One of the lessons grief teaches us is that it is impossible to imagine the death of a loved one or be comforted before the actual experience of death. Although Jesus tried to comfort his disciples in advance of his death with the promise of the Holy Spirit and the assurance of eternal life, his friends did not really understand what he meant. How could they? Jesus was still alive and well, entirely present to them in body and in spirit. And although Jesus knew he would die, the time frame for his disciples was very short—Jesus went from triumph to tragedy in less than a week. When he died, they were in complete shock. They were at once overwhelmed by the confusion and disbelief of grief, the same grief we experience when the death of one we love is sudden and unexpected.
Like the disciples, we have no idea what it will really feel like when someone we love dies, no matter how dire the circumstance. As I sat at the bedside of my dying husband, I continued to hope that the nightmare of his illness would end. I prayed fervently that despite all medical odds, he would open his eyes and say, “Come on, Jules, let’s go home!” I had no concept of what death would be like when it came or how it would feel to experience the last breath of a beloved human being in a single moment of utter finality. Each person who came and went from the hospital room silently communicated an unspoken message of impending death. As a helpless bystander I resisted, unwilling to capitulate to each subtle suggestion that I accept the inevitable. For to me, as long as Leighton was alive there was hope. Even when we encounter the certainty of death up close and very personally, against all logic and reason we continue to hope, for it is the very nature of the human heart to hope.
When we are overwhelmed by grief, for a while we may be truly un-comfort-able. We simply cannot be comforted by anyone or anything. At our inmost place of deep grief, our deepest desire is not so much to be comforted as it is for life to return to the way it was. We want our life back—we want our loved one to walk through the door and end our awkward, unfamiliar acquaintance with grief.
Grief can leave some indelible blots on our heart when we encounter moments, places, and events that remind us of our loss. Often we react spontaneously as we recall the pain of isolation and loneliness and how it once felt to be truly un-comfort-able. On a beautiful Sunday morning the choir sang “One Faith, One Hope, One Lord”. Leighton loved this anthem. It was sung at his retirement service and again nine years later at his memorial service. When the first notes were played, I dissolved into heartfelt weeping, missing him so much I could hardly breathe. It was like an emotional muscle memory—suddenly, without any warning, I was again awash in grief for my husband, transported to the powerful occasions of our life associated with this particular music. Yet in that moment I sensed Leighton’s unmistakable presence there beside me loving me, comforting me, transforming my discomfort into the joyful reunion of our soul and spirit.
God’s comfort affirms the reality of the unseen. Though we cannot prove it, likely most of us have had some very real personal experience that assures us of the abiding spiritual presence of our loved one. Perhaps something has occurred in you life that you believe without question is an unmistakable sign that the abiding presence of your loved one is an eternal reality.
God affirms the reality of the unseen as the very definition of our faith, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV). As we grieve we hope, we pray, we believe, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25). The certainty of the presence of God comforts us in our grief and transforms our uncomfortable heart.
You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my honor, and comfort me once again.
Psalm 71:19-21 NRSV