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Living through multiple griefs

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“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:…a time to weep…a time to mourn…” Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” John 16:33.

Have you ever had something hit you so hard, hurt so much, that you felt like someone “blew a hole” through you?

I hadn’t experienced much in the way of grieving the loss of loved ones, but all that would change Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010. I received a 6:30 am phone call from my healthy 90-year-old grandfather indicating that my grandmother had died of a sudden heart attack. Because the rest of my family live out of town, I spent the day with my grandfather and helped him write the obituary for the paper and prepare the eulogy. My grandfather didn’t want a stranger doing my grandma’s funeral, so he asked me to do it. Meanwhile, I phoned the rest of the family with the news. My sister indicated she was looking forward to flying out west for the funeral by the end of the week.

This had to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. I would end up officiating the entire community funeral – eulogy, message, photo and music tribute. I prayed God would give me strength to stay steady for the family and community guests as I honoured her life. I had been close with my grandparents, so this was tough, but as the week progressed, I felt we would get through this, and then…

Sunday, Feb. 28
at 6:00 am, I received another phone call from my grandfather. He said, “I’m afraid I’ve got more bad news…your sister has been murdered.” By 7:00 am, the local police came to deliver the news to our home. This was a shock; she was supposed to be here for grandma’s funeral.

Again, I found myself in the position of delivering bad news to other family members: my sister lost her life in the scuffle of a home invasion and attempted robbery. I prepared a photo and music tribute for my sister’s memorial to honour her life. I thought we would have grown old together, and been able to laugh and reminisce.

Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 4:30 pm, we received a third phone call informing us that my wife’s aunt, close to our family, had succumbed to a rapid cancer. We were shocked! The news was one more wave of discouragement for our family. Grieving over one person can be tough, but grieving several in 12 days can be complex. Our son became deeply upset and fearfully superstitious. We all felt like we had been hit three times by trucks while crossing the road. I was in a fog.

The subsequent duties and emotional state of the entire family was something I don’t have words for. I pondered Psalm 77:1–20, particularly verses 2 and 4: “I would not be comforted…I was too troubled to speak.”

Exhaustion, tears, sadness, and moments of numbness filled many of these days – nothing brought relief. I will not compare this to Job, but I certainly identified with Job 2:13: “Then [Job] sat on the ground…for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” Sometimes you can experience something and say to yourself, “I will never forget this as long as I live.”

I quickly became too tired for ministry, like I had nothing to give. I did try to go into the office after 10 days – at the beckoning of the board and lead pastor – but couldn’t concentrate on my work. After 13 days away, I returned to work, but the things that usually jazzed me up, that I’m passionate about, like music, reading, service, and study, I lost interest in. Joy, energy, and motivation had been sucked out of me; I simply longed for solitude.

Assimilating the losses

I don’t think I have ever felt this sad. There were so many things that triggered the deceased’s memories, faces, and even the sounds of their voices. Grief can be a wolf and catch you unaware, like you’re suffocating. At work, at home, sometimes at night when I tried to sleep, my chest ached.

At the same time, we were very appreciative of our church family – many gave comforting words, cards, flowers, and caring hugs at a time we were in a kind of mystified state of mind. Death has an incredible ability to wipe away the fictions that we might be living in: our lack of stewardship with our lives; our forgetfulness that we are mortal. Certainly, I have been forgetful that death is the final enemy we all will face.

There are many biblical texts we do not ponder carefully, like Luke 12:20: “This very night your life will be demanded from you.” Remarkably there have been moments during the grieving when I have felt God so palpably close to his creation – it is he who has been the Sovereign over the number of days that my grandmother, sister, and aunt lived (Psalm 139:16). This helps me realize more deeply that he is to be revered.

When we die, if we are fortunate, our eulogies will sum up our entire lives in about 15–30 minutes; but what will count is whether we chose Christ or not. There is some consolation for me that these three family members all died in Christ – for that I am eternally grateful.

At the same time, I believe we need to see our lives through the gospel and Scripture. I am reminded how important it is to tell people that you love them – it may be your last time. I’ve turned over many questions in my mind that have no answers; I wrestled with pieces that don’t fit between God and the suffering of an innocent person. I feel profoundly impacted on so many levels, particularly my views of the mercy and justice of God.

While questioning God during this time, I have found some helpful words in books. In When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “God never does answer Job’s question. Job’s question was about justice. God’s answer is about omnipotence, and as far as I know that is the only reliable answer human beings have ever gotten about why things happen the way they do. God only knows. And we are not God. When the dust settles…Job admits, ‘I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.’”

I have discovered a lot of helpful material on working through grief, but one book I would highly recommend, especially to those who have lost a sibling, is Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies: Surviving the Death of a Sibling by T.J. Wray.

Our family is still working through stages of grief – our losses have been deep, some days are better than others, but we are grateful for the show of support from our church family.

Matthew Todd served almost 12 years as English track leader at Port Moody (B.C.) Pacific Grace MB Church, resigning in 2010 on account of the 3 deaths, to rest and attend to family.

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