Grieving Through Tragedy

11 09 2017

Today is the 16th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At Troy United Methodist Church, where I am the senior pastor, we have been in a message called Good Grief where our goal has been to learn how to grieve with hope. One of the hardest circumstances to grieve with hope is when tragedy strikes. By all means, 9/11 was a great tragedy, but there are others. Cancer. Stillbirth. Suicide. Natural Disasters. Car accidents. Death – particularly the unexpected death of someone far short of a long-life led. Tragedy strikes someone, somewhere, every minute of every day. We spend most of our lives simply hoping and praying that tragedy will not strike too close to those we love. So when it does, I’ve found that most of us are completely unprepared for how to navigate through the waters of the intense grief that follows.

The completely unexpected nature of tragedy is what makes it so difficult. Especially when that tragedy ends in death. And because of that, a unique set of challenges to the grief process arise:

  • You’ve had very little or in some cases NO time to prepare your heart for the loss – if a loss is expected, you have time to start grieving before the loss. Not so with tragedies…
  • Because you haven’t prepared, oftentimes you have no opportunities to say goodbye to a loved one – no time to make amends or ask forgiveness for dumb things you’ve said or done which at this point seem so trivial. You have no time to adequately express the love you have for the one you’ve lost. So much is left unresolved. Like stopping a song in mid-chorus, it longs for completion. Tragedy leaves unfinished business.
  • Because of this, there is often a long period of shock and denial – a complete sense of unreality as your mind and body try to come to terms with the truth.
  • One of the most difficult parts of tragedies are what I call the “What ifs” – What if I didn’t cause him to be late he wouldn’t have been speeding to work? What if I just wouldn’t have complained that she didn’t make more money or put so much pressure on her? What if I didn’t let him go to the party? What if I said this instead of that, would she have made a different choice? The “What ifs” can drive you crazy – literally. They are our way of expressing our own guilt over the tragedy making us question if we could have done something different to prevent the loss. But it’s an effort in futility because nobody will ever know for sure.
  • Tragedy also often involves violence, accidents, mutilation, destruction and killing. This can stir in us horrible images as our imaginations run wild – we replay the scene in our minds over and over and over again even if we weren’t present. This makes the grief more prolonged, disturbing and in need of healing.
  • For many people unexpected tragedies cause major life interruptions where logistical issues need to be dealt with – life insurance, medical examiners, estates, legal authorities, funerals – things that just need to be dealt with causing a delay in our grief.
  • For others, tragedy leaves the survivor in an utter sense of helplessness. Nothing reminds us better than tragedy that we’re absolutely NOT IN CONTROL. And sometimes that can send you into a tailspin rendering you paralyzed to deal with everyday life.
  • But one of the main challenges to Good Grief in the midst of tragedy is the instinctual need to blame someone for what happened. We want things to make sense. We feel like if we just get to the bottom of “things” we’ll find enough of an explanation to satisfy us. But it’s not true. The basis of “things” is not rational, but tragic! So when you enter the domain of suffering and sorrow you find that reason and logic have their limits.
  • But we’ll persist. And oftentimes, when we can’t find anyone to blame or gain enough satisfaction in assigning blame to someone with flesh and blood – we’ll turn our attack on the only available target left. God. Anger at God is not uncommon in the midst of tragedy.

A side note about being angry at God. I don’t believe it’s necessarily a bad thing to express your anger toward God or complain to God about the loss you’ve experienced. In fact, I see it modeled over and over and over again in the Scriptures. The book of Psalms are filled with complaints about God’s action or inaction. Read Psalm 44 sometime if you don’t believe me. Here are some excerpts:

O God, we give glory to you all day long
And constantly praise your name.
But now you have tossed us aside in dishonor
You no longer lead our armies to battle…

Our hearts have not deserted you.
We have not strayed from your path.
Yet you have crushed us in the jackal’s desert home.
You have covered us with darkness and death…

Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Get up! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you look the other way?
Why do you ignore our suffering and oppression?
(Psalm 44: 8-9, 18-19, 23-24)

I believe there is biblical precedent for being angry at God and expressing our anger toward God for what is happening or not happening. But unless our anger at God is followed by ultimate trust in God’s unfailing love, then our anger will not be a helpful part of Good Grief. Even the Psalms of lament and complaint incorporate some element of trust in God in the midst of anger and doubting and questioning.

You see in the end, I believe the Bible teaches us that although expressing anger toward God is an acceptable part of the journey of good grief, ultimately, anger toward God is misdirected anger. God is not the problem when tragedy strikes. In fact, I believe God is the only solution! Because in the midst of tragedy, God gets angry too. Want to know more? This will be the focus of my message, When Tragedy Strikes, Sunday, September 17th. I hope you can make it, or watch the video on our website that day after 11am.




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