On Sunday evening we had a very moving service in church. It was primarily for Chesham people who are grieving the loss of someone they love. Once a year, we put on this service and invite the families we’ve got to know through the many funerals that we are privileged to be part of each year.
There is always a lot of courage in the room, but of course vulnerability too. And a new strength from the realisation that LOTS of people are trying to deal with grief – sometimes we think it’s only us.
I shared this wonderful piece written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published after his execution in 1945, but part of the papers and letters that he was able to smuggle out of prison before he was hung for being, in Nazi eyes, a traitor.
Separation from those we love
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love,
And it would be wrong to try to find a substitute:
We must simply hold on and see it through.
That sounds very hard at first,
but at the same time it is a great consolation,
For the gap, as long as it remains unfilled,
Preserves the bonds between us.
It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap:
He doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary,
He keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive
our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
The dearer and richer our memories,
The more difficult the separation.
But gratitude transforms the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.
The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh,
But as a precious gift in themselves.
We must take care not to wallow in our memories
Or hand ourselves over to them,
Just as we do not gaze all the time at a valuable present,
But only at special times and apart from these keep it
Simply as a hidden treasure that is ours for certain.
In this way the past gives way to lasting joy and strength.
This is so full of pastoral understanding and good sense. How tempting to fill the gap with busyness, or dull it with alchohol or flood it with self-pity! We tried, within the service itself, to acknowledge this gap – as painful as the amputated limb that keeps on hurting weeks and months after it has been cut away.
It was a new and important thought for me – that the gap left by a loved one could be the very place where our love for them survives.
And Bonhoeffer is helpful because he tells us about the road of grief, and where it might lead. It can be, in God’s grace, the way from pangs of memory to a tranquil joy. It won’t be quick or easy – how could it be? But one of the things that will sustain us is gratitude. So when we are hit by an unexpected memory, or an old photo drops out of a book, or a smell takes us back to some sweet, forgotten memory, it will of course first be a pang – a pain – a loss. But if we move from pang to gratitude – for that love, for that person, to the God who loves us – so we leave the gap empty but know the beginnings of a more tranquil joy.