It was just another accidental drug overdose. Four drug overdoses to be precise. Three of the victims, including two brothers, did not survive their night in a southeast Michigan hotel.
I might have scrolled past the brief news item and forgotten about it. Tragedy, after all, is what makes the news. Imagine the headline “Four teens choose not to abuse Xanax, live to see another day”? Doesn’t create much buzz, does it? Perhaps it should.
But what caught my eye this time was the grieving mother’s response to her shattering loss. She had adopted the two brothers when they were young. Now this heartbroken mom had to call their birthmother and give her the terrible news—news she could barely comprehend herself.
I’m adopted too, and this added twist compelled me to research the story further. The more I learned, the more the grief became personal. Through their tearful interviews and feature pieces, the parents grew more real to me. I began to identify with their pain.
As it turns out, this adoptive mother had been adopted as well. Her own birthmother, a rape victim, had nearly aborted her on two separate occasions. So she, of all people, understood what it is to be given a chance in life. She understood how precious each life is. The pain of losing her two sons in an instant cut even deeper.
Such experiences typically motivate one of three responses in us. We either avert our gaze from the tragedy; we look on in a prurient, unhealthy fascination; or we dig deep to find something in common with the one suffering. In other words, we find empathy, or at the very least, sympathy. This is the difficult approach, for by identifying with the one suffering, we come face to face with our most difficult questions.
If good, hardworking, sacrificial people get slammed with this level of devastation, can anything make sense at all? What’s the use? What good is religion? What good is Jesus if he can’t (or won’t) do anything about our pain?
The philosophical response that Jesus will do something eventually doesn’t give much satisfaction to someone bitterly grieving the loss of a child in the here-and-now. We crave compassion we can feel. Where is it?
Most Christians want Jesus to walk with them. May I gently suggest we choose to walk with Jesus instead?
At the Easter season, many Christians observe the tradition of the Stations of the Cross. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s a series of places along the path Jesus took to his crucifixion. Churches may replicate this simply, with plaques situated at points around the church to represent the various stations, or more elaborately, with dramatic recreations of Jesus’s arduous trek.
These stations include such scenes as the Garden of Gethsemane, the spot where Christ took up his cross, the point where Christ spoke compassionately to the women of Jerusalem, and the site where he was crucified.
Imagine the scope of Jesus’s grief in that dark moment. He had created the world and given us free will, and now we were choosing to reject him. His creatures were about to nail him to a cross.
And yet, throughout his journey, the historical record shows how Jesus displayed a relentless focus on others from his own sorrow. At Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter took a sword to the servant of the high priest.1 Jesus promptly healed the man’s severed ear.2 On his tortuous walk to the site of his execution, Jesus spoke compassionately to the women who were weeping for him.3 At Golgotha, he forgave the very people who were killing him.4 From the cross, he made sure his own mother would be cared for by his best friend.5 He forgave a repentant criminal who was crucified next to him.6
This reflexive focus on others was a logical continuation of Jesus’s life. He had demonstrated great love through his miracles and teachings and through his example of servant-leadership. The night before he died, he elaborated on that love by telling the disciples what he was about to endure.
Jesus told them plainly, “Now I am going away to the one who sent me, and not one of you is asking where I am going. Instead, you grieve because of what I’ve told you.”7 Earlier that night he had said, “I am going away.”8 But he also said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth.” Jesus promised, “I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you.”9 Then he added, “It is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come.”10
We can’t escape the truth that a huge part of the consolation we receive from Jesus is yet in the future. But Jesus didn’t leave us alone. He sent us the Advocate—the Holy Spirit. As he told his disciples that dark night, “You will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy.”11
To be human is to know sorrow, but also joy. Jesus knew that as well as anyone. When we learn how to grieve with and for others, we become more fully human. We don’t stare at their pain, but neither do we avert our gaze. The Holy Spirit guides us and helps us understand what to do.
Perhaps the best thing we can do when tragedy strikes near us is to step into the grief with the sufferer (if the situation permits). We can cry with them. We might find we can do what they are unable to do for themselves in the moment.
We don’t need to say much at all. We simply walk with them. After all, Jesus—the Man of Sorrows—walks with us.
1. John 18:10
2. Luke 22:51
3. Luke 23:27–31
4. Luke 23:34
5. John 19:26–27
6. Luke 23:40–43
7. John 16:5–6
8. John 14:28
9. John 14:16–18
10. John 16:7
11. John 16:20