The Journey of Grief

Psalm 23:4

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Dear Friends in Christ,

   He was a member of one of my former congregations.  Married with 4 children, all of whom were girls.  He was a very successful businessman.  He had an uncanny ability to dream big and somehow transform those dreams into reality.  Of course, we all know that with greater success comes greater responsibility.  And with greater responsibility comes greater stress.  Which wasn’t the best news for this particular man because he wasn’t in the best of health.  I don’t mean to be critical, but as his success grew bigger, so did he.  And his added weight began to take a toll on his body.  According to his wife, he was practically living on TUMS.  Yet, like most men, he didn’t like going to the doctor.  He didn’t have time for things like that.  I’m sure he believed that whatever was wrong with him would pass sooner or later or he’d just have to learn to live with it.  So when he decided to spend the night at his office trying to get caught up on things, nobody in his family thought anything of it.  He’d done that plenty of times before.  But when his employees arrived the next morning to open the business, they found their 48 year old boss dead of a heart attack.  And just like that his wife and 4 daughters found themselves in what David calls in our text “the valley of the shadow of death.”

If you were here last Sunday you may recall that I used this same verse as my sermon text.  Only then we talked about what it will be like to face the reality of our own death.  This morning I want to use these words of David to talk about what it’s like to face the reality of a loved one’s death.

And the 1st point that I want to make is that grief is a process.  In my GriefShare class we call it a journey. It’s not something that we get over quickly.  Indeed, we shouldn’t even try to get over it quickly.  In a booklet that I sometimes give to people who have experienced the loss of a loved one it says:  “Death produces shock waves.  Feelings run deep, clustering into knots of pain.  There are numbing sensations.  Things don’t seem real.  Death can be like a bad dream.  The shock waves are not all felt at once.  There are many steps through the valley.  With each step there is weeping.”  I’m sure some of you here today can relate to those words.  You know exactly what they’re talking about because you’ve been there and done that, perhaps several times.

Or how about these words from Max Lucado.  He says: “Grief lingers.  As silently as a cloud slides between you and the afternoon sun, memories drift between you and joy, leaving you in a chilly shadow.  No warning.  No notice.  Just a whiff of the cologne he wore or a verse of the song she loved, and you are saying good-bye all over again.”

So grief is a process.  It lingers because there are so many emotions that you’re having to deal with.  Aside from an overwhelming sense of sorrow and loss, you may feel guilt – “If only I’d done this or that.  If only I’d paid more attention to the warning signs.  If only I’d said ‘I love you’ one more time.”  And what about disappointment – disappointment that the plans the two of you had made will never see fulfillment; the vacations you were going to take will never be taken; the quiet relaxing walks you were always going to go on will never be experienced.

And then there’s that one emotion that we don’t like to even think about or talk about when a loved one dies, and that is anger, especially anger at God – anger that takes the form of the 3-letter question, why?  Why him?  Why her?  Why me?  Why now?  Of course when we ask that question we know we’re not going to hear an answer, but there is a 2nd key truth that we need to hear and take to heart when a loved one dies, and that is that our God is a good God.

Ps. 34:8 encourages us to “Taste and see that the LORD is good.”  And in Ps. 25:7-8 David writes: “You are good, Lord.  The Lord is good and right.”  This is where we must begin when we find ourselves walking through the valley of sorrow.  Otherwise our grief may very well overwhelm us, consume us, and perhaps even destroy our faith in God.  So let this be our primary thought as we enter the grieving process:  Though we may not understand God’s actions, we can definitely trust his heart because his heart is good.

Of course that brings up the question: But how can death be good?  Admittedly, some mourners don’t ask this question because they know that death has come as a welcome relief to a suffering loved one who was longing for heaven and therefore more than ready to die.  But what about the parents of the teenager who is killed by a drunk driver?  What about the young husband who kisses the lifeless lips of his beloved bride one last time before they close the casket?  How could they ever see death as being something good?

That’s a tough question.  But I believe at least part of the answer can be found in an interesting passage in the 57th chapter of the book of Isaiah.  In vv. 1-2 it says: “The righteous pass away; the godly often die before their time. And no one seems to care or wonder why.  No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come.  For the godly who die will rest in peace.”

So death can be God’s way of taking people away from evil.  Perhaps from an extended illness or the loss of a loved one that they would have had great difficulty accepting or adjusting to.  He might even be taking them away from a dark season of rebellion that would have driven them far from the heart of God.  We may never know this side of heaven what evil or heartache or hardships God is sparing our loved ones from.  Like our sign out front says: God marks across some of our days, “Will explain later.”  And that’s where our trust in God’s goodness must come into play.

In fact, another important thought that I might want to add at this time is that though you and I may wish our loved ones had lived longer, they don’t.  Ironically, the first person to accept and embrace God’s decision of death is the one who dies as a believer in Christ.  For while we are shaking our heads in despair, they are lifting their heads in awe and wonder to catch their first glimpses of heaven and especially their Lord and Savior.  While we are walking the path at the cemetery that leads to the grave, they are walking the streets of gold that lead to the throne.  While we are questioning God, they are praising God.

So when we’re walking through the valley, let us first of all remember that the journey of grief is a process.  Then secondly, let us recall that our God is good even when we don’t understand him.  And finally, let us understand that our God is there.  He is present in the valley just as much as he is present on the mountaintop when we experience those wonderful events of life that bring joy and jubilation to our hearts – the joining together of a man and woman in the marriage relationship; the birth of a baby; graduation from high school or college.  Like our text says: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me.”  No matter how deep and dark the valley, he’s there.  He’s present.

And please understand, my friends, that no one can comfort like Jesus can, for you know what he tells us in the Book of Revelation?  He says in chapter 1:18: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”  Did you catch that?  He holds the key to death and the grave.  Or to put it another way, he can unlock the door to life.  And that is precisely what he did for us when he offered his life on the cross as the supreme sacrifice and payment for our sins.  And that’s why Jesus tells us in John 10:9: “I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved.”

I’ll never forget a visit I had some years ago with one of our oldest members.  I will simply call her Martha.  She was one of our shut-ins that most of you probably never knew because she joined our church as a shut-in.  So she’d never really been here in person.  She was 95 years old and when I saw her that day at the nursing home, I found her in the valley.  She informed me that her 3-year-old great-great-grandson had died the previous week from muscular dystrophy and the funeral had been held just a few days before I came to see her.  Martha was full of questions, especially the question “Why.”  She wanted to know why God would take a child so young and leave someone like her who was 95 and more than eager and willing to die.  And as I listened to her share her grief and I finally had the opportunity to speak, I took her to some of the passages that we’ve looked at this morning, as well as others like Isaiah 55:8-9 where it says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  I took her to I Cor. 13:12 where the Apostle Paul writes: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  That verse simply reminds us that there will be things this side of heaven that we will never understand.  But once we get to heaven, everything will become crystal clear to us and all our questions will be answered.

More than anything though I took Martha back to the cross that day.  I explained to her that everything that happens in life must be viewed against the backdrop of the cross.  For it was there that God demonstrated just how much he really loves us as he took care of our greatest, most pressing, most devastating problem in life, and that is our sin-problem.  Though we may sometimes think our greatest problem is our health or our finances or our marriage or even the loss of a loved one, we can enter heaven in spite of those difficulties.  But we cannot enter heaven unless and until our sin-problem is taken care of, which thankfully God did for us at the cross.

After I finished sharing that with Martha, you know what she said?  She said, “That’s why we take the Lord’s Supper, isn’t it?”  And I said, “Martha, you are absolutely right.”  What a marvelous insight coming from the mind of a 95 year old woman!  For the Lord’s Supper takes us back to the cross where the body and blood of Christ that we receive in this sacred Meal were sacrificed on our behalf as God’s greatest display of love for us. Remember that when you come to the Lord’s Supper today and receive with gratitude the precious gifts that Jesus offers you there as he gives you himself – the gifts of forgiveness, comfort, peace, assurance, and strength.

One more thing before I close.  Aren’t you glad that death is only a shadow?  David speaks in our text of the valley of the shadow of death.  Think of it this way.  If you were driving on the highway and a semi passed you, you would find yourself temporarily in its shadow, right?  Well, which would you rather be hit by, the semi itself or its shadow?  Obviously, the latter because its shadow is harmless.  And so it is with death.  Thanks to Jesus and all that he’s done for us, death can do us and our Christian loved ones no more harm than a mere shadow that crosses our path.  And once that shadow of death has passed, you will find yourself in the light of the Son, not s-u-n, but S-o-n, never to experience the shadow again.

Amen.