Hope Is an Ugly Cry

So how do you grieve with hope?

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  (1 Thes 4:13)

Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (Jn 11:35-36)

I have spent most of my career as a Presbyterian minister. Over the years, I have often quoted the old saying that the job of a minister is to prepare people for death and dying. I now know there is no such thing.

In December of 2021, I preached my last sermon at my church in Santa Barbara before moving away. The season was Advent and the theme was life and death in Christ. I reminded the church that death is our last and greatest enemy and we are right to grieve it — even as Christians with the hope of resurrected bodies ahead of us.

I told the story of a well-known figure in the sports world who lost his wife in a tragic accident. At her funeral, he said, “People say I’ve lost my wife, but I didn’t lose her. I know right where she is — she’s with Jesus. So I’m not shedding any tears today, I’m rejoicing.”

There’s something to admire in this sentiment, but it misses a key point — death is not the way it’s supposed to be. The Christian response to death is not joy, but sorrow. Jesus himself wept in the presence of death and his tears were not a sign of despair but of love and hope. Death demands tears. “If I die tomorrow,” I added, “there better not be a dry eye at my funeral. I deserve those tears!”

People chuckled. I smiled, happy for some comic relief around a heavy topic. I had no idea how soon I would be required to practice what I preached.

Six months after that farewell sermon series my wife tragically and suddenly died. In an ICU room at St. John’s Hospital, I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, anointing her head with oil mingled with my own tears. I recited the Benediction over her one last time and waited for her heart to stop beating while mine raged in my chest. Nothing could have prepared me for that moment. The tears flowed freely down my face and to the floor below.

At her funeral there was no rejoicing, only mourning. I was neither cool nor collected. My upper lip was anything but stiff. The Stoics can have their decorum, I thought. I follow the weeping Christ. Her life demands my tears.

In the days that followed, grief came pouring out with every thought of her passing — at meals, in bed alone at night, with each look at my three beautiful children, and freshly in the embrace of every friend who came to offer comfort. Her absence was, as C.S. Lewis said of his late wife, “like the sky, spread over everything.” Every meal, every chore, every moment was shot through with grief and tears.

“Grieve with hope,” I was told.

“Yes,” I replied. “This is what hope looks like.”

That simple phrase — we grieve with hope — can sometimes mean, “we don’t cry or lose our composure in our grief.” I had been fed enough of St. Paul and Jesus himself to know otherwise. Christian hope in the new life ahead does not mean dry eyes and a still face in the here and now. Hope, in fact, has many faces and one of them is an ugly cry.

“I need a God who wails, who dances,” the author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor claimed. For my part, I needed a God who would wail with grief over my dead wife and motherless children; a God who would consider my tears hitting the ground as a drink offering poured out in worship.

Like Lewis, I found God to be mostly silent in my grief. Lewis found a locked door when he knocked, looking for answers from God. In my experience, it was like God did not see a door at all and my knocking made little sense to him. He offered no answers and seemed impervious to my questioning. I heard no wailing but my own. Perhaps he observed shiva, the ancient custom of the Hebrews that forbade mourners from talking to the bereaved; perhaps his silence was not indifference but compassion.

As friends and family departed, the tears stayed with me and God stayed silent. I discovered that an empty house is a great companion for the grieving. In an empty house you can yell at the top of your lungs to a silent god, “Why don’t you just DO SOMETHING! You didn’t do anything for her! Just do something for me! Or at least for my kids!” The walls will not judge you. The ceiling will not give you advice. The pot and the kettle will only sit shiva.

God, for his part, will listen without response. This, I found, is what gives the tears space to fall. Answers — even good ones — will not dry away the tears, they’ll just put them in a box to deal with later. Silence calls out to us; making room for whatever grief may bring in the present moment. The silence of God in a time of suffering is not a period but a comma. It bids the heart into the future to the place where hope resides.

In time, though, the tears left me alone, too. They receded like water after a flood. They sank into my flesh and bones and returned to their reservoirs. When they came to me, they didn’t roll down my cheeks and drop to the floor; they stayed behind the eyes like guests waiting to be invited across the threshold. “Is it okay to come out now?” they asked timidly.

