By Wendy Harbottle
Grief is a mysterious thing. You never know when it is going to creep up on you or whether you’ll laugh or cry when it does. A few years ago, my brother’s best friend Stephen died. He was tall and dark and funny. I thought I saw him the other day, standing by a broken-down car. I came around a corner and I saw Stephen. I started to smile. Then I realized it couldn’t be Stephen, because he was dead. I burst into tears, while I gripped the steering wheel, and let grief come.
I do not pretend to understand death. I cannot tell why it takes some early and leaves others on earth in pain and distress. I do not know what to say at funerals or to grieving parents, children, siblings and friends. How do you answer the question: “How are you?” at the funeral of someone you love. I do not know. I know I am pretty bad at it. Nobody wants to be there—yet we want, no, we need the feeling of shared grief, the feeling that we are doing something to help carry the pain and emptiness.
There is the weight of eternity in the presence of grief, the gravity that life is short and fleeting, and within grasp of the living. Perhaps that is why I spend so much of my life struggling to divert the gaze of death. I nestle my apprehension of death in the word “safety”—it has a fashionable ring—fear does not reverberate off it loudly. So I wear my seatbelt in the car, and swim where there are lifeguards and shark nets. I do not walk alone at night or give lifts to strangers. I scratch carcinogenic charcoal off blackened toast and wear SPF 40. I protect my life and diminish the living of it.
The crazy thing is I know that death comes to each of us. I cannot avoid it, outrun it or outlive it with goodness. Not one living, breathing person knows how to pull a Houdini and escape death. The Christian faith teaches that once a man did know how to defeat death. In fact it records how this man, Jesus, not only conquered death and returned to life, but also offered life after death to anyone: the Lamborghini drivers and those who walk everywhere; the supermarket owner and the person who steals an apple for lunch. Jesus offered an invitation of endless life to anyone who believes He is capable of saving them from death.
I believe Jesus can make me live after death. I think He can do this because Jesus was a man who did not hedge His bets. He did not try to avoid death in all the ways I do. He did not play it safe or eat only organic foods. He did not follow the rules, he realized regulations do not always prolong life, in fact He went against religious advice to save His soul. He did not throw around words like eternity and heaven; He offered them to broken people, He spoke with compassion to people without hope. People like me.
Jesus also spoke about a massive party He would have one day when I get to heaven. I do not really like parties. I do not like the music that prevents conversation; or the dancing that makes me look like I am the daughter of an automated object. In fact, in many ways a massive party does not sound very good to me. Except that I think Jesus likes me, so I imagine He will throw a dinner to welcome me home. A dinner where I will not have to dance, but where there will be good food, laughter and great conversation.
One day this Jesus, the Jesus that likes me, will come for me, and gently ask me to dine with Him in heaven. And I will go because each of us must die. I will go because so many will be waiting for me to join them. I will go because Jesus wants me to be with Him; and I want to be with Him. I cannot escape death nor do I want to. I know that death will come to me regardless of my circumstances. My body is mortal: one day I will breathe my last gulp of air just as I inhaled the first.
Sometimes I do not accept death with such grace. I find myself angry about death quite a lot. I wonder why the young die, why the healthy die, why the ill hang on so long and why evil people thrive. I am angry with the pain I see in the residue of death. I experience anger when I fail to remember God is still in control even though my world is spinning, teetering … collapsing. I feel anger when I think my God is spiteful, when I think He is out to get me, when I forget the spiteful God is also Jesus who likes me. I feel angry when I forget that death is really just an invitation to a much better life: a life where there is no need for tears or tombstones or ambulance sirens.
But before I get to heaven I have to learn how to say goodbye to the people I thought would be laughing at my grandkids’ first stumbling steps. In the meantime I have to learn what to do when I drive around a corner and grief finds me. I haven’t always known what to do when grief sneaks up on me; now I cry, and sometimes, I get angry. I share stories about those I have loved who are now heavenly men and women. I laugh at the good times we shared. And I look at the stars: the stars God strung just to astonish us, the stars He named to reveal His bigness, His majesty and His sovereignty.
I look at the stars because they remind me who God is. They tell me He is not spiteful but awe-inspiring. I remember that He is both the man who wept for His friend and the God who breathes light out His mouth. The stars expose how big God is and how tiny I am. I consider the stars and remember that they only burn so brightly because they are dying. As each star burns out and shoots across the sky, I am reminded that in each death I grieve, there is beauty and mystery, if I only choose to see it.