An Open Letter to Any Who Have Loved and Lost.
Dear Suffering Friend,
I wish there were words that could reverse the many tears you have shed. Experiencing loss of those we love is, I think, the worst pain a human can endure. The causes of loss are many—drugs, divorce, disease, death, and so many things that can come between us and the people we love, and the hopes we have.
We all grieve our particular loss differently, sometimes even declaring, “No one can understand what I’m going through.”
That’s true. No one can.
The person you lost (or are in the process of losing) is unique and unrepeatable. There’s no way to calculate their worth, no way to eulogize all their life really means, no way to preserve in memory the value of their soul or of their connection with you.
I write this letter, however, not just to comfort, but to instigate a rebellion in your heart. A rebellion against the very causes of the pain you now feel—a rebellion against grieving like those “who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV). This rebellion is founded on three things I know are absolutely true, and they give me hope in the midst of tears, frustrations, and unfulfilled longings.
- Love is what makes it hurt. As a foster parent, I’ve endured a strange form of loss that I didn’t expect to experience—the loss of children I love dearly, who are still alive, but who I can never see again. One moment they were hugging and playing with me as “Daddy,” and in the next (sometimes unexpected) moment, they had to pack their things and move away.
So much in me has wanted to rage against the not-always-justice system, or selfish parents, or whomever. Yet what I’ve come to realize is that the reason the process was hurting so much is because I was doing it right. I don’t mourn the loss of people I didn’t really love. For whatever reason, this has helped validate my pain—not take it away, of course, but infuse it with purpose.
If the person had to be taken from me, then I guess I’m glad it hurts, because that means the connection was real, and the love was profound. For that, I can give thanks.
- Sin is what makes it happen. All loss, ultimately, is tied to sin. It’s never “right” for a person to die, for a life to end, for a family to separate, for a love to be lost. Sometimes it must happen; or, given the complexities of our fallen world, it “should” happen.
It’s not even to say that any negative feeling in our lives is caused by our own sin (although we all carry it); but we can think more broadly and recognize that all sorrow, separation, and death are reverberating effects of evil. The pain I’m feeling makes me yearn for redemption, for rescue out of a broken world, for a new kind of life that doesn’t have to end.
Life wasn’t supposed to be this way, and in the end, it won’t be. This isn’t the end. For that, I can give thanks.
- God loves you, and He loves the person you lost. God gave Jesus to save us from sin and give us the opportunity to have eternal, abundant life. I believe His love for me is stronger than I can imagine, and His love for those I have lost is strong as well. Just because I can’t understand (at least in this moment) doesn’t mean I must. I wish I did.
But isn’t faith, after all, simply a choice to believe? It’s not about having every single answer to every possible question. And if I don’t choose to believe, then the hope of my pain ever making sense is gone. If I abandon God because I don’t know why, then I’m left to calculate an even more tragic, aimless conclusion about what any of this means.
God defines purpose, God gives life, and God offers everlasting love and life to temporary, loss-prone, limited-in-understanding creatures like me. For that, I can give thanks.
A Surprising, Bold Rebellion
It has been said that all bitterness is really against God—the One who allows to happen whatever happens. Now, I’ve never subscribed to the idea that God causes evil, and when people suggest that to me in moments of my own loss, I do have to hold my tongue. (It profoundly bothers me when people misrepresent God so egregiously, or when they flippantly suggest some divine silver lining around the thunderclouds of my suffering.)
But I do recognize that God allows evil things to happen, and while He can intervene with miracles, He usually doesn’t. Should I be bitter about that? Should I get angry? I know I felt those things when my wife and I heard news from our doctor that a young life was about to miscarry. Or when I heard that my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer.
On both extremes of life’s timeline, loss. You’ve felt it too, in your own way. Is there a choice available other than bitterness?
Staring at the ultrasound machine and seeing a tiny heartbeat, only projected to live a few more days, made me realize something about life’s value. Whether life spans a few weeks or many decades, every heartbeat matters. I would rather see that little heart beat some than none at all. And the love I could share with that little person for a fleeting moment had value. Could I give thanks for that? I must!
Gratefulness is the opposite of bitterness, I’ve found. Giving thanks is a rebellion against pain.
The Bible says we must “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Along the way, I guess that verse has offended me … because it seemed like moments of real loss just shouldn’t fit into it. And yet, there it is. Eternal wisdom from God in one sentence. In all the things that happen (the highs, the lows, and everything in between), I need to choose to give thanks.
It doesn’t say “feel thankful about how it happens” or “sing out your thanks with a fake smile on your face.” It says give thanks. Gratefulness is something we can bring to the table, something we can offer into what otherwise could be a distressing, depressing, debilitating circumstance. It’s light in a dark place.
And even better? It’s something your pain can’t control. Thanksgiving really is like a fist of rebellion we can throw up into the air against evil and death—by faith. Faith that even in moments of breathtaking loss and ever-flowing tears, there is purpose. There is love. There is value worth celebrating in what was and in what will be. There is tomorrow. There is God.
PS: Some of the most helpful teaching I’ve ever heard on this subject is from my friend Steve Canfield, a revivalist with us here at Life Action. You can listen to his talk here: The Hurt Life
Dan serves on the Life Action Leadership Team and is Managing Editor for Revive magazine. You can follow his work at danjarvis.us.