Q: “How have you dealt with the grief in your life?”
A: In January 2013, I begged God for some peace and quiet in my life. It started with small requests: “Can I just have a few hours alone, Lord? No, I think I really need a full day. What about a week? Think of how I could better serve you, God, if I just had a week of peace and quiet.”
Life hurried me from family and church responsibilities to my own ambition to become a better writer, a better seamstress, and a better wife and mom. I felt overloaded all the time.
Unbeknownst to me, God was already planning my peace. My children left for Covenant College, and my husband, Jim, began to plan for my retirement from nursing. But what he was not planning for was October 1, 2013. That day, my beloved Jim died.
The first two weeks I had a relentless parade of comforters—some with plants and others with casseroles. My mailbox exploded with sympathy cards, notes, and letters. Then my children returned to college, and everybody else returned to their lives. The silence that first Saturday morning was deafening. Neither the TV nor the radio could drown it out. A painful quiet invaded my soul and overstayed its welcome. Instead of offering refreshment, it drained me of energy.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “Suffering [is] having what you don’t want and wanting what you don’t have . . .”1 She should know, she buried two husbands before her death in 2015.
I’ve been a widow now for almost seven years, and I’ve learned every woman’s battle with grief is unique. Someone we love seems to have vanished, no matter how much advanced warning we have received. I’ve come to call mine a painful quiet. So how do you cope with this unwelcome companion who exchanged places with your loved one?
Go to God, Even If You Don’t Want To
God let you down, didn’t He? That prayer in faith begging Him to heal your husband, didn’t He hear it? Yet your loved one still died. Didn’t God know how badly the world needed that person, warts and all?
My husband battled cancer as a teenager and made Psalm 91:16 his life verse:
With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.
Jim’s primary aim was to honor the Lord. Yet, he died at fifty-four. It seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it?
God didn’t fail in His promise; I failed in understanding. Matthew Henry writes that this verse means to live long enough:
[They] shall be continued in this world till they have done the work they were sent into this world for and are ready for heaven, and that is long enough. . . . God by his grace shall wean them from the world and make them willing to leave it. A man may die young, yet die full of days. . . .2
It’s still hard, but this insight settled my heart. Jim’s work was done, and mine is not. God still has plans to use me, even as a widow.
Find a Remedy for Your Pain in God’s Presence
God already knows all about our doubts. He’s not intimidated or even offended by them. Have you ever picked up a child after he fell and scraped his leg? Perhaps initially he fought you, pushed you away, and even blamed you. What did you do? Likely you wrapped your arms even tighter around him until his sobs subsided with a heavy sigh of relief. Our heavenly Father is waiting even more earnestly to hold you and your empty arms. But it’s hard, isn’t it?
Your time with the Lord may need to look a little different right now, but keep doing all you can to be in His presence. There is no other remedy but Him. For a long time after Jim died, I struggled to pray. I still came before the Lord and sat silently in His presence. I used an app to hear my Bible plan read to me out loud. Listening to God’s Word calmed my chaotic heart.
Look at God’s Word through a New Lens
Sadly, we often view Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”—as a phrase we might see on a cheesy meme, so we fail to recognize what it truly is, a desperate cry for God’s help. Remember, the same Paul who boasts here that he can do all things through Christ is the same one who begged God to remove a thorn in his flesh. God reminded Paul of something I plastered on my bedroom wall the day Jim died: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses . . . so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). This truth reminded me to get out of bed. To make the bed. Get dressed. Get going. It will enable you to raise your head and look up.
You know what irony is? As I sat before the Lord with Psalm 91 open, with my misunderstandings of it, shaking my fist at God, He gave me understanding, not only of the last verses, but of the entire psalm.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. (Ps. 91:1)
God is inviting you to sit at His feet and be in His presence. Verse 4 speaks of Him covering you with His wings, much as a mother bird would her chicks, and that His faithfulness is a shield and buckler. God can be both the tender comfort you crave and the fierce warrior of protection you need. Only He can get you through this. Only He will continue to care for you and your aching heart, even as days roll into months and years.
We also cannot think of Psalm 91 rightly without thinking of Christ. The promises of protection in this passage were ultimately for Him, until He had completed the work God had for Him to do. He suffered, cruelly, to put an end to sin and death. God didn’t stay His hand when His Son was crucified. Because of this, we can say by faith, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
Joni Eareckson Tada grieved the loss of what could have been when she broke her neck in a diving accident at seventeen. For years she battled depression and suicidal thoughts. Her prayers were part of her journey out of that sorrow: “God help me see things in your Word I haven’t understood before,” and “If I cannot die, show me how to live.”
May that be the heart cry of all of us who grieve, “Help me see you, Lord, and show me how to live.”
1 Elisabeth Elliot, Suffering Is Never for Nothing (Nashville: B&H, 2019), 9.
2 Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. III, https://ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc3/mhc3.Ps.xcii.html.