In August one of the local councils in Wales issued guidance about items that were not considered suitable for cemeteries. Among those items were objects placed on graves that made a noise. This action was in response to the trend for the personalisation of graves. This is particularly so when it comes to the graves of children. What was so sad was seeing a young couple being interviewed on TV beside the grave of their stillborn child. The Mum said that ‘this was all they had’, commenting that over the last 11 years other parents had been able to buy their children toys and take them places and give them experiences. Death had robbed them of this and so they came to the grave with toy cars, windmills and butterflies to adorn the grave. It was a tragic scene. There is nothing more gut-wrenching than the death of a child.
In our society death seems to be less of a taboo subject than it was. Funerals of the rich and famous, as well as our brave military personnel, are often on the 6 o’clock news. But how should we approach the issue as Christians?
Death is inevitable (1 Cor. 15:22) and a result of God’s judgment for sin. And so we can prepare for death, in practical ways, making wills, Power of Attorney, funeral instructions, lists of bequests. One non-believer I knew would not make a will because he saw death as a subject to be avoided. As believers we can face the inevitable, hopefully with joy and hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Because death is a consequence of God’s judgement we should be sad, it should pain us to see people around us facing death without our hope. It should motivate our evangelism.
We should grieve at the separation that death brings and for the loss it brings into our own lives. The word ‘bereavement’ means ‘to leave desolate’, an apt description. Grieving is physical, emotional, social and spiritual. It changes a person’s very identity. Who are you when you are no longer ‘husband of…’ or ‘Mum of…’? Even adult children can feel like orphans when the last parent dies. So when someone dies expect to feel pain in all the ways that we experience pain.
At the beginning of the grieving process it’s not unusual to feel numb. Often this coincides with the time of the funeral and the bereaved person gets plaudits for ‘coping well’ as if to show tears is a display of weakness. In Christian circles this is often seen as a sign of spirituality. Not so. Jesus wept tears at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35), was he displaying weakness? These attitudes can actually hinder the natural grief process as people don’t like to talk about their feelings of loss and disorientation, even of anger, for fear of being thought ‘unspiritual’ and so they miss out on the solace to be found when other people ‘mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom. 12:15).
Grief, along with many other life situations, has been medicalised and so there is an expectation that people will ‘get over grief’ within a short time frame and are therefore ill or not doing well if they are still preoccupied with loss after a few months. Grief is not an illness that can be cured, but a scar that we live with, and that every now and then gets scratched and feels raw again. God does bring comfort and so can other believers if they are willing to practise the ‘one-another’ texts of the New Testament (Rom. 12:10-16) and draw alongside the bereaved person with realistic expectations. Loss is something to be accepted and life needs to be adjusted accordingly and this takes time. Usually it takes about 2 years to begin to adjust to the loss and all this means, but in certain kinds of loss (for example, the loss of a child or death by suicide or homicide) this will be longer. In terminal illness the grieving process often begins with the diagnosis.
The person who has died is to be integrated into the lives of those surviving, not, never mentioned again. We see how important this is in the Old Testament, where those who have gone before are revered and honoured, even Joseph’s bones were carried to the promised land (Exod. 13:19). So to bring aspects of the life of the person who has died into normal conversation shouldn’t cause pain, but rather comfort, that they are not forgotten, and indeed have left their footprints in the lives of others.
This term is used a lot, and I don’t feel it is very accurate. I would rather talk about ‘adjusting’ or ‘accepting’. For all sorts of reasons a bereavement can be complicated by life events, and therefore, to some extent the grief is put on hold. An example of this would be when a young mum is expecting a child and her own parent dies at the same time. The mum’s urgent need is to focus on the new life and therefore grieving is emotionally ‘put on hold’ only to surface years later.
The time to worry is when a Queen Victoria-like situation emerges. It is said that Queen Victoria wore black for years after Albert’s death and never came to terms with his loss. She made sure that his clothes were put out every morning for him, even years after his death. So when a room or house becomes almost a shrine to the deceased, and this persists for years, and when the bereaved person continues to avoid places and people that carry memories of their lost loved one, then the time has come to suggest that person might need professional and spiritual help. Facing the reality of loss will be painful, but it can be a little like lancing a boil, it brings relief.
Help is at hand
We are blessed in Britain, to have a wealth of self-help and charitable organisations that offer information, advice and resources to grieving people. CRUSE (www.cruse.org.uk), The Compassionate Friends (www.tcf.org.uk), Child Bereavement UK (www.childbereavementuk.org), Winston’s Wish (www.winstonswish.org.uk) to name just a few. Care For the Family (www.careforthefamily.org.uk) provide bereavement support to those who are widowed at a young age and also to bereaved parents.
The church as a resource
Traditionally the Christian church has been the first port of call for bereaved people, through ministers taking funerals in the local parish church. Those days are largely gone but the opportunity to offer support still arises. Perhaps a church could run a local drop in coffee morning for bereaved people in their locality? The church could train some members in bereavement care and offer friendship, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and advice and resources. Not to take advantage of people at a vulnerable time in their lives, but to be there for those who are interested, and many will be.
There’s so much more to be said about bereavement, but for the Christian, death has now lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:55), let’s remember and celebrate that.