The Wilderness of Grief

Originally published Wednesday, 03 February 2016.

A couple of Sundays ago, I stood with my church family singing praises to the Lord. A deep baritone voice sounded out behind me. I stopped singing and whipped my head around to see an older gentleman standing behind us. I turned back around and tried to focus on the words to the hymn but my vision grew blurry. Before I knew it, I was crying. Huge drops of tears. My son standing next me whispered, "What's wrong, Mom?"

I walked out of the sanctuary to find a tissue. A friend came over and gave me a hug. She asked if I was okay. I responded, "The man singing behind us sounds just like my grandfather."

My grandfather loved to sing. He sang in the choir of every church he attended. His voice was deep and always rang out above the rest of the voices in the choir. On my birthday each year, he would call me and sing "Happy Birthday." Hearing the man behind me singing with a similar voice jabbed at my heart which stilled grieved the loss of my grandfather a few months before. 

The Wilderness of Grief

The latter part of last year, I journeyed through the wilderness of grief. It had been a long time since I walked those cold, dark grounds. I had forgotten how lost and lonely it feels there. How sad. And how permanent. 

Over a couple of months, I experienced several losses. Though each of them were different, they were all significant and all changed my life.  My heart was broken. I felt abandoned and alone. My heart hurt and nothing would make it stop. 

The Israelite's had an entire liturgy and pattern they followed for grief. They weeped and wailed. They tore their clothes. They covered themselves in ashes. They voiced their sorrow to God and held nothing back. In our culture, we've lost the ability to grieve. We are quick to move through any painful experience and put it behind us. When others grieve, we are uncomfortable with their sadness and do whatever we can to distract them from it.

But grief is not something to be distracted from, overlooked, or avoided. There's no time table for grief. There's no way to rush through it. It's not something that we just have to trudge through or endure until a certain amount of time has passed.

In fact, our time in the wilderness of grief is a necessary time. There's a lot that happens there. Important things. Things that we can't afford to miss out on. There are some lessons that can only be learned while walking the trails of grief. Such lessons will vary from one person to the next, depending on God's redemptive purposes, but here are a few that have stood out to me in my own wilderness journey:

1. This world is not our home: Grief cuts into our comfortable every day life and reminds us that this world is not all there is. It opens our eyes to things we don't see every day as we go about our daily tasks and routines. In the children's book series, Harry Potter, after Harry experienced a great loss, he all of a sudden was able to see the creatures (Thestrals) that carry the carriages from the train station to Hogwarts's Castle. Those creatures had been there all along but as his friend Luna pointed out, only those who had seen death were able to see them.

Grief opens our eyes to eternity. Despite what the culture around us says, "We only have one life to live;" there is life on the other side of death. Eternity awaits us. Whether we lose a loved one or a dream or a relationship or something else in this life that we hold dear, grief and loss remind us that there is more to come.  Grief pierces at that longing deep in our heart for the joy and peace found in the presence of God. It loosens our grip on this world and turns our heart to the joy that awaits us. 

2. Grief unveils idols we didn't know we had: When our lives are flipped upside down and inside out, we discover just how much we cling to things other than God to meet our needs. As sinners, we often find our joy, security, peace, comfort, significance, and meaning, in other people, in circumstances, and in created things rather than in our Creator. When we experience loss, those idols make themselves known. When we lose a job, a home, a relationship, or anything else, we find out just how much we depend on something other than God to bring meaning to our life. My own journey of grief pointed out idols I didn't realize I had, idols such as comfort and security. 

3. This world really is fallen: Another thing that grief teaches us is that this world really is fallen. When our daily lives go on in a predictable way, we tend to forget how sinful and broken our world really is. When life is comfortable and safe, we tend to forget the Fall. We all too easily live as though this world isn't as bad as it is. But then grief steps in and we are reminded that this world is broken. Adam and Eve really did sin and the world fell into sin as a result. Death is the result of the fall. We are right to grieve over the death of loved ones. We should weep and wail as the Israelite's did. My own grief over the loss of my grandfather has prompted me to pray all the more for Christ's return when all that is broken will be made whole. 

4. Life is a passing breeze: My children are growing all too quickly. Every year they are closer to leaving home. Time is passing by. Life is a passing breeze. A mist. Grief reminds us of that truth. We have no guarantees for tomorrow. We must use the time we have wisely, investing it in things eternal. “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!" (Psalm 39:4).

There are many lessons learned in the wilderness of grief. And oh, what hard lessons they are! But they are important. God is all about our holiness and transforming us into the image of his Son. Grief is one of those processes by which he accomplishes it. As we turn to Christ in our grief, and see him as the Man of Sorrows who endured more sorrow than we could ever imagine, we begin to learn those lessons and move toward the edge of that wilderness journey.

Have you journeyed through the wilderness of grief? What lessons have you learned?