“Yes,” I have to remind myself. “There is no should in grief. There is no right way. There is only what is. Tears and hope can sit at the table together. Like the tears of Jesus, my tears are a sign of my love.”

That is the only way to prepare for death — to spend a lifetime correcting the ancient lie that real men don’t cry; to spend a lifetime reminding yourself that death demands tears; to bit by bit tear away the armor you’ve built around your heart so you can feel the full sting of death’s arrows. Only then will you have the requisite tears to be wiped away on the last day and be resurrected into shouts of joy.

So how do you grieve with hope? You cry, you remember, you pray. You continue to feast on the body and blood of Jesus in hope of a resurrection like his. After a year of that, you realize that it’s never really over until this whole thing — the world as we know it — is over. That’s what it means to grieve with hope in a resurrection that we do not yet see — to trust that God will someday take my hands away from my face, wipe away my tears, and introduce me to the redeemed and resurrected wife I lost. In that way, our tears are signs of hope; sacramental reminders of the promises of God.

Lewis, in the months after his wife died, claimed that grief feels like suspense:

I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had [my late wife] for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to [her]. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs de sac.

I suspect there is another reason why grief may feel like suspense. Hope, too, is a feeling without a target. To hope for the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting means that we live each day in suspense, with the arrow fit to the string, waiting for Christ to pick up the bow and vanquish sin, death, and the evil one forever.

It’s true, we don’t grieve like others do — with a stiff upper lip and a stabbing pain in the throat. We are free to let the tears fall where they may, knowing that God is waiting — in suspense and hope — for us; waiting to look us face to face and wipe the tears away. Even the ones hidden deep within our bodies that had no one to let them out; even the ones frozen in time awaiting for the thaw of grace. And nothing in this life can prepare us for that.

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7 responses to “Hope Is an Ugly Cry”

  1. Jim McNeely says:

    My wife died very recently after a fierce battle with cancer. It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through. I have found that there is a publicly acceptable side of grief – that I am missing her so much and that I loved her so much and that we had a great life together. These things are true. However, there is also the grief that there were dysfunctional things between us that were never resolved, that couldn’t be resolved with therapy or anything else. Things I bore for decades. I feel so released, and I also feel guilty for feeling this way. And I find that no one, even well-meaning grace-oriented people, will allow me to feel this. If I seem happy, they all seem to know and press upon me this deeper horror which I do not feel. I don’t hear about this side of it much. I’m afraid to share it here. But I am, because others might also be going through this kind of process in their grief. We are allowed to say in our heart, it is actually true that death has lost its sting. We are allowed to be relieved that the awful suffering is over. We are allowed to be excited about the process of rising from the ashes to a new life. No one can dictate that timeline. It may be long and it may be short. The death of someone close to us is a complex thing, born out of the crucible of the uniqueness of the actual secret places of the relationship that has been severed. I revere and cherish my wife and I welcome the many tears over decades of wonderful memories with her. I also turn now with real joy and real excitement towards the future, with the understanding that only the one experiencing the actual grief can say – God causes all things to work together for good. I have the sense in all of this more than ever that God sees me, God loves me, God is still orchestrating beauty in my life. It is a gift. I receive it, I love it, and I make no damned apologies for being able to move on from this.

  2. Stuart Wells says:

    You are correct. Even the healthiest marriage has difficult places and that can give us a sense of release. That does not diminish the marriage, it simply is part of every human relationship.

  3. David Zahl says:

    Joshua (and Jim)- thank you both for the unbelievably powerful words, and the spirit behind them. I’m undone.

  4. Dona Gallagher says:

    Oh my goodness! I have no words for the deeply felt emotions expressed. I have tried to help many go through grieving (I was a prison chaplain). This is a process that “tells it like it is.”

  5. Melissa Wiginton says:

    Thank you so much for your courage to tell the truth and stand in the space of complexity. This is rare. What you say is important and gives me words for something I only suspected.

  6. Rev. Paul Johansen says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  7. Jim—thanks for your vulnerability. What you share here is important. Grief is so complex. Thanks for letting us see that. From one widower to another—hang in there. I’m glad to see your hope.

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