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Coping and Sanctifying Grief
The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “A Grief Sanctified,” published in 2002 by Crossway Books.
What is grief? It can safely be said that everyone who is more than a year old knows something of grief by firsthand experience, but a clinical description will help us to get it in focus. Grief is the inward desolation that follows the losing of something or someone we loved---a child, a relative, an actual or anticipated life partner, a pet, a job, one’s home, one’s hopes, one’s health, or whatever.
Loved is the key word here. We lavish care and affection on what we love and those whom we love, and when we lose the beloved, the shock, the hurt, the sense of being hollowed out and crushed, the haunting, taunting memory of better days, the feeling of unreality and weakness and hopelessness, and the lack of power to think and plan for the new situation can be devastating.
Grief may be mild or intense, depending on our own emotional make-up and how deeply we invested ourselves in relating to the lost reality. Ordinarily, the most acute griefs are felt at times of bereavement, when old guilts and neglects come back to mind, and thoughts of what we could and should have done differently and better come hammering at our hearts like battering rams. ‘When Shakespeare’s Romeo said, “He jests at scars, that never felt a wound,” he was thinking of the pangs of eros, but his words apply equally to the pangs of grief. Grief is thus, as we say, no laughing matter; in the most profound sense, it is just the reverse.
Bereavement, we said---meaning the loss through death of someone we loved---brings grief in its most acute and most disabling form, and coping with such grief is always a struggle. Bereavement becomes a supreme test of the quality of our faith. Faith, as the divine gift of trust in the triune Creator—Redeemer, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and so as a habit implanted in the Christian heart, is meant to act as our gyroscopic compass throughout life’s voyage and our stabilizer in life’s storms. However, bereavement shakes unbelievers and believers alike to the foundations of their being, and believers no less than others regularly find that the trauma of living through grief is profound and prolonged. The idea, sometimes voiced, that because Christians know death to be for believers the gate of glory they will therefore not grieve at times of bereavement is inhuman nonsense.
Grief is the human system reacting to the pain of loss, and as such it is an inescapable reaction. Our part as Christians is not to forbid grief or to pretend it is not there, but to maintain humility and practice doxology as we live through it. Job is our model here. At the news that he had lost all his wealth and that his children were dead, he got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21 NIV). Managing grief in this way is, however, easier to talk about than to do; we are all bad at it, and for our own times of grieving we need all the help we can get.
At the heart of Richard Baxter’s grief book is an object lesson in what we may properly call grief management. Here we shall meet a grieving husband memorializing the soul mate whom, after nineteen years of marriage, he had tragically lost less than a month before. Margaret Baxter died at age forty-five after eleven days of delirium, her reason having almost wholly left her, as she had long feared it might do. A starvation diet had weakened her, and the barbarous routine of bloodletting, the universal seventeenth-century remedy for all disorders, had done her the reverse of good. A modern reader might guess that menopausal troubles were involved in her decline, but in her day the medical realities of menopause were unknown country.
Richard, her husband, twenty years older and a knowledgeable amateur physician, thought it was what she took over a period of time for her health (“Barnet waters” from Barnet spa north of London and “too much tincture of amber”) that brought on her death.1 “In depth of grief;”2 “under the power of melting grief;”3 Baxter resolved to write of her life, and within days produced a gem of Christian biography. It is at once a lover’s tribute to his fascinating though fragile mate and a pastor’s celebration of the grace of God in a fear-ridden, highly strung, oversensitive, painfully perfectionist soul. Baxter’s narrative is a classic of its kind and will help us in all sorts of ways.4
In 1681, when Richard wrote this Breviate (meaning “short account”) of Margaret’s life, he was probably the best known, and certainly the most prolific, of England’s Christian authors. Already in the 1650s, when despite chronic ill health he masterminded a tremendous spiritual surge in his small-town parish of Kidderminster, he had become a best-selling author and had produced enough volumes of doctrine, devotion, and debate to earn himself the nickname “Scribbling Dick.” Debarred in 1662 from parochial ministry by the unacceptable terms on which the Act of Uniformity reestablished the Church of England, he made writing his main business. By 1680, when he reached sixty-five, he had more than ninety publications to his name.
Then within six months came four bereavements.
In December 1680 “our dear friend” John Corbet, also an ejected minister and a close comrade of forty years’ standing, died. Corbet and his wife had lived in the Baxters’ home from 1670 to 1672. Baxter’s funeral sermon for Corbet testifies to their affection for each other,5 as did Margaret’s immediate persuasion of his widow to move back into the Baxter home on a permanent basis to be her personal companion.
