Two years ago at this time, I had my father-daughter dance five months before my actual wedding. I tried on my dress in the Catan’s Bridal suite, gathered my un-hemmed skirt, and shuffled over to Dad’s wheelchair to ask him to dance with me. Mom played Pachelbel Canon on her iphone while we “danced” as much as his advanced illness would allow, reducing all the employees to tears. But no one cried as much as us.
I have moments like these every now and then – sudden spurts of memory that sometimes coincide with anniversary dates, such as this one. Others come to me at random: when I hear a Billy Joel song on the radio. When I see a young father with a blonde, curly-haired toddler who looks like I did at that age. When I have the occasional dream about him and remember his voice.
It’s during these moments, which sometimes result in a passing sadness, a sore smile, or at worst, intense heartache, that I might retreat from the one place it would be expected for me to go to seek comfort: church. Specifically, my bible study. I’ve been known to withdraw from time to time, not always with advanced notice, because it’s not like I can predict this episodes with accuracy. But when they happen, sometimes it’s just best for me to be alone. Sometimes, being with other Christians is the worst thing for my still painful grief.
There are many reasons for this, and with these reasons I would like to offer some helpful suggestions:
Please be aware that praising God for healing your aunt’s cancer is very painful for me. It’s not that I’m not happy for you. Cancer is something I would never wish even on my worst enemy. But the implication I hear is that your loved one was healed and mine was not because your prayers were more effective, the patient had more faith, or maybe God just liked your relative better than mine. I get that that’s not what you think you’re saying, but that is nonetheless what I hear from you.
It hurts when you gloss over my concerns about hell. Please don’t tell me I just “need more faith.” Please don’t once again remind me that God is just, when everything I’ve heard about this place of eternal punishment sounds anything but just. Please be aware that there are people in your study groups who have non-Christian relatives, and this may be a spiritual issue that is wrestled with for a lifetime with no hope of resolution. This does not make us “bad” Christians. It means we are struggling.
On that note, if I tell you that my father has passed away, please do not immediately ask, “Was he a believer?” My knee-jerk response to this question is, “He had beliefs,” but I know what is meant by it. You’re asking if my father was a Christian, and the answer is no. This question is asked on the assumption that my answer will be “yes,” in which case I assume you mean to comfort me with the knowledge that Dad is in heaven, and I will see him again someday. But even if my father were a Christian, that kind of statement does nothing to help a person’s grief on this side of heaven. It also implies that there’s something wrong with grieving when instead we should be happy that our loved one is now free from the bondage of this world and is partying it up with Jesus.
When I was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, I was hounded by several well-intentioned (I have to believe this, for the sake of my sanity) people who pressured me to get him “saved” so I wouldn’t be held responsible for his damnation, which could possibly result in my damnation. They reminded me that, because his cancer kept returning with increasing aggressiveness, the clock was ticking and time was running out. The effects of these confrontations haunt me to this day; I still have some residual form of spiritual PTSD from it.
There was a time when any mention of hell would invoke an anxiety attack, and those days are not completely over. I have increased my dosage of anxiety pills just to be able to hear about it without collapsing into hysterics. The implications behind “Was he a believer?” also does not assuage my doubts of whether or not God is good. And God’s goodness is an anchor I desperately need to hold onto right now.
I have good days and I have crappy days when the pain is so big it physically hurts. Not everyone grieves the same – not even people of faith.