Cycles of Grief—and Grace
“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
some point we all see the face of evil so closely that we recall each
wrinkle at the eye and each turn of the mouth. At some point, we also
realize that we are going to die…that we have a room reserved in the
House of Mourning (Ecc. 7:2). But for followers of Jesus Christ, who
called Himself, “the Door,” the House of Mourning one day will lead to
a House of Rejoicing.
Albeit as one believer leaves the House of Mourning for the House of Rejoicing, another is entering it. Bill Hendricks, author of The Light That Never Dies: A Story of Hope in the Shadows of Grief (read an excerpt), experienced this when his wife, Nancy, succumbed to breast cancer and left him and his three young daughters, Brittany, Kristin, and Amy, to reside, instead, in the House of Mourning.
“One of the things that I’m becoming aware of is that grief is not linear,” Bill says. “Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, [in her work, On Death and Dying, outlined] the five stages of death and dying, which is a helpful template. Unfortunately it conveys the impression that you work your way through these stages and then you’re out of it. Grief is not linear. It’s cyclical. It’s a cycle and that cycle begins the moment that person dies and then repeats again and again throughout the rest of your life.”
In the case of Bill’s family, the grief cycle began in the “Year of Firsts,” which included all the first birthdays and holidays and important events that Bill and his three daughters faced without his wife and their mother.
“Every time you go up against one of those,” he explains, “this cycle recurs. As you gain emotional maturity and you have life experience, you start to see dimensions of that loss that you hadn’t ever seen before. For instance, think what it will feel like should [the girls] ever marry and walk down the aisle and not have a mother. That will be a whole cycle of grief. In a way, I think you never quite leave the House of Mourning.”
So how does one ever enter the House of Rejoicing? Where does one find hope?
“I believe as human beings the best way to understand ourselves is through story. Not only do we have a story, but our story is part of this much bigger story that God’s got going,” Bill says. And the story that began in the Garden of Eden was one in which the plot never involved us knowing evil.
“I simply can’t say that God caused Nancy to have cancer because I believe it’s an evil. I believe it was not part of God’s intention for this world… for people to die of cancer; for women to die of breast cancer and leave husbands and babies behind, and to have their lives disrupted and have their lives cut short,” he says. “For that matter, I don’t believe it was God’s intention that any of us should die. But we live in a fallen world, and what I understand that to mean is that in some way every one of us will confront evil at some point and at many points, and in fact the evil itself is right inside of us in terms of sin.”
This issue of sin is explained in Romans 3:23: “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” If the story ended there, Bill’s hope would hold little value for those in the House of Mourning. But it doesn’t end there. The full sentence reads: “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Christ, then, provides us with hope, and when we face evil, the process through the pain helps us to see the Cross more clearly. Bill calls this process “grief work.”
“I’d call grief work an intentionality to face the pain of what has happened and the pain of the results of what has happened…to not shrink back from the reality emotionally of what you’re facing,” he says. “Go ahead and feel that pain and then begin to work on coming to grips with how you’re going to live your life in light of the new realities you’re facing.”
And the reality of this world Bill found in Ecclesiastes, in the Hebrew word, hebel, or futility. What he discovered, however, is that if what God says about the world is true—if in looking around him Bill only can see futility and evil—then what God says about Himself must also be true. The tension between believing in what is unseen rather than what is seen is faith (Heb. 11:1). Therefore, those facing great evil in this world can also have faith in facing great joy in heaven.
Second Corinthians 5:1 says: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” Therefore, when each of us faces the ultimate evil, death, if we trust in Jesus, then this Scripture promises that we will live in an eternal house with God and that this currently unseen house can be a symbol of hope for us in this life, as Hebrews 3:6 states: “But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.”
However, hope often “doesn’t look pretty,” Bill admits, but it can be found in the unlikely House of Mourning. “What hope looked like to me was I’d wake up in the morning and I’d go, 'Well, here we are again. I need to get out of bed and be responsible.' I’d take a deep breath and suck it up and do it all over again. Okay? Well, why would I keep doing that day after day after day? The only thing that would keep you doing that day after day is if you have somewhere inside you a sense of hope, meaning that you think that somewhere God must be in this, somehow God’s going to get you through this, and that there’s some reason why it matters that you be faithful and responsible today and not worry about tomorrow.
“There were many days when that’s all I could worry about because I didn’t know what was going to happen the next day, not just physically with Nancy but all the collateral pieces. What’s going to happen to the finances? And what’s going to happen to my business? And what’s going to happen to my girls?” Bill says. “But what’s amazing is I’d wake up and I’d go, 'Well, you did it yesterday, Bill, and something that you didn’t anticipate showed up and you got through it. So let’s do it again today.' So what hope looks like is taking it one step at a time. It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s faithful to what God’s assigned you.”
