I wrote the following article on grief shortly after my dad died in August 2005. This is the first of two articles which appeared in our parish magazine.
The good grieving guide (Part 1 – April 2006)
Two months have passed since the death of George Best. It is no secret that his addiction to alcohol caused his premature end, aged only 59. What is less well known, perhaps, is that his mother, Ann, died from the effects of the same addiction, when she was aged 54.
George Best’s father, Dickie survives them both. Now aged 87, Dickie must face the pain of remembering how two people he loved destroyed themselves. In his autobiography, Blessed, George describes the guilt that both he and his father felt for being unable to stop George’s mum from drinking. “You don’t know how many times I thought of going round there [to the off-licence] and putting a match to the place”, said Dickie.
George’s guilt was greater still. He hadn’t visited his mum for over two years before she died. He writes, “I felt her death was all my fault, that if I hadn’t gone to England, hadn’t done the things I’d done and if I’d only gone home more often, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s a terrible thing guilt…I drank even more heavily after her death, partly because of that guilt.”
My own father died in August last year. Up to his death and immediately afterwards was a time of incredible grief. The pain of losing someone we love is almost physical. Since my father’s death I have occasional moments of sadness when I remember something special about him. Overall, however, I have discovered in reality just what God has done to provide the way for us to grieve well.
At least four complex emotions lie at the heart of grief. The greater these four emotions, the greater our sense of grief, and any combination of them will make our time of loss less bearable.
First, as George Best experienced, there’s guilt. The more guilt we carry on ourselves, for things which we did or didn’t do, the greater our grief becomes. Then there’s blame. Blame is another powerful ingredient of grief. If doctors seem not to have done all they could have done, or if a driver kills someone we love, then it is natural to apportion blame for the death to someone else. Add to guilt and blame the sense of loss. When we sense loss, we mourn the emptiness, the unoccupied chair at the dining table, the quietness, the loss of potential, the things which could have been achieved but weren’t. Loss is particularly acute when someone young dies. Fourth and last, there’s the despair caused by the bleakness or futility of life. Before he died, comedian Kenneth Williams wrote this final entry in his diary “Oh, what’s the bloody point?” That sense of despair and futility can be felt as much, and more, by the grieving as by those who face immediate death themselves.
Each of these emotions must be faced and dealt with if our grief is to be reduced. If they are left to fester, or if we nurture them, then each one increases our grief. So, how can we deal with very real senses of guilt, loss, blame or despair? We find in the pages of scripture that God has provided the way for us to deal with each one. Here is what I have called “The good grieving guide”.
Lets begin with guilt. How do we deal with the sense of self-blame which underlies guilt? Remember that George Best blamed himself for his mother’s death and he felt guilty. Well, in the first letter of John, he writes “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “
The question arises, why should we continue to blame ourselves for anything if God himself is willing to forgive us? When we feel there was something we should have done but didn’t, we ought not to bottle it up but confess it to God, who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. If God can forgive us, then we can forgive ourselves for the mistakes we made, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Next, there’s the blame of others. Whether the acts of other people caused the death of someone we love intentionally, like the murders of Anthony Walker, the teenager cruelly axed to death in Liverpool last year, or unintentionally as in the case of a reckless car driver, God provides us with the means to forgive them. The mother of teenager Anthony Walker, Gee Walker, told the Daily Mail “I can’t hate. I brought up my children in this church to love. I teach them to love, to respect themselves, and respect others. Hatred is a life sentence. What does bitterness do? It eats you up inside like a cancer. We don’t want to serve a life sentence with those people.”
Gee Walker knows God’s provision for grieving well when it comes to blame. Forgiveness is an important part of giving up blame. The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:13 “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Forgiving others is a mark that we have understood and accepted God’s forgiveness through the death of his Son for our sins. Forgiveness is only one part of giving up blame. The other part is trusting God’s perfect justice. “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” [Romans 12:19]. We can let go of blame when we know that God’s justice will be perfect.
Next, there’s the sense of loss. When our thoughts turn to the person we miss we can feel robbed by God. There is only one way to deal with this sense of loss and that is to thank God for everything the person meant to us. When Paul writes “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” [1 Thessalonians 5:18] he means all circumstances, even bereavement. The person we lost was a gift from God; being able to say thank you is God’s way of letting us deal with our loss.
When the sense of loss wells up inside and threatens to overwhelm us then we must pause. Taking a minute to gather in our minds things about the person for which we can truly thank God and then saying thank you to him in prayer for each one reduces our sense of loss. When I find myself getting sad about my father, I give thanks to God for even the smallest things, like the patience he showed in teaching me to use a saw or to play golf, as well as the big things like providing a secure and loving home.
And lastly, there’s despair. What has God done to overcome the darkness and futility of life? The answer is hope which comes through faith in the resurrection of Christ from the dead for all who believe.
Christ has defeated death. He is alive. By trusting him, our despair disappears as hope emerges in eternal life with God.
And so, to grieve well, make these your prayers. Ask God to forgive you for the guilt you feel, he is faithful and just and will forgive because his Son died to take away our sins. Then forgive yourself. Forgive anyone who you blame and trust God’s perfect justice. Don’t harbour anger for times which you’ve lost but thank God for the gift of life, however short, for the good times and the bad. And put your faith in the resurrected Son, who alone drives away our despair and replaces it with the hope of eternal life.
The Good Grieving Guide (part2) is here