(A post with a Christian perspective, looking at some of the clichés around grief and questioning whether they would have been appropriate words to comfort the followers and mother of Jesus on the day of his death.)
Death. Most of us do not choose it for ourselves, much less for our loved ones. Both of my children died before me. Each year as I approach the anniversaries of their deaths, Pax in May 1982 and Catherine in April 2011, I walk a journey of remembrance.
Many of those who have been bereaved of precious loved ones find themselves doing this. We replay conversations. We think about who said what, who did what, what happened next. We may remember the weather vividly or some other detail. The last time we shared a meal together is a precious memory.
Remembering in this way is a natural part of the human experience of loss, and we are reminded at Easter that this is also a normal part of our Christian experience.
We are beckoned onwards this week. We know what’s coming. We began on Sunday, a lovely sunny day as it happened, celebrating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. We’ve sat at his side at the table for the last meal with his followers, breaking bread and drinking wine in remembrance.
Evening falls, and we watch with him in the garden as he prays and weeps. We wait with bated breath for the arrival of Judas, the Betrayer. Our hearts are racing as we consider what happens next: Jesus is about to suffer. He will be ridiculed, questioned, accused; he will be stripped, beaten, crowned with thorns.
It is Good Friday now. We follow his faltering steps as he carries the cross. We are not alone. Crowds of grief-stricken women also follow, weeping and mourning.
Can it get worse? Yes, it can and it does. Jesus suffers the pain of crucifixion; the wooden beams are raised and he hangs there. Most of his friends have abandoned him. Still, his enemies mock him. There is agony, there is blood, and then there is death.
This journey of remembrance is painful yet it is one that is taken by many millions of Christians throughout the globe each year. Tears are shed as we dwell for a time on the sacrifice Jesus made in choosing to accept this cruel death.
Nobody tells the multitudes of mourning Christians to “move on” during Easter week. Nobody tells them, “stop your crying,” and expects them to “find closure” when the body of Jesus is laid in the tomb.
But so often that is the attitude of others towards a grieving spouse or partner or parent or child or sister or brother or friend. The Christian community does not always travel well with the mourners. There is usually sympathy for the person whose heart has been broken by loss, but the expression of that sympathy can be shallow. Often it simply does not acknowledge the depth of the pain of loss.
“She’s at peace, she’s with the Lord now.” (Yes, but she’s not here.)
“At least his suffering is over.” (But why did he need to suffer? Why didn’t God heal him?)
“God takes the best people.” (Hmph!)
“It was God’s will.” (Really?!)
“Time heals all wounds.” (Nothing and no person can replace the person I’m missing.)
“Everything will be okay.” (How can it be? They’re gone!)
“Don’t you need to think about moving on soon?” (Moving where exactly?)
“How are you?” (You’re hoping I’m going to tell you I’m okay now. But I’m not! How would you react if I answered this honestly?)
And the list of clichés and platitudes continues. We’ve all heard them, and most of us have probably said them at some point in time, in a well-intentioned effort to comfort the grief-stricken.
But would those have been our words of support if we had mingled in that crowd of grief-stricken women following Jesus to his death? Would they have been comforted?
Come Saturday, if we had found ourselves in the locked room with his disciples, would we have spoken those trite sayings? Would we have told Mary his mother, “time heals all wounds”? Would we have told John, “It’s time to move on”?
I don’t think so.
We now know that the days leading up to the big event – the procession, the supper, the betrayal, the trial, the crucifixion – were not the end of the story. The anguish and hopelessness was followed by Sunday. The sun rises. Jesus conquers death.
But on the way to that victorious moment, there were many tears.
As individual Christians grieving our personal losses, the message of Easter does give us hope, but it is simplistic and just plain untrue to think that this all we experience. We are living with the sad absence of our loved ones and that can be hard to bear.
I have hope that my children are at peace and that one day I will see them again, but I still miss them.
I imagine how Pax would have looked and behaved if he had reached his 4th birthday, his 10th, his teens. It is hard for me to conceive how different my life would be if he was here now, perhaps a parent himself, which would have meant I was a grandparent. He would be 40.
And I miss dear Catherine, with her generous heart, funny sense of humour and love of cooking. I miss her phone calls, I miss our visits. I miss having a daughter to advise me on clothing styles. I miss long talkative walks. I miss being able to congratulate her on her latest attempts at work or study. I miss sharing a cup of coffee or a meal out.
Easter isn’t only the palm branches of celebration and the sunrise of hope. There is also a procession of tears. Being more honest about grief, acknowledging it, facing into it, is how I believe we can survive the losses in our lives, as well as support others who are walking through their own dark valleys.