On Grieving, Preaching and Being
Today I had the hard experience of attending (not officiating) the funeral of a 3-year-old boy. It is every parent's nightmare and something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. As Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" began to play and the family was escorted in, the flood that then entered the room was enough to knock me over. The mother's heart-wrenching sobs, the father's grief-sick face, the siblings' look of bewilderment and fear. In fact, the entire family looked as if they had just taken 39 lashes and were having to use every ounce of energy they had just to walk on two feet. Just trying to imagine what they're going through makes me sick to my stomach.
When I attend a funeral at which I'm not officiating, a prayer for the family flashes through my brain as the minister stands up to speak. Not just because they are grieving and in pain, but also because I've heard too many bad funerals. Some are drawn out and exhausting. Some sound like they were purchased from "Funeral Sermons R Us," or at least it's clear that the last person got roughly the same thing. Others are more or less a 40-60 minute anxiety mitigation session for the minister or others speaking. I've left some funerals wondering who we were gathered to remember, having heard little about the deceased. And then, worst of all, some funerals feature a minister with an agenda, a message to preach, and he or she is determined to exploit a family's time of pain and loss for the sermon he or she thinks all these people need to hear. After all, some of them are in a pew for the first time in a while.
I was relieved. My prayer for the family was answered. I didn't know this minister from Adam, but he did a fantastic job. He offered no empty platitudes and he did not come to preach. Instead, he gave a powerful and biblical voice to the family's pain. He affirmed that he cannot begin to imagine what the family is going through. He quoted from some of the psalms in which the writer screams in anger at God and beats His chest saying, "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1) 'Why, God, why?' He told the family that their confusion and anger with God is not only understandable but justified (like what Job affirms, Job 10:1-2 for example), and that God is big enough to handle it. He gave them space to offer whatever emotions they have as a sacrifice of worship at the throne of God. He told heart-warming and descriptive stories of the deceased boy, enough that I almost felt like I had met him by the time I left. His prayers did not sound like a speech to or about God but he brought the family with him to God, praying on their behalf, asking God, as the psalmists do, to "look upon their pain" and "be merciful" to them. His use of scripture was very appropriate. He read the words of hope from Isaiah about the new heaven and new earth: "Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child..." (Isaiah 65:20).
To my colleagues who think that funerals are a time to preach a revival, give this some thought: if God's best and most effective sermon to us was in the incarnation - when he "took on flesh" - wouldn't your best opportunity be to show some solidarity with these people and be present to them, rather than to your ego or your stock message? When it comes to be your time, don't you want to be remembered for who YOU are, instead of who the minister is?
After the service, the family and their friends gathered at my church where we had made a room available for them. As it normally happens, especially with a tragedy like this, the immediate family was flooded with hugs and condolences. One woman was literally hanging around the mother's neck as she was trying to talk to someone else. In any case, you couldn't always tell who was having to support and console who. The mother was overwhelmed with offers to help, hang out, etc. But there is a tragedy and irony to all of it: nearly everyone in this crowd will have dispersed and gone back to their normal lives when the pain of this loss hits the family the hardest. It's how it always happens, and as a pastor I find myself wishing I could change it. People are flooded at the beginning - at funeral time - when they are often still very numb and have to concentrate on details and logistics. The real pain of the death of a loved one hits weeks later when you are running out of things to keep you busy, and grieving families often find themselves alone and unconsoled in the stage of deep depression.
Now, at the risk of making you think I was eavesdropping the whole time, I have to share one more overheard conversation. It was when members of my church who had lost a child themselves went up to the mother to greet her. There was an immediate look of relief on the mother's face when Annie (names have been changed) told her that she too had lost a child. The mother said, "Oh my gosh, so you understand. I keep having people come up to me and say, 'I know how you feel,' but I'm sorry, they don't." I remember a few years ago talking to Annie's husband George, shortly after the loss of their son Anthony. I had given him a book called Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff, in which he writes about his own experience of losing a son. George had thanked me for the book and said that it was very powerful to read. Without much thought, I simply said, "You're welcome, I hope it has helped." I'll never forget George's response: "Nothing helps."
Sometimes people ask me what to do or say for grieving people. They ask, "What do they want or need?" Especially in the case of this family who lost a 3-year-old, the answer to that question is simple: they want him back. As obvious as that may seem, I think that fact escapes us, and remembering it might help us realize that there is nothing we can say or do to fix it, make things better, or take away the pain. It can be both demoralizing and empowering to realize this, but all we have the power to do is walk with them and love them through it.
I was especially touched by something Annie mentioned to me today: "I think many people were afraid to mention Anthony after he died for fear that they would open old wounds. But it was really the opposite. We loved it when people talked about him because it helped us to know that people had not forgotten him and that they loved him."
I want to recognize the colleagues and teachers that have helped me learn to be a minister to people in their time of loss. I am deeply grateful to all those people, including grieving families themselves, who have helped me understand and have shared their life with me in their time of deepest need.
May we love and provide space for each other when our time of loss comes. And as the officiating minister prayed today, I say for that family of the 3-year-old boy, "Lord, look upon their pain, and have mercy on them."