The Prison of Grief
One of the most striking and fascinating characters in all of the Bible is John the Baptist. Yet, his last days were spent in the darkness of a dungeon, and his life ended violently and unjustly at the whim of a foolish girl driven by the vengeful counsel and lusting passions of those around her. The last recorded communication from John the Baptist in the Gospels is while he is in the darkness of prison:
“When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.’” (Matthew 11:2-6)
This is, surprisingly, one of the most instructive passages for the experience of grief in all of the Gospels.
John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus, humanity’s Messiah and savior. He prepared the way for Jesus to come through his prophetic ministry. His preaching helped flatten the mountainous barriers of human caprice and sin, and began filling in the valleys of despair, loneliness, and isolation that would keep people from encountering the love of God incarnate. He was a voice crying out in the desert of humanity’s desolation from sin and death, a testimony to the light which casts out every darkness. His message began to work the soil of human hearts so that the seeds of the Word of God could be planted, take root, and bear abundant fruit. And he accomplished all these tasks with the humility and poverty of spirit that Jesus would later proclaim as a source of happiness, and a ticket which gained one entry and access to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus himself said of John, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11).
And yet, despite his prominent place, he was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately beheaded.
One of the forms grief takes after the death of a child is that of a prison. A child’s death imprisons a parent in a dungeon of grief that is, in its worst, rawest moments, dark, lonely and filled with anguish and misery. If the death of a child places one in prison, a host of secondary losses are the bars and door that trap and keep bereaved parents in this place of dread long after the funeral and burial of their child. The source of secondary losses could be anticipated ones, like encountering similarly aged children in public, the approaching due date of the dead child, the anniversary of the child’s death, exclusion from the community of other parents who have living children, difficulty accomplishing simple life tasks once done without thought or effort, and so on. Grief and its effects can also ambush without warning, like hidden traps that hijack an otherwise good day of grief.
The imprisonment of grief is dark and discouraging. Even the holiest and devout followers of Jesus can feel abandoned and face great temptation to despair. We say, “Lord, but I have followed you faithfully, have loved you and others, sacrificed for the Gospel and generously helped those in need! Do you even love me? Can I trust you? Are you with me or have you left me to waste away in the prison of grief?”
The mourning parent has a companion and partner in John the Baptist. John was on the brink of despair while imprisoned and in desperate need of encouragement and reassurance. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John was a man obedient to the Law and the Covenant God had made with His people. He was the first great prophet God’s Chosen People had seen in centuries. Yet, this great man of God is doubting what he boldly proclaimed to the world — the arrival of Jesus, the Lamb of God and savior of all the world. Chained in prison, he questioned whether it was worth it, whether his dedication to God and the suffering it brought to him was meaningful, or if God was still with him.
But what was the source of John’s doubt and distress? He was, after all, a man who boldly and fearlessly proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. John was a man who knew the Law and the Prophets. This knowledge shaped his expectation of what the Messiah would be like, and how he would deliver his people from the powers of wickedness and hardship surrounding them. The Prophet Malachi prophesies specifically about John and the manner of Jesus’ coming.
“Lo, I am sending a messenger to prepare the way before me, and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire…He is like the refiner’s fire or like the fuller’s lye. He will sit refining and purifying…refining them like gold or like silver. For Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the Lord of Hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays. Lo, I will send you Elijah, the Prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day” (Malachi 3:1-3,19-20a,24).
Jesus directly named John as Elijah (cf. Matthew 11:13-14), connecting this passage from Malachi to both John and himself. John would have known this, proclaimed this, and expected Jesus to come in the powerful manner foretold in the rich imagery Malachi used. Yet, Jesus did not come exactly as John and many others expected. Jesus indeed came purifying, healing, and condemning wickedness, but not as a worldly soldier and conqueror did he come. The expectation in so many people’s minds, and even some of Jesus’ closest disciples, was that he would come as a mighty conqueror to crush the enemies of God’s Chosen People, just as the judges, kings, and prophets of old had done. For a man such as John who found himself in prison for what he proclaimed about Jesus, this distinction would have been confusing and disorienting. Hence, his question, “Are you the one who is to come?”
John’s doubt and temptation to despair have at their core a false expectation of the manner in which God saves his people. Is not grief this way as well? We have a great many expectations on what God should have done, should be doing now, and should have prevented from ever happening. Like John’s imprisonment, the death of a child is tragic, horrible, and itself void of goodness. Grief is a prison precisely because of this false expectation. We feel trapped by death and abandoned by God. The prisoner of grief is in desperate need to be liberated and saved by God!
