It was actually more, but that’s a good round number to go with for the purpose of this article. It’s the number of hours I sat on airplanes, buses, and vans for family funerals in 2019.
I was at a conference in Thailand in January 2019 when I learned that my beloved grandmother had passed away. I’d seen Grandma only annually over the last five years of pastoring in China—and semi-annually before that—but she’d taken several opportunities to remind me that I was to preach her funeral when she went to be with the Lord.
Then, my father passed away last summer. I was crushed. We knew his health was declining because of a nasty cocktail of lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis, but we didn’t know things would deteriorate so quickly. Though we assumed we still had months—if not years—left with him, we still bumped up our annual furlough from Shanghai to maximize our time together. Unfortunately, things deteriorated at an unexpected rate, leading to an emergency flight for our family of six in order to get three days together before Dad died. We buried him with military honors in June 2019.
My grandfather, the husband of my aforementioned grandmother, was next. They’d been married for 73 years. Godly saints, both of them. I hopped on a double redeye from Shanghai to D.C. via San Francisco for his funeral in early October 2019. It was strange to stand before virtually the exact same group of mourners for the third time in the same calendar year. “We have to stop meeting like this,” was the common sentiment used to break the painful tension.
All that to say, though 2020 has been awful—and it’s been really bad—2019 will be remembered as the year of death in my family. Hundreds of hours on airplanes gave me plenty of time to sit and think about it.
Here are four things the Lord taught me.
1. Don’t miss the funeral.
I don’t necessarily mean this literally—we can’t make it to every funeral. Rather, my encouragement is to not miss the message of the funeral. Don’t miss the truths about life we’re meant to consider at a funeral.
Funerals are essential and unique vehicles of truth. In this way, Solomon says, they are better than feasts. Parties are welcomed, of course, but funerals are wise:
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, since that is the end of all mankind, and the living should take it to heart. Grief is better than laughter, for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad. The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure. (Eccles. 7:2–4)
We love parties, but we grow through pain. In grief, our faces may be sad, but our hearts are lifted up. Why? Because our hearts want to be matured, not medicated. At the feast we can distract ourselves from the brevity of life and our own mortality. Not so at the funeral. There we are confronted with the fact that we’re all headed for the casket.
Funerals remind us to not live for this life alone.
So don’t avoid the pain. Don’t sidestep scary thoughts. Don’t deflect probing questions from loved ones, pastors, or counselors. Don’t be afraid to meditate, reflect, remember, and weep. And, most importantly, don’t neglect to think about your own life and what will be true when you’re in the casket.
2. Don’t go it alone.
In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul is addressing the topic of comfort. His context has more to do with enduring afflictions that come as the result of following Christ, but there’s still common theological application for those dealing with grief in death’s wake.
Looking at 2 Corinthians 1:3–11, you can see two sources of comfort for the Christian: God and the church. First, we’re comforted by “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (1:3–4). Second, we comfort one another. Paul argues that God’s comfort is meant to enable our comforting of one another. We’re comforted by the God of comfort “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (1:4).
Notice, however, that neither source is self-comfort. In fact, the pain was so intense that Paul knew God was allowing it so they wouldn’t rely on themselves (2 Cor. 1:9).
Looking at 2 Corinthians 1:3–11, you can see there are two sources of comfort for the Christian: God and the church.
I don’t want to neglect self-care—there’s certainly a place for that. But in a culture that prizes self-actualization and the power of positive thinking, remember that your primary sources of comfort are the God of all comfort and the brothers and sisters in your church who’ve likewise been comforted by God.
3. Don’t abandon theology.
I was once counseling a church member in pain, and I alluded to a passage of Scripture. She shot back, “Don’t give me theology!”
I remember thinking, Oh, Lord, may I never have that perspective.
I’ve come to realize that in times of sorrow I need theology the most. I need to know God’s precious promises, to be reminded of his tender care, to to see his sovereignty over all, to think rightly about the afterlife.
At my dad’s funeral I explained to the congregation that we often comfort ourselves with the idea of the deceased looking down on us. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not, but I derive no great comfort from the idea of Dad now “looking down” at me. Rather, I think Dad is looking at Jesus! And that gives me a great deal of comfort and joy!
After I shared that, a lovely, well-intentioned extended family member disagreed with me. She was certain that Dad now “had his wings” and was an angel.
I’ve come to realize that in times of sorrow I need theology the most.
I was further reminded in that moment that I don’t want to turn to just anything from which I can derive comfort; I want to turn to the revealed truths of Scripture. And so should you. We don’t need anyone matter-of-factly quoting Scripture as we mourn. We don’t need anyone barking biblical facts at our pain. These approaches aren’t helpful. But we do need theology. We do need Bible.
This is why Paul began, “I don’t want you to be uninformed . . .” when speaking to the Thessalonian church about those who had died in the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13–18). He wanted them to have an eschatology that was neither fanciful nor fearful, but faithful. Only with an accurate understanding of death would they be able to “encourage one another with these words” (v. 18).
4. Don’t ‘get over it.’
“Death is vile. I hate it.”
These words from a pastor friend of mine helped as much as any condolence I received in the wake of my dad’s death. Death is vile—it’s not the way things were meant to be. And one day, things will be like this no more.
The temptation in grief is to tell ourselves that we must move on if we’re to ever regain a sense of normalcy. This is understandable, but it isn’t true. We actually don’t need to move on. Yes, there’s a process to healing. The hurt we feel from a loved one passing will be different in five years than it is today.
But the goal of grief isn’t to “get over it.” The goal of grief isn’t the eventual removal of cherished memories. The goal isn’t to rid ourselves of sadness. When the sadness-triggers inevitably come—holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, reminders of shared memories—it’s right to feel sadness. Even for years and years.
Death is evil. Death isn’t part of God’s good creation. Death, conquered by Christ at the empty tomb, will one day be no more.
So, what should we do? We should be honest about our sadness and be okay with our grief. But we should be careful to grieve in a hopeful way—in a way that acknowledges the reality of heaven and the glories of the life to come (1 Thess. 4:13–18).
Year of Loss
This year, 2020, has surely made all of us grapple with feelings of loss.
Maybe you’ve lost loved ones as well. Or maybe it was the helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Or maybe it was the killing of Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. Or maybe it was COVID-19 that has brought the loss of a job, lack of closure at school or in relationships, financial instability, disruption of your way of life, unsettling of future plans, and so on. These four principles are transferable.
Don’t miss the funeral, don’t go it alone, don’t abandon theology, and don’t get over it.