Hope in the Heavens

Author: Doug Windley

It has been said that people are equals at birth and death. Birth is typically celebrated as a joyous occasion, while death is a topic some cultures avoid due to the reality of its accompanying grief. Social convention and our own sense of duty can draw our focus toward tending to the deceased, and away from giving attention our own grief and healing. Death, like birth, is completely out of our control, and yet we wish we could script our loved one’s death differently. It is painful to realize how much we cannot control in this world, yet remarkable to see how tragedy can shape us for the better. Like clay on a potter’s wheel, we are continually sculpted into a work of art through our life experiences, including our grief journey. The wake of loss from a death can be crippling, and we are sometimes left with unanswered questions serving to further augment the pain. Tragedy can make people question their beliefs and also question where their loved ones reside eternally. Our crushed souls thirst for answers, and some look for hope in the heavens. We long for a safe place to open our hearts.

Hope in the Heavens

At TAPS, survivors are free to call us regardless of where they may be struggling in their grief journey. We are dedicated to life-giving hospitality, genuine respect and providing a loving ear, especially when those you depend on most have failed you. TAPS offers a safe place where hard questions can be explored comfortably and without judgment. If the words cannot be formed to express the depth of your pain, you will experience a caring presence who can be with you in the silence. We are survivors, too, capable of sharing in the commonalities of grief and the struggle to take that very next and lifesaving breath. We can journey alongside you and connect you with local resources that may help you as you move toward healing.

Tragedy can bring about three responses for the bereaved: they will find strength and comfort in their faith, they will wrestle with faith in an effort to find answers, or they will feel betrayed and abandon their faith. There are, on occasion, some without any faith foundation who seek reasonable spiritual explanations for consolation. Without question, cultures around the world hold to religious and faith traditions to seek purpose and meaning to life. Conversely, those with faith paradigms can still sometimes be ill-equipped to deal with grief or provide needed care to the bereaved. 

If you are one who finds strength and comfort in your faith, then you know your faith is unshakeable. It is a belief mixed with unwelcome pain. A strong faith is not devoid of sorrow, nor is it perfect. It is a faith that can navigate through the depths of sorrow with comfort and peace, despite not having answers. You have been given the gift of viewing tragedy through the spiritual lens of your faith. Miraculously, you are experiencing tears filled with an assurance of hope that is impossible to articulate. It is an invisible yet very tangible experience. It is not a “hope” that is synonymous with “maybe.” It is a hope laid in your rock-solid foundation of faith. You have refuge in the storm. You would do well to continue surrounding yourself with others who share your faith. They are a reinforcement to you. Additionally, as ordained moments permit, allow yourself to give hope to others.

If you are the one who is wrestling with your faith, then you are not alone. It has been said that conflict builds character, however you would prefer to be the potter fashioning the clay while it spins on the wheel since you could do a much better job. If you are like me, you have rolled up your sleeves, clenched your fist and challenged your God to a boxing match! Maybe you have temporarily shelved your sacred writings and allowed equal amounts of dust to collect on your spirit, while attempting to connect the dots of the perpetual "why?" Your tears beg for comfort and answers. Your prayers are different now, a little shallow and laced with doubt because you are fighting the very thing you need.

Going toe-to-toe with faith is different than being enveloped by it. Quite possibly, your place of worship has not seen you for some time and you wonder if they even care about you. Somewhere down the line you may have been sold some bad teaching. I call this teaching "prosperity cotton candy." It tastes so good at the time, but it quickly disappears and has no spiritual nutrition. Sadly, we can sometimes be taught and believe that nothing bad will happen to us in this world. I am not speaking for everyone when I say this, but doesn't it sometimes seem that when everything is good, God is also good? And conversely, when everything is bad, God is also bad? Or, when life is both good and bad, God is not fair? When life doesn't make sense, God is not there? 

Hope in the HeavensI am encouraged when you wrestle with your faith and religious traditions. At least you are engaged and growing, even though you may not realize it. What you need is someone of similar faith who will not judge you and is willing to journey with you. You need someone who will tolerate your doubts and frustrations. I recommend someone who has grown through tragedy and/or one who has been gifted to be present with you in loss. You need someone who can help lead and will not attempt to fix things for you. With bruised faith, it helps to have a patient friend. You also may need to consider forgiving yourself for being angry with your faith and religious tradition. After all, if you have been endowed with complex emotions, I suspect you will not be judged for exercising them.  

If you are the one who has chosen to abandon your faith tradition in the wake of tragedy, then you are human, too. You are experiencing a very real response to a very real tragedy. You have taken the clay and the potter's wheel and smashed it with a sledgehammer. You have completely skipped the idea of wrestling with your faith and have tossed it in the trashcan. Your mission now is to take control of an out-of-control world. Life may fall apart around you, but your life has boundaries and the two shall not cross! 

It is like a precious vase sitting atop the mantle, secured and out of reach, but it has fallen and smashed into pieces - impossible to rebuild. You now reject matters of faith and religion and rage against it. I do not blame you, nor do I judge you. You are the very one I search for and desire to spend time with the most. Family and friends may have rejected you for your decision to abandon faith and religion, but TAPS will stand faithfully by your side. I welcome your anger, questions and frustrations. I want you to express raw, unbridled emotions. You will not offend me. We can still talk about the bottomless pit of grief in a sacred place where unintelligible and unimaginable laments can safely be expressed. It is not that survivors of great faith, or those who wrestle with faith do not experience pain, but it is necessary for you to have someone who is willing to stand with you in the fire as well. You will resist faith and religion and it never has to be discussed until you are ready. I understand that, but I know that you will gladly welcome the hands and feet of those who bring comfort and peace. Until you find faith and religion, at least have faith in an ambassador of it.

Richard Dawkins, English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author said, "The idea of an afterlife where you can be reunited with loved ones can be immensely consoling - though not to me." He also said, "When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion." While Richard Dawkins may not be a specialist in the field of bereavement care, to a smaller population he may offer some comfort through secular humanism. I am certain that he experiences sorrows associated with the death of a loved one, whether this very real emotion is God-given or a byproduct of evolution. To his defense, even though I do not hold to his beliefs, it can be harmful to tell people what you want them to hear in an effort to soothe or erase their pain. The world is filled with armchair theologians, of all religious backgrounds, attempting to provide hollow answers that only serve to reinforce personal opinions and beliefs.

TAPS refrains from political and religious persuasions, but we promote healthy healing and wellness in the wake of tragedy. This is a hallmark of our mission, and we are committed to the healing of bereaved military survivors. Moreover, we recognize that survivors come from a multitude of religious and faith backgrounds and encourage them to connect with their place of worship to help understand life, death and tragedy. If part of your journey toward healing includes faith and religion, then by all means pursue it without hesitation. Exhaust it until you have received answers. I have found in my work at TAPS and as a military chaplain that discussions on faith, grief and God are rewarding and life-changing. Without a doubt, I routinely witness miraculous healing taking place in survivors of faith. Contrary to Richard Dawkins' claims, I do not find them to be insane or delusional at all. Rather, I find the shared nature of our loss to be the tie that binds us together as TAPS family. 

Doug WindleyAbout the Author, Doug Windley, MDV: Doug graduated from Western Carolina University with a B.S. in Business Administration. He received his M.A. in Theological Studies and M.Div. in Biblical Studies from Carolina Graduate School of Theology, and Clinical Pastoral Education from the Durham VA Hospital. In addition to working with TAPS, Doug is a Chaplain in the Army National Guard. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and three children and enjoys speaking at events and churches where he shares his passion for his faith, his love for military service members and veterans, and his heart for families of the fallen.