Grieving, With or Without Hope
By John T. Schwiebert, ThM
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those
who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
--1 Thessalonians 4:13
This past month I have had two occasions to reflect upon these words of the Apostle Paul, which are a part of his first New Testament letter to the church of the Thessalonians.
The first occasion was the death of my youngest sister Nancy who died at the age of 67, several months ago she was discovered to have inoperable cancer throughout her body. Though her death was anticipated, it came suddenly and with little warning while her other brother and I, and our spouses, plus other family members were vacationing together at a mountain lake in our native state of Idaho.
There is no question in my mind that my grief over her loss these past several weeks is tempered by my confidence that her life continues, but in some different way beyond the limits of my comprehension. I cannot explain why I know this to be true except to say that something or someone that I identify as God has revealed this to me and to Nancy and to others in our respective faith communities. Indeed we talked about this together before she died. Like me, Nancy did not have a clear picture, as some persons seem to have, about what her life beyond death would look like. But she knew that it would be good, because, as the Apostle Paul also said, in his letter to the Romans:
If we live, we live to [God]. If we die, we die to [God].
So then, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.”
This certainty explains, to me at least, why I am saddened but not devastated by Nancy’s passing. I grieve, as it were, but not as others do who have no hope, and who, when a loved one dies, suffer not only the loss of a living, breathing companion, but a personal crisis involving the loss of confidence in the meaning of life itself.
My own experience of a grief tempered by hope was reinforced two weeks later when I met with a group of about 50 people, mostly strangers, to view a new documentary movie entitled “Death by Joy.” The producer and director of the movie, who was present to introduce his work to us, had documented on film the last five weeks in the life of a woman of deep faith after she learned she was close to death because of previously undiagnosed cancer. She glowed with happiness as she enjoyed what she knew would be her final days surrounded by family and friends who supported her as she prepared for her journey toward whatever lies beyond.
As moving as was her story in the film presentation, I was especially stirred by the words of an elderly man in the audience as he shared his experience with the group following the film presentation. He acknowledged that as much as he appreciated the way the woman’s faith sustained her through her dying days, he was an atheist who was having to contemplate his own death without the assurance of faith portrayed in the movie.
He then explained how, although he was not a “believer” he was developing some sense that his life and his impending death was a part of a larger, trustworthy, natural process in which he could find some comfort. His decaying body, for instance, would supply nutrients for other living things, and he found comfort in that realization.
“Hooray for him,” I thought to myself. Although he does not have a picture of an afterlife, as do many who call themselves “Christian,” and/or who speak using “God language,” he has arrived at an experience of hope that is not that far removed from my own!
My take away from these two experiences is that it would serve us all well, to take time to think about death—our own death and those of our loved ones—long before these deaths become immanent realities. (The death café movement that has arisen within our American culture is an encouraging step toward overcoming our reluctance to talk about, or even think about, death.) Then there will be less prospect of death catching us by surprise, filling us with a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, dread and devastation.
We will all survive grief even if we have no hope to support us in our time of loss, but our grief will probably be easier and more productive for our personal growth if we prepare for it ahead of time and are thus able “not to grieve as others do who have no hope.”