When life crashes in on you, what do you do? Events are so traumatic that the whole world seems to shrink and be encapsulated into a single moment. Life seems like a black hole, one of those mysterious objects in space so dense that their gravity allows nothing, not even light, to escape.
Sympathy, compassion, under-standing, and good advice are helpful when the problem is not yours. But when it is yours, when you, yourself, are immersed in that black hole, is there a way out of the darkness?
Twice I have been confronted by life-altering moments. In April 2005, our home burned down, leaving my husband and me just in the clothes we wore, homeless, with memories and nothing else. Watching everything you own burn is a sobering event that radically changes priorities.
Then, in October 2016, my husband was killed in a work-related accident. Losing inanimate things is difficult, but it pales compared to losing your spouse. Nothing prepares you for such traumatic, life-changing events. I have come to learn that God’s grace, love, and mercy know no bounds. His grace is truly sufficient to heal the worst hurts of the soul.
There is no right or wrong way to deal with situations of significant loss. After my husband’s death, someone said: “You are now a member of a very exclusive club, which no one wants to join. You have experienced the worst kind of loss. It marks you, and in time, you will come to recognize the signs in other people.” The person knew what she was talking about: her son, a few years earlier, had committed suicide.
No matter how similar the loss, everyone responds differently. Yet, in all kinds of situations of loss, there are commonalities. I want to share some of my journey, some of what I have learned, in the hope that it may help others.
God is with you
The psalmist wrote: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).* Jesus echoed these words, saying: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). They are not empty words. Paradoxically, God is nearer at times of grief and loss than at any other time. Memorizing and meditating on the promises brings hope and comfort in tangible ways to those in trouble. As with physical injuries, significant loss leaves scars that will never completely disappear until we get to heaven, but God’s promises bring healing, no matter how terrible the loss: “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).
God is a God of surprises. At times of great need, God sends what I have come to regard as “random blessings”: blessings that come through people and events so unexpectedly and beyond our normal experience that we acknowledge they have come only from our loving Father, who weeps with and cares for us.
When the unthinkable happens, the world seems to stand still. I will always remember the moment when my husband phoned to say, “The house is on fire; there will be nothing left,” and the phone call saying, “I am so sorry. Lars was killed in an accident.” Initially it was difficult to even comprehend what was being said. This seems to be one of the brain and body’s defense mechanisms. As the words do sink in, they are followed by a myriad of emotions, feelings, and questions, existential and practical. At this point, as far as possible, press Pause. Some practical decisions—for example, funeral arrangements—cannot wait, but everything that can wait should wait. Perspective and wise decisions come with time.
Learn from experience
When the house burnt down I was not at home. On hearing the news I phoned my parents. As I sobbed out what was happening my Dad asked: “What is your faith worth if it is not sufficient even for this situation?” He was right. I stopped crying. What is faith and a belief in God worth, if it cannot survive, and grow under my questioning, anger, doubt, and despair during the difficult times? My husband, who was more phlegmatic and pragmatic, said to me the evening of the fire: “We can sit in a corner and cry, but when we are finished crying nothing has changed.” Refocusing, trusting God, and moving in faith are more constructive responses. When I heard of my husband’s accident I remembered the lesson and have tried to apply it.
Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, says:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die, . . .
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:1, 2, 4, NIV).
Grief is normal. Crying and showing emotions help articulate the hurt, loss, anger, and numerous other feelings. It is a necessary part of the healing process. Standing at the graveside, I was acutely conscious of the contrast between my own grief and that of friends without a faith in God. Ours was not that gut-wrenching grief without hope. As Paul wrote to the believers in Thessalonica, we should “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). This moment is not the end; rather, it is a hiatus on the journey.
Grief cannot be compartmentalized. Catastrophic loss may happen in a split second, but its consequences continue for a lifetime. Difficult as it seems initially, life continues. A new reality gradually takes shape. People talk about “closure,” but a better description would be to reach an “accommodation” with what has happened. The psalmist understood this; he did not pretend that everything was good or perfect. Rather, the psalmist often complained and expressed his frustration to God. Time dulls grief. Over time, good days outweigh the bad, but there will always be moments when grief returns like a whirlwind: anniversaries, memories, precious special moments. Then, too, memories may be triggered by something as simple as a smell, word, look, or flower.
