Grief is a strange land. It takes time to get one’s bearings.
Last month I read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, written after his twenty-five-year-old son Eric died in a mountain-climbing accident. Wolterstorff puts into words many things I’ve felt but have been unable to articulate. For example, he reflects on how glorious truths like the hope of the resurrection from the dead do not eliminate the pain caused by the void of a loved one’s absence.
Elements of the gospel which I had always thought would console did not. They did something else, something important, but not that. It did not console me to be reminded of the hope of the resurrection. If I had forgotten that hope, then it would indeed have brought light into my life to be reminded of it. But I did not think of death as a bottomless pit. I did not grieve as one who has no hope. Yet Eric is gone, here and now he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear of his plans for the future. That is my sorrow. A friend said, “Remember he’s in good hands.” I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief. For that grief, what consolation can there be other than having him back?
In our day we have come to see again some dimensions of the Bible overlooked for centuries. We have come to see its affirmation of the goodness of creation. God made us embodied historical creatures and affirmed the goodness of that. We are not to yearn for timeless disembodiment.
But that makes death all the more difficult to live with. When death is no longer seen as release from this miserable materiality into our rightful immateriality, when death is seen rather as the slicing off of what God declared to be, and what all of us feel to be, of great worth, then death is — well, not friend but enemy. Though I shall indeed recall that death is being overcome, my grief is that death still stalks this world and one day knifed down my Eric.
Nothing fills the void of his absence. He’s not replaceable. We can’t go out and get another just like him.
I appreciate the nuance and wisdom Wolterstorff employs here. We Christians do indeed grieve when a loved one dies. True, our grieving is different than the sorrow of someone who doesn’t have gospel-hope. Nevertheless, our sure and certain hope of the resurrection doesn’t mean the experience of losing one who was dear to us is painless. It’s not. If we loved them, how could it be? As Wolterstorff writes,
Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved.