A Letter I Don’t Want to Write …

Over the years I have been blessed with many valued friends, one of whom died yesterday from the coronavirus and several other friends are still fighting it. I believe in the power of prayer and in divine  healing, but I don’t see that God gives any of us an opt-out from suffering and death.

To handle the death of a loved one is always painful, but the present circumstances make it especially difficult. Deaths with this virus are sudden and often solitary and any funeral arrangements are limited in time and attendees. This makes it especially hard for those who had their final hours alone without their loved ones present and for those who are left behind. It could not be much harder to bear, I am sure, to lose a loved one in these circumstances.

I am aware of the reality that I may find myself writing difficult letters of sorrow in the weeks and months to come. Here below is one in which I’ve imagined a dear friend who has just lost their spouse. In it I’ve tried to express something of what I might want to say. I hope that in reality I don’t have to write too many such letters.

Dear George,

At the moment, words are inadequate. I was pleased to talk face to face (or rather, screen to screen) with you the other day but it was, as they say, ‘cold comfort’. I would love to come over, give you that comforting hug and sit down, talk, weep with you and pray together. But for the time being it cannot be and, sadly, we must make do with words.

There’s a lot I could say about Mary and, had there been a ‘proper’ funeral, we would have shared many happy memories of her. Perhaps when ‘this’ is all over we will be able to have a memorial service, but that is for another day. For now we have our memories at least to bring some comfort to us.

I thought I would write to tell you not just that I am thinking of you and praying for you. I’m afraid, preacher that I am, I find myself with three reflections which I hope will comfort and help you.

I’m praying for realism. For decades you and I have declared the truth of the resurrection: not just that Christ was raised that first Easter, but that we who have believed and trusted in him will one day be raised to life too. That is wonderful and has been a real witness and encouragement to so many.

We often hope that, when death strikes those near to us, we ought to be able to say with quiet confidence that she or he ‘is now with Christ’ and so rise easily above grief and bereavement.

Experience has shown me, however, that this is not the case. The heart grieves and God has placed that in us for a purpose. I know that the more we love, the more we can grieve and that the depth of our grief and loss is often an indication of the depth of our love for that person. We all grieve differently and at different times. For some, the shock of losing someone, especially in today’s environment, delays grief for a while due to the speed of events. We can hardly process what we have just experienced.

We all experience loss and bereavement differently and there is no right or wrong way of saying goodbye to those we love.

I am reminded that in Acts 8 we read how after the death of Stephen, the first martyr, some ‘devout men’ came and buried him ‘with great lamentation’. They knew where he had gone but they still grieved. So I’m praying that you will be spared from unrealistic expectations that arise either from yourself or from others. Bereavement hurts: yes, we have hope, but we also shed tears. Grieve, dear friend, grieve and know I am praying for God to comfort you as the tears fall.

Second, I’m praying for release. I can only guess under these sudden and dreadful circumstances you might feel cheated, angry and possibly guilty. It might be that you are wondering whether you have prayed enough. I think we all experience this at some time when prayers appear unanswered.

The prayer that begins ‘Our Father’ also includes the petition ‘your will be done’. God knows best. As to the manner of her death, I think we have been betrayed by tradition. We all hold in our minds those scenes where the assembled family gather around the bed as, amidst tears and fond farewells, the loved one slides peacefully into eternity. I suspect such occasions have always been the exception rather than the rule. In the past many a soldier and sailor never returned home to be buried. As I understand it, in Mary’s case, everybody – you, the doctors, the health service – did all they could. You may, of course, harbour sadness and pain with Jesus not intervening as you had hoped. There is great comfort  in remembering that, uniquely, one of the great gifts Jesus offers us is his personal understanding of a harsh death and a hasty burial. Such is our faith that there is much mystery we do not fully understand, yet we know our Saviour comforts us through first-hand experience of death and bereavement himself. Christ understands our disappointments and pain. He invites us to process it with him.

I’m praying for reflection, that you will be able to look back over your many years of happy marriage and give thanks to God for a tremendous partnership that blessed and enriched all who knew you. That you will be able to praise God for your wonderful children and grandchildren. I am reminded, too, that as C.S. Lewis said of another bereavement, this is a ‘severe mercy’.

Mary left us in her prime. I know you had plans for the years ahead. I am sorry those plans will not be. I pray that you can think of what you were given, not what you feel was taken away. God never robs his children.

We who know Christ and the presence and peace of his Spirit can have a confident peace and joy. As the Apostle’s Creed says, we believe – perhaps better, we trust – ‘in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’. Like a ship sailing away, Mary has disappeared from our sight over the horizon, but we know that, in Christ – and there is our confidence – she has already reached welcoming hands and a safe harbour on the other side. One day, you and she will be gathered together in God’s presence.

Those are my prayers. How much better are God’s words. As Paul writes, ‘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 NIV). It’s all there, isn’t it? The love of God, the Lordship of Christ and triumph over all evil and death itself! Amen!

May you know the Comforter’s embrace at this time.

I love you, dear friend.

Grace and Peace


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