Jesus’ answer to John’s plea is interesting. Instead of directly reassuring John and telling him that Jesus has acknowledged his dedication, sacrifice, suffering, and loss, Jesus instead points to all the miracles he has been performing. “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” This is an incredibly frustrating answer for one who is in the throws of suffering as John was and as bereaved parents are! John was not released from prison. He was executed in a horrible and brutal manner.
Those imprisoned by grief, like John’s literal imprisonment, did not receive a miracle in response to their plea. When the first signs of miscarriage began, the sharp abdominal pain of an ectopic pregnancy struck, a life-limiting diagnosis was given, the words, “I’m sorry, there is no heartbeat,” were spoken in a dark ultrasound room, or parents were forced to watch as all the medical interventions attempted failed to bring their precious child to health and life—each parent received death instead of the miracle of life. In the aftermath of this, life becomes a tangled pile of rubble and devastation. The shackles of grief were laid upon wrists and feet, and the iron gate slammed shut.
It is a crushing experience. But it is not without hope, nor is God deaf to the cries of His sons and daughters.
The last statement of Jesus in response to John’s question is the key that unlocks the shackles and the prison door to release the grief-stricken. “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Yes, grief imprisons and disorients. Yes, doubt and despair tempt a person to abandon faith and hope. Yes, the good things God is doing in other people’s lives can exacerbate and frustrate those suffering grief and loss. And yet, in not taking offense—not doubting God’s goodness, mercy, love, and continual presence during grief—one is proclaimed blessed. Blessedness is happiness. Happiness, in turns, causes thanksgiving, and thanksgiving is integrally connected with the peace of Christ (cf. Colossians 3:15). The peace of Christ surpasses our understanding of the circumstances of grief and guards a person’s mind and heart against the darkness and destructive aspects of grief (cf. Philippians 4:7).
The key that releases one from the prison of grief is simply this—do not take offense at the suffering and anguish of grief, and do not blame and accuse God for not bowing to human expectations of what should have happened. What appears to be an impossible situation for humanity is quite possible for God. It is entering into the thinking of God’s Kingdom that one gains access to the key which releases one from prison.
The answer to John’s questioning is born out of a confidence of Jesus’ complete victory over sin and death. It is necessary to not abandon the good things that God is doing in people’s lives because it is a reminder that we also are destined for this goodness. It is difficult to see and believe while imprisoned by grief, but these things are necessary signposts pointing the way along the journey of grief. We are released from the prison of grief, in order to travel the journey of grief, so that we can arrive at the final place of grief—grief as an act of love and remembrance for our child.
“Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” This takes faith and hope. Pray for the gifts of faith and hope to respond with confidence that God is present with you in the darkness and difficulty of grief. You will be liberated and set free from this bondage, because you are a beloved son or daughter of God! As proof and encouragement, we have the life of John the Baptist, and of Jesus himself. Both endured incredible suffering and were put to death. Such a witness as John and a savior as Jesus proclaim a God that brings:
“Liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God, to comfort all who mourn; to place on all who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes, to give them oil of gladness in place of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a listless spirit. They will be called oaks of justice, planted by the Lord to show his glory,” (Isaiah 61:1-3).
God brings release to prisoners and anoints his children with the oil of gladness and gives a glorious garment to replace their crushed and listless spirits. God is present in the prison of grief in order to liberate. He remains present step-by-step as grief moves from a prison to a journey. The journey of grief will be topic of our next post, and will lead the final place of grief — grief as an act of love.
Read Isaiah 61.
What specific aspects of grief are causing grief to be a prison? Is it the bitterness, pain, and shame of loss? Is it how others have or have not reacted to the death of your child? What secondary losses (e.g. the loss of a friendship because your children would be the same age) have accompanied the death of your child and are contributing to the imprisonment of grief? Now, give these things to God and pray for the gifts of understanding, healing, and peace to liberate you. Pray:
“Lord, God, Father of all Mercies, hear the cry of your beloved son/daughter who is suffering in the dungeon of grief! I give to you (say what you have journaled) and place my needs confidently in your hand. May I be given the grace to not take offense at You. Instead, give me the confidence of your love, a love that is stronger than death. In Jesus’ name I pray to be released from my captivity. In Jesus’ name I pray to the bonds and chains of grief—be broken! Thank you Jesus for your love, thank you for your death which has brought victory over death and vindication to my suffering. Amen”
Mary, Our Mother and Immaculate Hope, Pray for us!