"The man who brought the news replied, '…your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.' Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died." - 1 Samuel 4:17-18
One of my hobbies is genealogy. Recently I found a pair of several-times-over great-grandparents who in 1895 had died within days of one another. I looked at their death certificates, expecting to find that they had suffered the same illness. Instead, she had died of pneumonia, and nine days later his heart had given out.
When I was a hospital chaplain I learned that the phrase "died of a broken heart" actually had some validity. One beloved spouse would die, and the other would follow closely behind. Doctors now tell us that the stress of grief can legitimately lessen the body's immunity and weaken the heart muscle.
When Eli was told that his two sons had died, Scripture tells us that he fell off his chair, broke his neck, and died. And maybe it happened just like that. A tragic accident in the wake of bad news.
But part of me wonders whether Eli didn't just die of a broken heart.
We often don't know what to say when someone dies. And, because we don't want to say the wrong thing, we say nothing at all. But for those who lose the ones they love the most, their very bodies feel the loss.
It's our job as the church to help bind up those bodies, and support them as they recover. The work of the church in supporting others in their grief is not done with the funeral luncheon. It continues in the weeks, and months, and years to come. When a heart is broken by loss, it needs that space, and it needs other hearts to draw closer, and help it keep beating.
O God, help us to sit with the brokenhearted, and to share their grief. And help our hearts to heal when they feel like they just can't beat anymore. Amen.
Emily C. Heath is Senior Pastor of The Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire.