What I’ve Learned about Grieving With Hope

What I’ve Learned about Grieving With Hope April 22, 2024

Tomorrow, March 28, marks two years since Nanci entered the presence of Jesus, after a four-year battle with cancer. I’ve been reflecting on what God has been teaching me since her death and its first-year anniversary.

Google “Grief recovery,” and there are over one million hits. It’s an interesting term. You recover from a cold, a virus, or a broken arm. I don’t think you really recover from the huge loss—the amputation, so to speak—of someone central to your life.

There is something in me that does not want to ever “get over” my loss of Nanci. Yet I also recognize that God has been doing a work of grace in my life over the last two years, and bringing me comfort that allows me to go forward without her. Greatly helped by the anticipation of being with her again in the presence of Jesus! (I really like the photo above, as it captures Nanci’s delight. And as I think about her joy, it helps me tremendously through times of grief. The photo of us together on that ride is an example of our shared delight, that so warms my heart as much now as it ever has.)

God has also graciously allowed me to encourage and be encouraged by other grieving people, many of whom have contacted us through our website or on social media. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is what it looks like to grieve in light of the certain blood-bought hope of the gospel. (Which is very different than the “hope” that is just wishful thinking.)

After I spoke at Shepherd’s House Church in Phoenix, Arizona, where Costi Hinn pastors, I recorded some videos with Costi, to be featured on For the Gospel. He asked, “What would you say to a Christian who is mourning the loss of a loved one?”

As I mention in the video, I’ve heard it said, “There’s no wrong way to grieve.” I disagree. (Certainly, there are different ways and lengths of time to grieve. We should not rebuke or lay guilt on the brokenhearted!)

The Bible says this about grief: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14 NLT, emphasis added).

Doesn’t this mean grieving as if we have no hope is the wrong way to grieve? And that grieving while embracing Christ’s rock-solid promise of His second coming and our resurrection—and that of all who love Him—is the right way to grieve? (See Biblical Hope Is a Solid Certainty.)

Ponder this portion of Romans 8, which brings perspective to grieving:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:22-25)

Healthy grief recognizes the reality of the loss, but it has eternal perspective. It also recognizes, slowly but surely, that this present life goes on, and even gets better over time. “For everything there is a season. . . . A time to cry and a time to laugh. . . A time to grieve and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4 NLT). “The hope of the righteous brings joy” (Proverbs 10:28).

God took Nanci out of this world, but He has not chosen to take me yet. He has sovereign reasons for this. Since her death, I have been grieving, but I’ve also been writing, traveling, bike riding, and playing tennis with high school kids that I coach, including my grandsons. I gather with fellow believers, at church and elsewhere, meet with a small group of men, and weekly have dinner with old friends. Along the way grief comes and goes. I don’t push grief off the couch, but neither do I allow it to claim the couch and push me onto the floor. (Early on grief will sometimes do that, but with healthy grieving over time that will become the exception not the rule.)

I also don’t expect my grief to cross a clear-cut finish line where one day I say, “OK, that’s done, no more grief.” I expect to always miss Nanci but not to always be heartbroken. In fact, even now most days I am not heartbroken. (But others who grieve still are, and I’m neither better nor worse than they, because we’re all different, and my grief isn’t the measure of theirs.)

The single greatest help to my grieving well is that I have come to truly sense Jesus with me. He is my friend and is with me and walking alongside me. The friendship of Jesus is the most comforting reality in my life. I sense His presence not only as I read my Bible and pray, but also as I walk our dog Gracie—Nanci and I picked her out together—and write and eat and meet with friends and watch a good movie.

This loss is not what I would have chosen, but my loss is Nanci’s gain, and Nanci is Heaven’s gain. I have not resented my Lord even for a moment (though if I did, I know He would be quick to forgive). His scarred hands and feet, which I think will be the only disfigurements in the resurrection, are the only reminder I need to trust Him.

Since Nanci died, I have stayed twice at our favorite place in Maui, which Nanci called her “Happy Place.” She is now in a far happier place, but it has brought me great happiness to go visit all the beaches and restaurants and snorkeling spots that meant so much to us. People ask me if it has been hard. Only slightly, but the joy of remembering our wonderful times there far outweighs the sorrow.

My loss of Nanci, big though it is, really is temporary. My gain of Jesus is eternal. Nothing will ever take away from the fact that Nanci and I walked this earth together and one day will walk the New Earth in Christ’s presence. That will truly be our “happiest place.”

Some people can no longer live in the same house or sleep in the same bedroom where their loved one died, because the memories are so painful. They put away photos and personal items. I feel for them, but it’s not that way for me. My memories are vivid, but the good ones far outweigh the bad ones, and remembering the good ones is therapy for my heart. For instance, Nanci had a particular coconut skin lotion she loved and the smell was on her skin and in her clothes. I bought several bottles of it after her homegoing, and I keep one of them open on her side of the closet. (Our daughters moved out most her clothes, two months after she died, but I chose a small number of outfits to keep that had special meaning.) Sometimes I open that closet door because I love that smell—it reminds me of her, and I enjoy being reminded of her. Everyone’s different. As long as you are moving forward in your grief, and not stalled or entrenched in it, it’s positive. While moving forward, for me it’s healing to look back and remember.

I have favorite photos of her spread around the house. One is a photo of her in the ocean kissing a giant sting ray (on a supervised boat trip where doing so was safe). Another is of her relaxing on a big pool float out in the sun with blue sky. She and I were near each other all those years captured in the photos on our walls, nearly all of which I took. If they usually made me feel bad I’d need to put them away. But as long as they make me feel good, I’ll keep them visible.

There’s hardly a day that goes by without me pondering God’s sovereign plan in leading me to write the books that I’ve written, which accounted for why Nanci and I have talked so much about:

  • Living in light of eternity
  • Heaven and the New Earth
  • Suffering
  • Happiness

In Money, Possessions and Eternity and again in If God Is Good, I talked about the unbiblical nature of prosperity theology. Nanci and I never believed we were immune from bad health, or that we somehow deserved healing more than others, or that we could “name it and claim it.”

More than anything else I’ve been telling people, “Take the opportunity right now, while you still can, to discuss the fact that we get old and sometimes get sick and always die. So let’s help eternity and deep spiritual truths sink into our minds and comfort us.”

Many people will die suddenly, from heart attacks or car accidents. Nanci and I had the warning, and while it was a tough four years, we walked it together. I had the privilege of serving her and demonstrating my love. I was glad to cancel speaking engagements and set aside book deadlines. And we spent that time together. I have no regrets.

Until I enter Christ’s presence, I embrace Paul’s words: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

Hebrews 11 says of Abel that though he is dead, he yet speaks. One of the ways Nanci speaks to me is through the Scripture she put up around our house, including a stencil of Lamentations 3:22-23 I see in our bedroom every night and morning:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

On our refrigerator there are five passages of Scripture Nanci printed out and looked at daily. Now sometimes I still look at them. I suspect that when I die those verses will still be there on our fridge. No matter what you’re facing today, I hope they encourage you too:

I will give thanks to you, LORD, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. (Psalm 9:1-2)

Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song. (Psalm 95:1-2)

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. (Psalm 100:4-5)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

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