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Last Saturday, almost 13 million of us tuned in to watch the funeral of Prince Philip taking place. Despite not being a “state funeral” it was a highly dignified and somber affair. But the thing I think a lot of us found most moving of all was the sight of the Queen, who was sat alone; remaining almost motionless with her head bowed in silence throughout.
For many people it was a sad reminder of the painful ways the covid-restrictions have isolated us from the people we love right when we need them the most.
After we lose someone we love, our whole world feels shaken and we’re thrown into what might be called a “restabilizing period”… we must now navigate our way through new decisions, new emotions, and new relationships as we grapple not just with a new normal but in some ways a whole new identity (you may have noticed, for example, how many times the Queen has already been referred to as a widow).
And in this new normal there will be many ‘firsts’ to experience; some come expected, but others are completely unanticipated:
- the first time mail or messages arrive for them from someone who hasn’t heard the news yet
- the first day back in work, or a routine we’d rested from
- the first time we go to text or call them, forgetting that we can’t do that anyone
- the first time we really smile or laugh and suddenly feel that twinge of guilt
- the first anniversary of their death
- the first time we forget a detail about them and feel even guiltier as we wrack our brains to find it
But of all the unexpected firsts, for some the first time we attend the funeral (in-person, or more likely, online at the moment) of another person can be very difficult indeed. For some of us right now, it may be the first time we’ve been able to back in church at all.
But on top of that there are things that we do in funeral services that we don’t do in the same way at any other time: there are words, hymns, pieces of music, more formal clothing that we usually reserve only for these moments. Funerals provide many of these trigger points that cause us to remember and relive our own loss. And so it is very natural for us, particularly when the grief is extremely raw, to attend the funeral of another person, but be deeply moved again by the emotions and memories we felt before.
And of course now we empathize, very deeply, with the grieving family – we don’t have to imagine what they are feeling, we can actually feel something of their loss in the resurfacing memories of our own pain.
The Lord protects the unwary; when I was brought low, He saved me.
Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.
I’ve been there myself, and recognise that it can lead us to feeling things we weren’t expecting like:
- Confusion – we didn’t expect this rush of emotions
- Disorientation – we struggle to regain control of our feelings
- Guilt – that might be feeling sad for the wrong reasons or bringing further upset to the grieving family
- Distant – the world has moved on and it feels like your relative and your loss have been forgotten
- Disappointment – we all like to think we are stronger than we actually are, and finding ourselves back in feelings we have sought to resolve can be bitterly difficult.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His faithful servants.
Now, all of this is not to say that people who are recently bereaved shouldn’t be invited to attend funerals, or that should decline if they are, but I just simply want to acknowledge that this is a reality – if you have felt like that, there is no need to feel strange about it, or guilty, or indeed, to feel alone.
After my Grandma died I gave the tribute on behalf of the family for Grandma’s funeral and then preached afterwards. I can honestly say it was an absolute honour to do so. But I must confess that leading the next funeral after that was a profoundly moving experience in a way I wasn’t prepared for.
The words somehow took on new meaning and felt heavier to say; the experience (perhaps inevitably but completely unexpectedly) was almost entirely reshaped by my own.
Under the surface, restablizing was taking place – all on it’s own, but in the process there was a revisiting of those memories and a reshaking of those emotions.
What I’ve now come to appreciate over the years, is that this is completely natural, and not just at the first funeral either.
The Long Goodbye
The truth is that, as helpful as funerals are in the grieving process, they are only one step of a much larger journey. We may have begun to say goodbye to our loved ones, but that can take a very long time indeed. The next funeral we attend we may need to prepare for by reflecting again on our own loss beforehand, planning an ‘escape route’ should be need to slip away quickly, and maybe even plan time to visit their final resting place afterwards.
For You, Lord, have delivered me from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
And as part of that goodbye, we can remember too that we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thess 4:13). As Christians we live in Ultimate Hope – hope not in something that might one day happen, but in the hope of something that has already happened:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits (or prototype!) of those who have fallen asleep.
1 CORINTHIANS 15.19-20
We declare every Easter Sunday Morning – Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah!
Sin and death are defeated. Love has conquered. Mercy has triumphed. Hope is alive. Christ is Risen, and we will rise with Him!
But, some of us too, have the pain of losing those who did not share our hope; people who call what we call faith, a fairytale. How do we process our loss in those circumstances? Where do we find hope in that grief?
This is a big question that I want to write more about in a future blog, but for now I want to point us to the cross, and the moment when the person on the cross next to Christ (the Dying Thief) suddenly turns to Jesus and sees something of who Jesus really is:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In an eleventh hour realisation, this dying, convicted and self-confessed criminal sees Jesus’ purity “We might deserve to die, but He doesn’t!” and sees Him as a King who Kingdom must lie somewhere beyond this world.
He didn’t have time to say what we call the “sinner’s prayer”, or to get baptised, to change his ways, to sign a confession of faith, or to do many of the usual things we would think of as necessary…
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
One simple last second request, and from Jesus’ own lips comes the promise of heaven.
There is much that I don’t understand, but I do know this:
- that as people begin to journey closer to the end of this life they begin to see things very differently
- that Jesus stands at the door of every hearts and knocks, patiently but persistently
- that, at the cross, Jesus has done everything necessary for our salvation – all that is required is a moment of turning to Him in faith
- that God has no desire that any should perish (2 Peter 3.9) or to make it difficult for anyone (Acts 15.19)
- that the Holy Spirit is the world’s greatest evangelist and as in loving pursuit of everyone (John 16.7-11)
I believe there are far more eleventh hour requests that we realise, more last minute moments of reaching out, of realisation and of falling happily at last into the waiting arms of our ever-waiting, ever-patient, ever-gracious Saviour.
On Easter Sunday evening, we had a evening of testimonies on zoom – and many of us were deeply touched by Allan’s Story of losing his father. If you missed that, his story and all those stories are now available on our youtube channel (click here for more) and I commend them to you.
In our ongoing struggle against covid, and our internal struggles with our own emotions, thank God for a Saviour who has defeated our greatest enemy!
“Where, O grave, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
1 CORINTHIANS 15.55-58
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