Hope also shows up in other people. In fact, Bill believes that God gives His children hope and shows them love through the hands and feet of others.
“We keep looking for God in the big stuff,” he says. “We keep looking for God in the parting of the Red Sea, and the feeding of the five thousand, and He certainly is. We keep looking for God in these macro ways, but where I need Him the most to show up is in the daily-ness. Is God going to show up when you’re fighting the High Five on the way to work? Is God going to show up when you’re waking up and making sandwiches for your kids’ lunches? And is He going to show up when you’re doing these routine things and you’re mind’s thinking about all that you have on your plate, and most of it you can’t figure out?
“That’s where God tends to show up. That’s where you need Him. In my experience, and in Nancy’s situation, it was in moments like that where I would literally be going through my day, just meeting people, doing my work at The Giftedness Center, driving the girls around endlessly feeling like I’m a taxi driver, sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game, wondering, 'With all I’ve got to do, why am I watching eight-year-olds run around?', when verses of Scripture would bubble up in my mind. I can’t even explain it,” Bill admits. “I would just suddenly be aware of that Scripture in light of my experience and I’d put them together and [think], 'So that’s what it means.' It was amazing.”
People, especially his daughters, had the same effect on him.
“I believe that ninety percent of the time when God shows up, He shows up in the form of another human being, who is His hands and feet, and really His heart. So I quickly think of people whom God has brought into my life at key moments, and sometimes in even routine ways, who manifest grace to me. The girls would be the first who spring to mind. They minister to me in ways they don’t even realize. Brittany, for instance, has a way of pointing out things to me that I wasn’t aware of that I need to pay attention to. Kristin’s emotional honesty brings me back to the reality of a situation, and Amy has this infectious smile and personality.
“So there are days when I’m depressed, or whatever, and [they’re] like a sprinkle of sunshine that comes in. And most of the time they’re not thinking, 'Okay, I’m going to be God’s hands and feet and heart.' They’re just being who they are and then God shows up to me through them. It’s an amazing thing how that works, and that’s true for all of us. We need to show up and we need to trust that God will work through us. But mostly we need to stay in fellowship with Him to make that happen.”
But how do you stay in fellowship with God and have hope when you can’t get out of bed and people can’t soothe the pain? Tell God anyway. Tell Him how much it hurts. Be honest with yourself and with God.
“This may be the most difficult thing about the Christian life—knowing what to do with one’s feelings” Bill says. “Over the last ten or fifteen years I have come to the conclusion that since God knows my heart, what other feelings are there He already is aware of and He’s a big enough God to handle them. And so I’d be better to just go ahead and have those feelings, whatever they happen to be, and bring them to Him and say, 'Here’s what I’m feeling today.' That creates a much healthier relationship with God as well as a healthier perspective on the world.”
Even with that permission, many of us might not feel comfortable asking God the question, 'Why?'.
“Of course we’re going to ask why,” Bill says. “We go back to this issue of meaning. Where’s the meaning? How does this fit into the story? Part of the Fall is the loss of understanding of God’s purpose. When Adam and Eve sinned, something huge shifted in the universe, and a part of that was we don’t know why we’re here anymore. We don’t know what it all means. The world looks pretty meaningless apart from God, just like Ecclesiastes says it would. It looks futile.”
While the world may look futile, for those who believe in Christ, a whole other world awaits, where futility becomes fruitfulness; pain, pleasure; and sorrow, joy. This is God’s promise to Bill, and it is His promise to all who call on His name: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Rev. 21:2–4).
For Bill the old order of wondering if God will show up has passed away and a new confidence in this eternal home has come.
“I don’t worry now that God’s not there and that He’s not going to be there for me. I’m almost abandoned to it, like, what if one day He doesn’t show? I guess I’m like Job. Well, if that happens, then, ‘though He slay me, yet will I trust Him,’ I just expect God to show up, given the fact that He showed up for me and the girls and Nancy in the worst moment of our life.
“Some people take wisdom and experience from being [in the House of Mourning] and actually become better people as a result of dealing with the pain and grief. That’s what I hope I’m doing,” Bill says. “I’m trying to strike a blow for good with this book. I’m not going to let Nancy’s death go unanswered. If you want to win the fight, you have to land a punch on the opponent that is more forceful. This is my attempt at a counterpunch.”