Flavel’s remedies for excessive sorrow over a loved one’s death

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.

Newton: A final farewell not only tolerable, but pleasant

Alterations and separations are graciously appointed of the Lord, to remind us that this is not our rest, and to prepare our thoughts for that approaching change which shall fix us forever in an unchangeable state. Oh, madam! what shall we poor worms render to him who has brought life and immortality to light by the gospel, taken away the sting of death, revealed a glorious prospect beyond the grave, and given us eyes to see it?

Now the reflection that we must ere long take a final farewell of what is most capable of pleasing us upon earth is not only tolerable, but pleasant. For we know we cannot fully possess our best friend, our chief treasure, till we have done with all below; nay, we cannot till then properly see each other. We are cased up in vehicles of clay, and converse together as if we were in different coaches, with the blinds close drawn round. We see the carriage, and the voice tells us we have a friend within; but we shall know each other better, when death shall open the coach doors, and hand out the company successively, and lead them into the glorious apartments which the Lord has appointed to be the common residence of them that love him. What an assembly will there be! What a constellation of glory, when each individual shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father! No sins, sorrows, temptations; no veils, clouds, or prejudices, shall interrupt us then. All names of idle distinction (the fruits of present remaining darkness, the channels of bigotry, and the stumbling-block of the world) will be at an end.

— John Newton, “Letter to Mrs. Place,” August 1775; Letters of John Newton, 235-6.

Newton’s words of comfort to an unexpected widow

“Mrs. Talbot was the wife of the Rev. W. Talbot, vicar of St. Giles’, Reading. In the midst of his devoted labors and in the prime of life this good man was suddenly cut off by a contagious fever caught in the discharge of his ministerial duties. . .”

Though every stream must fail, the fountain is still full and still flowing. All the comfort you ever received in your dear friend was from the Lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still; and he is gone but a little before you. May your faith anticipate the joyful and glorious meeting you will shortly have in a better world. Then your worship and converse together will be to unspeakable advantage, without imperfection, interruption, abatement, or end. Then all tears shall be wiped away, and every cloud removed; and then you will see, that all your concernments here below (the late afflicting dispensation not excepted), were appointed and adjusted by infinite wisdom and infinite love.

The Lord, who knows our frame, does not expect or require that we should aim at a stoical indifference under his visitations. He allows that afflictions are at present not joyous, but grievous; yea, He was pleased when upon earth to weep with his mourning friends when Lazarus died. But he has graciously provided for the prevention of that anguish and bittereness of sorrow, which is, upon such occasions, the portion of such as live without God in the world; and has engaged that all shall work together for good, and yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. May He bless you with a sweet serenity of spirit, and a cheerful hope of the glory that shall shortly be revealed. . . .

Will it be a consolation to you, madam, to know that you do not mourn alone? A character so exemplary as a friend, a counsellor, a Christian, and a minister, will be long and deeply regretted; and many will join me in praying, that you, who are most nearly interested, may be signally supported, and feel the propriety of Mrs. Rowe’s acknowledgment,

Thou dost but take the dying lamp away
To bless me with thine own unclouded day.

We join in most affectionate respects and condolence. May the Lord bless you and keep you, lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Letters of John Newton, “To Mrs. Talbot” (Letter 1)

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