Processing Grief: Making Sense of Funerals & Weddings

Among pastors a well-known maxim exists that funerals are better than weddings. While weddings can be destroyed by bridezillas and can be dissolved quicker than they can be planned, funerals universally succeed in their mission. No one pops out of the ground two years later, declaring that they never truly were in love with that piece of ground or that they found death to be a rather antiquated idea derived from one’s patriarchal forefathers. The above maxim transcends denominations for it rest upon the certitude and the inescapable finality of death. But for all its common sense, the maxim fundamentally fails to account for one basic reality of death: those saints left behind have every reason to envy those who have gone before.

Marriage, Singleness, and All That

I have never stood up for the bridal march and thought, “I wish I were the groom.” Sure, I rummage through the rhetorical questions that everyone asks such as, “Him and her…how; she’s seen his dumbo ears, right; and surely, he knows about the doll collection?” But, I never once wanted their relationship or their wedding.

Once while at a ‘seminary’ wedding, I had the good fortune of being seated next to two other former boyfriends of the bride. Seemingly, we all earned our invitation through having sacrificially feed and entertained the bride-to-be in the months leading up to her relationship with her soon-to-be husband. Though we collectively spent that wonderfully awkward afternoon mulling about as the seminary version of the lost boys, none of us objected to the marriage. None of us shared her desire to ‘redeem’ October 31 through a Christian marriage service. (Again, score one for the seminary bubble). But thankfully, the bride had found a man who did and rightfully became one with him.

And the three of us? We were all the better for their decision. You see, the glories of marriage depend upon the object of that marriage just as much as they do upon the institution itself.

Over the next few years, that conclusion became solidified in my mind as I watched poor marriages sideline men from ministry and women from the mission field. Few things prove more damming and destructive to one’s life than marrying poorly. In other words, what do those who trade their whole life for honeymoon sex or a ticket out of mom and dad’s house get in return for their sacrifice? Not much. As wise king Solomon noted a few thousand years ago, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house share with a quarrelsome wife (Pr. 21:9).”

Still the thought of being single and thirty seemed rather depressing to my very, single and aging twenty-something self at that time. In addition to adopting some very sad dating strategies, I also decided I would head off to the jungles of the pacific if I reached thirty with no wedding ring. In my mind, the solution to the loneliness of singleness was to maximize the usefulness of that singleness. As the missionary and martyr, Jim Elliot, famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Why not hold my single life loosely and give all for Christ or die trying? In one sense, that sentiment was a jest. But in another sense perhaps, it was more real than most realized.

Thankfully, I never reached that moment of decision as I encountered the glorious and very purplely April Gentry at the seasoned age of 27. I got that ring and a marriage far more wonderful than I could have ever imagined with more than 22 months to spare. God was kind.

But with the passing of my dearest love, the thought of seeking an opportunity where I might once again give all for Christ has become more appealing. My soul resonates with the idea of being a chaplain in the killing fields of Ukraine or of working discreetly in Afghanistan to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why not risk it all for God?

Of Puritans and Dying

The Puritan writers of old spoke of death as being a harbor from the of storms life…a kind of Ellis Island like portal to heaven. Indeed, those who have trusted in Christ at death get to leave their ships riddled with temptations and infected with the lust of the flesh. At death, the Christian exchanges all that misery to gain residence next to Jesus for eternity. As Thomas Watson noted, “Death…takes away a flower and gives a jewel.”

And what of you and me? We remain in the storm, bracing for the next wave of trials and temptations that is sure to come crashing over us. The choppy seas of sorrow churn without end.

While I would never swap places with any other soon-to-be husband no matter the bride’s looks, bank account, or character, I would eagerly trade places with any saint now at my Lord’s side no matter how impoverished their faith was in this life. The glory of heaven has one object, Jesus Christ. In other words, death contains a universal object while marriage has many ends. Thus, we have every reason to be envious of the dead for our path to heaven proves to be the same as there’s. To quote John Flavel, “[We] are yet rolling and tossing upon the tempestuous sea, but your friend is gone into the quiet of the harbor; desire rather to be there than that [she] were at sea with you again (71).” Oh, to be in the harbor with my late wife.

What Now?

Though I long for heaven, I suspect I still have a good many days left. I won’t be running off to the wilds anytime soon. The Father has lovingly anchored my life in the sholes of normalcy next to my three precious children and my loving church family. Said another way, my life will not be shaped through the extraordinary storms of bullets and bombs but through the ordinary storms of less-than-stellar family meals and full laundry hampers. I also suspect this route to be the harder of the two since my imagination projects the battlefield as being the path of least resistance. But alas, here I am.

