It is not a matter of “if” … only “when.” The day will come when everything seems finished. A burden so heavy…a grief so smiting…a sadness so overwhelming, it would not matter much to you if your life just ended right then and there.

For me, it was the last Sunday night in October, 1994. My father had a brain attack, one so severe he did not recover from it. He lived a few days but only because a machine kept his body alive. Ten days after the stroke, I gave the funeral homily, my older brother brought the eulogy, and my younger brother sang a song in the very church …the church where I was pastor…the church Dad had just joined the very morning of the mortal stroke that took his life…and, with it, our hearts.

That was almost twenty years ago now and I have thought many times about how I survived that experience…the grief and sadness that I only ever feel now and again, but still do nonetheless. I have reflected much on my recovery…how it happened…over what period of time the healing came…and, I have learned a few things about grief and sadness and here are at least four of them.

1. Dark night of the soul. When “the dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross called it, comes…and, be assured, my friend…the night IS coming, you will be in utter shock, denial, and perhaps even panic. If like me, you’ll shift into gear…take charge…and appear to everyone else around you as if you know how to manage unexpected, and unwanted, happenings. What they do not know is that this is normally how you respond to crises. They’ll turn to you for leadership and you’ll provide it. But do not be deceived by what feels and appears to others as strength. You are really just operating from a default position into which you instinctively shift whenever a crisis occurs. It’s a kind of denial position, too, or may quickly become so. It will be just one of many strange things you will do in the days that follow a heart-wrenching crisis.

Everyone responds to the initial shock of things differently. You would wise to acquaint yourself with “the stages of grief” because, although a dated book now, E. Kubler-Ross’ work is timeless and helpful. Knowing the stages of grief…or, knowing how grief works and the likely route it takes…will not help you much at the outset of the journey. But during the days and months, even years, that follow the event you will recognize Kubler-Ross’ path the process of pain follows and it will act as a map on your road to recovery.

2. Spontaneous Negotiation. I did a lot of negotiating with God following the stroke that stole my father’s life. By “negotiating” I mean what Kubler-Ross describes as “bargaining.” I unconsciously did this in the waiting area of the ICU, our make-shift home at the hospital during the long days and longer nights before he passed.

You will, too. Even if you are not a religious person, you’ll bargain with someone or something…the doctor…the nurses…other family members…even yourself, making promises to be different, to do something, maybe anything, if fate would just loosen its noose around your loved one’s neck.

We bargained with the doctors for more time. Daily, they gave us signals that Dad would not recover and that we should begin discussing whether to keep him attached to a heart and lung machine. The signs that they were right were all there. The bleeding in his brain never stopped. The X-rays of his brain showed more and more blood in the cavities of his brain with each picture.

We negotiated with God, however, for more time. We were certain God would answer our prayers. We believed and so prayed for a miracle, promising everything we thought might persuade God to look more favorably upon our plight and grant us our wishes.

The bargaining did not work, however.

Not this time, but there have been others times when it appeared to work. When it does, it reinforces the illusion among religious people that it was their prayers even their skills at bargaining with God. Or, maybe it was the promises they made to God that somehow finally worked.

This IS the illusion, my friend. That’s all I’m saying.

Bargaining is just one of those things we instinctively do. Sometimes, it seems to work, especially, for example, when the sick person no one expects to recover, recovers anyway.

It is still an illusion, however.

How do I know?

Your prayers will not work this way every time or no one would ever die.

Do not make the mistake of thinking it was your prayers that produced the miracle.

You say, “But does not the Bible say, ‘whatever you ask, believing, you will receive?” (Mark 11:24-25).

It does. But even Jesus prayed, “Take this cup from me,” as he bargained with God from the Garden of Gethsemane. The difference is, he went one more step, which is what I’m suggesting to you, and prayed, “Not my will but yours be done” (Mark 14:36).

What will you do if your prayers or negotiations with God fail? Will you still believe?