Grieving with Hope

I just finished a book about grieving and the brain. It explained that while our conscious mind understands that a loved one is dead, our unconscious brain still expects to see them. After years of being close to a person, a part of our being assumes that they are still somewhere nearby — even if we know they are gone. That accounts for the way we might mistakenly “see” our dead spouse in a crowd or expect them to walk in the door at their usual time. Our brain has been trained to expect this. It’s perfectly normal.

I realized that, as Christians, there may be a reason our brains react this way. It’s not an illusion it’s the truth. Those we love have not ceased to exist, they simply exist in another place– a place where we hope to join them in time. As the apostle Paul explains in 1 Thessalonians:

1Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 1fter that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17

That doesn’t mean we won’t grieve. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to learn new routines and develop new relationships. It does mean that we have an assurance that those we care about are not gone forever. They are with the Lord, and someday we’ll be there too.

For more about grief see these posts:

Budding Again

Hope From the Broken by Tricia Kline — Book Review

Reclaiming Life: Faith, Hope and Suicide Loss–Film Review

Acceptance = Peace

I mentioned in a previous post that I often find, as I read and study, all sorts of things that I randomly select seem to support the same theme. I see that as God’s providence and guidance. Acceptance is an idea that I’ve been noticing often lately. A book I read, “The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code” is a biography of Dr. Claire Weekes (1903-1990). Dr. Weekes, an Australian psychiatrist developed a unique way of coping with what she called “nerves.” The cure was simply acceptance: notice how you’re feeling, and don’t fight it. Eventually the anxious, panicky feelings will subside. She wrote a number of popular books about her approach, which helped many people.

The book I’m currently reading about grief (The Grieving Brain) also advocates acceptance in dealing with loss.

“The key to accepting is not doing anything with what you are experiencing; not asking what your feelings mean, or how long they will last…. It is about noticing how it feels at that moment, letting your tears come and letting them go. Knowing that the moment of grief will overwhelm you….and knowing that it will recede.”

The Psalms are a great place to see this process in action. In many of the Psalms, the writer describes feelings of anguish — anger, grief, fear. There is no holding back. However, often by the end, the wave of emotion passes, and what is left is acceptance and hope. As Christians we are so fortunate to know that God is in control. Like Job, we realize that we cannot understand His purposes, for God Himself tells us:

“… my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

What we do know is that we can trust Him. Expressing our emotions and then accepting our situation will calm our anxieties, allay our anger, and blunt our grief. It will give us peace.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. “Proverbs 3:5-6

For more about peace see:

Peace Is a Practice by Morgan Harper Nichols–Book Review

I Wish You Peace

Pursue Peace

Ruminating

It’s probably not a coincidence that often what I am studying in the Bible goes right along with other things that I am reading. Recently in a book about grief, I came across a chapter on rumination. Here’s a definition:

Rumination is the focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences.”

When we are grieving, some of the topics that seem to preoccupy us are:

  1. Negative emotional reactions to our loss (our reactions)
  2. Unfairness of the loss (injustice)
  3. Meanings and consequences of the loss (meaning)

Since I have also been reading through the Psalms, I realized that many of them are ruminations. The Psalmist cries out to God, listing a variety of physical and emotional symptoms (here are some examples from Psalm 38):

“My wounds stink and fester”(5)

“I am utterly bowed down and prostrate” (6)

“I am feeble and crushed” (8)

Often unfairness is mentioned:

“Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good.” Psalm 38:20

“The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at them.” Psalm 37:12

The meaning and consequences for the believer are ultimately comforting:

“… there is a future for the man of peace” Psalm 37:37

“Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord.” Psalm 35:9

“You are a hiding place for me.” Psalm 32:7

I could go one, but my point is this: the Psalms are ruminations from the past. Plus, they are more than that — they are co-ruminations (the repetitive, extension discussion between two close friends) –in this case, the close friend is God. He is there for us in every grief we experience. He understands our pain. We can tell Him exactly how we feel and He will comfort us and lead us into acceptance and understanding.

If you are grieving today, turn to the Psalms. It’s a good place to find consolation.


For more about the Psalms see:

Martin Luther on the Psalms

Martin Luther and the Book of Psalms

Reading the Psalms With Luther–Book Review

2=1

If you follow my blog, you may already know that I am fascinated by the brain. I’m currently reading a book called “The Grieving Brain” which describes what we know about how the brain functions during loss–particularly the loss of a person with whom we have been very close, like a spouse.

