Friday, March 16, 2012

When Grief and Grace Collide

They say there are five stages to grief: shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I’ve known this to be true in my experience as a pastor, as I’ve seen people close to me go through significant loss. Though people travel through these stages in different ways with varied intensities, each of the stages seems to have an important role in helping people move through the pain and toward healing. It doesn’t matter if someone has lost their wallet, their job, or their child, grief is a process that requires time and attention.

Probably the most profound loss I’ve ever witnessed was four years ago. I received a call from a friend who told me his 20-year-old nephew, Andrew, was in a serious snowmobile accident and had been air-lifted to a Traverse City hospital. My wife and I knew this family well and I could feel the deep concern for the seriousness of this situation on the other end of the phone. At the time, we were in the UP enjoying a weekend with our daughter who was attending college in Marquette. Phone calls kept us updated on Andrew’s condition throughout the weekend, each growing in seriousness and concern. Andrew had sustained a severe head injury. Brain function was not being detected. Requests for prayers asking for a miracle came with intensity and frequency.

Instead of going home on Monday, we decided to divert to TC to spend time with the family at the hospital. What we thought would be a one or two hour visit to pray and encourage turned to three days of being with this family at the hospital. The processes of grief could be clearly seen and witnessed in the hallways of the hospital. Andrew’s prognosis was grim and the family had the grueling decision to make concerning life support. They chose to give Andrew’s situation time to see if any positive changes would occur. Each day, a new wave visitors (family members, college friends, friends of his parents) arrived to show their support to the family. With each new wave of visitors came a new outpouring of grief. As a pastor, I found myself in some pretty profound conversations that were remarkably similar in theme. Shock and anger overcame people as they stepped into the reality they found in that hospital room.

As the friends and family processed the sights and emotions in the room, I could see their anger begin to grow. Some wanted to talk about their anger. Others just wanted to process quietly with an arm on their shoulder. For some, I think their anger surprised them and they felt guilty for feeling this way in this setting. When someone would talk about their anger, I would ask, “What or who are angry at?” The answer almost always came back, “I’m angry at God. Why did he allow this to happen?” Of course, I didn’t have an answer to that hard question, nor did I try to give some sort of spiritual platitude of an explanation. In my own grief, I was asking the same question with my own set of angry emotions. But deeper questions were asked in regard to anger in the situation. Some wanted to know if God was okay with them being angry with him. I assured them that God had strong shoulders and could take a punch or two. He could take it but, over time, he wanted their anger to turn to trust.

In the middle of these waves of grief, the family was making some very difficult decisions. Andrew’s parents, Ray and Ronda, made the incredible decision to talk with the Gift of Life organization to see about donating Andrew’s organs upon his death. I was asked to sit with them as they discussed the process with the representative from Gift of Life. It was evident to me that while this discussion was grueling and enormously painful, it was helping them accept the reality of their situation. And, it was giving them hope. Not hope that Andrew would be healed, but hope that someone would find life or health because of Andrew’s death. And, hope that they would someday be healed of the pain they were enduring. Over those few hours, I watched Ray and Ronda lead their friends and family in turning the corner of despair, denial, shock, and anger to accepting the reality before them and receiving a taste of the goodness God was offering in this horrible situation. I learned through Ray and Ronda that acceptance in grief doesn’t make them okay or normal again. Instead, it lets them be honest about the situation. It moved them to be faith-filled in their pain. It brought a glimmer of hope of God’s goodness to come. It brought a measure of rest in God’s ability to sustain them in their next moments. It’s an amazing thing to see what happens when grace collides with grief.

As we turn the pages of the book of Ruth this week, we find hope, refreshment, love, and grace. But remember, Ruth and Naomi are still deeply grieving the horrible loss of husbands and sons. But grace collides with grief in a barley field. Read Ruth 2 through the eyes of a grieving widow trying to scrape enough together to survive. Find the hope. Find the grace in the grief of this story.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this Phil. I knew Andrew and his family. I couldn't imagine loosing one of my children. But I am certain it would be God's grace that would see me through it. I have you to thank for leading me back to the fold. you are a blessing to many people. peace be with you