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)

Sadly, an eye for an eye continues to rule the day in Israel and Palestine …

I am working on Part 3 of my Ramadan:An Outsider’s Perspective series of posts, but had to take a moment to address current events in Israel and Palestine.

If you haven’t noticed yet the news from the Middle East on most web-based new services is chock full of reports of Palestinian attacks in Southern Israel that left 7 dead and others wounded.  These attacks targeted civilians on a tour bus, a military vehicle, and a private car.  First I have to say in no uncertain terms that any attack targeting civilians is deplorable, heinous, and is inexcusable.  This kind of activity does nothing to further Palestinian political causes and is a detriment to any attempt at a peace process.  And it is a war crime, plain and simple.

That said … so are the 13 air attacks by Israel against Gaza in  July and August of 2011 up to this date.  The latest two days ago on August 16th killed one and wounded 7 – some civilians as well.  These amount to a collective punishment on a civilian population and is akin to the US gov’t repeatedly bombing LA in an effort to curb gang violence.  One attack this August included the shelling of the Al-Zaytouna neighborhood where I lived when I visited Gaza back in the 90s.  I don’t know about now, but back then this was just a residential neighborhood with no obvious military presence.

Of course these bombing runs on the part of Israel are well-known to be in response for Palestinian mortar attacks on Southern Israel from within Gaza.  This is something like attacking flies with a bazooka.  The most famous retribution on Israel’s part for these mortar attacks was Operation Cast Lead in January of 2009.  In the 5- year period before this Israeli military operation 1000s of mortars had been launched into Southern Israel, remarkably only resulting in 19 deaths.   In retaliation for those deaths over 5 years Israel launched a month-long bombardment of Gaza that claimed nearly 1400 lives including over 700 civilians and over 300 children.  (source for all of these stats B’Tselem: the Israeli Center for Human Rights)

Just like in kindergarten 2 wrongs do not make a right.  Nor do 100s or 1000s of wrongs by both sides over the last 5 decades and more.

Like I said – the attacks in Israel today were deplorable.  But they do not exist in a vacuum – if Palestinians are responsible for them.  This of course seems likely.  But all the news so far is from Israeli government sources that would not likely say otherwise, nor are they likely to provide any evidence or follow-up investigation if past incidents are any indication.  Israeli Gov’t sources say that the attackers came from Gaza, into Sinai, and into Israel.  Apparently they have “very, very specific information” that indicates this.  What that info is we will never know. The attack was apparently followed by skirmishing across the Israeli-Egyptian border.  This appears to have been with armed militants that Israel reports are part of Hamas.  However, both Hamas and Egypt deny any involvement in the attacks.  So far we just have Israel’s say-so on who was behind the attacks.

Eqypt has recently sent 1000s of troops into the Sinai to strengthen security there due to rumors of al-Qaeda stirrings in the Sinai.  I have written elsewhere about al-Qaeda co-opting the Palestinian struggle for its own ignoble purposes.  It would not surprise me if this attack today was their handiwork and not that of any true Palestinian group.  Unfortunately ordinary Gazans will bear the brunt of today’s attack.  I am certain Israel will retaliate with airstrikes and it is likely that more civilians will die in this grotesque game of an eye-for-an-eye being played out on the world stage.

How much innocent blood must be spilled before both sides can lay down their “right” to revenge and agree that for future generations that enough is enough?

(My heart goes out to the families of innocent victims on both sides of the conflict.  I cannot for a moment begin to understand the pain and agony of your loss, but my prayer is that in the midst of that pain a path for a better tomorrow can somehow, miraculously, be realized.)

 

Some thoughts on the unrest in Egypt

The news and images coming from Egypt this past week have been unsettling for most.  Scenes of protesting and violence in the streets, so close on the heels of the the Tunisian protests have led many to wonder if we are on the brink of upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East.  Foreign governments have called for evacuations of their citizens from Egypt and have begun arranging for special flights to get ex-pats out of the country.  The wealthy have been fleeing as well.  While middle-class travelers have been sleeping on the floor of the airport waiting for flights, over 60 private planes have taken off, apparently including one carrying one of the most famous names/faces in the Arab world – pop star Amr Diab.

Of course, the majority of the Egyptian population do not have the means or interest to flee the country.  This is a popular uprising fueled, in part, by economic discontent and the huge gap between the haves and have-nots in the country.   Officially around 20%  of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  These are old statistics and unofficial estimates are that closer to 50% of the population live in poverty – unable to provide for their basic daily needs.  Unemployment is high, even among university graduates.

I know many Egyptians here in Jordan.  They fuel the service sector of the economy working as janitors, car washers,  garbage-men, waiters, cooks, and guards.  Restaurant workers tend to work 12-hour shifts for less than a Jordanian Dinar per hour.  Our building guard doesn’t even get paid by our landlord – for his hard work his family of 5 gets the privilege of living out of two tiny rooms and collecting a small monthly stipend from tenants.  For 6 or 7 Dinars Egyptians will wash Jordanian cars 2 or 3 times a week for an entire month.  Compared to life in America these “jobs” and rates of pay are so sub-standard its hard to even categorize.  However, every Egyptian I know here says that life and work conditions  in Jordan are far superior to opportunities available back in Egypt.  They would rather live as 2nd-class citizens and work for next to nothing here in Jordan than face the lack of opportunity in Egypt.

So it is no surprise that the those struggling with poverty and daily existence are now protesting in the streets.  The wonder is not that it is happening now, but that it has taken so long for it to occur.

It is hard at this point to tell if change will be for the better.  Many of the Egyptians I speak to here in Jordan view the unrest as a very positive thing.  They are hopeful that it will prompt true political change for the better.  However, Christian Egyptians (in the vast minority), are very nervous.  Copts in particular have been the victims of much violence over the past several years.  In the midst of the current unrest members of the radical groups who advocate such attacks have been freed from prisons.   Many are speculating that more radical elements will fill the power void that appears to be developing in Egypt.

Of course the media plays of the fears of a radicalization of the Islamic street in Egypt.  The reports of vigilante justice and mob mentality sounds pretty scary.  However, one American friend of mine says he is appreciative of the club-wielders on his street.  With the breakdown in police services and spread of unrest families and neighbors have been looking out for each other.  Curfew starts at 2:30 PM.  After that strangers are not welcome on the street and private citizens will do what is necessary to protect themselves.  My friend is known in the neighborhood and is not really concerned for his safety.  Egypt is a collectivist society and it is not, like some Americans might imagine, truly “every man for himself.”  Just like in the rest of the Middle East, family and tribe and neighbor and guest are words that hold important – almost sacred – meaning.  What may seem like a dangerous man with a club or knife on television may actually be a father standing ready to protect his family and guests.

Of course, my prayer and hope for Egypt is peace.  In the short term that senseless violence and looting would cease and that order would be restored.  However, true peace will not come to Egypt without justice.  Economic justice.  Social Justice (to use a phrase demonized by conservative politics in America).  Political Justice.  And solutions that recognize that all people deserve dignity and opportunity and the ability to not just survive each day, but to thrive.

Of course these problems are not just present in Egypt.  The gap between the economic and political haves and have-nots has been growing steadily around the world.  Personally I am afraid that “every man for himself” thinking has gotten us into these situations, but will not get us out.

Peace on Earth . . . Copts in Jordan celebrate Christmas despite attacks in Egypt

Egyptian riot police stand guard near church in Alexandria Egypt during Christmas Eve Services

My phone rang this morning at 12:40 AM.  It was my Egyptian friend Joe.  He and his family were across town at the Coptic Orthodox church attending the annual Christmas Eve prayer vigil.  (Many branches of Orthodox Christianity celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar on January 7th.)  I could hear the sound of many people in the background, the voices sounded festive and happy.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Only a week ago over 20 Coptic Christians were killed and over 70 wounded in an attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve by Muslim extremists.

Joe was just calling for a ride home for himself, his wife, and three kids.  Taxis are hard to come by late at night here in Amman, and with 100s of other worshipers looking for a ride home it was impossible to find a ride.   I was glad he wasn’t calling with other news.

Orthodox priests in traditional garb

The street corner was crowded with people streaming out of the church; conversing, laughing, and waiting for rides.  The Coptic priest (obvious in his traditional black robes and long beard) was blessing children.  A typical Coptic Christmas if it hadn’t been for the two police officers not far from the priest’s elbow and the cars with flashing lights posted on the street nearby keeping an eye on the proceedings.

Joe and I exchanged the traditional Arabic Christmas greeting “Every year goodness to you.”  “And Goodness to you.”  (Interestingly, this is also a standard Muslim greeting during their holidays.)  The family was happy and dressed in their Christmas best.  4-year old Tony was  dashing in a full suit and bright red tie.  They said that it was the first year that the church had been completely packed.  Every seat, both downstairs and upstairs was taken and there was no room even to stand.   I congratulated them, but expressed my surprise given the recent attacks in Egypt.

Baba Shenouda, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, presides over Christmas Eve vigil in Egypt

Joe replied that first of all, those types of attacks could never happen in Jordan because the government here takes a strong position against extremism and terrorism.  Joe thanked God for the safety his family felt as Christian minorities in this Islamic nation and for the police who were stationed near the church during their Christmas Eve vigil.  Secondly, and more important, Joe said that when people face troubles they turn to God and that is why the church was packed out for the 4+ hour prayer vigil marking the eve of Jesus’ birth.

Persecution of Coptic Christians is not a new thing and the New Year’s Eve attack is just the latest in a long line.  One year ago on Christmas Eve 2010 a gunman shot 7 worshipers (and 1 Muslim security guard) dead at a Christmas eve vigil in Egypt.  In 2009 attacks on both Christmas and Easter Eve services left Copts dead there as well.  And the violence is not just restricted to holidays.  This past April an estimated 3,000 Muslim attacked Christians in Marsa Matrouh in northern Egypt causing hundreds of Copts to seek haven in a church.  Over 50 homes, shops, and cars were destroyed in that incident.  The list could go on and on.

Muslims (on right) stand in solidarity with Christian worshippers in Egypt on Christmas Eve

However, it must be noted that this violence against Christians is not condoned by all.  A group of Muslims gathered near Coptic churches in Egypt last night in a show of solidarity with their Christian neighbors.  The Egyptian government posted riot police and bomb squads near churches and the sons of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak attended Christmas vigils.  Extremists have taken responsibility in the latest attacks and are calling for more.  Thankfully nothing happened last night in Egypt or here in Jordan.  But what will happen when the media attention fades and the security details go back to normal duty?  It seems just a matter of time before another attack shakes the Coptic community in Egypt.

I hope Joe’s confidence in his family’s safety and security here in Jordan holds true.  People of peace from all faiths and walks of life must take a serious stand against religious violence and the murder of innocents.