People are unreliable, but they die with remarkable consistency. As a pastor, I perform a lot of funerals. Weddings, too; for years I kept a mental tally of the marrying-to-burying ratio in my ministry, but given the nature of the world we inhabit, the funerals inevitably outnumber the nuptials by something like two to one.
There is a gravity I feel when sitting with the grieving. A minister’s job is not to mouth hollow words and perform comforting gestures but to enter grief alongside those who mourn. It is a call to bear witness to this person who has vanished from the world. We have a deep need to honor the deceased, to recognize the image of God in their lives and acknowledge the loss in the hearts of those close to them.
For some reason, I had not anticipated the gut punch the first time I performed a funeral after Elizabeth’s diagnosis. It wasn’t that I was totally unprepared. I recognized and even explained to her the need to compartmentalize to keep from being overwhelmed. For most of the visitation and service, I succeeded. Then grief leapt out at me, unexpected. Standing beside the casket at the committal, I found myself overwhelmed by the enormity and finality of death. My tongue tripped over the familiar words: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” A vast pit was opening before me, a gaping emptiness I could not endure.
Grief isn’t so much grappling with a thing as with the absence of a thing. It is a battle with nothingness. We barely noticed when the person was there; they were woven into our world. Suddenly they disappear, and we realize the empty gulf in our heart they had occupied. We futilely try to get our hands around the void and force it to be full.
That emptiness is what confronts me in my darkest moments. It is not the thought of Elizabeth’s dying that is hard. I have spent my time around death. What I feel is what is lost. Shared daydreams are turned from unlikely to impossible. Casual rhythms that more than a decade of marriage have made habits will lose their context. Jokes will be left without a punch line. The world without the atmosphere of this person I love becomes an alien place. I will be, from the perspective of the most meaningful relationship I have known in life, alone.
There are two mistakes we can make when confronted by such a reality.
One is to downplay it. This is the womb from which false comforts are born, stitched together from half-truths but wielded like knives. “They’re in a better place,” some say, as if that was what mattered. Of course, the person who is gone is fine now; the problem is, I am not. “You’ll get through this,” others say, but I wonder what lesser version of me will survive. Besides, “getting through” isn’t the done deal people seem to make of it. There are those who vanish into grief and never return.
Dealing with False Comfort
Perhaps the most dangerous of these half-truths is the promise that God will make things turn out for the best. That is how the biblical idea is summarized by pop theologians; Scripture’s words are a bit more complicated, and we’ll return to them later. For now, the danger is this: that statement becomes destructive when the good is put forward as if it cancels out the evil. It conveys an economics of consolation. Loss is treated as an acceptable cost because all that matters is ending life in the black. The other day someone said to me, “I know this stuff with Elizabeth is hard, but I just have to tell you, I really think it’s made you a stronger person.” Something in me snapped, and I told them the truth: “Maybe so, but I’d happily be weaker and not have my wife be killed.”
God is working good, but that doesn’t make evil less evil. Death and pain and grief and sin are terrible. We should never speak in ways that deny their darkness. Human mortality is not a part of God’s good design for the world. Human sorrow is not necessary to creation. As we saw in the story of the Fall, these things are alien invaders. We must never treat them as natives lest we convey a distorted view of the world.
That being said, there is another mistake we can make. The great silence of death can, if left unanswered, leave us in absolute despair. We think that nothing will be good again, nothing bright or beautiful. There is an appropriate sadness we carry in our hearts, but if we aren’t careful, that sadness can suck us downward into the slough of despair. While we do not need dismissive comfort, we do need hope. We need an idea of redemption, a belief that beauty can blossom even in these ashes.
What is the difference between true hope and false comfort? In the case of false comfort, the goal is to make sorrow smaller. The Christian hope instead takes it all in and says, “Yes, but as horrific as everything is, there is also resurrection.”