This month I am thankful to have guest blogger, Marnie Legaspi, instruct us on how to appropriately minister to those who grieve.
“Sister, I have cancer.” My stomach dropped. My body felt numb. My brain whirled with worst case scenarios. I tried to be brave. Every fiber in my being wanted to believe my thirty-eight year old brother was playing some kind of cruel joke. Who jokes about cancer, though? No one.
The carcinoma that grew inside my big brother’s body advanced quickly, ravaging him within a mere six months. As I literally watched the tumors grow and protrude through his skin, my grief often came hard and fast leaving me feeling as though I had just lost a boxing match. Even now, the pendulum of grief swings in slow motion, as I try my hardest to move out of its way. I stand paralyzed to the gut punch I know is coming on his birthday, the anniversary of his death, or the birth of the niece he will never snuggle. Other times, grief comes from behind. No warning. No indicator light. A familiar smell of fresh cut grass, the sound of a motorcycle coming down the road, or “Bare Necessities” from A Jungle Bookplaying on Pandora, and a California tidal wave of grief engulfs me.
Grief shows no discrimination. Whether you grieve the death of a loved one, a perpetual negative pregnancy test, a home burned to the ground, a marriage ripped apart at the seams, an identity lost or violence endured, you join me in the universal family of grievers.
I confess that in my experience of ongoing grief, there have been many Sundays I retreat to the safety of my home, a pre-recorded podcast, my journal, and a tear-stained Bible, rather than attending church.
God’s people have dealt some of the cruelest blows in my grief. Here are my top five, in no particular order:
- “Is he dead yet?”
- “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.”
- “It will work out for good.”
- “If you exercised more faith, healing would come. You just need to believe God for the miracle. Aren’t you believing?”
- “He doesn’t remember you anyway.”
In the process of trying to “bear one another’s burdens,” the church can often add to the burden. She can be insensitive. Misguided. Mistaught. Good intentions turn into darts of pain. Attempts at comfort become tools of hurt.
The above statements promote a misguided belief that if my faith were simply larger, deeper, stronger, my brother would have been healed. They perpetuate a misguided theology that if we only acted better or thought better, trials would disappear. They assume that the griever must have surely failed in some way for God to allow their suffering.
Our reactions to grief are contrary to truth. Did it not grieve the heart of God when his creation became ruined with sin and corruption (Gen 6:6)? Did Christ not weep at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35)? Did Christ not look over the city of Jerusalem with lament for her coming judgment (Luke 19:41)?
Yes. God grieved over sin, death and consequences.
The thread of grief and suffering is woven through the entirety of Scripture. Why then is the church so uncomfortable with sorrow? Why must tears be wiped away so quickly? Why do Christian clichés become our first response?
Grief is essential to our journey. It serves as a reminder that things are not as they are supposed to be. Grief points us towards hope.
King David writes of a day when sorrow and pain vanish, saying, “Joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5). On that glorious morning, the voices of saints through the ages will join together in a hallelujah chorus like no other. Death will be defeated, once and forever. Tears will perish, and hope will be fulfilled.
But, tomorrow has not yet arrived. We live in the in-between, waiting for that morning. As we wait, we grieve not only for those lost to disease, but for a humanity separated from their Creator. We hope for the promised morning when our faith becomes sight, and face-to-face we will behold the One who collects our tears and understands our sorrow.
Until then, be the church that envelopes the grieving with examples of the deepest measures of God’s kindness. Consider these:
- Say nothing. The freedom to cry, vent, scream, and heal is born in moments of silence. Stop thinking of everything that could be said. Open your ears and be the agent of freedom in a safe space of silence.
- “How can I pray?” Many times, we assume to know what someone needs during a time of grief. Asking this question allows us to share what weighs heaviest on us. You will be surprised that many times it has nothing to do with our loved one’s illness.
- “I love you.” Losing a loved one is also a loss of love. These simple words remind the griever that not all love is lost.
- “You are not alone.” This simple sentence exemplifies what the church should be modeling: life in community, through thick and thin.
- “How can I help?” Be ready for an answer you might not expect. Do my laundry. Clean out my fridge. Take my mother to her doctor’s appointment. Teach my Sunday School class. Wrap my Christmas presents. Help can be more than a 9x13 pan of lasagna.
Let my tears flow, as they have been given to me by my Creator. Each tear shed in secret and each heartache masked in strength is seen by my Father (Ps 56:8). I won’t always be weighted down as I am today in the freshness of my pain. Be patient and kind as the pendulum swings.
Marnie Legaspi is a Maine-born passport stamp collector, French press coffee connoisseur, carbohydrate consumer who currently lives on the California coast. She has been happily married to God’s most unexpected gift to her, Josué, since 2014. Her great joy is being a full-time mama to their son Judah and daughter Elena Esperanza. She received her BS in Bible from Lancaster Bible College and her Master of Theology degree in Systematic Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Her experiences serving the church as a missionary in Eastern Europe, Africa, and India propel her passion to understand and communicate the gospel of grace to the overlooked and forgotten among us.