claimed my mother’s life and, when we returned from the Auto Show in Vancouver that evening, she looked like she was sleeping on the couch. Sleeping, and the TV was on.
Still with the power to make me gasp these twenty three years later, I don’t often open the box of grief from when my mother died and left me behind – fifteen and angry. And yet grief brings his box to my table without invitation. Despite myself, I open it, fumbling a bit with the lock and handling memories like vintage lace – with delicate, respectful care.
My mother was not the first person I lost, nor will she be the last. Growing up with her has shaped me most significantly, predominantly in my understanding of how trauma impacts a person and changes them forever. The brain locks down the grief in its own compartment, and the triggers are sharp and unpredictable. Finding your mother dead on the couch at fifteen changes a person.
There is no single way to grieve, and not all grief is the same. Grief is also like colour – varied in its hues and tones. Stand before paint swatches and you understand that red is just the name of a multifaceted fracturing of light. Pale reds and fire engine reds; brown or yellow or green based reds. Grief is all-encompassing and physically disruptive; it’s anything but formulaic.
Grief can even change roles throughout our lives. There are times when grief is a teacher and your heart eases itself carefully into a new space, longing to be filled, not overwhelmed. Then, there are times when grief is a brutal taskmaster, raining blow on blow upon the broken. There are days when breathing is nearly impossible, and anger chokes out reason; where the relentless onslaught of sorrow and longing causes physical pain. Then, one day a heartfelt laugh catches you off guard and the next day you are puddled over a can of green beans in the grocery store.
The hue of red shifts with the hours and moments of the day; it defies every definition.
Western culture still isn’t sure what to do with our grief. We want to tuck its unpredictability beneath the safe space of productivity. Get back to work, we urge. Rebuild your routine. Carry on.
Even within the church, we fumble about after the funeral. How long do we wrap ourselves around the grieving? When is it alright to start nudging them away from weeping towards adjusting? Do we sit in silence, moved by suffering, or do we fill the air with words of little substance?
Do our ministrations quietly acknowledge death is still the enemy? Are we sobered by the fact that has not yet been fully removed from the face of the earth? Do we allow our spirits to becomes troubled like Jesus, who came to defeat sin and death, and, until his return on the clouds of heaven, death remains an intruder? The Scriptural images of the new heaven and the new earth assure us God “will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:8 NIV) And in Christ, we will see the victory of death’s final and ultimate defeat (1 Corinthians 15:57 NIV).
Our gospel hope is reunion with our loved ones and a final, full defeat of death and suffering. This eternal perspective ultimately informs our healing, but how, in the meantime, do we grieve? Who is the Lord in the midst of our struggle to go on?
He is, in our grief as in all things, Emmanuel. God with us.
He is not impassive in our sorrow, our brokenness. Scripture does not downplay the devastation that this busted up world can wreak on our fragile spirits. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” Psalm 34:18 (NIV) reminds us. And “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3 NIV)’
Broken hearted. The original Hebrew word depicts devastation. Its imagery is a violent rending, crushing, and shattering. The same root Hebrew word is used when Moses smashed the tablets of the law when he was confronted by Israel’s idolatry. Hollywood has twisted a broken heart into something trite and melodramatic, but Scripture outright rejects such shallow depictions. The broken hearted are changed by their sorrow. They are the jagged remnants of their whole selves.
The verbs in these passages belong to the Lord – he is near, he saves, he heals, and he binds up. The original Hebrew sketches beautiful details into these broad brushstrokes. These are images of the Lord drawing near to the sorrowful heart, gathering the crushed and shattered pieces and literally piecing his beloved back together. He mends by stitching. He applies compress and bandage. He who made us heals as only he can.
He will quiet us with his love, whether we are prepared to accept such comfort or not. Like a child flailing in confusion, anger and fear, sometimes the Lord needs to gather the grieving tight until they settle against their Abba’s chest, exhausted and spent. Emmanuel is ‘your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 33:27 NIV)
The brokenness in the grieving is not some temporary, insignificant trifle within the family of God. Scripture treats it with significance and respect, and the imagery of the Lord’s response is tender and intimate. Jesus was deeply moved by the grief of Mary and Martha when Lazarus died, and himself wept at his friend’s tomb (John 11:33, 35 NIV). In an encounter of a widow on her way to bury her only son, Jesus had deep compassion on her (Luke 7:13 NIV).
Our response needs to be similar. Yes, we carry the gospel hope that death will not have the final answer. Yes, one day death will be swallowed up completely, but we are not there yet. For now, death remains an intruder, and grief and sorrow remain part of the human experience… the Christian experience.
It is not ours to heal. The piecing together of the shattered is the Lord’s. It is Emmanuel who quiets with comfort and restores wholeness from the crushed and jagged pieces. Sorrow in our brothers and sisters should draw us to silence and hold us in the quiet reflection of compassion. We must soberly acknowledge that death remains the enemy until our Lord Christ returns.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:3&4 NIV.
We live in the joy of the new covenant but we do so under this “old order of things”. Creation still groans under the burden of sin, longing for redemption. And so, when we face considerable loss, we can acknowledge with love that the grieving have been broken by the relentless intrusion of death and sorrow. And with quiet patience and faithful prayer we can live from confidence that our sorrow is seen by El Roi, consoled by Abba Father and pieced back together by our Saviour.
For He is Emmanuel. Yesterday. Today. Forever.