The necessary distance to grieve death together.
by Jason Overman
I had a recurring nightmare as a child. From about five years of age to 12, I dreamed about my mother drowning and being unable to reach or rescue her. I’d wake in a sweat, or in tears, and run to her bedside, only consoled when I saw her sleeping placidly or felt her reassuring hand or heard her whispered pledge: “It was only a dream.”
Many years later I became a father. Those childhood dreams had long since past, but I remembered them well and was reminded of them one night while tucking my three-year-old son into bed. As I stooped over him after saying prayers, he reached up with pudgy fingers and grabbed my bearded cheeks, pulling my face close to his. Our noses almost touched in the dim light as he asked his grave question with eyes flickering:
“Daddy, are you going to die someday?”
Like my mother years before, I comforted my son with whispered words, a gentle touch, and calming presence. Crawling in bed that night, I cried softly, lamenting that my precious boy had discovered the weight of death so soon.
Death is no dream but brutally real. Still, it can begin there in dreams or that dark stain in the back of our minds that even children can grieve long before it comes for them. As a pastor who has buried elderly grandmas, a newborn baby, and other friends and family of ages in between, I have seen the grief that attends death and the failure of words to address the shadowy crushing experience.
Pastors are supposed to have the right words, but what words are those when words fail? The pitilessly subjective experience of death and its companion, grief, creates an unassailable distance between the sufferer and those who would comfort them. This space can’t be filled with questions and answers — mere words. Often, the comfort of simple, silent presence is the most appropriate and effective recourse. It is a nearness that respects the distance of personal loss and bridges the gulf with humble spirit rather than sure knowledge.
C. S. Lewis indirectly addressed this natural distance in his two most famed books on suffering. The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed spanned the time before and after Lewis had experienced intense personal sorrow. A review of these books now reveals the rational argument of the first and the visceral immediacy of the second. Here is that hazardous space in between from the latter:
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand” (A Grief Observed, p. 25).
There’s room for Lewis’ first book, importance even, but when it comes to relating to the subject of the second book directly, you just have to be there to understand. And if you are not there, it’s OK to be present. But fall silent, whispering experiences of “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” if appropriate (2 Corinthians 1:3, NKJV).
In a single line Lewis poignantly described his all-encompassing loneliness and inescapable grief after his wife, Joy, passed away:
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” ( A Grief Observed, p. 11).
Even a man of unbounded intellect like Lewis could only struggle futilely with the impenetrable impossibility of his suffering. In its opening lines, A Grief Observed reveals him wrestling muddled sensation and isolation:
At other times it [grief] feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me (A Grief Observed, p. 3).
Comforters should take Lewis’ intimate confession to heart: “I find it hard to take in what anyone says. . . . Yet I want the others to be about me.”
This essential present silence reminds me of Job and his three friends. After this man lost his children, wealth, and even his health, they arrive with weeping. They must have been dear friends to invest so much time to mourn and to comfort Job. For seven days and nights these friends sat on the ground with him in sackcloth and ashes, “and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:11-13, NKJV).
Faced with the magnitude of Job’s loss and the intensity of his sorrow, what more is there to do but enter into inscrutable grief with present silence? It is only after those seven days of reverential mourning that words and answers shatter the stillness and betray the comfort first offered. Forty chapters later, the talking and debating between friends has run its course, leaving them in need of reprimand and repentance (42:7-9).
Though an extreme case, better to comfort in silence. If words are needed, let them be God’s words whispered, and not reasoning of our own.
Our Father who presently keeps our tears in His bottle and promises to wipe each one when He comes (Psalm 56:8; Revelation 21:4) is also the God who lovingly entered our plight of suffering in the cross of Christ and swallowed up death in victory (Isaiah 25:8; 1 Corinthians 15:54).
These are the whispered words I dared to speak to my three-year old son, to the anguished mother who lost her baby and the devastated grandpa who lost a spouse of 61 years. These are the few words — His words — shared and held softly in the wider sacred space of silent presence with friends who know to trust Him, but in the face of grief, must feel their way slowly, silently and together.