Christian Living

A word in grief

This is part two of Scott Millar’s reflections on grief. Read part one here.

Two days after Susie’s death, the kids and I walk up the hill to church. The July cold bites us in more ways than one, and yet to be outside brings some sense of relief. Our home—so vibrant just three days ago—has been invaded by an oppression characterised as much by its colourlessness as it is by its emptiness. I don’t want to be there. In truth, I don’t want to be anywhere. I want to escape to a place of nothingness. But the kids. They need a dad. And so we walk to church.

We enter the building. The usual hum of people mingling before the service has been muted by sorrow. Limp voices issue from shock-worn faces. Looking around, despair governs the room. After a few short greetings, my energy is almost entirely spent. As a family, we sit. Towards the back and off to the side, but close to one other.

The service starts. Some gentle words of comfort. Songs that hold more meaning than ever. Prayers that hunger for God’s ear more than ever. A sense of longing hangs over the congregation today—a yearning for God’s word to restore life and put things right. And so with tired anticipation, we listen. But the words spoken are unequivocally bleak.

Psalm 88.

As a staff team we chose this psalm nearly six months before. If we’d known the context in which we’d preach this psalm, I wonder now if we’d have chosen differently. Because, unlike other psalms of lament, this one refuses to end on a note of hope. It carries us into a darkness from which we don’t emerge. And yet, in this moment, that brings a strange comfort. Because right now, this ancient song knows me better than anything else in the world.

I know this psalmist’s outcry was prompted by circumstances vastly different to my own. But his expression of grief, and its assault on his personhood, validates so much of how I am feeling. Relevance gives way to resonance. I feel understood. I feel permitted to groan in devastation.

I’m struck by how accurate the metaphor of the pit is in describing the impact of death’s imminence on the human soul (vv. 3-4). For me, the walls of that pit represent time. One wall symbolises the past from which I’ve been expelled; the other, the future I neither have the desire nor the ability to step into. I am hopelessly suspended, trapped, in-between the past and the future, with no apparent means of escape (v. 8).

They say things will get better in time. But time isn’t working properly anymore. 20 years with Suse disappeared in a heartbeat. Two days without her have felt like an eternity. Time is hardly a panacea. It’s a prison-cell. A pit.

And the walls of this pit are as unscalable as they are impenetrable. Even if there was a means of climbing out, grief and despair have stripped me of any ability to do so—“I am like one without strength” (v. 4). Nor does the darkness allow me to see anything clearly, except for pain and sorrow. In the last 48 hours, every avenue of time which I’ve braved to peer down has been awash with tears. “My eyes are dim with grief” (v. 9). Everything seems impossible. Because, on my own, it is.

Not that I’m alone. I’m surrounded by a constellation of support in this dark sky. Loving people. Dear friends. They are here. They will help. And yet loneliness consumes me—“darkness is my only friend” (v. 18). Where others will come and go, this new lightless companion will be ever present. A silhouette constantly reminding me of all Susie was, and all she no longer is.

Death. It doesn’t suit Susie. The silence. The unresponsiveness. The severing of partnership and cessation of love. It is altogether unnatural. “It’s not right, it’s not right” is all I can say to myself.

And yet even at this very early stage of grief, perhaps I’m learning what suffering really is: not merely an experience of pain, but an expression of the fact that things aren’t right and that we long for them to be to be put right.

I’m reminded by Psalm 88 that death is not what we’re intended for. It only serves to prove that the fundamental order of things is corrupted. Because, as verse 10 asks, can the dead see God’s wonders? Can they sing his praises? No they can’t. The proper order of things is to live life in the experience and expression of God’s love (v. 11). Death severs and silences. It only speaks to the fact that things aren’t right.

Never have I felt that to be so true. Never have I been so ravenous for God’s perfect re-ordering to settle on this world once and for all. But never have I been so glad for the gospel, knowing that in Jesus Christ, God has secured a future for his people that will never perish, spoil or fade, a future where he will wipe the tears from my dim eyes with his very own hand.