The news of the past week was dominated by charges and counter-charges regarding President Trump’s alleged insensitivity in the manner in which he offered condolences to a grieving young widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan.
In the mix were the pregnant African-American widow and mother of two small children, her mother-in-law, an African American congresswoman, and Donald Trump. The phone call was received while the three women were on the way to the airport where the deceased soldier’s body was to be delivered. The circumstances were emotionally charged. What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?
The alleged statement was, “He must have known what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.” That’s the kind of statement one military member might say to another, but it would not be effective or appropriate in every situation. A widowed black mother of two children with one on the way would not likely appreciate such a statement from a wealthy white man in power who never served in the military.
She has lost her husband and is facing rearing three children as a single mom. Being told that the loss of his life was an occupational hazard, though factually true, would likely stoke the anger and sorrow that are inherent in grief.
John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps general who serves as the White House Chief of Staff said he advised the President not to make such calls. General Kelly said he told the President, “Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.”
Kelly should know. His own son was killed in Afghanistan. His advice rings true in my experience regardless of the politics and media frenzy swirling around the phone call.
My parents were in their mid-forties when I was born. I was a teen-ager when they were in their sixties. This was no problem for me, but one consequence of older parents was the early exposure I had to the deaths of elderly friends and family. Working through my own feelings and observing the reactions of others taught me a good deal about the process of grief and what was appropriate to say.
Then my fiancée died at my side my junior year of college. I returned to campus in a wheel chair which invited a lot of attention and proffered condolences. Some of those were incredibly insensitive.
Death is so abrupt and beyond human control and explanation. To lose someone close is devastating. It is hard to accept, but there is no fixing it and mechanical explanations don’t alleviate the emotional loss.
Faced with the grief of another, there is a human impulse to try to make things better, to smooth over the raw, rough edges of grief. Pain is personal, but people will tell you, “I understand just what you are going through?” How could they?
Who really distressed and bemused me were the people I barely knew who approached me with smug, self-righteous, biblically illiterate theological explanations for my loss. I gained an appreciation for what Job suffered from the arguments of his friends.
Solomon observed, “Only the person involved knows the bitterness or the joy, and a stranger has no part in it” (Prov 14:10). This is truth worth heeding.
There are also those who will brusquely say, “Well, it happened and there is nothing you can do about it. So move on.” The sorrowing heart rebels against such counsel, and Jesus gave different advice. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4).
Jesus, with his Creator’s knowledge of the human heart, and being “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” knows there is a process of grieving that must be experienced for emotional and spiritual health to be restored (Isa 53:3).
The grief process can stall and bog down at times. That’s where wise friends, pastors, grief counselors, and grief recovery groups can be helpful.
There will be times where one who has suffered loss feels alone and hopeless. That’s natural from time to time and may even last a while. But if those feelings don’t lift, help may be needed.
There are various secular formulations of the stages in the grief process. The most famous is that posed by the psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” Her five stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Other writers and counselors cite more stages with nuanced explanations.
Some semblance of those stages will occur in my experience, but not always with equal impact or in the same order. I couldn’t deny the instant death that occurred in my presence and I bore serious injuries from the same accident.
Bargaining with God was not a temptation because there was nothing to bargain over. My understanding of prayer did not include “If you do this, then I will do that, God” thinking.
My faith in God had been nurtured from earliest childhood with a characterization of God as a kind and good Deity who stands with us in our suffering, comforts our aching hearts, and seeks to remove his sad children from this sinful, broken world in the fullness of time. I knew no other kind of God and believed his way was best in spite of what I could see or feel. How could I be angry with him?
My question to him was “why?” God never answered that question. He did make it clear to me after much prayer that I would have to trust him without knowing the answer and I accepted living with the mystery.
Many years passed before I discovered Paul’s description of the grief process in Romans 5:3-5 and recognized its truth from having lived it.
Losing Sylvia was like a kick to the stomach. I didn’t think I could breathe again. How could I go on? But I did. The long nights turned to day and the painful days turned to nights and the cycle continued. Paul said that suffering produces endurance and it does.
