I got the call one cold February afternoon. My father said, “Son, I think your mother is gone.” The news took me completely by surprise. “Gone? Do you mean dead?” I asked. “Yes, I think she’s dead.”
I hurried over to my parents’ apartment in Dallas. My sister had arrived before me and was talking with my father when I came in. My mother lay motionless on the sofa where she had stretched out for a nap and, somewhere in her dreams, breathed her last.
That was back in 1971. She was only 63. I’m not sure which was harder though; losing my mother so suddenly or watching my father die slowly over the next nine years. I believe it was the latter. He came to live with us during that time, so I learned a lot about grief—how necessary it is for healing, yet how easily it can become its own kind of slow death.
I’m convinced that no one can fully recover from loss without allowing himself or herself to feel and express sorrow completely. Yet one person’s grieving is not another’s. I’ve seen some people move beyond a significant loss in a matter of weeks, while others took many, many months. The length of a person’s recovery says nothing about his or her spirituality. The mourning process is just as individual and unique as a fingerprint. I want to be clear on that before you read further.
While grief is part of our built-in healing process, it’s also possible for a person to so nurture and nourish grief that he or she keeps it alive like a cherished pet. In time, that individual can lose perspective, lose heart, and in many ways, die before dying.
My mother was the spark of my father’s life. She inspired the fun, the creativity, and the laughter in our home. She introduced us to great music and encouraged us to play instruments and sing. If my father had any joy or delight in life, most of it came from her. So when my mother died first, it was like the light clicked off in his life. He had no hobbies, very few friends, and no interests other than watching television. He never read much. His world was reduced to the tight radius of rooms in our house, preferably with the blinds drawn and his door closed. However, we didn’t let it stay that way. As a family, we did our best to help him find life after my mother’s death, but nothing seemed to replace her spark.
Embracing sorrow is necessary for healing to take place. Equally important is the decision to put an end to the grief. No one can rush the grieving process, but it’s vital we enter it with the determination to stop it one day. That’s why we must seek specific ways to ensure that the healing process lingers no longer than necessary.
Having faced my own share of tragedy and sorrow over the years, I have found two perspectives to be very helpful. One is looking back at the past, and the other is looking forward to the future—in other words, healthy reflection on the hurt and deliberate expectation of the hope that certainly will come. I find that keeping a journal is the best place to do that. In fact, it’s so effective that many grief counselors prescribe journaling to their clients.
I look back by reading through the journals that I have kept over the years. This often helps me see a consistent pattern of God’s faithfulness through old trials, which gives me confidence that any new struggle I face may be just as difficult and just as temporary. As a result, I find myself enduring hurt with a lot less fear. Journaling has equipped me to grieve the inevitable heartbreaks that come, large and small, without re-opening the wounds.
I look forward by making some decisions—resolutions, if you will—as to how I’m going to use my current trial in future ministry. Viktor Frankl did this during his struggle to survive the horrors of a Nazi death camp. He imagined how his ordeal might be useful in his practice and teaching of psychology after the war, even though he had no reason to expect that he would survive.
I became disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only such trivial things. I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. . . . The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed.1
Resolving to use current struggles in a better future gives me a sense of mastery over the circumstances that would otherwise feel oppressive. Paul drew heavily on personal experience in affirming that, because of the Holy Spirit, no trial would ever dominate him.
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
I have found that resolving to take action in today’s darkness helps me claim the hope that Scripture promises as I press toward a brighter tomorrow.
People enduring a tragedy often need help getting beyond the pain. They may not have the ability to see the hope beyond the hurt. They often need the healthy perspective of loved ones. They may need someone to recount to them past times when God demonstrated His faithfulness. Furthermore, they may have to depend upon the imagination of others in order to envision a future beyond their pain. Many who hurt may not consider processing their thoughts in a journal during the healing process without someone prompting them to start.
- Is there someone I know who may be carrying a giant load of sorrow on his or her shoulders?
- Is there one coming upon a milestone or a significant transition in life who could use my help in gaining a healthy perspective?
- Who might be standing on the threshold of a very challenging future?
Perhaps this friend or loved one hasn’t thought to pause and mark the moment. With a glance at the past and a realistic look at the future, maybe you can help him or her see the hope beyond this present hurt. It could be the best gift he or she receives all year.