Sunday, February 1, 2009

Comfort in Grief

On Friday morning I found myself finishing up work on a software project in a Christian hospital in north Georgia. Having some time on my hands at 8:30am, I took a break from my work and attended the hospital's morning chapel service.

I was greeted warmly by Chaplain Dave, who smiled warmly and shook my hand. I joined a group of three others: a maintenance worker, and two women, one of whom cried throughout most of the fifteen minute service. Chaplain Dave began by reading a passage of Scripture then told us about some of his encounters with patients and their families during the week.

He told about an incredible encounter he had earlier in the week with a woman who was in the ICU. She had stopped breathing for almost ten minutes and had been pronounced dead. After he was called in, he prayed for her and miraculously she took a gasp and began breathing again. A few days later she was transferred to a less critical care room. He said that the nurses had told him that they had never seen anything quite like that before.

Chaplain Dave also told of praying with a family earlier that morning who had just lost a young member of their family to death. He told us that the family was very upset and deep in grief at their loss. "Those cases are always so difficult." he said.

Soon we read some written prayer requests from patients and then began praying.

As we prayed, I thought about some reading that I had done earlier in the week.

I thought first about a passage that I had read in David Herbert Donald's book "Lincoln". In the book, Dr. Donald writes about the death of the Lincoln's son Willie, who died in the White House in February 1863 (he was their second son to die in childhood).

Dr. Donald explained:

"Both parents were devastated by grief. When Lincoln looked on the face of his dead son, he could only say brokenly, 'He was too good for this earth...but then we loved him so.' It seemed appropriate that Willie's funeral, which was held at the White House, was accompanied by one of the heaviest wind and rain storms ever to visit Washington. Long after the burial the President repeatedly shut himself in a room so that he could weep alone."

"During this time he increasingly turned to religion for solace. As Mary Lincoln said years later, 'He first thought...about this subject...when Willie died - never before."

Dr. Donald noted that President Lincoln turned to Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, where the Lincoln's rented a pew. Lincoln, we are told, had several long talks with the pastor who comforted Lincoln with the Christian belief that his son lived on in heaven.

During the morning prayer service at the hospital, my thoughts turned also to the recent death of Father Richard John Neuhaus. Fr. Neuhaus was a Catholic priest, the author of several books, a leader in the ecumenical movement and the founder of "First Things", a monthly religious journal that I have found very helpful throughout the years.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote profoundly about his thoughts on death - the article that I read earlier in the week, called "Born Toward Dying" can be found here.

In the article, Fr. Neuhaus explained how he had served as a chaplain at a large hospital where he would see two or three patients die in a 24-hour period. He also wrote about his own near-death experience several years before where he had heard "presences" (i.e. angels) near his hospital bed telling him, "Everything is ready now."

In the article Fr. Neuhaus noted that when a loved-one dies it can lead to wisdom about this life and the life to come:

"The worst thing is not the sorrow or the loss or the heartbreak. Worse is to be encountered by death and not to be changed by the encounter."

Fr. Neuhaus died on January 8th. In his final column for "First Things" he conveyed a hope in eternal life through faith in Christ...a hope that I had heard on Friday morning at the prayer service led by Chaplain Dave...and a hope that the Lincoln's heard in 1863 from Rev. Phineas D. Gurley.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote hopefully:

"Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight imitation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much I hope to do in the interim."

May you be comforted in your grief,

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