Still, I concur with Thomas Brooks who said, “all the strange, dark, deep, and changeable providences that believers meet with shall further them in their way to heaven, in their journey to happiness.” While to die is gain, to live is Christ. I very much believe that new joys will continue to accumulate. New loves will come. To quote King Solomon again, “There is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecc 3:4).” And just as God guided David when he fought Goliath, I know he will walk with me as I make a mess of my girls’ hair for umptieth time in our quest for a new normal. My battle is the Lord’s just as much as was David’s. His steadfast love will guide me. Hope remains.

But the realities of the storm will also continue. New waves of grief, temptation, and sorrow will come. Funerals will still find me out. And when they do, I suspect I will once again leave envious of the saint in the coffin before me. Indeed, the end of the thing is better than the beginning (Ecc. 7:2; 8).

A Sign, Grief, & Prayers for the Future

The disruption of grief ebbs and flows as a tide freed from the predictable confinements of the moon’s rationality. And with each sweeping set of sorrows comes new decisions. Some being codified by our legal system float above the waters. Others jump out at us from under the dark waves without warning. It is the later that prove most difficult because they defy anticipation. For example, the innocent blue and white wood sign hanging above my fireplace that my late wife painted a few years back recently became unavoidable point of tension in my heart. I could not get over the phrase, “Established 2012.”

In one sense, it was the most basic of truths. Twenty-twelve was the year in which I asked my dear wife out for the first time, popped the question with a princess cut diamond ring, and then said, “I do” before a hundred or so witnesses. But 2012 was more than that. It was the year my soul was knit to hers to an eternal love forged in the fires of faith and trust. And it was that love that I rested in time and time again in the years that followed.

Many know of the sorrows that April and I endured when we buried our first-born son. A few others knew that we suffered a miscarriage between the births of our second and third child, another pain that scarred our hearts. But no one knew of the almost suffocating isolation of ministry that enveloped our souls at times. Though we thought about sharing the depths of our sorrows, divine prudence dictated that we do otherwise. There were no public dialogues, FB posts, or blogs. Only the two of us and the Lord knew the full extent of those days. But as we debated how to best apply theology to this and that situation, memorized Scripture, read ferociously, and lifted our concerns to the Lord, sweet blessings arrived. Our love for Christ and for one another become ever more fixed and more glorious. Oh how we both delighted in those long weekends spent eating Mexican food in Dublin, shopping in Warner Robins for a deal that would align with our simple budget, and walking the few historical sites of note that dotted the middle Georgia landscape. Even in the worst of days, I knew I could pour out my soul to her with all its faults for she loved me as she had been loved by Christ. Indeed, many a bitter day followed 2nd Peter’s death, the miscarriage, and those times of intense isolation. But her love was always sweet, charitable, and unfailing. Hope was always close by. Even in the worst of days, I was the most blessed of men.

When we arrived in Virginia, we came to start anew and to live our lives without the secrecy that had defined our past and that of so many other pastors. As her cancer descended upon her with unprecedented speed, we both embraced the public nature of the moment, seeing our suffering as an opportunity to live out our theology…to do what we had always longed to do…to cast a vision for what could be. But then that which was perishable was transformed into that which is imperishable. What had begun in 2012 ended in 2022. And now that sign…

Though my blessed April exchanged mortality for immortality, the secret memories and sorrows of times past have not disappeared. Rather, they have shifted in-whole to my shoulders. My heart has ached under their pressure of late. As I succumbed again to the waves of grief, those old muscle memories from years ago took over, and I looked afresh for the profound solace derived for my wife’s faith. But I found only the profound emptiness and sorrow that comes with losing one’s soulmate.

But with the tears came clarity. I now know that while a modified version of our vision for what could be still belongs in my heart, those recollections of sorrow need to be carefully stored in the depths of my heart away from the light of the present. I need to cast them fully upon the Lord, trusting myself to his care. In other words, those memories are my past – a past that both profoundly and positively shaped who I am both in an out of the pulpit – but alas, still my past. For better or worse, my kids know little to nothing of our experiences from those years. My family as it exists today did not begin in 2012 but in the tragically late hours of June 25, 2022.

In other words, God has ordained that I begin anew and that my kids begin anew as a family of four. The burdens of yester-year are to be laid aside. However much I mourn this transition and fought to prevent its arrival, I can no longer maintain perfect continuity with my past. Our shared experiences are no longer the essence of who I am. That chapter of my life is now complete. A new chapter awaits.

