1590) When Grief Won’t Let Go

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Rev. Alvin Rogness  (1908-1992)

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By Alvin Rogness , Book of Comfort, 1979, pages 100-104.

     I knew grief when my father and mother died the same summer at 66, but that grief lifted.  It was different when our son was killed at 24.

     My parents’ death left me sad to think that I had no one to write to about the joys of their grandchildren.  I realized that now I was on the top rung of the ladder of the generations, and it was lonely up there.  I no longer had the luxury of being someone’s child.

     Twelve years later our Paul’s life was snuffed out on a city street, ten minutes from our home, as he was returning from two years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.  Accustomed to the reverse flow of British traffic, he stepped in front of a truck.  Now I knew a wrenching grief that fastened itself to me like a leech and wouldn’t let go.  In my 20 years as a parish pastor I had tried to help others with the pain of such festering grief.  Now it was my turn to suffer.

     Day after day, whenever I wasn’t pressed with duties, I’d think of Paul.  Never during his two years in England was I so preoccupied with him.  Then, though separated by the Atlantic, I took him for granted.  Now, separated by death, he became an obsession.

     I had my faith.  I believed that he still lived, now beyond another ocean.  I believed that he was no longer oppressed by pain or meaninglessness or the prospect of death.  In a sense, I knew he had “made it” in the fulfillment we all desired.  Why then the pain?

     A horde of questions attacked me.  Like Jacob, who had loved Benjamin more than the others, had I loved Paul more than my other four sons and daughter?  Were there things between Paul and me we should have cleared up, had we known the end was so near?  What had I failed to I do for him?  Why should God let a promising young man die?

     I felt grief and anger and remorse and guilt and loneliness.  I cried to God.  He came with comfort, but it took time.

     I had the most trouble with my anger.  I resented the words of Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;blessed be the name of the Lord.”  I knew the Lord had given Paul to us, but I couldn’t believe the Lord had arranged an accident to take him from us.  I found myself angry, not at God, nor at the truck driver into whose path Paul had impulsively stepped.  I was angry at the fallen order– in Omar Khayyam’s words, “this sorry scheme of things,” where sin and tragedy and accidents and illness and pain and death can thwart the greater plans of God for his children.  I found comfort in thinking that God was inignant with this too, and that in  a mixture of love and indignation he had sent his only Son to earth to put in motion a plan that would eventually set things right.  I rediscovered a God who suffers with us.

     I also learned the loneliness of grief.  We are a tightly knit family, and we have a host of warm friends.  We shared our grief.  But grief leaves you on an island, quite alone.  Even his mother and I could not really reach into the recesses of each other’s grief.  George Macdonald ‘s words from Diary of an Old Soul I found to be true:

We all are lonely, Maker—each a soul

Shut in by itself, a sundered atom of thee.

No two yet loved themselves into a whole;

Even when we weep together we are two.

     Guilt was not a serious problem. I could think of nothing serious that had come between us.  Even if there were, I quickly reminded myself of the sweeping forgiveness of God that swallows up all our sins and removes them “as far as the east is from the west.”  Paul, now in heaven, and I, still on earth, could chuckle over anything that had marred our relationship, whatever that may have been.

     Still, I felt it was virtually my duty to grieve.  If I didn’t grieve, had I loved him after all?

     The magnificent picture in Hebrews came most to my rescue.  In chapter 11 the writer parades the people who have died in their faith and who now, as victors, are in the celestial bleachers cheering us on.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).

     I pictured Paul in those bleachers, urging me to drop grief and return with zest to the common life and the joy of those around me.

     It isn’t as if grief ever quite lets go.  But now, except for some swift, unexpected moments, when the loss surges in upon me again, the wrenching pain is gone.  Some of life’s mirth and merriment may be gone too.  But sorrow becomes more like a minor chord in a symphony which, with the jubilant majors, combines to make a rich melody.

     We do not belabor Paul’s memory, nor avoid it.  I occasionally wear his sweaters.  We keep his pictures on display.  Even his oar is resting against our bookcase, the oar he used in the Henley Regatta in the summer of 1960.  It is at Christmas time that we miss him most.  There are no presents for him or from him, nor his Christmas letter.  We speak of what he might now have been doing.  Sometimes I wonder what pain he might have been spared.

     The passing of time helps, but it cannot fill the empty place.  Fell a great tree, and a hole yawns against the skyline.  No one ever takes another ‘s place.  All of us have a space in existence all our own.  Our loss of Paul is indeed well flanked (12 grandchildren have come since his death).  Our other sons do not have their mother’s brown eyes and black hair, but they and his sister all reincarnate some of Paul’s exuberance and warmth.

     When King David’s little son was sick, the king fasted and prostrated himself before the Lord, and would not be comforted.  The seventh day the child died.  The servants hesitated to tell David that the child was dead, fearing that he would do himself harm.  To their surprise, when he heard it, David washed himself, dressed, anointed himself, and sat down to eat.  He told his servants, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’  But now he is dead, why should I fast?  Can I bring him back again?  I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

     Paul sleeps in a little windswept graveyard on the prairies of South Dakota, next to his grandfather and grandmother.  But he lives on in the fabric of the many lives he cherished and, I believe, ennobled.  And with more than wistful longing, I believe that he lives and works in another part of the far-flung empire over which the Creator rules.  I will go to him there.  It is in the dimensions i of that empire that grief comes to rest.

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I Thessalonians 4:13-18  —  Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.  For 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.

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Prayer for Remembrance Day from The Church of England:

Lord, have mercy on those who mourn,
who feel numb and crushed and are filled with the pain of grief,
whose strength has given up.
You know all our sighing and longings:
be near to us and teach us to fix our hope on you, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.