I think it’s a well-accepted scientific fact that humans are social creatures. Even as infants, we form strong attachments to those who love and care for us. If we turn to the book of Genesis, we read:

“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.'” Genesis 2:18

One researcher mentioned in the book describes the degree of closeness in human relationship through the use of two circles. At the beginning of the range, the circles barely touch, by the end the circles practically overlap. In this case, two circles have become virtually one. This, again, is exactly what we find described in Genesis.

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24

Small wonder that with this level of closeness, the loss of a partner causes pain that can be described as an amputation. The brain continues, on an unconscious level, to believe the loved one is alive, and simply out of sight (of course, as Christians, we believe that this is not only how we feel, it is most certainly true!).

The author goes on to say that:

“The brain’s ability to create and maintain bonds is magnificent. Certain hormones are released during specific activities like sex or giving birth or nursing.”

also:

“Our brain is doing everything in its power to keep us united with the ones we love. These powerful tools include hormones, neural connections, and genetics …”

Isn’t it wonderful and amazing? The Bible and science tell the same story. Two are meant to become one. Our brain fights against loss — and that would include divorce. We are intended to be together for life — and beyond.

 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate. “Matthew 19:6

For more about marriage see these posts:

In Marriage Relationships #2

Marriage: A School for Forgiveness

Give Thanks for Marriage

The Great Passion by James Runcie–Book Review

If you’re a Lutheran, you’ve heard of Johann Sebastian Bach, who spent most of his life composing music for use in Lutheran church services. This novel gives us a glimpse of his life as a cantor and teacher at St. Thomas’s in Leipzig, Germany. Told in the voice and through the eyes of a young student, Stefan Silberman, it is the story of one year, 1727– a year when he learns about music and life.

Arriving at the school after the death of his mother, Stefan is bullied, especially when he is singled out by Bach for his musical abilities. Bach’s family takes him in, and here he learns to know Bach’s children and his second wife Anna Magdalena. He becomes one of the boys who copy Bach’s works in progress and Anna Magdalena gives him singing lessons. During his time with the family a young child dies, and Bach composes his masterpiece, the St. Matthew Passion. The experiences stay with for Stefan for the rest of his life.

After taking part in the first performance of The Passion, Stefan describes it this way:

It was not a theological lecture, or a piece of improving rhetoric, or even an account of an event in the history of Palestine. It had become our story. It was happening now, during this performance, in the present tense, and I could see, on the faces of the congregation below, that they recognized that they could do nothing more important than listen, because they had become part of it all.”

If you read this novel, you’ll learn some things about Bach’s life, but even more, you’ll learn about the creative process, and how music can be used to teach and inspire us.

VERDICT: 5 STARS

For more book reviews see:

Making Darkness Light by Joe Moshenska–Book Review

A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller–Book Review

Life Together in Christ by Ruth Haley Barton–Book Review

My Brother’s Keeper–Film Review

Travis Fox, a soldier, returns to his home town after the death of his best friend, who was killed in an IED attack. Travis also lost his parents several years earlier in a tragic car accident. He suffers from PTSD and has lost his faith in God. Through the help of Tiffany, who runs a veteran’s ministry, and her pastor, his belief is restored, and he finds both love and a reason to continue living.

The film deals with some difficult issues, such as suicide, grief and gang involvement. Unfortunately, they are addressed in a way that is superficial and sugarcoated. Every problem is quickly resolved, and struggles are minimized. The characters are not well developed.

There are some theological issues for Lutherans as well. Travis is rebaptized by immersion, despite having been baptized as a child. During the church services portrayed, the congregation applauds at the end of the sermon! I don’t know if this is normal for some denominations, but I certainly haven’t observed it happening in a Lutheran setting.

VERDICT: 2 STARS. Predictable and unrealistic. It’s a feel-good Christian film, if that’s what you like.

For more Christian movies see:

Fatima — Movie Review

Overcomer–Movie Review

Unplanned — Movie Review

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger–Book Review

This is a book about loss and healing; forgiveness and acceptance; faith and pain. It’s the story of one summer in the life of a young teenage boy named Frank– a summer when several people die violent deaths, one of them his older sister, Ariel. This death shatters the family and the community in which they live. The mystery of who is responsible slowly unravels until Frank and his younger brother Jake discover the truth. Secrets are revealed and painful growth results.

Ordinary Grace: A Novel

Central to the story is Frank’s father, a Methodist minister, whose calm faith holds his family together as they navigate the process of grief. Even in the worst moments of despair, Frank and his family encounter small, “ordinary” miracles that lead them to God’s grace. Through the love of family and friends, God’s truth expressed in a sermon, the simple act of giving thanks, they begin to release their hurt and anger and continue living.

