John Flavel (1627-1691) wrote the book we know as Biblical Mourning to encourage friends who had recently lost a young child. Flavel himself had lost his wife and his only son within a single year sometime prior to this writing which makes his counsel more than theoretical. The following are his seven rules (in italics) for dealing with “sinful excesses of sorrow” with a few editorial comments added on:
Rule 1. If you do not want to mourn excessively for the loss of human comforts, then take care that you do not excessively and inordinately set your delight and love on them while you enjoy them. Or, don’t allow your loved one to become an idol.
Rule 2. If you do not want to be overwhelmed with grief by the loss of your loved ones, be exact and careful in carrying out your duties to them while you have them. Don’t leave room for regrets. A clean conscience may not alleviate our sorrow, but a troubled conscience makes the burden heavier.
Rule 3. If you do not want to be overwhelmed with distress at the loss of dear relationships, turn to God under your troubles and pour out your sorrows by prayer into his open arms. See Psalm 34:17-18.
Rule 4. If you want to bear the loss of your dear relatives with moderation, then view God in the whole process of the affliction more, and secondary causes and circumstances of the matter less. This is particularly good counsel for those who carried the burden of decision-making in an emergency or end of life care. Our second-guessing may betray our confession that God has ordained the number of our days (Job 14:5; Psalm 139:16). Our time is in his hands and we can neither add nor take away from the time he has allotted us.
Rule 5. If you want to bear your affliction with moderation, compare it with the afflictions of other men, and that will greatly quiet your spirit. This counsel is cold comfort and certainly not our first recourse in dealing with grief, but perhaps we should remember that our sorrow seldom (if ever) runs as deep as it might.
Rule 6. Carefully shun and avoid whatever might renew your sorrow or cause you to stop persevering. Grief is inevitable but it shouldn’t be indulged.
Rule 7. In the day of your discontent for the death of your friends, seriously consider both that your own death is approaching and that you and your dead friend are separated by a small interval and point of time: I shall go to him (2 Samuel 12:23). Ironic, that even as we walk in the shadow of death we continue to think and act as if death is far from us (Psalm 144:3-4). We will not be separated for long.