And so as the waves once again begin to recede, I join my sweet children in beseeching the Lord to bless our family with the woman that would necessitate one more beginning. Waves of sorrow and glimpses of hope; of love lost and loves to come. May God be merciful.

And the sign? It came down.  

From Grief to Hope and a Lifting Fog

As the soft rain struck the ground atop my late wife’s grave with the relaxing rhythm of summer tranquility, a rather clarifying if not somewhat cruel thought snuck into the recesses of my brain. April’s closest earthly friends were now those grimy little worms wiggling about that damp Virginia soil. We who once were one in the most glorious and wonderful of ways were now forever separated by time and space until such measurements are no more. She under me, and I under her.

But instead of allowing the dark clouds hovering above her grave to stain my face afresh with tears, I just gazed out at the cemetery and sighed…a deep abiding sigh. I miss her deeply. But at that moment, I could not conjure up the wailing that had defined the first 6+ weeks that followed April’s death.

During those first 40 days or so, I cried and cried profusely. Everything from the pictures in my office to the pillows on my bed shattered the composure of my soul. I hated family meals. Instead of being able to share my day with my purplely person, I had to banish my thoughts to the confusing realm of inner dialogue while my kids bantered about the finer points of steam locomotives and the proper way to eat ketchup. Grief even accompanied the sweet joys of ministry. Those moments indirectly highlighted the wretched truth that my spiritual helper and greatest source of earthly wisdom was gone. As Lacey told me when she presented me with a new portrait complete with tears, “Daddy, you cry a lot.”

Being the planner and muddled visionary that I am, I attempted to estimate the ebb and flow of my grief almost from the moment April died. Though I now know such an enterprise is doomed to fail, I could not help myself. I predicted then that the dark misty cloud of sorrow that swept over my soul the morning after April’s death would remain over my heart at least into the early months of 2023.  

But shortly after the 6-week mark while driving home, that dark wet flog unexpectedly lifted. The hope of God blew afresh into my soul through the ordinary means of Christian fellowship, scripture memory, and prayer. That afternoon, I suddenly and inexplicably felt the goodness of God afresh for the first time in months. As Psalm 42 says, I could, “again praise you. My salvation and my God.” He was no longer a painful mystery to question but a loving Father to trust. On that Tuesday afternoon, I had tasted the goodness of God. That following Wednesday proved to be the first day without tears.  When Thursday arrived, I just sighed.

I do not believe that week represented the end of my grief, but rather the unpredictable changing nature of my sorrow. The external tears of those first weeks have seeped into the depths of my soul and formed a never-ending stream of loss. At times and without warning, it will still rush to the surface of my consciousness. The last few days have been particularly brutal. In years past, I never minded getting older but celebrating my 38th birthday as a single dad with three kids proved to be a vicious reminder of why death is so evil. I have lost a lifetime of goodness. The tears still come. I suspect they will continue to flow until I am reunited with my dear April in heaven which dries up all tears and sorrow. In other words, grief will undoubtedly always be my companion in some form. She cannot be buried. She cannot be escaped this side of heaven.

But, I also learned a few weeks back that grief has no right to banish hope. Rather, the two emotions work in tandem. We see this in the grand scheme of the Christian gospel. The grief of sin leads to the joy of faith and holiness. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted (Matt 5:4).”

The same proves true for this widower. When I come across our wedding photos, I cannot help but stop and appreciate the goodness of God represented in those mementos of love, joy, and happiness. October 20, 2012 was a good, good day. The loss of that goodness rightfully leads to tears. But, I must not remain forever in the sadness of that grief. No amount of tears spilled (not even a years’ worth) nor of time traversed can heal the heart. But hope founded upon the character of our God who promises to bottle our tears can.

When resting with Him, I am reminded that the blessings of time past do not represent the limits of God’s love but rather his great ability to bless me afresh. His love for me did not end when April died. In other words, the grief of today increasingly fills me with hope for tomorrow. I have come to understand that April’s story which so gloriously shaped my story points to the reality that Jesus is still working in my life for my good today. As the Psalmist reminds us, “By day the Lord commands he steadfast love and at night his song is with me (Ps 42:8).” In other words, the sorrows for what has been increasingly give me hope for what could be – albeit in a new and varied form. Grief must accompany my soul but hope also proves to be an equally close friend. She too will never be buried. And so…as I walk into tomorrow…I embrace the sorrow of today trusting that its end will be joy. May God be merciful.