When Someone You Love Dies
The day the space shuttle exploded is a day which is written in pain upon our hearts. In the preparation leading up to that flight, those seven astronauts, especially Christa McAuliffe, had become a part of us. We felt that we knew them and knew them well. And then through television, we all witnessed their tragic death. Young and old alike, all over this country, we were plunged into mourning. It was as if our whole nation had experienced a death in the family. And because that is true, perhaps this would be an appropriate time for us to talk about bereavement and grief; not about our own death, but about the loss we suffer in the death of those whom we love.
Now I suppose you may not regard this as a happy subject, but it is an inescapable one. Surely one of the great purposes of our Christian faith is to help us face up to the inescapable experiences of life. Bereavement and grief may come suddenly, perhaps as a result of a tragic accident or heart attack, or it may come at the end of a long and lingering illness. But however it comes, suddenly or slowly, nationally or individually, it is always terribly painful. And it is a pain which all of us, sooner or later in life, have to bear.
But as is always the case, Jesus has a word for us. It was first delivered to His disciples in the Upper Room on the night before He was crucified. They knew that He was going to die and their hearts broke with grief at the very thought of it. You would have thought that under the circumstances, it would have been the disciples who were trying to offer comfort to Him. Instead it was He who comforted them. He said: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” At first glance it seems a rather flippant thing to say. Why it is almost like bursting into a funeral home and crying: “Cheer up everybody!” But Jesus didn’t leave it there. He went on to say: “Believe in God—believe that there is a God who loves you and who will not be separated from you. And believe also in Me—believe that what I am telling you about this God is absolutely true.”
Having then comforted His disciples and lifted their spirits, Jesus went on to make some very precious promises which, if we truly believe them, truly trust, truly take them to heart, will make all the difference in the world to us when someone we love dies. John recorded these three promises in his Gospel which he wrote when he was an old man. For nearly fifty years since that night in the Upper Room, John the disciple had kept these promises locked away in his heart. At last he decided to put them on paper. Thank God he did, because now we have them.
Here is the first promise.
Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” John understood Jesus to be saying that this world in which we live—this world of space and time and sight and sound—this world as glorious as it is, this world isn’t everything. It’s only one room in the Father’s house. Beyond it are other rooms, other dimensions, other worlds. And death means that we move from one room into another. We move into new experiences, new tasks, new disciplines, new adventures, new opportunities, new hopes, new ideas, and a whole new love.
Several years ago a great theologian died suddenly, tragically, at age 46. Among those who mourned his death was a little four-year old boy—a playmate of this man’s daughter. The little boy was upset because of what had happened to Wendy’s daddy. But when his mother told him that Wendy’s dad had gone to be with God, this little boy, with that profound truth children so often grasp, said: “Oh, then he’s still real.” That, in essence, is Christ’s promise to us from the Upper Room. And that is why we as Christians can face bereavement without bitterness. We still suffer a deep, human sense of loss, yes, but at least we know that those whom we have loved and lost are not annihilated. They do not cease to exist, no. It may be beyond the bounds of our vision. It may be beyond the bounds of our understanding, but they are still real, still living in the Father’s house. It’s just that they are living in other, finer rooms. We can still refer to them as my husband, my wife, my father, my mother, my son, my daughter, my brother, my sister, my friend. They are still ours and one day God will give them back to us in the glory of a life that will never end.
That’s the promise Jesus makes. How does the poet put it?
Our sweet is mixed with bitter gall
Our pleasure is but pain,
Our joys scarce last the looking on,
Our sorrows still remain.
But then they have such rare delights,
Such pleasures and such play,
That unto them a thousand years,
Doth seem but yesterday.
Yes, those whom we have lost in death are still real; they still live in the Father’s house. Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”
Now here is the second promise.
You know when we leave the cemetery and return home, the only thing that really matters at that point is that the person we have loved and lost will not be there to meet us. That’s the true agony of bereavement to a Christian—not hopelessness for the one who has died, but emptiness and loneliness for those who are left behind. That’s why it has been hard for us to watch television replays of the shuttle disaster, all right, but it has been so much harder to see the wrenching agony of the astronauts’ families.
The disciples in the Upper Room experienced the same feelings. They were comforted to know that Jesus was going on to other rooms in the Father’s house, but what about this room? “He won’t be with us anymore,” they thought to themselves. “What is that going to mean for us?” That’s when Jesus gave to them and to us His second promise. He said: “I go to prepare a place for you; if it were not so I would have told you.” What a promise that is, and what power there is in those words!
“If it were not so, I would have told you.” Jesus doesn’t tell us lies. He always tells us the truth because He is the truth. We can count on the things He says. We can believe in them. We can trust them. If anyone else were to say such things we might be tempted to write them off as being out of touch with reality. Not Jesus, no. We can stake our lives on the things He says to us. When He says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” we know that it is true. If it weren’t true, He wouldn’t have told us.
