Dr. Reuben Welch, professor emeritus, and former university chaplain at Point Loma has been an integral part of our community, impacting many lives at PLNU and beyond through his classes, pastoral leadership, and genuine friendship. We sat down with him to learn from his years of experience coming alongside those grieving and mourning, and loving them.
Q: When people are in mourning, what might be helpful for them to hear? What might be harmful?
A: Familiar words come to mind: “God is good,” “God’s timing is always perfect,” “God knows what is best,” and I’ve heard, “God needed this treasure in Heaven,” which is the worst of all. I think such sayings are usually unhelpful and sometimes destructive, because they imply that somehow, God is behind all the tragedy. Actually, we probably say more with a hug, or, “I love you,” and “I’m praying for you.”
It’s important to make sure we don’t deny their feelings. We are not going to say, “You shouldn’t feel this way,” but whatever their feelings, I think it’s important to lay down ours and try to get to theirs. I think, basically, people are pretty tough. They’ll be all right, sure enough. That’s quite remarkable isn’t it? People do recover. But that’s not for us to say when or how.
Q: Is it sometimes helpful to not say anything at all?
A: Yes. Sometimes, being with a mourning person is a golden opportunity to remain silent, which we might not want to miss.
I have read about an Indian woman in a London flat who heard that her husband had been killed in an auto accident. She sat rigidly on her couch. People came and went to see about things but she just sat there. Then, the teacher of one of her children came and sat down next to her and hugged her tight. Their hands, white and brown, were folded together. The sorrow of the woman began to seep into the teacher and her tears began to fall on their clasped hands. Without a word, the teacher pressed her cheek tight against the woman’s face and she began to cry—and her healing began.
My conviction is that the Holy Spirit was in those tears and the clasped hands. He was the strength of that hug and the thin film of sweat between the pressed cheeks.
I have also thought that, sometimes, we say what the other person ought to say. That’s the problem of us saying things like “God is good.” That is utterly true, but that’s not for me to say. That is for him or her to say. If I am there in a loving presence, nine out of 10 times the person will end up saying something like, “God is good.” I learned that talking to students everyday for a bunch of years. If I was just quiet and really listened, they could pretty well talk themselves around.
Q: Is there a specific way to mourn and grieve?
A: No. The old proverb is true; no two people grieve the same way. That’s why I think just being with someone—your presence—is enough.
Q: In your years as PLNU chaplain, a teacher, and a pastor, what have you come to understand about mourning?
A: For us as Christians, mourning is never by itself. In Romans 8, it’s written that the whole creation has been groaning. Creation has fallen. The creation moans and the Spirit moans—and so do we—but it is never the end. In the midst of groaning is the assured hope of the renewal of creation, of the consummation of the Gospel. Then, mourning never becomes despair.
There’s a lot to moan about in this world; there’s so much hate and war and tragedy. But we can never separate mourning from the assured hope. And it’s not just an intensified wish; it’s a genuine hope.
And it’s not just “someday.” It makes me think of that hymn: “… hope that sends it’s shining ray far down the future …” Our hope comes down and transforms the mourning presently. That’s part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
We live in assured hope that God has come in Christ, all the way down in our humanity and all the way through death to the bottom.
God raised Him up, conquered death, and exalted Him at the right hand in glory. And that is the solid base for our assured hope. We know when evil and sin have done their ultimate, which is death, God is not conquered. And we can live in hope.
Q: Are there any resources you might recommend, either for those in mourning or for those seeking to comfort others in their grief?
A: N.T. Wright has written a really good book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. All his books are good and utterly readable. Leslie Weatherhead has written a little paperback called The Will of God that I have found really helpful. In it, he talks about the intentional will of God, the provisional will of God, and then the ultimate will of God—that God has a will in the midst of the way things are in our fallen world. It’s a fine little piece.
Q: Do you have any additional thoughts about how we can be more loving in this type of context?
A: Not enough of us look at others and say, “How are you?” and really mean it. Sometimes, I will see someone in the hall and say, “How are you and how is your family?” The response is almost always, “Oh, thank you for asking. Thanks for asking about my family.”
Where I live, there’s a gardener I often see, and I ask him how he’s doing and how his family is doing. Not long ago, I saw him and another gardener. I said, “How are you?” and tears came to his eyes. His co-worker came over and spoke on his friend’s behalf, sharing that his son-in-law and granddaughter were killed in an automobile wreck. What an opportunity for me to share concern and love. And a friendship started with a simple, “How are you?”