Well written and realistic, this book will likely become a favorite. It’s an easy read, but one that will make you grapple with important issues of the faith.

VERDICT: 5 STARS. I recommend it.

For more book reviews of fiction see:

Beyond the Storm by Carolyn Zane–Book Review

white picket fences by Susan Meissner–Book Review

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton–Book Review

Beyond the Storm by Carolyn Zane–Book Review

I ordered this book through Bookbub (www.bookbub.com) simply because it was free, and I wasn’t at all sure I would like it. On the surface it’s a formula romance with a predictable plot. *** SPOILER ALERT*** Young man and young woman get off to a rocky start but end up finding true love in one another. The frightening experience of surviving a tornado together quickly deepens their feelings and through the tragic loss of a friend, they learn valuable life lessons and grow in their Christian faith.

Beyond the Storm (Quilts of Love Series Book 1)

Beyond the Storm is part of the Quilts of Love Series, and in my mind, the quilting theme helped to raise it a bit above the usual Christian romance novel. The main character, Abigail, has an aunt who owns a quilting shop. After the tornado, and the tragic death of Danny, a dear, Christian friend, Aunt Selma encourages the survivors to create a quilt in his memory. The center piece contains a piece of his Bible cover, and each person whose life he touched made a square to represent what he meant to them. The quilt was bordered with scraps found during cleanup of the wreckage. I thought this was a lovely idea, although I’m not a gifted crafter and could never do it myself. Here’s a quote that explains the metaphor:

I love to see the ways the Lord finds to use us. Each of us, like Danny ….is the center of our own quilt. Our lives are made up of bits and pieces, some good, some bad. And isn’t it amazing how God, in His infinite wisdom can use our mistakes and what we might consider chaos, to His glory.”

There are also discussion questions at the end, so this wouldn’t be a bad book club pick.

VERDICT: 3 STARS. Not deep, but better than the average Christian romance..

For more Christian novels see:

white picket fences by Susan Meissner–Book Review

The Purple Nightgown by A. D. Lawrence–Book Review

pearl in the sand by Tessa Afshar–Book Review

Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren–Book Review

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night;
and give Your Angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, give rest to the weary.
Sustain the dying, calm the suffering,
and pity the distressed;
all for Your love’s sake, O Christ our Redeemer.
Amen.
– Book of Common Prayer

Author Tish Warren uses the nighttime prayer from the Service of Compline to walk through the dark times we all experience. Her own dark year included two miscarriages, a move to a new city, and the unexpected death of her father. In a time of grief and vulnerability, repeating this prayer was a comfort and a source of strength. Although some people scoff at liturgical prayers (other peoples’ prayers) and consider them less authentic, Ms. Warren makes a case for using them. She says:

“During that difficult year, I didn’t know how to hold to both God and the awful reality of human vulnerability. What I found was the prayers and practices of the church that allowed me to hold to –or rather to be held by–God when little else seemed sturdy, to hold to the Christian story even when I found no satisfying answers.”

Sponsored Ad - Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep

Each chapter is centered around one section of the prayer– for example, “Keep Watch, ” “Those Who Weep,” “Bless the Dying.” This leads to an examination of the theological struggle we often face, how can God be all-powerful even as horrible things happen to us and to the world?” This “problem of pain” is called theodicy, and it often leads to a true crisis of faith.

There is no pat answer. God does not always rescue us. In the end, Tish Warren quotes this statement from Tim Keller:

“If you ask …. Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?… and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us.”

There are discussion questions and some suggested practices at the end. This could easily be used for journaling, or as a small group resource.

You can read more about Tish Harrison Warren and find a number of versions of the Compline service at tishharrisonwarren.com.

VERDICT: 5 STARS. I’m a liturgical person, so it really resonated with me.

For more about grief see these posts:

The Gravity of Joy by Angela Williams Gorrell–Book Review

The Night Lake by Liz Tichenor–Book Review

For more about the liturgy see:

Liturgy as Prayer

Learning from the Liturgy

Precious Lord Take My Hand

For some reason this gospel song has been running through my mind lately, so I thought I would share. It was born out of the grief by Tommy Dorsey(not the band leader, but a jazz pianist) in 1932, following the tragic death of his wife and infant son. Here is his own account of how he wrote it:

Back in 1932 I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago’s Southside. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis, where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn’t want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. . . .

“. . . In the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED. . . .

“When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. . .

“But still I was lost in grief. Everyone was kind to me, especially a friend, Professor Frye, who seemed to know what I needed. On the following Saturday evening he took me up to Malone’s Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys.”

For more gospel music, see these posts:

Because He Lives

In the Garden

Words of Life