But here’s the point. If we take Jesus at His word here, then we shall never be defeated by our grief. The tragedy of bereavement for so many people is that it paralyzes them—empties their lives of all meaning. They feel that they have nothing left, nothing worth living for. What’s the use of going on? Victor Frankie tells of a doctor friend of his who simply quit living after his wife’s death. One day Frankie said to this man: “Tell me, what would have happened if you had died first and your wife had been left?” The doctor replied: “Why, that would have been terrible. She would have had a hard time managing. She would have suffered terribly.” Frankie then said: “Well, you see your bereavement is not meaningless. You have spared her that suffering. You are paying for it with your grief.” The doctor said nothing, just turned and walked away. But Frankie saw in his eyes and in the way he walked, that he had started to live again.
There was a famous preacher in England at the turn of the century named Joseph Parker. He became terribly bitter when his wife died, even though they were both in their late sixties. He accused God of some terrible things and he nearly became an atheist. He said later that he could hear the voice of the Devil saying to him: “Renounce God. He forsook His son, now He has forsaken you.” But then one day Parker heard another voice in his heart, speaking in crystal clear tones. The voice said: “My dear, all is well. Do not give up. At 68 your work has only just begun.” It was the voice of his wife telling him that though he could see her no more, she was still loving him, still reaching out to help and support him. Well, that made the difference. Parker returned to his pulpit and many people said he never preached with greater power.
As Christians, after the loss of one we love, we must get back to living again. We must be like the young fellow who goes off to college for the first time. And who after the first few hours of homesickness resolves that he will not mope, but will throw himself into the life that is about him and do his part and enjoy every minute of it, though always looking ahead to the end of the term when he will have not just memories and letters, but his dear ones with him again. So when someone you love dies, remember the words of Jesus: “I go to prepare a place for you.” If you trust that promise, then you will discover that no matter how much you miss your loved ones after their death, you can keep on living. Life will still have meaning for you. “I go to prepare a place for you.” That’s the promise of Jesus.
Now we come to the third promise.
If Jesus had never said another word in the Upper Room, the disciples’ hearts and ours as well, would still have overflowed with gratitude. The amazing thing is that Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to make another promise, perhaps the greatest of all. He said: “I will come again and receive you unto myself that where I am there you may be also.”
Why do we always picture death as some sinister, ghoulish, threatening figure like something out of a Hollywood horror movie? If we can trust what our Lord promised, it will not be a grim reaper, but Christ Himself who comes to take us at the end. At our church’s memorial service for the shuttle astronauts, I was led to read the verse in I Thessalonians 4 where Paul says: “We shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.” Do you not know, do you not see, do you not believe that those seven astronauts met the Lord in the air? I believe that that explosive cloud in the Florida sky shielded us from seeing Christ Himself opening His arms to those seven and saying: “I am here for you.” We can be certain of this: Heaven is where Christ is. That’s what Paul was saying when he wrote: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In our lives, we serve Christ, we believe in Him, we love Him, and when we die we are with Him. That’s heaven! To die, therefore, is gain. That is our hope.
Without that hope, then as my friend John Huffman of California says: “Dying becomes nothing more than an extreme effort to deny the reality that the loved one has departed. A fetish is made of the remains. Expensive casket, elaborate banks of flowers which soon die themselves, fortunes spent on a final resting place, when for the Christian the final resting place is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Christ’s promise gives us that hope and so much more. At the very least, we shall be willing to accept our dear one’s death when the time comes, be it soon or late. There will be none of that un-Christian grief which clings to them and refuses to admit the reality of their death. There will be none of that grief Madame Curie displayed when she kept the clothing her husband was wearing the day he was knocked down and killed in the streets of Paris. Every day she would bring out those blood-stained garments and soak them with her tears until at last her sister tore them from her hands and buried them. There will be none of that for us as Christians. We do not begrudge the death of our dear ones. We do not want it, but we accept it. We give them to Christ, believing that Christ has a prior claim upon them. Nor do we keep wishing for them to come back. We know instead that one day we shall go to them. We shall see them again. But meanwhile…meanwhile, we resume the journey of life, serene and unafraid, filled with faith and inspired by our hope. Jesus said: “I will come for you. I will take you to myself. You shall be with me.” That’s His promise.
When someone you love dies, claim these three promises of Jesus. That’s what the great Scottish preacher, Arthur John Gossip, did. After his wife’s unexpected death. He preached what may be the greatest sermon I have ever read. He called it, “But When Life Tumbles In, What then?” His text was Jeremiah 12:5: “If in the time of peace you fall down, how then will you do in the swelling of the Jordan?” With all the crush of human pain and anguish, he told of how the waters of grief had risen nearly high enough to drown him. But then he claimed for his own the promises of Jesus. He ended the sermon with these words: “Standing in the roaring of the Jordan, cold to the heart with its dreadful chill and very conscious of the terror of its rushing, I can call back to you who one day in your own time will have to cross it: ‘Be of good cheer, my friend, for I feel the bottom and it is sound.'”
When someone you love dies, when the whelming flood of grief rises about you, hold fast to the promises of Jesus Christ. You can stake your life on the promises He makes. He said: “If it were not so, I would have told you.”