After a while, I began to understand that with God’s help I could step out into life again. I had resilience from a source that was not expected. He was strengthening me in the experience of endurance. Paul said that endurance will produce character, integrity of soul that seeks the best out of the worst. It did produce that in me.
The strength of character gained began to make me hope I could live a full and productive life and maybe even find love again. Paul said that character will produce hope and “hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I began to wake up in the morning with the knowledge that I was still there despite the impossible and the unspeakable because God loved me and wanted me here.
When I became a university administrator, I worked with students grieving the loss of parents. Clients in my law practice suffered the deaths of spouses, parents and children and I would pray with them as I worked on their legal affairs. When I experienced spiritual renewal and began to write and speak about workplace spirituality and prayer, grieving men and women came to me asking for advice and prayers.
The administrator of a Christian high school reached out to me. A couple had been driving to a school holiday celebration when they were involved in a terrible accident. The young woman never regained consciousness and the young man was hospitalized with serious, but not life-threatening injuries. He was the driver and blamed himself for the accident and he was heartbroken at the loss of his sweetheart. “Will you go to the hospital and talk with him, Mr. Hansen.”
“Are you asking me to do this because I have experienced something like this in my past?”
“Yes, you could tell him how you got through it.”
“No,” I said. “I won’t do it.”
The administrator was audibly flustered. “But why not? he asked.
“The last thing that young man needs is some forty-something attorney he has never met before coming to his bedside to tell him ‘It will be OK.’ It is not OK. It will never be OK. His future doesn’t depend upon it being OK.
“But what will help him?”
“I recommend that people that he already knows love him go to his bedside and tell him three things in this order: ‘I am sorry, I love you, and I am here for you when you need me.’ Just those three things and nothing more.
“Don’t tell him, ‘I know what you are going through, or I understand, or God has a plan for you and can bring good out of this.’ Love will heal him, but he has to experience his grief and come to his own acceptance of what it means or he won’t heal. God is close to the brokenhearted and if he has questions about where God is in all of this, I would have someone with a mature spiritual understanding sit with him and answer those questions. But please don’t speculate and try to answer questions he hasn’t asked.”
It was the first time I ever remember saying those things but they came out of my heart with conviction. They returned to my mind with vigor this week in thinking about the controversy over the Trump phone call and in my preparation of a presentation on “Integrity in Communication” to a group of health care leaders.
I believe that what we see here and now is not all there is or that will be. There is a God the Father who sent his Son Jesus to redeem us and raised him from the dead so we can have eternal life with him. I believe this. It allows to me to live with the pain and misery that I experience on this earth because I know there is something more.
This is what Paul was saying when he told the Corinthians
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection from the dead has also come through a human being for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor 15:19-21).
Paul also told the suffering Thessalonians that believers do not need to grieve as those do who have no hope of the resurrection. He described Christ’s return and the resurrection and then ended with these stirring words, “and so we will be with the Lord forever” ( 1 Thess 4:13-18).
When you know how the story is going to end and that it is really a love story, it makes it easier to endure the scary and horrible parts.
My experience of loss mentioned above happened forty-four years ago this week. Painful though it was, it broke open my heart and prepared it to receive the grace of God by which I now live in joy.
Under the mercy of Christ,
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Hansen are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
Kent Hansen is a Christian attorney, author and speaker. He practices corporate law and is the managing attorney of the firm of Clayson, Mann, Yaeger & Hansen in Corona, California. Kent also serves as the general counsel of Loma Linda University and Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Finding God’s grace revealed in the ordinary experiences of life, spiritual renewal in Christ and prayer are Kent’s passions. He has written two books, Grace at 30,000 Feet and Other Unexpected Places published by Review & Herald in 2002 and Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press in spring 2007. Many of his stories and essays about God’s encompassing love have been published in magazines and journals. Kent is often found on the hiking trails of the southern California mountains, following major league baseball, playing the piano or writing his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday” that is read by men and women from Alaska to Zimbabwe.