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 who had 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 seen the baby and widow left behind by a man killed in a mining accident. I have lost family, friends, colleagues and church members.
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. While we might be grateful that a loved one’s suffering is ended, we still miss the relationship we once had. 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 people may find comfortable, I will admit that my own belief is that sometimes there is no “why,” no grand reason other than the uncompromising laws of physics. (I personally find no comfort in searching for reasons but rather in knowing that even in my greatest doubts and darkest angers, the God in whom I believe still loves me and will not abandon me, no matter how alone and lonely I may feel.)
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 sometimes sinks its fangs into us. Anger, wrath and rage, even vengeance may preoccupy us with 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 student, 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 intimate place renewed. We want to hear the laughter, feel the warmth, see that special smile 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 brings us such 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.