Working Through Grief: The Horatio Spafford Story [EP015]

The inspiring story of Horatio Spafford is a wonderful example of faith during times of loss. But for most people, grief is long, difficult road of mixed emotions where one often feels lost, angry, depressed and confused. How can we, as Christians, support and encourage our friends and family members who are grieving the loss of a loved one? Pr. Bob explores this question. If you have experienced a death in your circle of family and friends, don't miss this episode!

Working Through Grief: The Horatio Spafford Story

Table of Contents

From Grief to a Journey of Recovery

From Grief to a Journey of Recovery
Photographer: Martin Sanchez | Source: Unsplash

Here's the story of Horatio Spafford. Spafford was born in 1828 and grew up into a bright young man. He went to school, trained to be a lawyer, and he became a good lawyer. His law practice took off, so much so that he began getting involved in other investments. Soon, Spafford was buying buildings all through North Chicago. After that, he joined a large law practice in Chicago and became quite a famous lawyer.

In 1861 he married Anna Larsen, who was formerly from Norway. This young man, now in his early 30s, is doing quite well. He has a thriving law practice in a large law firm, has major real estate investments mostly in northern Chicago. He has a growing family, four daughters, and one son who he named Horatio Junior. That's when things began to take a turn.

Young Horatio Junior died. The year after that, while they're still grieving the loss of their son, was the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Of course, it destroyed much of northern Chicago. Horatio's real estate investments were gone. So, here he is grieving the loss of his son and the loss of his investments. He began to get more involved in the church.

He became friends with Dwight L. Moody and found a sense of peace and hope from him, which is really needed at that point. As it turns out, Dwight Moody is going to be preaching in London. Spafford thought, "Hey, what a great opportunity. We all need to get away. What a wonderful chance for a vacation."

Life Takes Another Strike

So he books the Ville du Havre, a ship that's going transatlantic over to London for both himself, his wife, and their four girls. At the last minute, Spafford has a business meeting that he can't get out of. As an attorney, he had to be there. So, he sends his wife and his four girls ahead of him and he says, "I'll be on the next ship."

November 22nd, 1873, while crossing the Atlantic on the steamship Ville du Havre, the ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel. 226 people were killed, including all of Spafford's daughters. How his wife Anna survived, no one knows. What we do know, because we still have the telegram, is the moment when she arrived in England. She sent Horatio a telegram that read, "Saved alone."

Spafford was devastated. He took the next ship. When the ship got over the spot where the Ville du Havre went down, the captain of the ship stopped. He called him to his quarters and said, "We are here. This spot is where your daughters drowned." It is then, Spafford said, that he went upstairs to his cabin and he wrote the hymn It Is Well With My Soul.

It was originally just four verses, but it's been added to. But the first is this:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul

I love that story, and I love that hymn. But here's the problem. It sets up a false expectation.

Four Times the Grief, Four Times the Healing

This was literally a week later after the death of a loved one, and in this case, the death of four loved ones. Somehow I'm supposed to be able to say, "God, I don't get this, but it's well with my soul." I mean, I can't do that, I don't think you can do it either. It's not well with my soul and not by a long shot. I am still reeling. I'm in a hurricane, I'm confused, I'm angry, I'm depressed.

I got some questions, I bet you do, too. So, we have to be careful here that what we're seeing is perhaps Spafford's best moment. Where he's able to say, "I don't know what happened here and I don't know why. But in the end, God, I believe you have my back." I'd like to hear more about Spafford's struggles, his anger, his depression because that's part of the mix.

There are two important points here. Number one is, there is no one template. There is no one process. Don't ever let anyone tell you, "You should be over it by now." Do not let anyone tell you, "Well, at this point you should be doing X or Y or Z." There is no template, there's no one process. There's only your process, and your timeline may be different from mine or anyone else's. That's a really important point.

Go Through the Process

Go Through the Process
Photographer: Clayton Robbins | Source: Unsplash

How many times have I had people say to me, "I've got these well-meaning friends, but they come over. They want to get me out doing this or that, and they're saying that I really need to get out more. It was like there's something wrong with me. That there's something wrong with the fact that I want to keep my husband's clothes around.

I do want to keep them around. I don't think there's anything wrong with that." I tell them, "Keep them around. That's your process." Number two, and it's related, you have to work through the grief. There's no going around it. Which is why I entitled this episode Working Through Grief. Years ago, I taught a course called Divorce Care.

It's a divorce support group that meets in churches. Anyway, I've never been divorced, but I can sympathize with someone who's grieving that loss. And really, in many ways, divorce is every bit and maybe even more devastating than death. Because in divorce, the other person's still there, and there's that constant stressor.

But I had people say to me, "Pastor Bob, I'm scaring myself. I'm thinking things I can't believe I'm thinking. I am kind of scaring myself." I’d say, "That's okay. Don't act on it, but it's okay. That's your normal grieving process. If you need to speak with someone about it, let's get you to a counselor, but it's okay."

There’s No Going Around It, Only Through It

"You are in the midst of this hurricane, in the midst of grief, and it's okay to be feeling that. Acknowledge it. Know it's what you're feeling. Do not act on it, but embrace it." See, the only way to the other side of grief is through it. There's no going around it. It doesn't work. There's no bypassing grief.

I remember more than once. Typically, it’s a woman in Divorce Care who would say things like this, "Pastor Bob, I am shot. I'm devastated, I don't know what to do. I feel like I've been shot full through with buckshot. I'm a piece of Swiss cheese trying to put my life back together. I got all these holes and I'm confused and I don't know where to begin. I'll look around and my ex-husband's walking around like there's nothing wrong."

I'd say, "Oh no, there's a lot wrong because he's trying to bypass grief. He's trying to pretend it isn't there. He's trying to press the pause button and pretend when he unpresses it, everything's going to be okay. But, it will not be okay. That grief is going to come out sooner or later. And here's the problem, you don't know how it's going to manifest. You don't know how it’s going to end up being internalized, into depression or some sort of violence or anger. It will come out."

Embracing Grief

There is no way around grief. It's only through it. So, you have to be able to embrace the grief that you feel. When you say, "I feel like I've taken one step forward and two steps back." Get that as the process. Understand that is the process. It will get better, but don't let that scare you. Don't let that worry you.

You're on a timeframe that is your timeframe, and don't let anyone try to accelerate you through it. You need to feel what you feel. Embrace that grief. That's the only way you're going to transition, little by little, one moment by one moment. Don't look at this as big chunks. It's every minute at a time. You will get to the other side, but only through grief.

How do we as Christians help one another? First Thessalonians 5:11 says we're to encourage one another, to build each other up. How do we do that? What would be the Christian response to a grieving friend? Number one, listen. Just go listen. They need to talk. Your grieving friend, your grieving family member needs to talk without interruption, without you giving advice, direction. Just listen.

One of the ways through the grief is to communicate. There is real peace, there is real comfort in communicating and having someone there who will just listen, acknowledge. You see, we always try to fix things. I want to fix things. If I've got a grieving friend or a family member who's in pain, I want to come up with a solution. I want to fix them and I say, "Do this, do that." Don't. Just listen.

Your Presence Is a Present

Your Presence Is a Present
Photographer: Michelle | Source: Unsplash

I remember an elderly man who lost his wife. Every once in a while on a Tuesday, I would have some time and I would go visit him. I would just sit and listen. He would tell stories, stories about his wife. Of course, to some degree you might think, "Well, he's just living in the past," but that was okay. That was his grieving.

When he finally moved away, he sent me a card and it was interesting. In his card he said, "I really appreciate your visits. They helped me a lot." He said, "I just want to thank you for your presence." He meant to write P-R-E-S-E-N-C-E. My presence, my physically being there. But he wrote P-R-E-S-E-N-T-S. I think he did it by mistake, but I chuckled to myself because that's really what that is.

When you stop by a friend who's grieving, unexpected, and just start talking about their loved one, listening, that's a gift.

Second, make sure they know you remember. That's key because you see, to some degree, years may have gone by, but to them it's yesterday. It's still right there in front of them, and that's a problem. We leave a funeral and we go back to our life as normal. And we showed up to the funeral. We give our condolences, and then we go on with life because we have to. We got to go back to normal life.

There Is No More Normal Life

But for them, there is no more normal life. They have to rebuild a life without their loved one, and it's always right there in front of them. Make sure they know you remember. One of the issues here is that we are a little intimidated by it. We’re a little reluctant to bring it up because we don't want to make them sad. We don't want them to tear up and to cry. We don't want to bring up something negative.

Oh, that is so wrong. They want to know you remember. If they tear up, they tear up. Maybe you do, too. So what? They want to know you remember because it's still right there in front of them. They remember, they see it every single day. So, stop by, "Hey, I was just thinking about you and so-and-so. Remember this time he did this or she did that." Let me tell you something. People don't do that, and it is the biggest thing grieving people need, to know that you remember.

Years ago, I owned a fitness center. I had an assistant manager who worked for me, who had a little part-time job on the side. He was probably in his mid-thirties and had a little baby girl. One day in south Georgia, he was just driving along. Someone had parked a large piece of equipment on the side of the road. He didn't see it, and he was killed instantly.

Always Remembered, Never Forgotten

He’s a wonderful guy. He always talked about his mom, how much he loved her. The biggest compliment he could give you was to invite you over to his mom's for good home cooking. Of course I was at the funeral, and I met his mom. About three years later, I am sitting in a seminary course, no kidding. It was at the back of the room in a Christian history course that was exceedingly boring.

I began to think about my friend and I sat down and wrote a long letter. Hand wrote a letter to his mom and I mailed it. I just wanted her to know, "I remember him. I remember your son. He was a great guy. He always used to talk about you, and I will never forget him as long as I live." What a gift it was for his mom. Even 12, 15 years later, she writes and says, "I still have your letter."

She just needed to hear that her son wasn't forgotten, that he made an impact. That he had a role in this world and he impacted lives. Those lives will never forget him. That his impact in the world had lasting effects, and that was a good thing. We give thanks to God for this life, even though it was taken from us at an early age. Remember. Let them know you remember.

Build Up Other People in Their Grief

Third, be careful not to push. Remember, they're on their own timeline. As I record this, it's exactly one year since the death of my younger brother Paul. He died on November 26, 2019, after seven months of dealing with mantle cell lymphoma. I guess what I'm saying is, I can empathize as much as I can sympathize. This suggestion comes from the heart.

Think of someone in your life who's lost a loved one. Oh, I know you know someone. More than one. It could be a family member. It could be a friend. Contact them. With COVID, it's more difficult to stop by and see them but contact them. Call them. Tell them you're thinking of them through this holiday season, and that you remember their loved one.

Maybe even tell a story, your favorite story, a funny story about that particular person. They may laugh, they may cry. But they'll know you remembered. Then just listen to them. That's how we encourage one another and build up other people in their grief. I hope this episode has helped you. God bless.

About the author

Bob LeFavi

As pastor, professor and researcher, Dr. Bob is dedicated to exploring sermons that inspire people and breathe life into them. His passion is to seek out the best preachers in America, highlighting how they use their insights to change lives.

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