Finding Joy on the Journey of Grief

Gratitude and humility are the best ways to deal with our losses.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.  I am not afraid, but I’m experiencing the sensation of being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

“At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

This is how C.S. Lewis begins his little book, A Grief Observed, which tells his own story of grief after he lost his wife Joy Davidman to cancer in 1960.”[1] Lewis’ book was one of the books I read this past year as a part of my own grief work in the wake of my late wife Lorie’s death on Wednesday, November 2, 2016. I knew I needed help to give voice to all that I was experiencing, and Lewis, among several others, helped me identify and express all the pain I was going through during this very difficult time. 

But Lewis, and the others who wrote books I read or whom I met personally, also provided me hope that with God’s help I could get through it, and that, in fact, I could even grow deeper as a result of my journey though grief. They were right. I have learned that with Christ you can develop resilience and learn how not only to bounce back after significant loss but actually bounce forward.  

I want to invite you into my personal story of grief this past year, and share with you some of the lessons I have learned along the way. This is not to say, “Hey, look at me! I’ve got it all together now,” because I do not. Instead, what I share with you is intended to invite you into my journey as a fellow struggler in Christ who has experienced deep loss and has tried to make sense of it all. Most days I simply put one foot in front of the other and tried to do the next right thing.   

I pray that God might speak to you through what I share because, as my friend, Craig Barnes, says in his book, When God Interrupts, “We all just keep losing things: wives, husbands, friends, health, the dreams and security of the past.  Nothing stays the way it was.”[2]  

If you are not dealing now with grief over someone or  something you lost, chances are you probably will, and it may be sooner than you think. 

The Process of Grief

I have a picture taken of Lorie and me at Montreat in late September 2016 during our congregation’s fall church retreat. We are sitting in rocking chairs by the dam at Lake Susan. It was a beautiful day. Listening to the water falling down was so pleasant and soothing. Looking at this picture of Lorie, you would never know how sick she was. It is difficult to imagine that just five weeks later she would be dead. 

I began to grieve losing Lorie the day we learned she had cancer in January 2015. There is no cure for multiple myeloma, and I knew that barring a miracle of God or a major medical breakthrough I would eventually lose her at some point. I can remember driving down Robinhood Road the day after we learned the sad news, and I was crying so hard I could hardly see the road. I kept calling out to God, and I asked Him to be with us. And He was every step of the way.

However, when Lorie actually died almost two years later, I entered a new phase of my grief process.  Actually, it involved a number of phases in this new season of grief.  No matter how long a person has been ill and you know that eventually they are going to die, when it actually happens the world changes all of a sudden. And you are left with the sobering reality that they are never coming back.

John Claypool wrote a wonderful book entitled Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, and it gave expression to the experience I had in the days following Lorie’s death.  He explained how the process of grief parallels the story of Job in the Bible, and I want to share with you some of his insights.[3]

Numb Shock

John says the first phase of grief is numb shock. He sees this phase of grief in the story of Job when his three friends come after his many losses, and they simply sit together in silence for seven days. It is hard to get your head around it all, and sometimes you walk around in a daze not really able to make sense of anything. 

Shortly after Lorie died, someone asked me how I was doing. I told them that I felt like I had fallen into an unknown country where I did not speak the language, and I could not find any landforms to help me get my bearings or my sense of direction. All I knew to do is to put one foot in front of the other and try to take the next step. That is the numb shock Claypool writes about. Maybe you have been there before. Maybe you are right there now.

Despair

The second phase in the process of grief, Claypool says, is despair. This is when Job says that he wished he had never been born, and he is in utter despair at the thought of going on. Thoughts of suicide sometimes enter in, and you just want your life to be over and to go and be with your loved one in heaven. Last winter there were many times when I was convinced my best days were behind me, and my future was going to be an awful one. I just wanted to go to heaven and be with Lorie. Have you ever felt like that?

Nostalgia

The third phase in the process of grief is nostalgia.  Claypool observed that Job looked back and remembered the good old days when his children were alive, his possessions were intact, and he had the esteem of the community. I cannot tell you how many times I said out loud to God this past year, “I just want her back. I just want Lorie back.” I would look at old photographs of happy days when the kids were growing up. Lorie looked so young and happy and vital. And I would just cry and cry as I remembered how good our life had been together.

