As we journey through the valley of the shadow of death, we seek answers. We quest, we strive, we strain to discern the truth about the death of our loved one, yet the wisdom of grief teaches us that God alone understands the mystery of life and death. According to Søren Kierkegaard, “It is quite true what Philosophy says: that Life must be understood backwards. That makes one forget the other saying: that it must be lived - forwards. The more one ponders this, the more it comes to mean that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible, precisely because at no moment can I find complete quiet to take the backward-looking position.”
With the death of our loved one comes a certain quiet – the voice, the noise, the conversation, the exchanges are silenced. And when we listen, we experience the quiet necessary to understand backward in order to live forward again yet questions persist, reverberating through our silence. Did a part of me die when my loved one died? Am I dead to life here and now? Is there somewhere an assurance that all is not lost? Do I remember what I have left instead of what I have lost? Do I dare contemplate the possibility of hope? The ultimate question of grief is how to trust in life again.
When grief overwhelmed my life, I desperately wanted clarity about God’s will. Most of us want an answer to this singular, overarching question: Is the death of the one we love and grieve God’s will? How can tragic accidents, traumatic illness, or death from war and random violence be the will of a loving, caring God? Is death preordained by God to occur in a particular way at a specific time? Do we believe that death occurs simply at one’s “appointed time”? These and other spiritual questions easily void the quiet of mind and heart when we grieve.
After my husband died, I choked and struggled over the words “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer. I asked myself what this means when the one we love dies. Leighton understood “Thy will be done” as seeking, finding, and doing the will of God, not living in passive helplessness at the mercy of an inflictive, punitive God. In a sermon he said, “The will of God ought to be seen as that which is positive and affirmative and active in our lives. When we pray ‘Thy will be done,’ we are not praying for weary resignation or forced acceptance. We are not praying to be taken out of a situation, but to be able to take it and conquer it, to defeat it and overcome it.”
And when I pause and look backward, the clear answer that comes to me about Leighton’s death is that his days here on earth were accomplished. That is, God’s perfect plan for Leighton’s life, his work, and his ministry was fulfilled in God’s perfect timing. And although ‘why?’ still echoes in my head and heart, at last I have greater spiritual understanding of what happened and more sustained peace. Acceptance lies in the realization that we will never fully comprehend that which remains a mystery on this side of heaven.
As we grieve at this time of the year, perhaps we understand the death of our loved one in a different way because of the events of Holy Week. We are comforted, we are strengthened, we are assured that from death comes new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26 RSV).
I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
Ecclesiastes 3:14-15 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the mystery of your presence.