My child, shed tears over the dead, lament for the dead to show your sorrow, then bury the body with due ceremony […] Weep bitterly, beat your breast, observe the mourning the dead deserves […] and then be comforted in your sorrow […]. Do not abandon your heart to grief, […] Once the dead are laid to rest, let their memory rest, do not fret for them […] (The Old Testament Apocryphal Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 38:16-17, 20, 23 New Jerusalem Bible).
Recently the worldwide number of COVID deaths topped 6.13 million, including over 976,000 in the US. What have been your thoughts as you’ve heard or read the latest, dreaded statistics?
Off and on during these global pandemic years, i’ve contemplated deaths, grieving, and especially, my experiences in grieving deaths of loved ones. Such thoughts and reflections have mostly carried me back to the deaths of various family members. Recalling these losses has taken place in various ways, including one morning when i opened the door to surprise visitors:
It was in January, 2003. “Ding Dong!” resounded throughout our home. When i opened the front door, two young men, dressed in suits, introduced themselves as elders and missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. They said they’d like to talk to me about Jesus.
“i love Jesus,” i replied. “I’m happy to talk about Jesus. i have a lot of studying and other things to do, also. Could you please limit the talk to about ten minutes?”
They agreed. Nevertheless, i prayed silently for God’s will, not mine. If God wanted me to talk longer with them, i wanted to cooperate. It seemed to me, She did; we three enthusiastically talked for about 45 minutes!
When the two stepped into our house, they removed their shoes, wet from our snow-covered sidewalk, and sat down. Upon hearing i was a marriage and family therapist, one asked if i realized that God gives us our families forever, for eternity. i said, yes, i knew and appreciated that.
When asked how i knew, i replied because of experience. After my 68 year-old stepfather, Robert, died unexpectedly in 1990, i told them i cried, grieved, cried, mourned his death, and cried some more. Robert and i had been close; we hit it off after Mother introduced him to my sister and me in about 1963. i was very happy when Mother married him in 1965, after my freshman year in college.
Bob and i had many shared memories. When i was a student at Atlanta’s Emory University, Robert, owner of a small, single-engine Cessna, piloted me more than once to Gainesville, Florida, where my future husband matriculated at the University of Florida. Once upon exiting Bob’s airplane, i walked right past 1966 Heisman Trophy winner Florida Gator Steve Spurrier, apparently also a passenger that day on another small plane. i felt like a jet-setter—pretty exciting for 20-year-old me!
i even named my first son after Robert. My father-daughter relationship with Bob was very different from my relationship with my biological father, who was often intoxicated at home or in a bar, including when my mother was in labor and giving birth to me, her second daughter.
Robert and i had been close, and i missed him. That is, i missed him until a month or so after his death, when i had a wonderfully healing dream. In my Marriage and Family Therapy training at Christian Theological Seminary, i learned that when relating dreams, it’s best to use the present tense, which i will do here:
“i see Robert from afar. As we walk toward each other, i see him more and more clearly, with more and more light surrounding him. He wears a tailored business suit, complete with a colorful, striking tie and white shirt. His shoes shine more brightly than i’ve ever seen shoes shine. He looks terrific! i run to Robert, throw my arms around him, and say something, like ‘Oh, Bob, i miss you so much.’”
While continuing to hug me, Robert’s words are along these lines: “There’s no need to miss me. Don’t you know i’m fine? And i’ll be seeing you and your mother someday—when it’s your turn to join me in heaven. All this crying you and your mother are doing is senseless. Don’t waste your time on all this sadness. Be joyful!” His words and manner of speaking in the dream sound just like the no-nonsense, caring, concerned stepfather i had known and loved on this earth.
When i told the elders this story, i concluded with words such as these: “With that dream, my grief seemed resolved. My mourning of Robert’s death seemed completed. From then on, i’ve remembered my stepfather only with smiles, joy, and appreciation that Bob and i had a long history of letting each other know, through the years, that we loved one another.” i paused. “So, yes, i know, our families are together eternally.”
During a telephone call years ago, i related this same dream to my now deceased friend Virginia Mc Donald, member of Imani Community Church, which was, for years, First Congregational UCC’s “sister church.” Next, Virginia shared her experience after her brother died. Though she couldn’t cry at his funeral, she said, when she got home, she cried and cried, thinking of her brother, buried, out in the cold. “He doesn’t have a coat. He’ll be so cold,” she repeatedly told herself. “i can’t stand knowing that.”
Suddenly, she heard a voice gently say, “He doesn’t feel the cold. He doesn’t feel the cold.”
“That got me over it,” she said. “i haven’t felt sad about my brother since that experience. God heals…”
During the elders’ visit, they gave me a copy of The Book of Mormon; Another Testament of Jesus Christ. After they left, i was surprised by some sentences opposite the page that one of the elders marked for me by turning down its corner at the top. i believe the marked chapter—3 Nephi 11—is one the elders often suggest people they visit read. The sentences on the previous page parallel the encouraging words in my dream about my stepfather, as well as God’s comforting words to my dear friend Virginia after her brother’s death:
“For so great was the astonishment of the people that they did cease lamenting and howling for the loss of their kindred” (3 Nephi 10:2). Eight verses later, words and ideas are repeated: “…and the mourning, and the weeping, and the wailing of the people who were spared alive did cease; and their mourning was turned into joy, and their lamentations into the praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer” (3 Nephi 10:10).
Over the years i have prayerfully pondered my experience in grieving Robert, as well as Virginia’s experience in mourning her brother. Surely God intends us to weep, howl, wail, and cry all the tears of grief we need to as we mourn our loved ones’ deaths—on our own timetables. Then, it seems to me that God wants us to move forward with our lives and experience every bit of the future joys that unfold.
Thank You, O God, for the healing, therapeutic tears we shed when a loved one goes home to be with You in Heaven. Thank You for the soothing dreams and whispered comfort you give us. May we each do our part to mourn as we need to, and, then, to move forward when You intend us to. Amen.
Possible Questions to Ponder
What are some of your experiences in grieving the death of a loved one?
Whose deaths have been most challenging for you to grieve? Why?
What dreams, if any, have you had that reinforce one or more of the themes of this entry? What were the details of the dreams? What did you learn from each dream?
When, if ever, have you experienced mourning eventually turning into joy? What were the circumstances?