How Ellen White processed unexpected loss
The past two years have been filled with grief and loss. Beyond the pain of losing a loved one, many are still processing the confusing swirl of emotions that come with careers upended, plans curtailed, and dreams unfulfilled in the chaos of the current pandemic. Pressing through the fog of these realities can be difficult.
After a sudden and significant death in one of my congregations, my mind gravitated to a statement that once hung on a wall in my in-laws’ home—the cherished words, penned by Adventist Church cofounder Ellen White after burying her husband and ministry partner, were framed and visible to give encouragement after a tragic accident claimed one of their friends.
Could Ellen White’s personal experience and inspired counsel provide direction for those struggling to process their own losses? I wondered.
THE CRUSHING WEIGHT
As Ellen White rode in a carriage from Battle Creek to Charlotte, Michigan, for a weekend speaking engagement with her husband, she was impressed with how God had restored him. He had experienced significant setbacks because of a stroke 16 years prior, but was now thinking clearly, moving freely, and speaking powerfully. She records him saying, “Now that God has given me renewed physical and mental strength, I feel that I can serve His cause as I have never been able to serve it before.”¹
Plans were made to travel to Colorado and the Pacific coast, offering ample time to write. Beyond this, Ellen White stated, “We hoped that we might stand together to witness the triumphant close [of God’s work at the second coming of Jesus].”²
James suffered a bit of cold exposure from an unexpected storm on that summer trip, but didn’t think anything of it. The following Sabbath he opened services in the Battle Creek Tabernacle with song and prayer. By Monday, however, he had become ill, and, after six days in the sanitarium, breathed his last.
Hopes dashed, Ellen White mourned, “The chosen protector of my youth, the companion of my life, the sharer of my labors and afflictions, was taken from my side, and I was left to finish my work and to fight the battle alone.”³ “The shock of my husband’s death—so sudden, so unexpected—fell upon me with crushing weight,”⁴ she wrote.
THE PERSPECTIVE OF ETERNITY
This was not the first time Ellen White had confronted significant loss. Her youngest son, John Herbert, died as an infant in December of 1860. Just three years later James and Ellen lost their oldest son, 16-year-old Henry. Both parents and the two surviving sons deeply mourned the youngest branch of their family tree, as well as the oldest, whose sweet songs were keenly missed.⁵ With each occurrence of loss, however, Ellen White fixed her eyes on the resurrection at Jesus’ second coming.
Following Paul’s counsel to the church in Thessalonica, Ellen White did not grieve “as others who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). She knew humanity’s state in death and the promise of the resurrection. She fixed her eyes on the reality that death’s earthly sleep will soon be reversed for those who love Jesus.
At one point in her ministry, Ellen White counseled a grieving minister who “hugged the grief to [his] bosom, . . . loved to dwell upon it, and . . . allowed [his] mind and thoughts to be seriously occupied with [his] grief.”⁶ Finding herself in the same position, Ellen White wrote, “I keenly feel my loss, but dare not give myself up to useless grief.”⁷
Ellen White did not deny the reality of grief in the experience of others or even her own. She did not minimize the importance to work through these complex feelings. She did, however, make a distinction between the tendency to mourn loss in a self-centered, obsessive grief for which there is no remedy, as opposed to mourning in the light of God’s promises, which are intended to give hope that days of sorrow will be transformed to joy. By faith in God’s Word, this is an experience we can have today.
TAKING UP THE WORK AGAIN
White came to the place where she could “look with pleasure upon his resting place”⁸ as she anticipated that her sleeping husband would soon be brought forth from the grave. With this newfound peace, she determined to honor her husband’s memory by continuing the work God had given her to do.
While at the beginning of her account she mourned the reality of moving ahead without her companion, at the conclusion she resolved to “take up my life work alone, in full confidence that my Redeemer will be with me.”⁹
Indeed, she did take up her appointed work. Ten years after James’s passing, she boarded a ship for Australia, where new ministries were established and important books were written. More than just accomplishing tasks, she desired that her ministry be characterized by kindness, gentleness, and patience. Her own bereavement made her more sensitive to the struggles of the living.
A CHALLENGE TO THE LIVING
Ellen White addresses two practical ways we can process grief. First, she commends us to greater resistance against sin and the powers of darkness, which have brought the sting of death and loss. Second, she encourages us to serve Christ more passionately, knowing that the scars of human grief will be fully healed only when the Sun of Righteousness arises with healing in His wings (see Mal. 4:2).
During a time of widespread grief and loss, those words my wife’s parents memorialized in the form of a portrait offer a challenge and a positive step on the journey to healing: “The best way in which I and my children can honor the memory of him who has fallen,” Ellen White says, “is to take the work where he left it, and in the strength of Jesus carry it forward to completion.”¹⁰
We too can honor those whom we have lost by moving forward with renewed purpose, desiring to see their faces again, and chiefly, the face of our Redeemer, who makes this possible.
¹ Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 249.
² Ibid., p. 247.
⁴ Ibid., p. 252.
⁵ Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, p. 103.
⁶ Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1977), vol. 2, p. 461.
⁷ E. G. White, Life Sketches, p. 253. (Italics supplied.)
⁹ Ibid., p. 254.
¹⁰ Ibid., p. 253.