Category  |  Grief

Unimaginable

Bart Millard penned a megahit in 2001 when he wrote, “I Can Only Imagine.” The song pictures how amazing it will be to be in Jesus’s presence.
Millard’s lyrics offered comfort to our family the next year when our seventeen-year-old daughter Melissa died in a car accident and we imagined what it was like for her to be in God’s presence.

But imagine spoke to me in a different way in the days following Mell’s death. As fathers of Melissa’s friends approached me, full of concern and pain, they said, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

Their expressions were helpful, showing that they were grappling with our loss in an empathetic way—finding it unimaginable.

David pinpointed the depth of great loss when he described walking through “the darkest valley” (Psalm 23:4). The death of a loved one certainly is that, and we sometimes have no idea how we’re going to navigate the darkness. We can’t imagine ever being able to come out on the other side.

But as God promised to be with us in our darkest valley now, He also provides great hope for the future by assuring us that beyond the valley we’ll be in His presence. For the believer, to be “away from the body” means being present with Him (2 Corinthians 5:8). That can help us navigate the unimaginable as we imagine our future reunion with Him and others.

In It Together

During a two month period in 1994, as many as one million Tutsis were slain in Rwanda by Hutu tribe members bent on killing their fellow countrymen. In the wake of this horrific genocide, Bishop Geoffrey Rwubusisi approached his wife about reaching out to women whose loved ones had been slain. Mary’s reply was, “All I want to do is cry.” She too had lost members of her family. The bishop’s response was that of a wise leader and caring husband: “Mary, gather the women together and cry with them.” He knew his wife’s pain had prepared her to uniquely share in the pain of others.

The church, the family of God, is the relational context in which all of life can be shared—the good and not-so-good. The New Testament words “one another” are used to capture our interrelatedness, our interdependence. “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. . . . Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:10, 16). The breadth of our connectedness is expressed in verse 15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” While the depth and scope of our pain may pale in comparison with those affected by genocide, it’s nonetheless personal and real. And, as with the pain of Mary, because of what God has done for us it can be embraced and shared for the comfort and good of others.

When All Seems Lost

In just six months, Gerald’s life fell apart. An economic crisis destroyed his business and wealth, while a tragic accident took his son’s life. Overcome by shock, his mother had a heart attack and died, his wife went into depression, and his two young daughters remained inconsolable. All he could do was echo the words of the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

The only thing that kept Gerald going was the hope that God, who raised Jesus to life, would one day deliver him and his family from their pain to an eternal life of joy. It was a hope that God would answer his desperate cries for help. In his despair, like the psalmist David, he determined to trust God in the midst of his suffering. He held on to the hope that God would deliver and save him (vv. 4–5).

That hope sustained Gerald. Over the years, whenever he was asked how he was, he could only say, “Well, I’m trusting God.”

God honored that trust, giving Gerald the comfort, strength, and courage to keep going through the years. His family slowly recovered from the crisis, and soon Gerald welcomed the birth of his first grandchild. His cry is now a testimony of God’s faithfulness. “I’m no more ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ God has blessed me.”

When it seems there’s nothing left, there’s still hope.

A Longing in Stone

“Ah, every pier is a longing in stone!” says a line in Fernando Pessoa’s Portuguese poem “Ode Marítima.” Pessoa’s pier represents the emotions we feel as a ship moves slowly away from us. The vessel departs but the pier remains, an enduring monument to hopes and dreams, partings and yearnings. We ache for what is lost, and for what we can’t quite reach.

The Portuguese word translated “longing” (saudade) refers to a nostalgic yearning we feel—a deep ache that defies definition. In essence, the poet is describing the indescribable.

We might say that Mount Nebo was Moses’s “longing in stone.” From Nebo he gazed into the Promised Land—a land he would never reach. The Lord’s words to Moses—“I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it” (Deuteronomy 34:4)—might seem harsh. But if that’s all we see here, we miss the heart of what’s happening. God is speaking immense comfort to Moses: “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants’” (v. 4). Very soon, Moses would leave Nebo for a Land far better than Canaan (v. 5).

Life often finds us standing on the pier. Loved ones depart; hopes fade; dreams die. Amid it all we sense echoes of Eden and hints of heaven. Our longings point us to God. He is the fulfillment we yearn for.

Bowl of Tears

In Boston, Massachusetts, a plaque titled “Crossing the Bowl of Tears” remembers those who braved the Atlantic to escape death during the catastrophic Irish potato famine of the late 1840s. More than a million people died in that disaster, while another million or more abandoned home to cross the ocean, which John Boyle O’Reilly poetically called “the bowl of tears.” Driven by hunger and heartache, these travelers sought some measure of hope during desperate times.

In Psalm 55, David shares how he pursued hope. While we are uncertain about the specifics of the threat he faced, the weight of his experience was enough to break him emotionally (vv. 4–5). His instinctive reaction was to pray, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (v. 6).

Like David, we may want to flee to safety in the midst of painful circumstances. After considering his plight, however, David chose to run to his God instead of running from his heartache, singing, “As for me, I call to God, and the Lord saves me” (v. 16).

When trouble comes, remember that the God of all comfort is able to carry you through your darkest moments and deepest fears. He promises that one day He Himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4). Strengthened by this assurance, we can confidently trust Him with our tears now.

Love and Peace

It always amazes me the way peace—powerful, unexplainable peace (Philippians 4:7)—can somehow fill our hearts even in our deepest grief. I experienced this most recently at my father’s memorial service. As a long line of sympathetic acquaintances passed by offering their condolences, I was relieved to see a good high school friend. Without a word, he simply wrapped me in a long bear hug. His quiet understanding flooded me with the first feelings of peace within grief that difficult day, a powerful reminder that I wasn’t as alone as I felt. 

As David describes in Psalm 16, the kind of peace and joy God brings into our lives isn’t caused by a choice to stoically stomp down the pain during hard times; it’s more like a gift we can’t help but experience when we take refuge in our good God (vv. 1–2).

We could respond to the aching pain that death brings by distracting ourselves, perhaps thinking that turning to these other “gods” will keep the pain at bay. But sooner or later we’ll find that efforts to avoid our pain only bring deeper pain (v. 4).

Or we could turn to God, trusting that even when we don’t understand, the life He’s already given us—even in its pain—is still beautiful and good (vv. 6–8). And we can surrender to His loving arms that tenderly carry us through our pain into a peace and joy that even death can never quench (v. 11).

A Fitting Time

Yesterday I purchased a plane ticket to send my firstborn child to college. I’m surprised the keyboard on my computer still functions, given the waterworks my eyes unleashed on it during the flight selection process. I have so enjoyed my eighteen years of daily life with her that I am saddened by the prospect of her departure. Yet I wouldn’t rob her of the opportunity that lies ahead simply because I will miss her. At this juncture in her life, it is fitting for her to embark on a new journey to discover adulthood and explore another part of the country.

As this season of my parenting draws to a close, another one begins. It will undoubtedly bring both new challenges and new delights. Solomon, Israel’s third king, wrote that God appoints “a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). We humans have little control over the events of our lives—whether we view those events as favorable or not. But God, in His mighty power, makes “everything beautiful in its time” (v. 11).

In seasons of heartache, we can trust God to bring something good from them in time. Our comforts and joys may come and go, but God’s works “will endure forever” (v. 14). We may not relish every season—some are quite painful—yet He can bring beauty to them all. 

Hope in Grief

When I was nineteen, one of my close friends was killed in a car accident. In the following weeks and months, I walked each day in a tunnel of grief. The pain of losing someone so young and wonderful clouded my vision, and at times I even felt unaware of what was going on around me. I felt so blinded by pain and grief that I simply could not see God.

In Luke 24, two disciples, confused and broken-hearted after Jesus’s death, didn’t realize they were walking with their resurrected teacher Himself, even as He explained from Scripture why the promised Savior had to die and rise again. Only when Jesus took bread and broke it was it revealed that it was Him (vv. 30–31). Although the followers of Jesus had faced death in all its horror when Jesus died, through His resurrection from the dead God showed them how to hope again.

Like those disciples, we might feel weighed down with confusion or grief. But we can find hope and comfort in the reality that Jesus is alive and at work in the world—and in us. Although we still face heartache and pain, we can welcome Christ to walk with us in our tunnel of grief. As the Light of the world (John 8:12), He can bring rays of hope to brighten our fog.

Hope Anyway

Among the hundreds of articles I’ve written for Our Daily Bread since 1988, a few stick in my mind. One such article is from the mid 1990s when I told of a time that our three girls were away at camp or on mission trips, so six-year-old Steve and I had some guy time.

As we were enjoying an excursion to the airport, Steve turned to me and said, “It’s not as much fun without Melissa,” his eight-year-old sister and sidekick. Neither of us knew then how poignant those words would turn out to be. Life indeed has not been “as much fun” for the years since Mell died in a car accident as a teenager. The passage of time may dull the ache, but nothing takes the pain away completely. Time cannot heal that wound. But here’s something that can help: Listening to, meditating on, and savoring the solace promised by the God of all comfort.

Listen: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:22).

Meditate: “In the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling” (Psalm 27:5).

Savor: “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life” (Psalm 119:50).

Life can never be the same again when someone we love is gone. But God’s promises bring hope and comfort. 

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