10 Thoughts on Dealing with Death and Grief

I couldn’t sleep last night.  A lot of things were rambling around in my head. Last week was a long one for me.  There was a lot to do at work and in the midst of it a young colleague in our extended network passed away unexpectedly of a brain aneurism.  And then the news of the massacre of innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

So in the middle of the night some of my mental ramblings coalesced into 10 thoughts on dealing with death and grief.  I am by no means an expert on such things, but it was helpful for me to jot these things down.  Hopefully, they are helpful for you as well.

It should be noted that I write from a Christian perspective, and wrote these thoughts down with that particular community in mind.  However, I hope people of any religious (or non-religious) background will feel free to read and comment.

1.       Grief and mourning are natural responses to death.  These are powerful forces that often result in emotional (and sometimes physical) pain as well as great sadness and crying for some people.  This is normal and to be expected.

2.       Everyone grieves in different ways.  Some express their emotions intensely and at the beginning, others hold everything deeply and only let it all out gradually over a long time … and some, not at all.  It is easy to become judgmental of people who don’t grieve in the same way we do.  We may think they are too emotional or perhaps too uncaring.  Why are they crying so much?  Why don’t they cry at all?  How can they laugh at a time like this?  As a community we must remember to pray for each other and not judge.

3.       Everyone grieves in different ways.  Yes, I am stating this again.  It is so important.  Some people cry and mourn in response to death.  Others laugh and celebrate the good things that were.  Neither is the wrong way, nor the best way to grieve.  Culture and upbringing often dictate our response to death.  As believers we should show mutual respect and love to those who deal with death differently than we do.

4.       Grief is a long and winding path, and not a superhighway.  Some would prefer that grief were a set of orderly directions to be followed for a set amount of time and then cleanly exited from by a convenient off-ramp.  Grief is not like that.  It is more like a mountain path that curves back and forth and dips and climbs.  The journey lasts for quite some time and there are often unexpected twists and turns.

5.       When comforting someone it is better to listen than talk.  Most of us don’t really know what to say to comfort someone who is grieving.  Usually there is no need to say much.  It is often best to just be present; put an arm around someone, hold their hand and just be together.  There might be a time for talking later and when that comes it is best to be a good listener.

6.       There is no need to defend God.  God can handle himself.  He doesn’t need anyone to come to his defense or speculate about his will.  God doesn’t like death anymore than we do and is greatly opposed to it.  Romans 8, I Corinthians 15, and Hebrews 2 make this clear.

7.       But isn’t God in control of everything?  Yes.  And when it comes to death it is a tool that he sometimes uses. When an old woman suffering from a variety of diseases dies in her sleep, death seems like a grace from God.  But when children are shot or a young man is robbed of life unexpectedly, there seems to be something devilish at work rather than divine.  Hebrews 2:14 tells us that the devil holds the power of death … and he often uses it.  Don’t blame God for the devil’s work.

8.       It is ok to ask why.  God is not afraid of your questions.  If you are asking “Why?” in your heart, God already knows this.  Don’t try to hide your anger and pain from God.  Ask Him the hard questions.  Let Him sit with you in your grief and pain.

9.       God has not forsaken us in moments of great loss and pain.  It is the filter of our human emotions and reasoning that often make it seem to us that God has abandoned us during times of grief.  The intensity of what we are thinking or feeling can block out both the people around us and the fact that God is right there with us.  We must cling to faith even if we don’t feel it and have faith for others who can’t stand fully on their own at this time.

10.    There is something more powerful than death.  Romans contains the cornerstone of Christian belief on death, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8:38-39)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Previous post in series: Ramadan Origins

Personalizing Ramadan

This Ramadan I have made a point of asking many of my Muslim friends and acquaintances one particular question: “What is the main goal of fasting during Ramadan for you?”

It has been a fascinating month of conversations.  For many, it seems to be a bit of an odd question.  Perhaps something is lost in translation or perhaps its a different perspective of devotional practices.  When faced with this question many of my Muslim friends hesitate and ask for clarification.  Perhaps, it’s the idea of a “personal” goal.  Ramadan has such a community feel to it.  But they also get hung up a bit on the notion of “goal” or “aim” or “objective.”  These words seem to make more sense for them in a different setting – perhaps they are seen more fitting into a business or education or military milieu than a religious one.

Nonetheless everyone (whether immediately or after some clarification) has shed additional light on the Fast for me and I have deeply appreciated each conversation.  I wish that all of you could have been present at each one.  It would be impossible for me to quote everything here, but I will give you a summary of what has been shared with me.

Obedience and Righteousness

First of all, many people pointed to two things: (1) the necessity of the fast, and (2) the process of becoming more righteous in God’s eyes.

Both of these concepts (obedience & righteousness) have grown increasingly foreign in Western thought and culture.  In the West we are taught to question authority (especially religious authority) from a very young age.  Obedience may be important for children, but even then it is cast as respect.  However, for many of my Muslim friends it is important to them to obey what they see as a command of God.  For most I would not categorize this as a “blind” or unthinking obedience, but rather a choice of the will to do what they believe to be right.

Which brings us to the second notion: righteousness. This word seems to have gained a negative connotation in the West; perhaps taking on a bit of the notion of arrogance or religious one-upmanship.  The term itself (in English) has to do with “the state of being right” or “performing right actions” and popularly may include the idea of trying to curry favor with God or people.  But in the basic understanding of the term, “righteousness” is doing the right thing simply for the sake of honesty and integrity.  For my Muslim friends there is no question that they want act correctly before Allah.  And the Fast during Ramadan is one of these actions.

The Qur’an specifically states that fasting during the holy month is an act of righteousness.  But let’s divest the term of some of it’s religious and cultural baggage and simply say that “you can’t go wrong with fasting during Ramadan.  It’s pleasing to God.”  Or, “Fasting … it’s the right thing to do.”  Pleasing God – being obedient and right before the creator –  is a huge personal goal for most Muslims during the Fast.  However, I can’t emphasize enough how this was not seen as something negative and onerous, or something simply done unthinkingly with no meaning.

Meaningful, Rather than Rote Obedience

Perhaps the following will bring some nuance to the notion of of obeying God through the Fast (the following are my paraphrased translations of particular things than have stuck out to me as unique in some of the conversations I have had this month):

  • Fasting brings me strength.  I can work harder and longer when I fast.  It makes me stronger, not weaker.  Strength in my body, but also in my mind and my spirit.
  • Fasting brings health to the body.  It is a time of renewal.  12 months you do with your body as you like, but for one month you give it to God and do what he wants.
  • Fasting during Ramadan is like cleaning out a filter.  Your stomach is like a filter and it gets dirty.  Everyday we put whatever we want into it.  During Ramadan we give God a chance to clean out our stomachs.  But not only our stomachs, also our minds.
  • Fasting is not just about not eating and not drinking.  These things are important but they are not the only things.  It is about not lying and not thinking bad thoughts,  and not looking at women in a bad way, and not treating people poorly.  If I do all of these things while I am fasting why would God care?
  • Fasting helps me to think about other people, like the poor people.  During Ramadan I cannot just do what I want all day.  I have to think less about myself so this gives me more time to think about others.  And maybe the people who do not have enough money or food.  So I can help them because I am not thinking just about myself and what I want.
  • God does not want our food and our drink.  These are small things to him.  He wants us to control our bodies and our spirits during the month of Ramadan.  To do the right thing in all of our days.
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan teaches me self-control.
  • It is not enough just to do the right thing in Ramadan.  Of course, God wants us to do the right thing all of the time.  We cannot make sins all year and then make no sins in the month of Ramadan and think that this is ok with God.  We must obey God in all of the year.  Ramadan helps us to remember this important fact.
  • Fasting helps me to become closer to God.  The Quran teaches that he is near to us.  And I hope to become near to him by fasting.
  • Fasting is all about loving God.  It is a way for me to show God that I love him because I do what he says to do.  This is a small thing for me to do.  Some people think that it is very difficult.  But if I love God it will be an easy thing for me to do.

I hope by reading these statements you catch a little bit of the devotional depth that Ramadan holds for many Muslims.  It is not simply something “I have to do”  it is something that is seen as integral to their relationship with God and others.  As I heard some of these things from my Muslim friends these past few weeks it reminded me of some things written in the previous holy books.

Fasting is not just about abstaining from food (God wants you to have self-control):

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  (1st Corinthians 6:12-13) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about our relationship with God:

    16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  (Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about how we treat others (especially the poor and oppressed):

2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: “Here am I.”   If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  (Isaiah 58:2-11)  باللغة العربية

I think this last passage speaks for itself and is a powerful template for fasting in general for all of the monotheistic religions.

Next Post: A Tale of Two Iftars

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon