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Grief Should Always Make Us Better

Death is the great interrupter. Death is the great interrupter because, far more often than not, it strikes when it’s least expected. When death comes it invariably interrupts plans, dreams, projects, goals. One author observes how very sad, how very pathetic it is, when a man dies suddenly and we go into his home or his place of business “and see the unfinished things he has left—a letter half written, a book half read, a picture begun but not completed. Life is full of mere fragments,” he observes. “Mere beginnings of things.”

One of my surreal memories from this last year is going into Nick’s dorm room a couple of days after his death. It gave every indication that he had expected to return. Books were laid waiting on his desk in preparation for final essays. Hebrew vocab was jotted all over his whiteboard in preparation for exams. Spreadsheets full of guest lists were open on his computer in preparation for his wedding. I’m sure he was as shocked as we were that all of these tasks would be left forever incomplete, that they would only ever be mere fragments, mere beginnings of things.

And it wasn’t just his life that was so suddenly and significantly interrupted. On November 2 I, too, was full of plans. I had just begun my next big book project. I had jotted the opening sentences of the book I intend to write after that. I was deep into various threads of research and was learning to master new software designed to organize and express ideas. My mind was full of beginnings of things. But by November 4, those things, too, had been set aside and very nearly forgotten. What seemed so urgent and so important and so interesting the day before seemed nearly irrelevant the day after.

It has taken a long time to begin to pick up the pieces, to gain interest in those projects again, to start to make headway against the mental and emotional fog that goes with so great a trauma. I would never have believed how disruptive it could be to lose a child. I would never have known the degree to which it affects body, mind, and soul. I recently met with a couple who experienced a similar loss a number of years ago and their first question was, “Are you still deep in the fog of grief?” They understand. And because they understand they offered wise words: Be kind to yourself. Don’t try to do too much too soon. Healing will come, but it will come slowly.

Healing will come slowly. Yet, as I keep reminding myself, life must be lived. Nick’s race is complete, but mine continues. His death is not the end of my calling in life, but, in a sense, a new beginning to it. It doesn’t close out my story, but, I’m convinced, opens a new chapter of it.

I’ve been helped, as so often in life, by the old author J.R. Miller. He counsels me to forget my suffering—words that beg explanation. He does not mean I should act as if Nick never existed, or as if his death never happened, or as if it was not the most painful thing I’ve ever endured. Rather, he means that while I must let sorrow do its work in me, I must not be enslaved to it or made useless through it or defined by it. Very practically he says that “God does not desire us to waste our life in tears. We are to put our grief into new energy of service. Sorrow should make us more reverent, more earnest, and more helpful to others. God’s work should never be allowed to suffer while we stop to weep. The fires must still be kept burning on the altar and the worship must go on. The work in the household, in the school, in the store, in the field, must be taken up again—the sooner the better.” Within reason, of course.

I’m not the same man I was on November 2. I’m deeply wounded, deeply scarred, deeply broken. Yet I know it’s God who decreed this suffering, and I accept it as something meaningful, something precious. I’m eager to learn and to apply its painful lessons. I’m eager to be made better by it. “Grief should always make us better and give us new skill and power,” says Miller. “It should make our heart softer, our spirit kindlier, our touch more gentle; it should teach us its holy lessons, and we should learn them, and then go on, with sorrow’s sacred ordination upon us, to new love and better service.”

I have accepted this suffering as something God has given me in sacred trust. Like talents and time and money and everything else God sovereignly bestows, I believe it can be stewarded faithfully or poorly. It’s my intention to steward it well, for I’m convinced I’m responsible for it and accountable in it. It’s my intention to be a faithful steward of this divine providence, this divine mystery, this divine gift. It’s my great desire to someday hear, even in this, “Well done good and faithful servant.” It’s my longing to bow under it, to be shaped by it, to grow through it, and, by God’s grace, to follow it on to new love and better service.