DTS Magazine

Cycles of Grief—and Grace

“In my Father’s house are many rooms;
if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a
place for you” (John 14:2).

At
some point we all see the face of evil so closely that we recall each
wrinkle at the eye and each turn of the mouth. At some point, we also
realize that we are going to die…that we have a room reserved in the
House of Mourning (Ecc. 7:2). But for followers of Jesus Christ, who
called Himself, “the Door,” the House of Mourning one day will lead to
a House of Rejoicing.
Albeit as one believer leaves the House of Mourning
for the House of Rejoicing, another is entering it. Bill Hendricks,
author of The Light That Never Dies: A Story of Hope in the Shadows of Grief (read an excerpt),
experienced this when his wife, Nancy, succumbed to breast cancer and
left him and his three young daughters, Brittany, Kristin, and Amy, to
reside, instead, in the House of Mourning.
“One of
the things that I’m becoming aware of is that grief is not linear,”
Bill says. “Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, [in her work, On Death and Dying,
outlined] the five stages of death and dying, which is a helpful
template. Unfortunately it conveys the impression that you work your
way through these stages and then you’re out of it. Grief is not
linear. It’s cyclical. It’s a cycle and that cycle begins the moment
that person dies and then repeats again and again throughout the rest
of your life.”
In the case of Bill’s family, the
grief cycle began in the “Year of Firsts,” which included all the first
birthdays and holidays and important events that Bill and his three
daughters faced without his wife and their mother.
“Every
time you go up against one of those,” he explains, “this cycle recurs.
As you gain emotional maturity and you have life experience, you start
to see dimensions of that loss that you hadn’t ever seen before. For
instance, think what it will feel like should [the girls] ever marry
and walk down the aisle and not have a mother. That will be a whole
cycle of grief. In a way, I think you never quite leave the House of
Mourning.”
So how does one ever enter the House of Rejoicing? Where does one find hope?

“I believe as human beings the best way to understand ourselves is
through story. Not only do we have a story, but our story is part of
this much bigger story that God’s got going,” Bill says. And the story
that began in the Garden of Eden was one in which the plot never
involved us knowing evil.
“I simply can’t say that
God caused Nancy to have cancer because I believe it’s an evil. I
believe it was not part of God’s intention for this world… for people
to die of cancer; for women to die of breast cancer and leave husbands
and babies behind, and to have their lives disrupted and have their
lives cut short,” he says. “For that matter, I don’t believe it was
God’s intention that any of us should die. But we live in a fallen
world, and what I understand that to mean is that in some way every one
of us will confront evil at some point and at many points, and in fact
the evil itself is right inside of us in terms of sin.”
This
issue of sin is explained in Romans 3:23: “[F]or all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God.” If the story ended there, Bill’s hope
would hold little value for those in the House of Mourning. But it
doesn’t end there. The full sentence reads: “[F]or all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Christ, then, provides us with hope, and when we
face evil, the process through the pain helps us to see the Cross more
clearly. Bill calls this process “grief work.”
“I’d
call grief work an intentionality to face the pain of what has happened
and the pain of the results of what has happened…to not shrink back
from the reality emotionally of what you’re facing,” he says. “Go ahead
and feel that pain and then begin to work on coming to grips with how
you’re going to live your life in light of the new realities you’re
facing.”
And the reality of this world Bill found in Ecclesiastes, in the Hebrew word, hebel,
or futility. What he discovered, however, is that if what God says
about the world is true—if in looking around him Bill only can see
futility and evil—then what God says about Himself must also be true.
The tension between believing in what is unseen rather than what is
seen is faith (Heb. 11:1). Therefore, those facing great evil in this
world can also have faith in facing great joy in heaven.
Second
Corinthians 5:1 says: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in
is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven,
not built by human hands.” Therefore, when each of us faces the
ultimate evil, death, if we trust in Jesus, then this Scripture
promises that we will live in an eternal house with God and that this
currently unseen house can be a symbol of hope for us in this life, as
Hebrews 3:6 states: “But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house.
And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of
which we boast.”
However, hope often “doesn’t look
pretty,” Bill admits, but it can be found in the unlikely House of
Mourning. “What hope looked like to me was I’d wake up in the morning
and I’d go, ‘Well, here we are again. I need to get out of bed and be
responsible.’ I’d take a deep breath and suck it up and do it all over
again. Okay? Well, why would I keep doing that day after day after day?
The only thing that would keep you doing that day after day is if you
have somewhere inside you a sense of hope, meaning that you think that
somewhere God must be in this, somehow God’s going to get you through
this, and that there’s some reason why it matters that you be faithful
and responsible today and not worry about tomorrow.
“There
were many days when that’s all I could worry about because I didn’t
know what was going to happen the next day, not just physically with
Nancy but all the collateral pieces. What’s going to happen to the
finances? And what’s going to happen to my business? And what’s going
to happen to my girls?” Bill says. “But what’s amazing is I’d wake up
and I’d go, ‘Well, you did it yesterday, Bill, and something that you
didn’t anticipate showed up and you got through it. So let’s do it
again today.’ So what hope looks like is taking it one step at a time.
It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s faithful to what God’s assigned you.”
Hope
also shows up in other people. In fact, Bill believes that God gives
His children hope and shows them love through the hands and feet of
others.
“We keep looking for God in the big
stuff,” he says. “We keep looking for God in the parting of the Red
Sea, and the feeding of the five thousand, and He certainly is. We keep
looking for God in these macro ways, but where I need Him the most to
show up is in the daily-ness. Is God going to show up when you’re
fighting the High Five on the way to work? Is God going to show up when
you’re waking up and making sandwiches for your kids’ lunches? And is
He going to show up when you’re doing these routine things and you’re
mind’s thinking about all that you have on your plate, and most of it
you can’t figure out?
“That’s where God
tends to show up. That’s where you need Him. In my experience, and in
Nancy’s situation, it was in moments like that where I would literally
be going through my day, just meeting people, doing my work at The
Giftedness Center, driving the girls around endlessly feeling like I’m
a taxi driver, sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game, wondering,
‘With all I’ve got to do, why am I watching eight-year-olds run
around?’, when verses of Scripture would bubble up in my mind. I can’t
even explain it,” Bill admits. “I would just suddenly be aware of that
Scripture in light of my experience and I’d put them together and
[think], ‘So that’s what it means.’ It was amazing.”
People, especially his daughters, had the same effect on him.
“I
believe that ninety percent of the time when God shows up, He shows up
in the form of another human being, who is His hands and feet, and
really His heart. So I quickly think of people whom God has brought
into my life at key moments, and sometimes in even routine ways, who
manifest grace to me. The girls would be the first who spring to mind.
They minister to me in ways they don’t even realize. Brittany, for
instance, has a way of pointing out things to me that I wasn’t aware of
that I need to pay attention to. Kristin’s emotional honesty brings me
back to the reality of a situation, and Amy has this infectious smile
and personality.
“So there are days when I’m
depressed, or whatever, and [they’re] like a sprinkle of sunshine that
comes in. And most of the time they’re not thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going
to be God’s hands and feet and heart.’ They’re just being who they are
and then God shows up to me through them. It’s an amazing thing how
that works, and that’s true for all of us. We need to show up and we
need to trust that God will work through us. But mostly we need to stay
in fellowship with Him to make that happen.”
But
how do you stay in fellowship with God and have hope when you can’t get
out of bed and people can’t soothe the pain? Tell God anyway. Tell Him
how much it hurts. Be honest with yourself and with God.
“This
may be the most difficult thing about the Christian life—knowing what
to do with one’s feelings” Bill says. “Over the last ten or fifteen
years I have come to the conclusion that since God knows my heart, what
other feelings are there He already is aware of and He’s a big enough
God to handle them. And so I’d be better to just go ahead and have
those feelings, whatever they happen to be, and bring them to Him and
say, ‘Here’s what I’m feeling today.’ That creates a much healthier
relationship with God as well as a healthier perspective on the world.”
Even with that permission, many of us might not feel comfortable asking God the question, ‘Why?’.
“Of
course we’re going to ask why,” Bill says. “We go back to this issue of
meaning. Where’s the meaning? How does this fit into the story? Part of
the Fall is the loss of understanding of God’s purpose. When Adam and
Eve sinned, something huge shifted in the universe, and a part of that
was we don’t know why we’re here anymore. We don’t know what it all
means. The world looks pretty meaningless apart from God, just like
Ecclesiastes says it would. It looks futile.”
While
the world may look futile, for those who believe in Christ, a whole
other world awaits, where futility becomes fruitfulness; pain,
pleasure; and sorrow, joy. This is God’s promise to Bill, and it is His
promise to all who call on His name: “I saw the Holy City, the new
Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride
beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the
throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live
with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them
and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will
be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of
things has passed away’” (Rev. 21:2–4).
For Bill the old order of wondering if God will show
up has passed away and a new confidence in this eternal home has come.

“I don’t worry now that God’s not there and that He’s not going to be
there for me. I’m almost abandoned to it, like, what if one day He
doesn’t show? I guess I’m like Job. Well, if that happens, then,
‘though He slay me, yet will I trust Him,’ I just expect God to show
up, given the fact that He showed up for me and the girls and Nancy in
the worst moment of our life.
“Some people take
wisdom and experience from being [in the House of Mourning] and
actually become better people as a result of dealing with the pain and
grief. That’s what I hope I’m doing,” Bill says. “I’m trying to strike
a blow for good with this book. I’m not going to let Nancy’s death go
unanswered. If you want to win the fight, you have to land a punch on
the opponent that is more forceful. This is my attempt at a
counterpunch.”

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