As a preacher and pastor over the past forty years, I have often been called upon in times of grief and bereavement. I have been at the side of the elderly as they have passed from this life into their rest. I knelt beside the lifeless body of a 21-year-old man after he crashed his ultra-light airplane in his parents’ backyard—as they watched horrified and helpless. I have spoken with the families of children killed in accidents and of a man murdered in his own bed. I have hugged the baby and prayed with the widow left behind by a man killed in a coal-mining accident.
Some of these deaths were tragic, some were horrific and some were a welcome release. Even in the ones that brought release from long, slow tortured dyings, there was still loss. In some cases, the loss is so shocking, so painful and so unfair that there are no words to describe the agony nor are there words to take away such pain. In greater frankness than some will find comfortable, I will tell you that my own belief is that sometimes there is no “why,” no grand reason, just physics and/or human choices. But even if there is a “why,” does that really console us?
Ultimately, it is not explanation and understanding that we want. No philosophy, no cliché, no rhyme or rationalization can heal the hole that we feel within us. Even the greatest expressions of empathy, though precious and treasured, cannot fill the measure of our loss. While the tears and prayers of others show us that we are loved, and our own deep faith somehow sustains us, these things cannot erase the blackness that sinks its fangs into our hearts. Anger, wrath and rage, even vengeance may divert us with blinding darkness but they cannot take away the loss. Not even the heaviest justice of the courts can give us the deepest desire of our heart.
What we want, quite simply, is to have the thing undone. We want our friend, our child, our sibling, our parent, our loved one given back to us in good condition. That is what we want. We want the empty chair filled, the empty plate served full and warm, the silence filled by the former sounds. We want to hear the laughter, feel the warmth, see that lopsided grin and know once again the closeness. That is what we remember, what we cherish and what we want.
And it is precisely that thing that we can never have again—at least not in this world, though perhaps in a better one—and it is that knowledge that pierces us through with sorrow.
But does this sorrow have to leave us in despair? Can we grieve and ache and yet still live on? Even though things will never be the same again, can we yet find strength to face another day and grace to move forward? Can we continue with Life yet still honor the love and memory of those we have lost?
I believe that we can; I believe that we do; I believe that we are. The empty chair testifies to the hole that is left in our lives, an empty space the size and shape of our relationship with that person.
And yet all the other chairs, the ones in which we survivors sit, testify of something else. Something ageless and wonderful. All these chairs say, “We are still here, in spite of all of life’s loss and heartache, in spite of all the misery and challenge and the drudgery of our most mundane moments, we are still here and we will not give up nor give in. We will continue loving.”
In spite of these awful achings, we remember also the things that give us joy, that give us hope, that give us light. We are still grateful for all the good that is in our lives, for whatever measure of peace we have found and for these others whose presence tells us that we are loved.
Even in this tremendous agony, God is yet at work for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. And a certain immeasurable part of that calling and that purpose is for us to share the sorrow and sow seeds of kindness and compassion in these times of tragic loss and terrible cost. Our purpose is not to take away the pain, but to show that we care.