Next, two members of what Richard called his “ancient family” finished their course: Mary his stepmother, his father’s second wife, who had been living with them for a decade and had reached her mid-nineties, and “my old friend and housekeeper, Jane Matthews,” who had presided over his bachelor parsonage in Kidderminster and was now in her late seventies.
Finally on June 14, 1681, Margaret’s own life ended. As a pastor Baxter was, of course, used to dealing with deaths, but the cumulative strain of these four losses must have been considerable.
It should not surprise us that the distressed widower turned to a literary project for consolation and relief. He wrote very easily, and the writer’s discipline of getting things into shape is always therapeutic at times of emotional strain. Margaret’s will had called for a new edition of Baxter’s funeral sermon for Mary Hanmer (formerly Charlton), Margaret’s own mother. Baxter’s first thought was to bring out a volume in which he would prefix to that sermon four “breviates”---short lives of Mary Hanmer, Mary Baxter, Jane Matthews, and Margaret. Friends, however, persuaded him to drop the first three and cut out many personal details from his draft of the life of Margaret. “He was ‘loath to have cast by’ these ‘little private Histories of mine own Family,’ but he was ‘convinced’ by his friends that his love and grief had led him to overestimate the value to others of what affected him so nearly”6 Much, therefore, that we late—twentieth-century romantics, with our almost indecent interest in private lives, would like to know about “the occasions and inducements of [their] marriage” is lost to us. Nonetheless, the Breviate that finally emerged “is undoubtedly the finest of Baxter’s biographical pieces,”7 and one hopes that writing it benefited him as much as reading it can benefit us.
The personal memoir with a spiritual focus, a literary category pioneered by Athanasius’ Life of Antony and Augustine’s Confessions, was much more in evidence among the people of the Reformation after the mid-sixteenth century Beza’s Life of Calvin and the stories of the martyrs in Foxe’s Acts and Monuments being among the more impressive examples. The seventeenth-century fashion of writing “characters”---literary profiles of human types and of particular individuals, viewed in lifestyle terms---further honed Puritan biographical skills. Baxter’s Breviate, though low-key and matter-of-fact in style, is Puritan spiritual storytelling at its best---storytelling that is made more poignant by Richard’s intermittent unveiling of his grief as he goes along. More will be said about this in due course.
C. S. Lewis’s Grief Book
“Mere Christianity”---meaning historic mainstream, Bible—based discipleship to Jesus Christ, without extras, omissions, diminutions, disproportions, or distortions---was Baxter’s own phrase for the faith he held and sought to spread. Three centuries after his time, C. S. Lewis used the same phrase as a title for the 1952 book in which he put together three sets of broadcast talks on Christian basics. Probably Lewis got the phrase from Baxter,8 and certainly in likening what he offered to the shared hallway off which open the rooms of the various denominational heritages,9 he was saying something very Baxterish. Lewis and Baxter belong together as men with a common purpose as well as a common faith.
Now Lewis, like Baxter, also lost his wife in his sixties, and while in the grip of grief turned to writing---the end product being his justly admired A Grief Observed. ‘After her [his wife’s) death in July 1960,” wrote Lewis’s friend and biographer George Sayer, “he felt both paralyzed and obsessed. . . . To liberate himself, he did what he had done in the past---he wrote a book about it, a book that is very short and desperately truthful. . . . In it he is trying to understand himself and the nature of his feelings. It is analytical, cool, and clinical.”10
Baxter too is analytical, cool, and clinical, but about Margaret rather than himself, and this sets the two books in interesting contrast. Lewis’s “breviate” of his bereavement experience has been widely seen as a model for Christian grief-narrative books, several of which have appeared in recent years,11 and this gives the contrast significance as well as interest. We shall reflect on this contrast in our final section.
For the moment, however, C. S. Lewis must wait in the wings. It is Richard and Margaret Baxter who stand center stage. Our Prologue has done its job of introducing, and now we must move on to where our story really starts.
The Sanctifying of Grief (166-169)
Now that we have tracked the main lessons Richard thought should be learned from Margaret’s life story, we return to the theme of managing (modern word) and sanctifying (Puritan word) the grief experience---an activity to which I have already suggested that Richard’s writing of the Breviate belongs. I now give a summary account of this activity, in Puritan terms (which, let me say at once, I endorse).
All life, said the Puritans, must be managed in such a way that it is sanctified; that is, all activities must be performed, and all experiences received and responded to, in a way that honors God, benefits others as far as possible, and helps us forward in our knowledge and enjoyment of God here as we travel home to the glory of heaven hereafter. Of the experiences to be sanctified, some are pleasant and some are painful. The Puritan labels for the latter are “afflictions” and “crosses”; and bereavement, with the grief it brings, is one such.
