FIRST-PERSON: The pain -- and hope -- after a loved one's death
The pain and hole we experience when a loved one dies are as real as life itself, and it does not matter how prepared we think we are to face that separation: Death always takes us by surprise and marks our hearts for the rest of our lives. Nobody can ever get used to death. Nobody can ever be sufficiently prepared to receive it. Death is never welcomed. Death is the highest manifestation of how things should not be, of how we lost God's original plan of shalom for us, the peace and fulfillment he desires for us.
A year ago my dad died, and during the past year I have realized that even though the pain is not as strong, the hole of his absence remains and nothing can fill it. The sorrow that death leaves in us does not go away with time and the emptiness does not become full with time. After a few weeks and months, we start getting used to the new reality and we learn to move on with our lives. Nevertheless, we only need a memory, a special occasion, or in my case just a look from my son for the pain to come back. I dream about what could have been if my son would grow up with his grandfather, if I could talk to my dad and hear his advice or just chat about the simple topics of life like sports or the weather.
Although death destroys our dreams, as followers of Christ we have the glorious hope that death will be completely annihilated, that we will receive the eternal consolation, that one day our reality will be better than our dreams. In 1 Thessalonians 4, the Apostle Paul reminds us that even though Christians suffer because of death, we do it with the hope of the resurrection (v. 13). The death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect demonstration that death has been conquered and that believers will receive eternal life: "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus" (v. 14). Jesus defeated death, and one day it will completely disappear from our existence. One day our mortal life will vanish forever as we have promised in 1 Corinthians 15:54-56:
"But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. 'O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Christ's resurrection brings a comforting hope knowing that His followers, regardless of whether they are alive or dead, will be forever with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:10). My current separation from my dad is temporary; my next encounter with him will be eternal. Our hope in Christ gives us an adequate perspective on life and death. Since death is a direct consequence of sin and completely against God's original plan for us, one day it will be thrown into the lake of fire and forever will disappear from us (Revelation 20:14). Death came to our human existence, but not forever.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned before, the loss and pain that death brings to us are real. Our hope in Christ provides a different perspective to our circumstances and helps us to continue living with confidence, but the pain does not go completely away.
Some believers who have not suffered the loss of a loved one think that our pain or mourning should diminish when they remind us about the resurrection promise, the glory that our loved ones currently enjoy in God's presence, or even the legacy they left in us. All of us who have experienced this kind of loss know that this perception is not true. Our faith and time help to heal our situation, but they fail to do it completely. For this reason, our blessed hope in Christ also includes our complete comfort yet to come. In the future, our Lord Himself will wipe away our tears and will remove our pain. The end of the biblical narrative brings an adequate consolation to all of us who have faced the painful chaos that death and sin originate:
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.' And He said, 'Write, for these words are faithful and true.' Then He said to me, 'It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.' He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!' Then he said, 'Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.' He said to me: 'It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.' (Revelation 21:1-7)."
I find myself missing my dad more every day, but also every day I long for the hope of the eternal consolation and reunion with Him and the Lord. My hope in Christ reminds me that even though death is real and painful, the Lord's promise of eternal life and His personal and complete comfort are even better. In the meantime, we will continue struggling with death, but we will do it with hope.
Octavio Javier Esqueda is assistant professor of administration and foundations of education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.