“Therefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:18 (NKJV)
The Thessalonian Christians were anxious about those among their number who had died, and yet Jesus had not yet returned. Would their loved ones miss the resurrection from the dead? Did gospel hope extend beyond the grave as we wait for the end of all things? Their friend Paul wrote to remind them that “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” He went on to share his understanding of how the end would come and the place of those “who sleep.” “Therefore comfort one another with these words,” he concluded.
My mother died Sunday, January 17. The photo in the header was taken Sunday, January 10. She had returned home after the worship service in the chapel at her retirement community. The following Wednesday she was taken to the hospital with pneumonia. Her weak heart was not strong enough to fight the battle she faced, and she died four days later.
We knew her heart was weak and weakening, but were not thinking that death was lurking so close. Maybe we would describe it as a not unexpected but sudden death.
Conventional wisdom says that grief is a process, and so it is. I will grieve my mother’s death for a long time, and the journey will take me to places I can safely anticipate today and others I cannot begin to imagine.
For sure, I am not done grieving, but I have been greatly comforted these past two weeks.
I have been comforted by Scripture. On Saturday, the day before my mother died and we knew she was dying, one of the Psalms in the Daily Office was 116. Verse 15 spoke to me, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Calvin’s commentary was helpful, “God does not hold his servants in so little estimation as to expose them to death casually. We may indeed for a time be subjected to all the vicissitudes of fortune and of the world; we will nevertheless always have this consolation, that God will, eventually, openly manifest how dear our souls are to him. In these times…let us hold fast by this doctrine, that the death of the faithful, which is so worthless, nay, even ignominious in the sight of men, is so valuable in God’s sight, that, even after their death, he stretches out his hand towards them…”
God was not unaware of what was happening in that hospital room in California. Indeed, even then, he was stretching out his hand towards my mother.
I have been comforted by hymns and spiritual songs. By Sunday morning word had come that my mother’s death appeared to be but hours away. Text messages from my brother and sister who were in the hospital room arrived even as we worshiped. Our opening hymn at LPC that day Mom died was “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” In it Isaac Watts writes of the God whose power “made the mountains rise, spread the flowing seas abroad, and built the lofty skies.” Tears filled my eyes as I thought of my mother whose love of the creation and the Creator was always a part of her life. The third verse was a word of comfort that day:
There’s not a plant or flower below
but makes your glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from your throne;
while all that borrows life from you
is ever in your care,
and everywhere that we can be,
you, God, are present there.
Even as her borrowed life ebbed away, my mother was ever in God’s care. My brother wrote to say that Judy Collins’ classic Acapella version of Amazing Grace was playing as my mother took her final breath.
Our closing hymn that day was “It Is Well With My Soul.” It was well with my soul – and with my mother’s soul. (We sang the hymn again on Tuesday at the Presbytery meeting at LPC – you can listen to a recording of the voices of the presbytery here. We also sang “In Christ Alone” – “Till He returns or calls me home; here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.” Listen to it here. Thank you, Marcos Ortega.)
I have been comforted by family. My siblings are geographically far-flung, and busy lives and different interests and old memories sometimes conspire to keep us apart. But as Saturday stretched into Sunday, I wanted nothing more than to be there with my brother and sister who were keeping watch at my mother’s bedside. We gathered six days later, three generations, at least someone from each of the siblings’ families. We told stories and gathered for a memorial service. It was good to be together, those of us who shared this mother and grandmother and great-grandmother.
I have been comforted by friends. Friends from my mother’s life told us stories and offered comfort the day of the memorial service. Over and over again we heard of our mother’s joy in living, her hope and her love of beauty. These things were true of her, and no one said otherwise. I have also been comforted by the friends in my life – friends from forty years ago or more who surprised us by driving three hours to the service; friends from all the stops we have made along the way; especially LPC friends whose kind words and cards, lots of cards, are so encouraging.
I have been comforted by the Gospel. We do not grieve as those who have no hope. “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” the Heidelberg Catechism asks. “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…” we answer.
Each person’s journey through grief is his or her own. No two are exactly that same. The God of all comfort comforts us in our sorrow as he chooses. So far for me comfort has come through Scripture, worship, family, and friends. It has been through the Gospel. It has been through the Good News of one who, even in death, stretches out his hand to us; who teaches us to say, “It is well with my soul;” who reminds us of the grace of life and of family and of friends; who assures us that we belong body and soul, in life and in death, not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior.