Walking through the halls of a skilled care facility, I passed by a man and a woman huddled close together in one of the corners of a common area. The woman sat serenely in a wheelchair, smiling vacantly at the man.
The man—her husband I assumed—had placed a small tape player on an adjacent table. Big Band tunes drifted from the tiny speaker. I heard him say to her tenderly, “You remember this one. Don’t you?” Then he sang wistfully along for a couple of bars. “You remember. This was our song.”
When we think about grief, the death of a loved one usually comes to mind. Some of us also rightly associate grief with other kinds of loss. Relationships dissolve, health fails, careers flounder. With each loss we mourn a life that was. A life that we shared. A life that was ours.
In each of these experiences of grief, something or someone is gone. Absence gnaws a ragged hole in our souls. But there is another kind of grief. I have recently heard it called unconventional grief.
Unconventional grief occurs when the person we’ve lost is still right in front of us. A loved one may drift into dementia or sink into addiction. A person we once knew can be spirited away from us by brain injury or mental illness. The one we love is gone. And still sits at the Thanksgiving table.
This kind of sorrow is not the same as anticipating someone’s death. Walking with loved ones through their final months or weeks or days is a tender experience all its own. A loss is coming, and it will be sharply painful. By contrast, unconventional grief involves continuing to live with a person who has become a stranger or to whom you are now a stranger.
What do we do with this kind of sorrow? More specifically, does Christian spirituality offer a perspective that helps make sense of life in the midst of ongoing sorrow?
Sometimes, Christians make do with a flawed coping strategy. They believe that a carefree Paradise awaits believers after death. All suffering is temporary. In Heaven we won’t suffer any more. We’ll be happy as little celestial clams. None of our earthly sorrows will matter any more.
And there lies the problem with this coping strategy. What do you mean that our earthly sorrows won’t matter anymore? So, none of the heartache that comes with loving these people actually makes a difference? We just have to wait it out and then we can forget all about it?
I believe in eternal life. Jesus followers are resurrection people. But I don’t for one minute believe that the resurrection diminishes the importance of our mortal suffering. On the contrary, the resurrection saturates even the most sorrowful moments of our lives with significance.
Following Jesus is all about learning to care with abandon. That’s the very essence of eternal life: unguarded, relentless compassion. That kind of caring is going to leave a mark. In your hands. And feet. And side. The resurrection vindicates a life utterly given over to care.
The resurrection assures us that even our deepest wounds—our most grievous sorrows—have deep significance. Sorrow in the name of love is the Way of the Cross. That Way leads to the empty tomb.
Riffing on an image from the apostle Paul, you could say that, in Christ, the tomb becomes the womb of eternal life. He suggested something like this in his letter to the Thessalonians.
It can be easy to forget that Paul’s letters were mostly pastoral responses to the life-struggles of real people. The tiny congregation of Thessalonica had been in existence for only a brief time. Its members included both Jews and Gentiles.
Paul had been forced to move on from Thessalonica while the congregation was still in its theological infancy. His teachings were radically new. The members had brought with them to this new faith a stew of ideas and practices about life after death from their various backgrounds. Getting their collective head around the resurrection was taking time.
Apparently they were waiting expectantly for the imminent return of Jesus. They had concluded that living believers would greet Jesus and receive eternal life. Unfortunately, Jesus was taking his sweet time about the return trip. In the meantime, people were dying. People they loved. What would happen to those who had already died?
Or, to put it another way, they wanted to know how the faith would give meaning to their sorrow.
Paul responds quickly that the resurrection is for both the living and the dead. The Day of the Lord will come like labor pains on a pregnant woman. Now, in the Thessalonian context, Paul hurls these words like a threat. God’s coming back suddenly to settle some scores.
But the image of labor pains gives us a very different perspective in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” (Romans 8:22)
God responds to our suffering. Joins us in our suffering. Transforms our suffering. Vindicates our suffering. In Jesus, compassion’s heartbreak gives birth to an entirely new kind of life. A life that passes through death never to look back at the grave again.
To love—even when that love is breaking our heart—means something. Holiness happens there.
We humans naturally wonder what to do with our sorrow. Jesus teaches us to wonder expectantly what God is doing with it.
My book Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God is available for preorder.
Love this one.
My experience in chaplain training and my work with families making difficult decisions regarding organ donation helps me understand this. But this is hard painful work in helping people through these parts of their lives. Thank God for his help and compassion with us in tough times.
Thanks God, indeed!
I enjoyed the article, but I have yet to find a way to believe that when we die all suffering will stop, this would be like saying God watches us struggle and feels nothing. Something will change and maybe our understanding will help us have peace of some kind, but if we believe in eternal life, when we die we shall still have concerns for those we leave here, love, compassion and caring must surely be eternal..
If caring isn’t eternal, I’ve utterly missed the boat!
Thank you for this deeply moving meditation. However, I disagree that in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 “Paul hurls these words like a threat. God’s coming back suddenly to settle some scores.” The Thessalonians’ question is “what happens to those who have died before the Lord’s return?”. And as you say, Paul replies as a pastor. The assurance he gives is that those who have died will meet the Lord and then we will all be together with the Lord. And note the repeated emphasis “therefore, comfort one another with these words”. It’s the dispensationalists who have turned this text in a threat. Paul himself was simply responding to pastoral needs of the Thessalonian community.
Your take on Paul is very gracious. Thank you!