Only someone who has done some grieving can help those who now grieve. A hundred "I’m sorries" and a thousand "I know how you feels" are worthless when you feel profound grief. You need at your side someone who has been through loss.
And if yours is anticipating grief; that is, if yours is the kind of grief that is building up because of something you know is going to happen, then you truly need someone beside you who has suffered. The last thing you need is someone who just refuses to understand why you are grieving, someone who brushes you aside and chirps, "Get over it."
No, if yours is anticipating grief, if yours is grief over something you know is going to happen, then you need at your side someone who knows what that is about. Someone who has endured some sleepless nights. Someone whose heart has been in his throat. Someone whose voice chokes from time to time.
Anticipating grief. Does that phrase make sense to you? Grief for things that have not yet happened, but you know they will. The physician’s diagnosis is clear; there are only a scant few months to live. A grief process begins right then and there. It will come to a climax when death occurs, but you are going to have to endure it and deal with it for many months first. Anticipating grief.
You’ve felt something go out of a friendship. Some relationship is deflating, like a flat tire on the road. It’s not gone yet, but you can feel it flattening out. There have been no arguments, no fights, no harsh words; just a weariness, a boredom, blah. A friendship is dying, and you don’t know exactly why. But a grief is born. Anticipating grief.
You’re a parent who has invested so much in a child. That child grows up and goes to college and does well; you never expected anything to be particularly different. But it is. He comes home and seems distant; he has new ideas, he speaks of friends that you don’t even know, he muses that maybe at Christmas he will go somewhere else this year. And a tiny grief is born, because something tells you this child will never be the same, never your child again. Something tells you the connection is not what it used to be. A tiny grief is born. Anticipating grief.
I suspect that anticipating grief is more intense than sudden grief, more difficult than catastrophic grief. I remember, early in my pastoral career, of making the mistake of saying to someone whose elderly parent had died, "Well, you had her for a good long time. I guess you were ready for her to go home." And swift and sharp came back the answer, "She may have been ready, but I’m not ready. Don’t you be telling me what to feel." I deserved that! Never again have I suggested that because someone’s ninety-plus-year-old parent is gone, it’s a good thing, and you ought to just get over it. Never again. I have learned that anticipating grief is the most painful kind. The knowledge that a train wreck is coming and, no matter what I do, I cannot stop it: that’s tough.
The king of Israel had been caught, stopped dead in his tracks. The palace preacher, from whom David wanted sweet and soothing sermons, did not cooperate. The pulpit-pounding Nathan instead rang out in accusation, "You are the man." And David stood condemned of terrible wrongs: he had seduced another man’s wife, he had covered up his crime, and, most terrible of all, he had arranged the man’s death. The king’s crimes were incredibly horrible. And Nathan had nailed him to the wall.
David could do nothing but admit his guilt. His only recourse was the poignant cry, "I have sinned against the Lord." A grief was born right there. An anticipating grief. For the prophet told the king that the child which Bathsheba would bear, the product of David’s sin, that child would not live. Think about how that would feel. Even before the child is born, David knows that the child will not live, and that he must suffer the grief of that loss. That, I submit, is a terrifying anticipating grief. You have done wrong; the consequences of your sin will be here, but someone innocent will suffer. Awesome, heavy grief.
But I want you to notice that David set the stage for handling his grief. Did you hear what David did in response to this? He did something that would pave the way through that intense and terrible grief. David asked for and received forgiveness. David made sure that his relationship with God was made whole.
When David began his grief, he could have done many things: he could have collapsed into a bowl of quivering jelly, unable to function; he could have lashed out in anger at Nathan … believe me, I know that sometimes when people don’t like the message, they want to hurt the messenger; or he could have wallowed in destructive guilt. After all, he had a lot to feel guilty for. He could have allowed any of these things to take over his life.
But this is wonderful. Don’t miss it. David asked for and received forgiveness. He accepted forgiveness and stayed in touch with God. That paved the way through his anticipating grief:
David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." Nathan said to David, "Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die.
Out of a contrite heart, David confessed, and God forgave. The consequences were still there, the death of the child. But David knew that he was forgiven and that his relationship with the Lord was made whole.
Now watch what happens. The child is born. He is very ill. What does David do? Go out and drink with the boys? Throw broken bottles across the room? Tongue lash the servants? No. Not at all:
David ... pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.
What does David do in the face of this awful moment? David turns to God and prays. He knows it may not change the fate of the child, but he prays anyway. He knows that God’s will, for God’s own reasons, is to take this child, but David prays. David stays in touch. David lets his anticipating grief hang out for seven days and seven nights, but he is not alone. He is not a voice crying out into the empty night. He is a father linking hearts with the Father of all. David is in fellowship with the living God. David gets through seven days of anticipating grief by accepting his forgiveness and living as a forgiven man.
In the spring of 1992, my 85-year-old mother, whose emotional health had always been fragile, suffered a mental collapse and was hospitalized for treatment. When she was about to go home, she fell and cut her leg badly. The hospital readmitted her quickly. We all thought, oh well, it’s just a cut on the leg. But it did not heal; it got worse; and so did her emotional situation. After several weeks in the hospital, far more than you would expect for a simple cut on the leg, she had to go into nursing care, where her mind and her body continued to decline. By November of that year, my brother called and said, "I don’t think we have much time. She needs you. She needs you, as her oldest son, to give her permission to die."
I spent several days just sitting in her room, speaking when she was awake, reading Scripture, praying, just being there. What do you say in a place like that? How do you work with this kind of anticipating grief?
I had some choices. I might have told my mother, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to get well. Don’t give up. Platitudes, untrue, just feel-good. Or I might have prattled on about everything in general and nothing in particular, as we do sometimes when we just aren’t comfortable. I could have commented on the weather, fussed with the furniture in her room, adjusted the television screen. But I didn’t. Thank God I didn’t. What I did do was to tell my mother I loved her, and that whatever had passed between us was over. Done. Finished. In a word, forgiven. Because, yes, you see, she needed my forgiveness in order to die. She had done some things that I needed to let go. But I needed her forgiveness in order to live.
Every human relationship gets broken. And every human tie needs mending and forgiving. If you set that aside, you will never get past your grief. It is when you receive forgiveness and accept forgiveness that you can work through grief. It is when you receive and accept forgiveness, and, like David, make whole your relationship with God, that you can survive anticipating grief.
But the moment of truth would come for David, of course, as it inevitably does for all of us. None of us is going to escape grief. All of us are going to have losses. The death of a loved one is not the only kind of loss, as I’ve said. It might be a breach in a friendship. It might come from an employer who says, "You aren’t needed anymore." It might be a message from the bank, saying, "You have no resources." It might be a moment when everything you have done, everything you have worked for, everything you have tried, everything you have stood for, is just dismissed by somebody, tossed aside like useless garbage on the trash heap.
When that moment comes, and the thing you’ve waited for finally happens, what will you do? How will you manage? After days or weeks of anticipating grief, what will you do when the blow falls?
The answer is, you must satisfy your own spiritual needs, and forget about the expectations of others. You must satisfy your own spiritual urges, and dismiss what others expect of you. When David’s child died, David confused his servants. They thought they knew what somebody in those circumstances was supposed to do; but David turned to his own heart and set aside the servants’ expectations:
David said to his servants, "Is the child dead?" They said, "He is dead." Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the LORD, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food." He said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ’Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?
David did what David needed to do, not what the servants thought he ought to do. David did something for himself, for his own spirit, not just to meet some arbitrary social standard.
There is a time to take care of yourself. There is a time to look into your own heart and see what you need. There is a time to take off the crown of Israel and just be a father in grief. There is a time to stop being a good worker, with a stiff upper lip, who won’t admit that he is scared to death of the economy. There is a time to stop playing "Daddy will make it all better" and just voice grief. David took care of himself. David did what his heart and his fellowship with his God told him to do.
There are some griefs that it takes time to observe. Just this week I got in touch with a grief of my own. I was trying to give Rev. Haggray a little orientation to the history of our children’s ministry, and she asked a simple question, "What is the name we call our children’s choir?" All I could do was to weep at the thought of William Garrett, who spoke so grandly of "Our Darling Angels". I’m not fully over his death.
But do you remember the gift that we got when Mr. Garrett passed away? Do you remember how that anticipating grief, played out over several weeks in hospital rooms, finally came to a climax? It was on a Sunday morning when he died, and it fell my lot to stand here and weep with you and pray with you and worship our God. We made it through. We made it through. Why? Because we did not decide that grief was undignified, we did not think that sorrow was out of place, we did nothing except permit ourselves to feel, to feel in the presence of the living God. And so we made it through.
You will get through grief, even an anticipating grief, if you will do what the Spirit sends to your heart and not what others dictate.
But there is good news. I want you to hear this good news. There is someone who understands. There is someone who has been through anticipating grief and who stands ready to guide us through. There is good news.
I said that only someone who has done some grieving can help those who now grieve. I said that you need at your side someone who has been through loss.
The good news is that God knows what anticipating grief is. Far more than you or I will ever know, God knows what anticipating grief is. God knows because in Jesus Christ God too experienced anticipating grief. He sent a signal about it when the aged priest Simeon told Mary about her infant son, Jesus, "A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also." Around this child there would be grief and pain. God sent a signal that He was anticipating grief.
For you see, David may have lived in anticipating grief for seven days, knowing that his son would die. But how much more God has lived in anticipating grief from eternity, knowing that in the fullness of time He would send forth His son, but that this son of His would die. God knows anticipating grief.
David may have lived in anticipating grief made awful by the knowledge that his sin had caused the death of this innocent child. But how much more God has lived in anticipating grief made awesome, for He knew that the sin of all humanity made it necessary, that his child, who knew no sin, would become sin, for others. Do not tell me that God does not understand. He does. He knows. He understands.
Only someone who has done some grieving can help those who now grieve. A hundred "I’m sorries" and a thousand "I know how you feels" are worthless when you feel profound grief. You need at your side someone who has been through loss. In Jesus Christ, our God has been through it. In Jesus Christ, our God understands.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
God with us. Come to this Table and see the grief of God. But come and see more. See that God is with us.