Robbie Low considers some aspects of the Christian response to death, bereavement and despair
THIS WINTER HAS seen a disproportionate number of deaths amongst families and friends in many congregations and communities. Some expected, some sudden, some at great age, others in the prime – all of them have affected us as a fellowship of believers and friends as we have been involved in the prayer and support and the “just being there” that is an essential part of our ministry to one another.
As Christians, believing firmly in the Resurrection of Christ and the gift of eternal life, we are surprised to find our attitude to death is far from straightforward. We may have no fear of death (O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 1 Cor. 15 v.55) and yet be no less afraid of the process of dying than the next man. Convinced of Christ’s promise to his disciples (In my Father’s house…. I go and prepare a p1ace for you etc. John 14. vv. 1-6) yet awash and shaken bodily by the heavy tears of grief and mourning at the graveside of a much loved relative and friend.
Yet grief is a natural part of our humanity, how God made us, and it is often the measure of our love. Where grief cannot flow or is inhibited by shock or guilt, there is a serious problem for the heart and for the soul. The Bible does not tell us not to grieve. It says we are “not to grieve like those without hope” (1 Thess. 4 v13) and remember Jesus himself wept at the death of Lazarus.
Christians feel the pain of that sudden separation as keenly as anyone else – the difference is that that separation is just that and not an end or an everlasting division and, though we cannot see it with our physical eyes, when we come to Communion, gather round the altar and are lifted up into the worship of heaven, we are joined, as the liturgy tells us, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven!”
The church, the body of Christ, the whole company of believers, is never divided from each other or from God.
But while we remain in the flesh our sensory experience is often limited, in God’s good wisdom, by the constraints of our mortal body. When we are grieving it is good to have around us those who know what we are going through. This is not just our friends here on earth, important though their love and prayer is, but also the Saints who have gone before. We should never be shy about asking for their prayers. For example, who could understand the suffering of grief better than Our Lord’s mother at the foot of the Cross?
But a Christian does not just grieve. He also gives thanks. This is not a perfunctory or even, necessarily, verbal thing – though to speak it is often healing. Death takes the bereaved back on a long trawl of the life now passing, the gifts they have received, the love known and shared: each moment suddenly so precious but with a sweet pain, recalled from the sunlit uplands of memory. It is in this hard and joyful task of thanksgiving that we are able to offer the gift of this life, which has meant so much to us, back to the great God who made it and loves it. Tears and laughter, like the sun and rain of an English spring day, are constant and not uncomfortable companions in the time of mourning.
Both our grief and our thanksgiving, offered to God, are prayer. But they are not all of our prayers for they mainly address our feelings and needs this side of the veil which separates this life from the greater life in God. Our prayer is to be focused on the one who is dying or who has just died. If death was just oblivion, then this would be pointless. But, for us, death is “but the gate to life eternal”. Our prayer, therefore, is an accompanying prayer for, while we cannot make the journey physically with our friend, prayer is an act of love which penetrates the gates of death, for prayer is prayed into the heart of God and nothing can stop it. Our prayer is part of our companionship in Christ and those we love deeply are never long out of our prayers or we out of theirs. Apart from our private prayers, we pray for them in church on the anniversary of death in the same way as we remember a birthday here on earth. On both days a life, already created by God, suddenly and peacefully or traumatically, moves into a much greater dimension of God’s creation and intention for it.
Prayer is part of our work, our love, our companionship for one another in life, in death and in life everlasting.
Death is a time of swift and extraordinary emotion and we are often ambushed and perplexed at the weight and complexity of our feelings.
When a parent dies, a young bereaved person may feel abandoned, let down. Knowing this to be an unjust and unreasonable response, it is often suppressed, often with some guilt. It is much better to acknowledge it, the reality and the absurdity of it at the same time, and talk it and pray it through. After all, that is how most family situations are resolved.
An older person, in the same situation, who has seen their Mum or Dad “have a good innings” and is relieved to see them go and avoid (further) suffering, may have reactions no less strong. An era, a generation is passing. The foundations of life have been moved. All kinds of questions arise – the things we did, the things we failed to do – for days, maybe weeks or months. In unexpected moments, in the middle of something quite different, we find ourselves walking the streets of childhood and experiencing joy and regret and longing.
Sometimes the reality of death is a sharp reminder of where we have not been reconciled with one another or with God and the need to come quietly and “open our grief” (as the Prayer Book puts it) in confession. Forgiveness is the great healer and we all need it. It is, after all, why Christ came.
When a husband or wife dies, the reality of the sacrament of marriage is powerfully visible. The two, one flesh, are torn by death and it is often a long time before the wound even begins to heal, and the terrible loneliness can change to that aloneness which can again build relationships.
The commonest complaint from widows and widowers of all ages is that, after the initial sympathy, many folk don’t know what to do or how to relate to them now there is no “couple”. It is, tragically, not uncommon for people to cross the street, cease to invite and certainly never mention the name of the husband or wife who has died – all no doubt out of a sense of embarrassment but terribly hurtful.
The first year of bereavement is critical and to be included (you can always opt out), greeted and talked to about all sorts of things, including those things nearest your heart – and, oh, the mention of that name on someone else’s lips – is the best balm for the wounded heart.
And when a child dies? The grief is almost beyond measure. Many marriages fold in the wake of such terrible bereavement. What parent would not arrange to take their child’s place if life could be so planned and ordered. Nor does this change with the years. A mother of eighty odd is as grieved when her child of fifty-five dies as the mother or father of a teenager or a young baby.
The church’s gift to the bereaved is the requiem and it is especially powerful in this case because it begins the process of handing the much loved child over to the loving fatherhood of God. It gradually frees the love and life of the parents to be used to the full in this life and not frozen in a moment of time when the news came and life was in danger of becoming a long sorrowful look backwards.
Again the prayers and presence of friends is invaluable in helping the gradual rebuilding and encouragement of hope and purpose.
All this is set in the context of the Resurrection and it is why, though we do grieve, it is “not as those without hope”, for we believe in the God who is “the A1pha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21. v.6) – the One who “ho1ds all souls in 1ife.”
For those in Christ, in the end thanksgiving and prayer and glory are triumphant.
The great orthodox ikon, Christ risen lifting Adam and Eve up through the shattered gates of hell, proclaims victory over death and, though we all pass “through the val1ey of the shadow of death” we need fear no evil for God is with us and, in Christ, our humanity and mortality are translated into His divinity and eternity.
“Those who die in grace go no further from us than God and God is very near…”
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban’s