Requiem: A Theological Reflection on Grief

On the evening of Monday, 29th August 2011, my sister Maria was killed in a motor vehicle accident.

From what I understand of the details, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, no-one was to blame.  The driver of the vehicle which struck Maria wasn’t drunk, wasn’t under the influence of drugs, wasn’t speeding, and the vehicle itself wasn’t in a state of mechanical disrepair.  As far as I can tell, there were no “contributory factors” aside from the fact that it was dark and the accident itself took place on or near a place where there was a bend in the road.  My sister was coming home from work, crossing the street to catch the bus home, no doubt looking forward to the dinner with friends which she and her fiance were scheduled to attend that evening.

As the driver reportedly told the police who attended the scene: “One second the road was clear; the next, she was crashing through my windscreen.”

It was just an accident.  It just happened.

In the wake of death so sudden and inexplicable, grief takes many forms.  Confusion, bewilderment, anguish, guilt, and rage are all components.  Anger in particular is prevalent: those left behind are angry at the unfairness of the situation; angry at the apparently arbitrary confluence of circumstances which lead to the death; angry with themselves for words unsaid or things undone; even angry with the person who has died for having “left” them.

And there is often anger at God.  Where, afterall, was God when our loved one was struck down? Why didn’t God intervene to prevent this tragedy from occurring? Surely if God is good and loving – surely if God even existed – then God would have done something to spare the life of the person who died, would have acted to shield us from grief and sorrow?

The philosophical answer to this response in rage is that the question it asks – where was God? – proceeds from a logical fallacy: namely, that God’s existence and/or status as good and loving is contingent upon human happiness.  In other words, if God existed or was good and loving, then human beings would of necessity never experience suffering because God’s loving goodness would motivate God to act in such a way as to prevent suffering.  The philosophical response says this is fallacious because we know from everyday experience that it doesn’t hold: the fact that person A suffers doesn’t preclude the existence of person B, nor does it imply that person B isn’t good and loving.  Therefore, because humans experience suffering doesn’t therefore mean that God doesn’t exist or isn’t good and loving.

However, angry grief often responds by demanding: “Isn’t that a cop-out? Afterall, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, surely God has the capacity to prevent suffering? Are you seriously  telling me that God chose not to intervene, that God chose to let my loved one die when God had the wherewithal to prevent their death?”

The philosophical response to this demand is to assert that it, too, proceeds from a logical fallacy, especially in respect of its understanding of “all-powerful”.  This is not, as we imagine, the capacity to do whatever God pleases; it is simply the capacity to do all that can actually be done.  This is not splitting hairs but a necessary distinction: the former suggests the capacity to do literally anything, irrespective of how illogical or self-contradictory; whereas the latter suggests the capacity to do all that is actually possible, a capacity that acknowledges certain necessary realities.  If, therefore, human beings are to be genuinely free agents, then their decisions and choices must have consequences. And if the integrity of the universe’s capacity to support life is to be maintained, then the outcomes of a vehicle striking a human body which are predicted by the laws of physics cannot be overturned.  It is within these contexts that God’s omnipotence resides: God can do everything that is possible within the necessities of human agency and cosmic reality; if God makes a choice, it is not to allow someone to die, it is to respect the realities of human existence.

In response to which angry grief cries out: “What about miracles? God is said to perform miracles, to cure the sick and heal the injured? Why not my loved one? What makes their life any less deserving of a miracle then someone else’s? Does this mean that it is not circumstance but God who is arbitrary, who elects to spare some but not others?”

The philosophical response is that the miraculous is, indeed, built into the fabric of the universe – but not, as we imagine, in the form of God electing to work miraculous events on some occasions but not on others.  Rather, the very nature of a universe that is calibrated in such a way as to make the emergence of life possible is also a universe in which a certain degree of probability is possible; a probability that includes the possibility of the miraculous.

If one looks at the improbability of life itself – especially intelligent life – one can understand the nature of the miraculous.  There have, afterall, been five mass extinctions during the course of the natural history of this planet; and if even one of these events had not occurred, or had occurred in a different way, then human life would not now exist.  Indeed, it is possible that sentient life may not even have evolved on earth; or may have evolved in utterly different forms.  So the sheer improbability of human existence is itself miraculous.  Which means that if something as remotely improbable and miraculous as human life could occur, then other miraculous events are also possible: the curing of otherwise fatal diseases, the healing of normally crippling injuries, the resolution of otherwise intractable dilemmas.  God works miracles, not through arbitrary determination, but through creation itself.

The problem with the philosophical response is that it doesn’t address the depth and intensity of grief – at least, not in the immediate term.  Because grief isn’t a matter of processing information, of reasoning through the particulars of a given context.  Rather, it’s a matter of feeling, of emotion.  Which is why the philosophical response, even when arising from the deepest compassion, often comes across as unfeeling and callous: because it requires a different kind of response to the one emotion is prepared to give.  It requires a response of the mind when what is required is a response of the heart.

So what is the heartfelt response to grief? Is it simply to endure, to suffer? Is it simply to grieve?  Or is there a possibility of hope – one that doesn’t deny or explain away the reality of pain and sorrow, but which addresses it in a way that responds with the heart to the cry of the heart?

As a Christian, I believe this response is located in faith itself, in its nature and in the nature of the God in whom Christians believe. For faith itself is a response in hope and trust to the possibility of God; it is not mere belief in God, nor is it mere assertion that God exists.  Rather, it is a response that says that the possibility of God in life means that there are possibilities for life itself: that life is not confined to the contexts and circumstances in which mere existence occurs, but is intersected and engaged by a reality and a hope that transcends the purely physical or existential dimensions of being itself.

Now, by this I do not mean the promise of an “afterlife”, or the possibility of “going to Heaven” when you die.  The Christian Church has always clearly stated the fullness and reality of death; it is why, afterall, from its earliest days, the Church in its creeds has confessed a belief in the resurrection of the dead.  Because the Church has always taught that when we die, we die.  There is no “afterlife”, or “next world”, or “other side” as these things are commonly understood; there is no “heaven” in the sense of a place where our “souls” or “spirits” go when we die.

But inasmuch as the Christian Church has always taught the reality and fullness of death, so it has always taught that because our mortal, created life is intersected and engaged by the reality of God, so the reality of death does not amount to a totality.  In the Resurrection of Christ lies the hope and the promise that death does not have the final word; that beyond the reality of death lies the totality of God, in whose hands even death resides.  So the “resurrection life” which Christian faith preaches is not a kind of resuscitation in which facsimiles of ourselves emerge from death and enjoy a pristine existence for eternity; rather, it is the reconstitution of broken humanity into a fully human reality that exists in unity with the eternal reality of God.  What this “looks” like, what it involves exactly neither I nor any other human being knows; we can only express it in terms of inadequate metaphors and images.  What the Resurrection of Christ expresses is not the hope for a “second life” but the promise that death, while real, is neither total nor final.

But that is the hope.  And hope is necessarily preceded by grief.  How does the Christian faith speak to grief, or to the presence of God in human grief?

For Christians, that grief is expressed in what is often called “the event of the Cross”: that is, the crucifixion of Jesus.  The Gospels depict the Crucifixion in different ways, but they all have several elements in common: that Jesus’ death was incredibly horrific and cruel; that it involved an abysmal miscarriage of justice and abrogation of judicial responsibility; and that in addition to being persecuted by his enemies in officialdom, he was abandoned and betrayed by those whom he loved and trusted most.  From every conventional perspective, there was absolutely nothing redeeming about Jesus’ crucifixion.

Except for the fact that Christian faith holds that Jesus was not merely a human carpenter from Nazareth, but also the Son of God.  Leaving aside the semantics and politics of how the phrase “Son of God” is understood (or misunderstood, even by Christians) what it amounts to in practical terms is that the Christian understanding of God is that God is not a remote “otherworldly” deity who is either utterly indifferent to human experience, or who demands constant appeasement under threat of divine retribution.  Rather, Christians understand God as intensely relational, as the One who not only created us but who seeks us out, who desires relationship and engagement with us.  Indeed, such is God’s regard and desire for us that, in the person of Jesus, God became “one of us” – God became human, lived and experienced the reality of human being-ness, and even entered into the reality of human death.

All of which means that, instead of being a pointless example of human brutality bereft of any redeeming features, the Crucifixion is instead the ultimate act of solidarity between God and suffering humanity.  And this is not solidarity that is mere sympathy or intellectualized empathy – it is the solidarity of shared, common experience.  When we ask “Where was God when my loved one died”, we point to the Cross and say “There, God is right there, suffering as our loved one suffered, suffering as we suffer.”  And when we ask: “Why didn’t God do something?”, we point to the Cross and say: “But God did do something, and something far greater than any “magic trick” of miraculous intervention; God entered into the reality of death so that it would not be a totality.” And when, in our anguish, we cry out: “Where is God’s loving goodness?”, we point to the Cross and to the Jesus who cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and say: “There is God’s loving goodness, which was prepared to pour itself out for us, to be victimized by us and suffer on our account, that we need no longer be hostages to our own brokenness.”

Because if the Gospels depict anything, they depict a Jesus who was a person of feeling and emotion, a person who wept and felt anguish, who experienced anger and terror, who was moved by compassion and assailed by doubts and frustrations.  Jesus was a person who loved, powerfully and deeply.  And that is because Jesus existed as the fully human, fully divine Incarnation of a God who feels and loves and experiences; a God who is neither a remote abstraction nor a terrifying judge; a God who has entered into the depths of our human reality in order to lift us out of the limitations of our creaturely existence.

And this is why the squalor and horror and inconceivable suffering of the Cross is the central image of the Christian faith: because the God for whom Jesus was the visible Incarnation is a God who, knowing what we know and feeling what we feel, offers us the possibility of relationship and the prospect of hope.  This is not a God who makes false promises of a life free from pain.  This is not a God who offers us theological abstractions or empty if well-meaning platitudes.  This is not a God who turns away from us in disgust or who condemns us for our failings.  This is a God who lives alongside us in our reality, who lives in that reality – because this is a God who not only brought that reality into being, or who merely “infuses” that reality in some undefined way.  This is a God who has entered that reality, lived in that reality, and made it God’s own.

Because, in many respects, God has accepted the terrible responsibility for, and consequences of, creation in and through the suffering of the Cross.  Contrary to the dictates of atonement theology, which states that God sacrificed Jesus in order to pay the retributive price for human sin, God, in and through the person of Jesus, claimed creation for God’s-self, said in effect: “This reality is mine; therefore, I take upon myself all that it involves.” Which isn’t to say that the particular human brokenness that Christians understand as sin wasn’t a factor in the Crucifixion; rather, that instead of being a propitiatory sacrifice, Christ’s death was an act of self-giving love which overcome our brokenness and articulated our acceptability in the eyes of God, irrespective of our unworthiness.  God’s solidarity was the solidarity of self-giving, not the judicial reparation of delayed or deferred punishment.

So where does this leave me in terms of my own grief and the reality of my sister’s death? Not one whit less grief-struck or sorrowing or emotionally wrenched by the suddenness and unfairness of her death, of that you may be assured.  But what has touched my heart is the reality that hope doesn’t work like that; it doesn’t remove the pain or offer balming consolations.  In his poem To His Coy Mistress, the English poet Andrew Marvell said that love was “vaster than Empires and more slow”, and I think that hope is much the same.  It enables us to grieve without succumbing to despair; it enables us to experience loss without lapsing into cynicism; it enables us to catch a glimpse of a wider context without surrendering to wish-fulfilment or false promises.  The hope that Christian faith offers is simply the hope that God is there with us; perhaps not in the ways we demand or would prefer, but nonetheless in ways that are real and meaningful and – beyond the immediacy of our own experience – ultimately redeeming.  We are not alone; God’s solidarity with us is real; suffering and loss and death are not the final words in human experience.

God has never left us.

(c) Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.