Learn to walk slowly
How do Christians respond to grief? Malcolm Duncan is trying to find the answers.
Malcolm, you’ve just published your latest book, Good Grief. Can you tell us about it?
“Good Grief is about the inevitability of grief, how we walk through it and how we can turn one of the darkest and most difficult seasons in our lives into one where we can encounter God, be honest with him and grow. It looks at the whole process of grieving, the uncertainty of it, and the ways in which we can find ourselves in places we never thought we would. I’ve looked at issues like how you live through grief and how not only to survive it but also to find a way of thriving despite your circumstances”.
You share some of your own experience of grief in the book. How has loss impacted you?
“Grief has marked my life in ways I hadn’t expected. My father dropped dead in 2002, and then between July 2014 and March 2016 there were three suicides, and two sudden deaths, in my family, including my nephew, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, my brother and my mother. My son and his wife lost a baby too, and my son’s mother-in-law died in that season. And as a pastor, I had close friends at church and one of my closest confidants die. I found myself having to navigate what it meant to walk through pain and loss personally, but I also had to navigate it as a pastor, walking my congregation through it. Everywhere I looked there was grief, sadness and sorrow”.
Did this challenge your faith?
“It caused me to ask a lot of fundamental questions about who God is, who I am and how I relate to the world. What did I believe about God? What did I believe about healing? What did I believe about hope? How can I engage authentically with God in the midst of all that, and not just go through the motions of pastoring or of faith? How, in the midst of that storm, do I navigate the uncertainty grief brings with it, the sorrow, the heartbreak and the sheer exhaustion? Those are huge questions”.
How did you deal with them?
“Fundamentally, how I navigated it was feeling as though God was allowing me to be honest. I began to explore the Scriptures for new accounts or truths I could dig into, and hold onto, in the midst of the challenges. A good example I explore in depth in the book is John 11 – the account of Lazarus’s resurrection. My brother had died in March 2017 and I discovered afterwards that he’d probably become a Christian. But on the night he died I’d said to God, “I just can’t bury another person I love,” and then I read John 11. There’s a line where Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and Jesus replies, “Martha, your brother will live again. Do you believe this?” At that moment, I felt as if God was saying to me, “Your brother will live again. Do you believe this?” Ans so I began to explore the account of grief in John 11. Jesus entered into Mary and Martha’s loss, gave them permission to grieve, and redeemed and sanctified their grief. He effectively said, “The only thing you can give me is your heartbreak and pain. That’s what I want you to give me. That is your act of worship and trust”.
Were any other Bible passages helpful as you faced your loss?
“I explored the Bible’s teaching around darkness, valleys and sorrow – what the Scriptures actually say, rather than all the clichés you hear. I discovered, for example, that darkness and uncertainty in the Scripture are actually a symbol of the presence of God, not the absence.
“Psalm 23 became profoundly important as I reflected on it. There’s a section where David says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff comfort me.” The authors chose to translate it into English as ‘the valley of the shadow of death’, but the Hebrew is an exceptionally unusual phrase that is very difficult to translate. It’s actually ‘the valley of doubt, darkness, uncertainty and fear’. Reading it this way transforms how you understand the whole process of grieving, loss and sorrow, and that really helped me”.
Tell us more about the book ...
“Good Grief outlines the lessons God taught me through the grief process, and explores some of the ways in which we experience grief. It also challenges some unhelpful clichés. People sometimes say, for example, “Death is a visitor that comes unexpectedly,” so one of the chapters explores the idea that death is not a visitor, but a squatter. You welcome visitors into your home, so calling death a visitor makes no sense.
“Grief feels like you’ve had a good day out, then come home to find it’s broken in and you can’t get rid of it. You don’t welcome it, you don’t accommodate it, you don’t celebrate it, you don’t want it in your life. You’ve got to work out how to endure it and turn it around for good. At what point would you ever say, “This is great, I’m so glad I’m grieving?”
Many people feel God has abandoned them at such a devastating time in their lives. Is this something you explore in the book?
“Yes. In the chapters which focus on John 11, I look at topics like ‘the God who doesn’t always come but is always there’, and the sense of God’s absence in grief and loss when he’s promised to always be there – what does that mean and how do you live with both absence and loss? You can only feel the absence of someone if you’ve at some point felt their presence. So, when you feel the absence of God it becomes evidence of the presence you’ve enjoyed, and that strengthens your faith”.
You also encourage people to see grief differently. Can you give us an example of that?
“In one chapter, I examine the Kubler-Ross grief cycle – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and say I’m not sure it actually works. Instead, I see grief as a season you’re going through: there will be a winter, a spring, a summer and an autumn. Winter grief is hard, but God is deep at work underneath in this season; spring is when you see some fruit and there’s a sense of hopefulness; summer grief is when you realise there’s been a change, and something has grown in you; and autumn grief is when you realise you have to let go of something, like the future you thought you were going to have, in order to embrace your new future. Here, there may be a deeper colour, a deeper beauty to life that grief has brought. You didn’t want it, but you can choose to live with if you can see that”.
How have people responded to Good Grief so far?
“Everybody who’s read the book so far says they’ve been profoundly impacted by it. A widowed friend, who lost her husband 18 months ago and was left with three children under seven, said it was one of the most powerful books she’d ever read, and that it had helped her.
“Rob Parsons, of Care for the Family, said it was the most important book he’d read on grief, and that it had transformed his understanding of it. And Nola Leach, of CARE, lost her husband and said it was the only book that brought some sense of comfort and purpose”.
What advice do you have for people who are living with bereavement?
“I would say walk slowly with grief. Pause often, be kind to yourself, and remember that all unfinished things can be finished in Christ. You don’t have to fix everything overnight. It’s OK to be devastated”.
Finally, what one thing helped you in your situation that might help others coping with loss too?
“Beyond anything else, what carried me through was God’s Word and God’s presence nudging me to see grief differently, to see vulnerability as a gift, to realise that I could be open with my grief, and that I didn’t have to understand God to trust him. One day he will explain everything. I had to make a choice about whether I would trust him without understanding him or walk away from him. I chose to trust him”.
In the first chapter of Malcolm's latest book Good Grief, Malcolm explores how to navigate the darkness of grief and loss. Here's an extract from the chapter:
Death has descended on my life like darkness. Grief has caught me like a hidden trap of fear. Loss has lingered over me like a cloud that obscures the light, robbing me of sleep and making me long for dawn to break and another twenty-four hours to start – even if I fear the beginning of yet another day.
Losing people that I love has felt like stepping into the shadows. In an instant, I felt like the lights around me had been extinguished and I am thrashing about in the dark. When I think of those that I have lost, I sometimes think that their lights have gone out here on earth and I consider the world to be a darker place without them.
In my experience, facing loss has meant facing darkness. In the midst of his despair, as his life was stripped back and he felt like he had lost every-thing, the biblical character Job cried out, “My face is red with weeping, and deep dark-ness is on my eyelids,” (Job 16:16).
I have come to realise that with life comes death, and with death comes darkness. The Bible has helped me to un-derstand that the inevitability of the darkness does not mean that I will become lost in de-spair and sadness. Instead, the darkness also becomes a place of encounter with God. He can meet me in the darkness. My journey through the Bible’s use of darkness helped me to see that God does things in me in the darkness that can only be done there. He comes and sits with me in the darkness.
Malcolm's book Good Grief can be ordered here through Amazon
Who is Malcolm Duncan?
Malcolm Duncan is lead pastor at Dundonald Elim Church in Belfast, and the chair of Elim’s Ethics and Public Theology Task Force. Aside from his Elim roles, Malcolm is also Theologian-in-Residence for Spring Harvest and Essential Christian, and regularly works to help the government and other groups understand the role of Church in society. He is married to Debbie, who has also written books, and together they have four adult children: Matthew, Benjamin, Anna and Riodhna. He is the author of several books, including Niteblessings, Risk Takers, and Kingdom Come, and is also a regular visiting speaker, teacher and preacher.
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