Anger

Next in the Book of Job, Claypool observed a fourth phase in the process of grief, and it is the phase of anger when we want some answers from God. Job wanted an audience with God, and he felt like the Lord had some explaining to do. Job got his audience with God, but it was more than Job bargained for.   

Many times this past year I asked God, “Why?” I wanted an explanation of my own. Why did Lorie have to die now, just when her grandchildren were getting to know her, just when she was doing so much good with Samaritan’s Purse? We had so many plans, so many things we wanted to do together. Why now? Why Lorie? 

God never answered my questions, just as He never answered Job’s. And often I just sat in the silence wondering. I read many good books, which helped me make sense of the not knowing, but I never really got the answers I was looking for. However, what I discovered God gave me was so much more important and valuable than answers. In the midst of all the questions, I realized that God had given me Himself. He gave me Jesus. And that has been the sweetest part of this journey––to discover when all you have left is God, He is enough. 

There was a moment in my journey when I found myself in this place of anger and questioning, and in the midst of my sadness and confusion I remembered the passage where Jesus asked His disciples if they were going to abandon Him because some of His other disciples stopped following Christ when Jesus’ teaching got tough and demanding. But Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68).  I have actually said those words out loud to the Lord several times this past year. And I have found that when Jesus is all that you have, He really is enough.

Gratitude

The fifth and final stage, Claypool, says is key if we are ever going to make progress in our journey of grief, and this phase involves gratitude and hope. Instead of being resentful over what you lost and regret what you no longer have, you have to press on to discover what you can be grateful for, grateful for what you had for as long as you had it. 

God reminded Job that everything he had been so indignant about losing never really belonged to him in the first place. They were gifts, and they were beyond his deserving. To be angry because a gift has been taken away is to miss the whole point of life. Gratitude and humility are the best ways to deal with our losses. And if you cannot find your way to gratitude, Claypool says, you are going to get stuck in your grief. I believe he is right. 

In his book Claypool offers a story to illustrate what he is talking about. He says that when he was a boy he grew up during World War II, and during the war his neighbor enlisted in the Army and headed off to join the troops. But before he did, the neighbor asked John’s parents if he could store his furniture, which included a washing machine, in their basement. John’s parents said, “Sure,” so the neighbor moved his things over, and he said they could use the washing machine while he was gone. 

John loved that old-timey washing machine with all the rollers and the fancy machinery. Washing machines were rare back then, and since John helped with washing the clothes as one of his family chores, it really made his job a lot easier. 

Well, three years later the neighbor returned home from the war, and he took all of his furniture back, including the washing machine. John was so upset, and he complained bitterly to his mother. “Why did he have to take the washing machine back?” he cried. 

John’s mother replied, “John, it never belonged to us.  It was always a gift. And we shouldn’t complain that we no longer have it. We should be grateful that it ever came to us in the first place.”

Reading this story was a breakthrough for me, and I was able to change my perspective from one of resentment over what I lost in Lorie’s death to one of gratitude that I was ever married to her in the first place. Most people do not get to experience what she and I did for as long as we did––38 years. This change in perspective literally transformed my life.

Hope

There is another aspect of this phase or stage of grief.  When you move on to gratitude, you discover that God also gives you the gift of hope. And it is a hope that expresses itself in two ways: the hope of heaven; and the hope of a future here on earth. 

At the end of the Book of Job, the patriarch says, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that after this body has decayed I will still see God” (Job 19:25, 26). I do not think I have ever thought as much about heaven as I have this past year, and I also do not think it has ever meant as much to me as it does now. The hope of heaven has provided immeasurable comfort to me as I think about all that Lorie is enjoying right now in the arms of Jesus and all the glories she is experiencing in the presence of God. Death is a reality we are all going to face one day, and the more work you and I do here on earth to prepare ourselves for heaven, the more ready we will be when that day comes. 

The second aspect of hope that comes as a result of growing in gratitude is the hope of a future. God made it clear to Job that God had not been defeated by the events of the past, and the Lord was still able to give meaning to Job’s life. In other words, apart from all appearances, Job still had a future because God had a future for Job. And the rest of the book of Job begins to detail what that future was all about.        

