When we lost our first child to miscarriage I was stunned. It was never something that I considered to even be in the realm of possibility. I remember just sitting there, watching as my wife wept, not knowing what to do or feel. Death had been just a theory and grief was a total stranger to me. By the time we buried our son (our fifth and only late term miscarriage), grief had become more like a winter rain; it was now in my bones.
It begin with what was supposed to be a romantic get away for just the two of us but, instead of romance it had this strange weight of dread over it. We didn’t know why until we returned home to discover that our unborn sons heart had stopped beating. Very quickly we found ourselves in the emergency room wrestling with the doctors recommendation that the baby be removed. I remember pleading with him to check for a heartbeat one more time, something he was adamant we need not do. But, we had been praying for a miracle and I needed to be sure. After one last confirmation that he had in fact died, my wife gave birth to what looked to be a perfect little boy, but one with no life.
His name was Silas.
I spent that night alone with my son. My heart was struggling to make sense of things and kept repeating the phrase, “I have a son and he is dead.” Over and over, hoping that by chewing over the words they would somehow become easier to swallow. The funeral was a simple grave side service on a cold and wet day in November. It was small and intimate with only close friends and family present. Our pastor lovingly lead us through the Scriptures and a friend washed us with a hymn rich in Gospel truth as we wept.
Sorrow in a cold and wet November.
Each year as Halloween arrives so does that same weather, and with that weather comes the memories and with the memories comes the sorrow. November for me, is for grieving.
It’s the little memories; his little hands, the little handmade casket and the little hole in the ground to match. It’s also the big questions. Would I have been a good father to a son? What would he have been like? What would he look like? This question gets me more than most as there is nothing I love more than watching my kids. I just want to see what he looks like. As I write this, tomorrow is the due date for the birth of my fifth daughter. I cant begin to express how excited I am to see her, hold her, and kiss her. I love to see and enjoy each of my girls’ unique qualities and characteristics. I watch them constantly because for me, seeing them is truly my life’s great honour and pleasure.
I would just love to see him too.
The journey of grief is not one that Canada does well. No offence but, I find our culture very ill equipped to handle the depth of pain that comes with human life and loss. As we journeyed through the grief of all of these deaths we experienced varying degrees of help and support. We had people pretend it never happened and people make light of it. We had people try and explain it away with trite christianese wisdom and offer straight up hurtful statements like, “Maybe your body just can’t handle boys” and “Your grief is disproportionate, you didn’t even know him.” But, we also had people that rallied, prayed, wept with us, asked us often and served us lavishly. We have experienced all ends of the spectrum. Yet, most experience only the sadder sides.
I don’t blame people for their inability and discomfort with grief. Our society provides no paths to follow or traditions for us to fall into that we can entrust our grief to. Instead we are left to make it up as we go along. Inadvertently, our culture communicates the expectation that we need to grieve quietly and privately. Sadly, the Church is no exception to Canadian culture.
For many of us we just don’t know what to do with death. How do we bring closure to something we can’t even allow ourselves to feel? How can we let ourselves feel when we don’t have a solution for our sadness, disappointment, and loss? How do we include people in our grief when they feel as insecure as we do? How do we find peace and confidence when we don’t know what happens to the dead? This all leads us to find our own way. And it is a way often found accidentally instead of intentionally. Ways of grieving that end up being defined more by our pain than by our hope.
After World War One, the protestant church struggled to handle the sweeping sorrow that had washed over their congregations. Many of their sons had either died or returned broken, fathers were crushed and mothers were in mourning. The leadership of the church soon realized that they were ill-equipped to handle the needs of their people. The need to grieve rightly and healthily only grew with time, forcing the church to turn to their Christian forefathers for help and wisdom. There they found forms of worship in the liturgical calendar that would provide a context for their people to heal with and through the Gospel. It was then they rediscovered and restored a sometimes misused and misunderstood tradition; All Saints and All Souls Day.
With Halloween for vigil (a night of prayer and waiting), the church would then enter into All Saints Day on November 1st (having their faith strengthened through remembering the faith of the saints) and All Souls Day on November 2nd (a time for grief and remembrance of those we have lost). It was in All Saints Day that they remembered, mourned and found comfort in Christ for their great and many losses. Now, they were no longer alone or wandering in their grief. Their grief now had a road to follow. Those who were grieving were no longer unintentionally forgotten or pushed to the fringes. They were understood, valued, cared for and at home in their need to grieve. And most importantly, a season of the church was again dedicated to explaining, applying and receiving the Good News of Jesus for the mourning heart. Through the reading of names, prayers, and the eucharist, the Church had a way and form for expressing both their grief and their faith.