Transparency helps others know what I am feeling and enables them to offer support. Eight months after my husband was killed, I was sitting on a platform in Mexico, with other division executive secretaries and GC associate secretaries. Two weeks previously, 17 young Adventists had been killed in a bus accident. Five survived, and as local and world leaders surrounded the survivors and prayed, I could not contain the tears. Suddenly, I felt an arm around my shoulders and a hand grip mine as col-leagues on either side silently expressed their understanding and support.
In the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death, I often found myself praying, saying to God, “Here I am,” not knowing how to formulate what I wanted to say. For a period of time, it was enough. Others were praying for me who knew and articulated my needs. By coming into the presence of God, their prayers on my behalf were sufficient.
Meeting people, sometimes strangers who had heard of the accident, and hearing how they have prayed and are still praying gives me strength and courage on a daily basis. Intercessory prayer on behalf of others should never be underestimated.
Ask for help
As I was traveling home following the news of my husband’s accident, the receptionist in the airport lounge saw that I was upset and asked what was wrong. I blurted out what had happened. Immediately she took control, staying with me until I boarded my flight. As she left me, she said, “Ask for help. Allow others to help you.” As time has progressed, I have understood and appreciated her advice.
Sometimes others can see your need better than you can. Following the funeral, I returned to England. One of my colleagues came to my office and told me that he was coming to charge my car battery that evening. I told him it was fine; the car had started that morning without a problem. He insisted, and the battery charger proved him right.
Asking for and accepting help may not come easily, but opening the door for others to help becomes a double blessing: you are blessed, and so is the other person.
Job's comforters and expectations
The loss of my home and husband not only changed my life, it effected my family, church family, friends, and community. People responded in different ways. Among them are those I classify as Job’s comforters. They say things like: “The Lord let this happen because He knew that if Lars lived, he would have done something wrong and not made it to heaven.” “His time had come.” “The Lord needed to teach you a lesson.” At first I was incredulous. Then I was angry and frustrated. These kinds of statements do not fit with picture of God I find in the Bible. Initially I tried to argue. The response was pity and the shake of the head, which indicated that they knew better and one day I would understand. Now I smile, shake my head, and know that one day they will understand.
Although no two people deal with situations of significant loss in the same way, everyone has opinions as to how someone else should respond to loss. Initially people would say, “I don’t know what to say.” As time moves on, temporary dumbness has become a running commentary. If I cry I hear voices saying: “Get a grip on yourself. You should be over it by now. It’s time to move on!” If I am happy someone will inevitably say or imply: “After everything that has happened, how can you laugh and be happy?” Both responses are hurtful and unhelpful. I have learned, with God’s help, not to internalize those kinds of negative comments. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Choosing what I think about and focus on significantly impacts how I move forward.
Processing loss is difficult. Acceptance enables me to function at an adequate level. Embracing loss takes me to the next level, allowing me to engage, process, and recognize that this is something that will shape my life and who I am. It grafts the loss into the fabric of my life, creating a seamless whole from the past and present, allowing both to merge into the future. Finding gratitude in the loss offers the greatest potential, yet it is totally and completely beyond my natural ability to do so. In these situations, gratitude is a gift from God. When I discover gratitude in the midst of the loss, seeing it for what it is, a consequence of living in a broken, sinful world, then the unwanted and unacceptable can be transformed into a blessing, an expression of God’s grace and goodness in my life, and true healing takes place.
“The land of no more”
All significant loss is the start of an unwanted journey—a lonely, painful journey, washed in tears. A journey of self-discovery, healing, restoration, and change. A journey of blessing, joy, laughter, and gratitude.
For me, it is an ongoing journey where I have come to a better understanding and experience of the goodness and love of God. I can only express my gratitude to God for blessing my life beyond all measure, helping me to a clearer understanding of a bigger perspective than just the immediate moment. As I look to the future, I know that the God who has not failed in the past will not fail in the present or future.
Yes, I felt as if I were, indeed, in a black hole from which no escape is possible. But I can face the future with confidence, and hope. God never fails. His goodness and mercy know no limit and are a constant support on the pilgrimage to “the land of no more”—no more sorrow, no more pain, no more parting—and no more death.