I shared with you earlier that I had some dark days last winter after Lorie died when I felt like my best days were behind me. I do not believe that anymore. I have come to realize that I have so much to live for in my children and my grandchildren, and I have never been more excited about our ministry here at First Presbyterian Church than I am now. In addition, the year after Lori died I invited a young man who is part of the Winston-Salem Fellows Program in our city to live with me for the year. Patrick has been such a Godsend for me, and I think I have been for him too. It’s been one of the most unexpected blessings of the year so far. And I do not think I would have ever invited a Fellow to live with me if Lorie had not died. 

A few weeks after Lorie passed away, a friend wrote to me an email, and in it he said: “I look forward to seeing God’s assignment for you, Peter, but I know that it may well be unlike anything you’ve anticipated.  Such is the nature of God.”     

My friend is right, and I have come to a place where I am excited about the new adventure God has for me. I do not know all of what it entails, but I believe by faith that it is going to be a good one. Make no mistake, I still miss Lorie every single day, and I wish she were still alive. Recently I cried more than I expected I would a year after her passing. But I have also come to a place where I can accept and trust that it was Lorie’s time to go, and God has a bigger plan than I can ever imagine or understand––for Lorie and for me. And I want to lean into my future knowing that God is already there, waiting for me. He loves us and He wants the best for us.

In the following passage, the apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of humanity, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him. According to the Lord’s Word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

Finding Joy on the Journey of Grief

There are many other insights into grief I would like to share. However, what I do want to share with you has to do with finding joy on the journey of grief. For many months after Lorie died, it felt like I had a weight tied around my heart that held me down and bound me and was keeping my spirit from experiencing joy. On occasion I would laugh at something funny, and I experienced little glimpses, little flashes of joy. But they were rare, and they did not last long.

But somewhere along the way, and I cannot remember exactly when the change occurred, I noticed that my heart was lighter and I felt excitement about my future. I think it happened about the time last summer when I was with my kids and my grandchildren. All of a sudden I noticed that joy was returning to my heart. And I observed it was at a time when I began to focus on gratitude and tried to intentionally develop an attitude of praise. Gradually, I was letting go of the past and I was reaching for the future, and joy began to return to my heart. 

In his book, Finding My Way Home, Roman Catholic writer Henri Nouwen says, “Your whole life is filled with losses, endless losses. And every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, and deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to a greater life of freedom.”[4]

In another of his books Nouwen writes about the first time he saw a trapeze artist at a circus.[5] He was thrilled as he watched these artists “dance in the air” as he put it. They soared and all was dangerous until they found themselves caught by the strong hands of their partners. Henri told his father that he always wanted to fly like that and perhaps he had missed his calling!

Nouwen observed that at each performance the fliers let go of the bar and trusted that their flight will end in their hands sliding into the secure grip of a partner. They also knew that only the release of the secure bar allows them to move on with arcing grace to the next.  Before they can be caught, they must let go. They must brave the emptiness of space. 

He says that living with this willingness to let go is one of the greatest challenges we face. Whether it is a person, a possession, or our personal reputation, in so many areas of life we hold on at all costs. But the great paradox is that it is in letting go that we receive. We find safety in unexpected places of risk. And those who try to avoid all risk, those who would seek a guarantee that their hearts will not be broken, end up missing out on the glory God has in store for them if they would only let go and trust Him. 

I still treasure all the wonderful memories of Lorie and the life we shared together, but I am learning to let go of the past and allow myself to be caught by the strong hands of our heavenly Father. In this scary process I find that He is worthy of my trust, and He is giving me joy again. 

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The comfort of God almighty is there for each of us if we reach out and entrust our lives to His care. In the midst of your grief, allow the strong hands of God to catch you and hold you and to help you find joy on your journey of grief too. Amen.

_____________________________________________

The Reverend Dr. Peter B. Barnes is Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ECO), Winston–Salem, North Carolina. His wife Lorie died in November 2016 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer.


[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), 7.

[2] M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996),9.

[3] John Claypool, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler (Waco, TX: Word, 1974.

[4] Henri Nouwen, Finding My Way Home (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), 135.

[5] Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 25ff.

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