Monday, March 27, 2023

Sibling Loss


John 11:1-45

Lent 5 / Year A

Some of us present this morning experience today’s Gospel reading from a unique perspective.  To lose a sibling fosters a distinctive kind of grief.  Only our brothers and sisters know the way back to where we began life’s journey.  Because siblings are united by a common bond forged in childhood, we live with the expectation we’ll somehow always be together. Losing a sibling, then, destroys this illusion of permanence in a way more profound than most other deaths.

Generally speaking, our society does not recognize the death of a sibling as being a major loss.  If you tell someone your sister died, soon the conversation will get around to did she have a husband and or children and how are your parents holding up (as if their loss is somehow more significant than yours).  The subtle message behind this is your grief is somehow unwarranted and, as such, people will expect you ‘to get over it’ much quicker than is possible.

Mary and Martha experience a double shock.  First, their brother Lazarus takes ill; gravely ill.  We can only imagine their frantic state as they tend to him.  In their desperation they send for Jesus.  He loves Lazarus and surely will rush to his aid.  But then comes the second shock… Lazarus dies. 

At this point the sisters unquestionably experience many of the same feelings any of us would have at such a loss: confusion, disorientation, deep weeping and sorrow, the feeling of time standing still, a sense of not knowing what to do, feeling shaky, faint, or sick to your stomach, and being overwhelmed by a sense of despair.  All are manifestations of shock; the initial reaction in the grief process.

Anger is another common response to the death of a loved one.  It may be focused on the disease or accident responsible for the death, the doctors or healthcare system that did not effect a cure, and other people (such as friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even family members) who failed to respond as we would have liked.  Anger can be directed at yourself (through feelings of guilt or regret) or even at the person you lost (especially if he did not tend to own health or in some other way contributed to his death).

Mary and Martha seem to aim their anger at Jesus.  When each says, “If only you had been here my brother would not have died,” it is not quite clear if these are statements of faith or angry accusations.  Chances are the narrative’s ambiguity means there is a hint of both in their statements.  That Jesus receives what each sister says, and that he himself goes to the grave and weeps, validates and legitimizes everything we feel and experience in our own grieving process.  Because Jesus mourned, we know our mourning is a part of our humanity, not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.

Somewhere down the road those who grieve find a way to accept and to embrace their loss.  T.J. Wray, in her very helpful book Surviving the Death of a Sibling, writes about when such a moment came to her:

One evening after dinner, my husband and his siblings gather around the piano to sing in much the same way they did as children...  I know from experience the singing may go on for hours.  I sit [with others] in an adjacent room…  and I’m struck by the near perfect blending of sibling voices, harmonizing in that special way only siblings can.  A stab of sorrow reminds me that I’ll never sing with my brother again.  The tears threaten then, so I leave the room and step outside in the warm summer night.

Standing alone on the porch in the darkness, I look up as wispy clouds part, showing off a nearly full moon.  The sky, framed by treetops and studded with blinking stars, seems vast and infinite, yet only a preamble to the universe that stretches further beyond my reckoning.  All at once, I know with great certainty that my brother is now a part of that universe, but at the same time, still very much a part of me.  A quiet peace fills the empty places within my soul, as I finally believe what I have taught my students for so many years: that love survives even through the pain of death.  I lean against the railing, close my eyes, and whisper softly, “I miss you,” and my words are carried off into the night.

After that night, I knew that I could still have a relationship with my brother, despite the fact that he was no longer physically a part of this world.  More important, I learned I did not have to let go of him to heal.  In fact, the opposite was true: I needed to learn how to embrace both my loss and my brother in a new way.

Jesus grieves deeply at the death of his friend and in calling him to back to life, Mary, Martha, and others are assured and convinced of the reality of the resurrection to eternal life; a reality over which Jesus reigns.  And, at some point (perhaps a matter of days or maybe a few years down the road), Mary and Martha have to say goodbye to their brother a second time.  Surely they believe they will see him again in the next life, but this doesn’t mean they don’t miss him.  Surely they know he is with Jesus, but this does not mean they are not sad.

Some of you lost a sibling years ago while for others it has been just a matter of weeks or months.  Like any deep loss, your loss has changed you forever.  Some in your position report feelings of isolation because everyone else assumes you are the person you have always been, but you know you are not.  Some sense how others want you to get over it, but you realize it is not something you get over, only get used to.  I hope this sermon will make all of us more aware of the complexity of this kind of loss.  For each of you who have lost a sibling I pray God will use this day to touch you in a profound way.