Written by Mike Gordon
Just before Christmas, I officiated two funeral services. Both families used similar words to describe how they were feeling after their loved ones passed away.
“We knew this day would come, but nothing prepared us for it.”
Death is a weird thing. We turn on the news and see how many people are dying each day from COVID-19, conflicts, or natural disasters in other parts of the world. We can become used to hearing about death.
When we read about the death tolls or see the online reports, they make us pause for a second, but then we often just move onto the next article or video like it never even happened.
However, when death hits closer to home, I don’t think many of us know how we’ll respond to it beforehand. And many of us don’t know how to move on.
When I was in Grade 10, my great aunt died. She was the first person I really knew who passed away. Although I wasn’t that close to her, she still gave me $50 every birthday and Christmas, so she was going to be sincerely missed.
Her funeral was the first one I’d ever been to. My family had wondered if they should bring me because I was too wild and immature. I think they had a legit fear I was going to do something embarrassing.
However, my response was the exact opposite. Being face to face with death for the first time shook me.
I’d experienced death from a distance, but dealing with it up close was completely different.
When we look at the Bible, death is mentioned for the first time in Genesis 2:17. There, God said to Adam and Eve, “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
When we read that verse now, we can skim over it, because we are so used to the concept of death. But the idea was completely new to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 4, Cain hovers over Abel—a human seeing death face to face for the first time.
Setting aside the fact he murdered his brother, I bet Cain wasn’t prepared for the emotions he endured after that moment any more than we are.
So, how do we prepare for someone dying? And how can we walk with others when they are face to face with this reality?
In the Gospels, there are several stories of people turning to Jesus when a loved one dies. He was surrounded by death and people who were grieving it.
I believe there are a few things we can take from Jesus’s life to help us walk alongside others who are dealing with death.
Let them feel it
I don’t think people know how they are supposed to feel when they hear the news that someone has died, or when they arrive at a funeral service. In North America, we don’t process our emotions well in these moments, and sometimes we don’t process them at all.
Some cultures express every emotion they have when someone dies. Other cultures hire moirologists—actors who would help set the tone so family and friends can grieve and process their emotions.
Weirdly, what happens at North American funerals is almost the opposite. When someone chokes up for two seconds, they usually apologize and try to compose themselves.
When Lazarus died and Jesus wept in front of his sisters and friends, I wonder if He was trying to help them feel their grief. I mean, He knew Lazarus would be walking around minutes later, but I think His tears were to help Mary, Martha, and their friends process their emotions.
When others are grieving, I think we need to remind them they have permission to feel however they’re feeling, and it’s okay to mourn.
Don’t pretend to understand it
When people look to leaders in times of loss, they expect those leaders to know what to do. They hope they’ll know how to respond and have all the answers. But I think it’s okay that we don’t understand how they feel, what happened, or why God allowed it.
Leaders often feel pressured to give comforting words or say the right things to make people feel better. Sometimes, we feel compelled to try to explain these situations, but I think that’s the worst thing we can do.
Imagine if Jesus told Jairus, “Your daughter wouldn’t have died if she just drank her milk and took her vitamins.” I know that sounds like a stupid response, but you would be shocked if I shared what I have heard others say in these moments. We do not need to fill the emptiness of grief with empty words.
Sorrow hits everyone differently, and we do not need to understand or attempt to formulate answers. Just being present will help more than we think.
Pray for peace
Over time, I’ve learned I don’t know what to say when I’m at a funeral or meeting with those left behind. Instead, I’ve begun praying for peace while I’m with them.
People have many questions for God after someone dies. They may not understand His timing or may be unsure about the idea of salvation. So, I pray they can have peace with God.
I pray they will have peace with themselves because it’s too easy to be full of regrets. We convince ourselves we should have seen them one last time, or we should have said we loved them more often.
I find the more people can have peace with God and themselves, the better they can deal with the hardship of death.
We’re all going to be face to face with death at some point—if we haven’t faced it already. And when those around you face death, I encourage you to extend yourself to them. My hope is we can comfort others in their troubles with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
We do not need to fill the gaps in our understanding with small answers about suffering and death. Instead, we can look to Jesus, who lived amid our death and decay.
We serve a God who understands our pain, and who offers us peace. We must wait to see our hope fulfilled, but He has promised there will one day be an end to death.