There is an annual rhythm to grief. You don’t just grieve once and move on. You grieve in days and degrees, in years and layers. With each new pass more healing salve is applied and more restoration apportioned. That is, if you allow yourself to feel it and to need it. In a culture that does not know how to grieve rightly we often feel ashamed of our on going need to grieve. We attempt to suppress, hide and privatize. With no communal contexts for sorrow we push our emotions to the depths and to the sides. All to often due to our awkwardness and insecurities we end up rejecting and ultimately crushing the most precious and delicate parts of our hearts and community.
But, unhealth can go both ways. Where one may have the tendency to refuse to feel, another may refuse to feel anything but sadness. A kind of giving over of ones self to darkness, pain, and death. It can happen when we so long to have the person that we have lost that we are willing to allow a kind of emotional death in order to join them.
In both rejecting painful emotion and idolizing it, we forgo the benefits of the Gospel.
Instead of an all or nothing approach to grieving the Gospel offers a third way. Where we allow ourselves to grieve knowing that He is faithful to heal, to comfort and to restore. In reclaiming and restoring the tradition of All Saint’s & All Soul’s Day we can infuse Canadian Christianity, and I believe our nation as a whole, with some necessary tools for grieving well.
Here are some of the benefits I see in holding a special service or gathering for All Saints & All Souls:
We are together.
Instead of giving in to the temptation to take our sorrows solo, we grieve together. It also helps us to track with and alongside those in our community who are in the midst of their grieving process. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” -Rm 12:15
We are reminded of our continued need to allow Christ to heal the old and new layers of grief.
As I mentioned earlier, grief is not a one month process, it is ongoing and Christ is necessary and sufficient for every layer. By having a day (evening) set aside every year we give Him the opportunity to search, unearth, and speak to our hearts in ways necessary for moving our healing forward and to completion.
We are invited to pour out our hearts at His table.
Where better to face our deepest sorrows, pains, disappointments, and longings than at the table of His finished work? At His table the content of our confessions can be unfiltered and desperately honest. We can confess our anger, our loneliness, our feelings of betrayal, and even our resentments. We can pour out the contents of our hearts to Him; the man of sorrows and the healer of our souls. The one who said and felt, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
We are lead to confess our sins in the midst of our grief.
All to often, due to pain and sorrow we fall victim to self-pity and justify our search for comfort in the creation instead of the Creator. Celebrating Communion in times like these saves us from developing hurtful habits and harmful addictions in the name of grieving. Instead, we confess our sins and needs and find the true sustenance we crave in Jesus Himself.
We are encouraged to receive the Gospel for our sorrows, and not to remain in them.
For those who grieve out of guilt, shame or false-responsibility the Good News can often come in the form of permission to let go. Permission to release it into the faithful hands of Jesus. To receive forgiveness and affirmation. But, we must not stop there. We must continue on to receiving encouragement, strength, joy, hope and the promise of life and a purpose. The Gospel is not just freedom from death but freedom to life!
We are reminded of the promise of resurrection.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” 1Thess 4:13&14 It was in reflecting on this truth that I realized that I need not grieve for my son, I needed to grieve for me. Silas has been given the gift of resurrection, free from a life marred by sin. He was lacking for nothing and already in the presence of our perfect Father. It was me, who was feeling the pain of loss. This allowed me to release him to the Father and to thank Him for blessing my son with new life.
We are reminded that we will be re-united with those whom we have lost.
Our separation is momentary. It is not forever. On the contrary, our reunion will be! I continually find myself returning here as I long to see and know my son. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Rom 6:6
We will be a blessing to our cities by grieving well.
It is the Church that should offer a way of healing and salvation for our grieving world. It has the message and presence of Jesus; the only one who has what is necessary to handle and heal their pain, sorrow and loss and lead them by the heart into hope for a new life. The Church must become like her saviour; able to walk with the broken hearted.
This year as I felt the cold coming, it was not the bad memories that overwhelmed me but His past faithfulness and gentle invitation into more healing.
This is the heart of All Saints & All Souls Day.
My prayer tonight is that all saints & souls would know this comfort.