by Elizabeth Hamilton
My hometown church was really good at lots of things. They were amazing at bringing homemade food to new mothers, elderly people, sick people. They were wonderful at welcoming visiting visitors (one of my childhood friends once said he never shook so many hands at once as he did when he came to a service) and they were wonderful at planning out the liturgy for the sermons (to this day I still can't get used to sermons without them).
They were wonderful at many things, but not everything...after all, the church is full of human beings and human beings aren't perfect, but it does give us things to think about. One of the things my home church was not very good at was grieving. Growing up I can recall many different instances where grief was mishandled at best and abused at worst. When my younger sister was born she needed to have an emergency open-heart surgery. My mother is a very peaceful and passive woman, but I have seldom seen her as furious as she was when in the midst of her terror she was told plainly that "if the baby died to remember it was part of God's plan." Never mind that my sister hadn't even had the surgery yet, or that my mother had just given birth and now had to prepare to potentially say goodbye to a soul she and the rest of the world had just met, but the way she took it was that she would be some type of rebel for being angry, heartbroken, and grieved after losing a child.
It was hard enough theology for an adult but I can remember it getting shoved down my throat in a similar way, my sister did make it through her heart surgery, but a few years later my father had to have his own bypass surgery. My parents did their best to reassure and keep my sister and I informed, but we were obviously still terrified for our dad. We stayed with various families from our church during the week and a half he was gone, and while most of them kept us busy with crafts and games and stories, and generally trying to keep our minds off things, one couple was particularly cold towards us. I remember having a nightmare about my father dying and they told me that if he dies he would go to heaven, it would have been fine if they stopped there but they did not. They went on to say that if the "worst case scenario" would be my father going to heaven than I should be happy/excited for him. Not only was this confusing and scary theology, but it gave me the impression that death was some kind of choice...like my dad had a say in whether he would come home and continue being my dad or decide to leave us to go to heaven. Luckily, my dad also ended up coming out of his surgery alright, but this set the stage for a long journey of not really understanding grief in the context of my faith or how to deal with it.
It wasn't until I left home and started attending my college ministry that I finally started thinking about grief and my faith again. One of the major turning points took place during our annual Ash Wednesday service. One of our traditions on top of taking communion, and receiving the ashes on our forehead, we would also always sing the song I have linked below by the band Death Cab for Cutie. I admit that at first I simply got a kind of irony out of singing an emo song from the early 2000's as a church style hymn, mainly because it was something that would NEVER fly in my home church, but when I started thinking about it from a theological standpoint, it actually helped heal a lot of my past hurt with faith and grief.
I want to start by saying something that would easily get me called a heretic in my hometown...I don't KNOW what really happens when we die. Before you guys come at me with pitchforks and such let me say that I do know what I BELIEVE with my whole heart happens when we die, but I have no idea what happens for absolute certain...that's why it's called faith and not scientific fact.
Some people from my hometown might argue that me not knowing what happens after death diminishes my whole faith, after all, why celebrate Easter when you don't KNOW for sure Jesus died so that we may all have eternal life? The answer is both simple and complex, just like grief, and many other things on God's green earth. The bottom line is this, growing up in the church I was taught many theologically sound things I still carry with me today. I was taught that God was love, that God loved me and everyone else in the world, and that God wanted me to spend my life loving others. We love others for a variety of reasons, it's what God wants us to do, it's the morally right thing to do, and I think most importantly, it helps us form connections so that we do not have to go through this complex thing called life all by ourselves.
We were never meant to go through life alone (think about how long it took God after he made a man to be like "oh! he needs a friend!") it was never our purpose to live in solitude, which can be easy to forget in normal times, as well as times like this where we are practically forced into solitude. We aren't alone though, human beings have shown incredible ingenuity since this began. From people finding new ways to connect online, to big cities holding balcony dance parties, we are finding ways to ensure that we are never really alone. That to me is what death, grieving, turmoil, and sadness is all about to God...making sure we never have to feel alone going through it. Whether we are watching someone we love go into the great, dark, unknown, or whether it's our turn, our faith makes a promise that we were not ever made to have to go at it alone.