Thirsting for God . . . in Grief

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“We know what’s best for you,” the nurse insisted. She denied my request to see my baby daughter, who had returned to her heavenly Father just hours after her birth. Yes, my husband could see her. But not me.

That set my feet on a road of grief that stretched across years. Few of my family and friends spoke of Christy. And I could barely hear the murmured condolences that came my way. Pregnancy had aggravated a condition known as otosclerosis, and I had lost much of my hearing. My head felt as though it were encased in a fishbowl.

Most people assumed that since Christy had not been part of our household that I would “get over” my grief and life would go on. But grief denied is grief multiplied. My husband, Bill, held me night after night as I cried.

I held off for a year on the surgery needed to treat my hearing loss. Then a year after that, just as I felt my life as a mother to two young boys was getting back on track, I received the phone call we all dread.

“Early cancer,” the doctor said.

I needed a hysterectomy, and in those days, they put you in the maternity ward to recover. More tears. Would life ever get better?

Yes, God had whispered to my heart through a song, it would.

The week following our daughter’s burial, Bill and the boys went off to church while I recuperated. On the radio I heard the chorus “As the Deer.” The lyrics stirred something within my heart. I recognized the line from Scripture, and I discovered the passage in Psalm 42:1: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.”

The psalmist felt depressed, yet he remembered what God had done in the past. That gave him hope for the future.

If there was anything I needed, it was hope. I memorized the psalm, and that scripture became my lifeline through the years of grief that lay ahead.

Deep longing

The psalmist longed to know God better: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (v. 2). That became my heart’s cry as well. As I lay in my hospital bed, my Bible open before me, the pages at first rattled like dry leaves. Nothing made sense to me.

My congregation had prayed me through a difficult pregnancy. Why would God allow this to happen? How could an infant die in this day and age? Why had God not answered our prayers for a healthy baby?

But that was the very condition I needed to be in when I found this psalm, because I could identify with the psalmist: I truly thirsted for God. I wanted to know Him better, to understand His ways in the world, to experience His comfort and strength.

Remember the past

The psalmist reflected on the past:

When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast (v. 4).

The Jewish people journeyed to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate three annual feasts: Passover/Unleavened Bread, Weeks or Pentecost, and Tabernacles. They celebrated these pilgrimage festivals with joy and thanksgiving. Even though the psalmist now cried, he treasured fond memories of those special occasions.

The psalmist also remembered particular sites in Israel — from the banks of the Jordan River to mountain heights. Perhaps those places reminded him of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites as they settled in the Promised Land.

Like the psalmist, I reflected on experiences where God had helped me in the past: a serious childhood disease I recovered from; my marriage to a faithful husband; a specific prayer answered when I looked to God for childrearing advice.

While sadness now filled my heart as I passed Christy’s tiny grave in the church cemetery, I remembered joyously attending church and volunteering to serve there. These precious memories nurtured hope that life again might be good.

Grieve the present

Although the psalmist remembered better days, he still felt depressed: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?” (v. 5).

Just because we know God is faithful does not mean we do not grieve. In fact, expressing grief is essential to bring healing. If we stuff our feelings and refuse to acknowledge them, it prolongs our grief.

I did just that because I felt guilty verbalizing my emotions. I thought I didn’t deserve to mourn. It wasn’t as though I had lost a child I had held and nurtured. And after all, I was a Christian. We Christians know that children who die will be with the Lord forever. Therefore, all is well.

But it wasn’t well with me. Christy’s brief life and death occupied my thoughts.

Years later, I spoke at a women’s retreat and shared how much Psalm 42 had come to mean to me. And I cried. Afterward, two women came up and asked to pray with me. I don’t remember their words, but their kind gesture brought closure to my soul. I took comfort that I will see Christy one day in God’s eternal kingdom.

Hope for the future

The psalmist ends the psalm on an upbeat: “Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God” (v. 11).

I, too, clung to hope that things would get better. A couple years after Christy’s death, I enrolled in a seminary to better prepare myself for ministry in Christian education, and my studies eased my mind off my grief.

Many years later, when my sons were grown, they brought wonderful daughters-in-law into my life and then granddaughters and grandsons as well. Twenty years after Christy’s death, my son called early one morning and invited my husband and me to come to the hospital to witness the birth of our first granddaughter. Could I return to a hospital delivery room without breaking down?

Our Rachel entered the world kicking and screaming, and in that hospital delivery room, I once again felt God’s healing hand. It felt good to be there.

Key to survival

By clinging to the hope expressed by the psalmist, I survived the depression of my grief. There is no vaccine to guard against depression, but we find help and hope in the message of Psalm 42.

We may need professional help in coping with grief or other situations that cause us to feel depressed. But this psalm and others are available to us day or night, whenever needs arise.

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Shirley Brosius is the author of Sisterhood of Faith: 365 Life-Changing Stories about Women Who Made a Difference. She co-authored Turning Guilt Trips into Joy Rides and contributed to Proverbs for Busy Women. In addition, Shirley has published articles in such magazines as Angels on Earth, Beacon, The Secret Place, the Upper Room, and Mature Living. She lives in Millersburg, PA.