How may an experience be sanctified? By relating it to the truth of the Gospel, so that we understand it in biblical and evangelical terms; by letting it remind us of truths we might otherwise forget or not take seriously; and by disciplining our hearts to accept it in an appropriate way---with gratitude or self-humbling or whatever.
Of what truths particularly should the bereavement experience remind us? Said the Puritans characteristically, the three that follow:
1. The reality of God’s sovereignty---that we, like everyone else, are always in his hands, and neither bereavement nor anything else occurs apart from his overruling will.
2. The reality of our own mortality---that we, like everyone else, are not in this world on a permanent basis and must sooner or later leave it for another mode of existence under other conditions.
3. The reality of heaven and hell---that we leave this world for one or the other, and that we should use the time God gives us here to ensure that as saved sinners we shall go to heaven, rather than as unsaved sinners go to hell.
To what exercises of mind and heart (attitudes and actions) should the bereavement experience lead us? Said the Puritans characteristically, these three:
1. The exercise of thanksgiving for all that we valued and enjoyed in the person we have lost and, in the case of a believer, for the happiness to which we know that he or she has now been promoted.
2. The exercise of submission to God, as we resign to him the loved one he has taken from us, confess to him that we had no claim on the continuance of that loved one’s earthly life, and consciously put ourselves in his hands for whatever future experiences he has in mind for us.
3. The exercise of patience, which is a compound of endurance and hope, as we live through our bereavement on a daily basis.
Richard, in his sadness at losing Margaret, transparently models all three in the Breviate. Lewis, mourning the loss of Joy, does the same in A Grief Observed.
Grief---the experiential, emotional fruit of the bereavement event---is, as we have seen, a state of desolation and isolation, of alternating apathy and agony, of inner emptiness and exhaustion. How may such a condition be sanctified---that is, managed, lived with, and lived through in a way that honors God? No Puritan to my knowledge addresses the question in this form, but the Puritan answer would be this:
Starting from where you are, do what you can (it may not be much at first) to move toward the thanksgiving, submission, and patience of which we have just heard.
Do not let your grief loosen your grip on the goodness and grace of your loving Lord.
Cry (for there is nothing biblical or Christian, or indeed human, about the stiff upper lip).
Tell God your sadness (several of the psalms, though not written about bereavement, will supply words for the purpose).
Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t. (That bit of wisdom is not original to me, nor was it distilled in a grief-counseling context, but it is very apropos here.)
Avoid well-wishers who think they can cheer you up, but thank God for any who are content to be with you and do things for you without talking at you.
Talk to yourself (or, like Richard, write) about the loved one you lost.
Do not try to hurry your way out of the inner weakness you feel; grieving takes time.
Look to God as thankfully, submissively, and patiently as you can (and he will understand if you have to tell him that you cannot really do this yet).
Feel, acknowledge, and face, consciously and from your heart, all the feelings that you find in yourself at present, and the day will come when you find yourself able, consciously and from your heart, to live to God daily in thanksgiving, submission, and patient hope once again---as did Richard, and Lewis, and millions more.
Grieving properly leads back to thinking properly, living properly, and praising properly. God sees to that! “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
1. A Grief Sanctified, 122.
2. F. J. Powicke, The Reverend Richard Baxter Under the Cross (1662-1691) (London: Jonathan Cape, 1927), 275; citing a passage in Baxter’s autobiography (Reliquiae Baxterianae, ed. Matthew Sylvester (1696; hereafter RB) that the original editor suppressed.
3. A Grief Sanctified, 47.
4. Baxter’s narrative, published as A Breviate of the Life of Margaret, The Daughter of Francis Charlton, . . . Esq.; And Wife of Richard Baxter (1681), was reprinted with introduction, notes, and appendices by John T. Wilkinson as Richard Baxter and Margaret Charlton: A Puritan Love-Story (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928). Appreciations of it can be found in Powicke, 100-108 and passim; J. M. Lloyd-Thomas, ed., The Autobiography of Richard Baxter (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1925), 267-77; N. H. Keeble, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 127-31.
5. Practical Works of Richard Baxter (Ligonier, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990-91), IV:1002-12 (“A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of That Faithful Minister of Christ, Mr. John Corbet. With his True and Exemplary Character”).
6. Keeble, Richard Baxter 128.
7. Ibid., 127. Lloyd-Thomas, 268, calls it “incomparable”; Powicke, 101, refers to it as “this gem of biography.”
8. He knew that it was a phrase Baxter had used: See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1955), 6.
9. Ibid., 12.
10. George Sayer, Jack, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 393.
11. E.g., Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); Nicholas Wolterstorff Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987); Luci Shaw, God in the Dark (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan/Broadmoor, 1989); Rick Taylor, When Life Is Changed Forever (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1992); Mary A. White, Harsh Grief, Gentle Hope (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995).
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