As Easter nears, it seems timely to consider some personal dimensions of comfort that most of us have experienced intimately and, at times, painfully on our side of grief.
One of the lessons grief teaches us is that it’s impossible to imagine the death of a loved one or be comforted beforehand. 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 didn’t 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 plunged into grief with the same confusion and disbelief many of us experience when death is sudden and unexpected.
Like them, 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 and 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. I didn’t understand the foreboding faces of those who came and went from his hospital room. I was oblivious to their coaching and comfort as long as Leighton was alive, as long as there was hope. For 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’re overwhelmed by grief, for a while we may be truly un-comfort-able. We simply can’t be comforted by anyone or anything because our deepest desire is not so much for comfort as it is for the return of life as it was. We want our life back - we want our loved one to walk through the door and end this awkward, unfamiliar dance with grief.
What I’ve experienced is that grief can leave some indelible ink 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 – how it once felt to be truly un-comfort-able. On Sunday the choir sang “One Faith, One Hope, One Lord”, an anthem Leighton loved that was sung at his retirement service and later at his memorial. With the first notes I dissolved in heartfelt weeping, missing him so much I could hardly breathe. It was like emotional muscle memory – suddenly, without any warning, I was awash again in grief, remembering my husband and the powerful occasions of our life associated with the music. Yet in that moment I sensed Leighton’s unmistakable presence there beside me - loving me, comforting me - transforming my discomfort into a joyful reunion of soul and spirit.
The reality of the unseen is God’s comfort to us as we grieve. Certainly, we can’t prove it, but likely most of us have had some evidence of the abiding spiritual presence of our loved one in a way that affirms the reality of the unseen to us personally. Perhaps something occurred that you know without question was an unmistakable sign or signal that you alone would understand. Its power and force affirmed to you the real, eternal presence of your loved one.
God’s comfort affirms the reality of the unseen as the very definition of 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 believe, we are comforted through the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, who restores our heart to peace and quiet joy.
Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
John 16:22 NIV
Keep me this day, O God, in the peace of your comfort.