The Death of Brothers and Sisters
George Mylne, 1871
Birds of the same nest — children of one family — how close the tie! Nursed by one mother, and from that fountain drinking in community of feeling, tastes, and dispositions; trained by one father's hand, breathing the blended atmosphere of parental influence, they are used from infancy to the same ideas and line of thought — their common center the parental bond — their home a world within itself, distinct in feature from all other family communities. And thus, grown into one another by the law of nature, and knit more closely still by each event of family occurrence — in prospect, retrospect, and present fond association, they have an unity peculiar to themselves, their watchword shared by none without the family.
It is pleasant thus to see it carried out, when brother clings to brother with heartiness sincere, and blithe exuberance of feeling, each welcoming in each, another self, a sure partaker of his interest in their common home — joint segments in the circle of its realities. Nature has ordained their unity, formed and cemented it; and nature exacts the due observance of the bond. Hence nothing is more engaging than family affection, and nothing more painful, more repulsive, than for brethren not to dwell together in unity (Psalm 133:1).
If this is so, how painful when the bond is parted, when brother is removed from brother, sister from sister, by the unsparing hand of death! Such bonds, we vainly think, were formed to last forever; and so they would, but for that little, tremendous word — that subtle and pervading fact — SIN. Hence all the ruptured brotherhoods; hence all the scattered fragments of a body, once compact and flourishing; hence the spectacle of mourning households, and violence done to many a brother's heart; and, reader, hence the call for sympathy, and hence the need of consolation in this valley of tears.
To you this forms my introduction, as a stranger-friend. Let me inquire the nature of your sorrow — in which department of the brotherhood you have sustained a loss. I gladly would help you, if I can. I gladly would enter the chamber of your sorrows, and, while I mourn with you, console you.
Are you a brother — and is it a BROTHER'S loss you mourn? Do not check your tears — let them flow freely. To weep over a brother's doom is not unmanly. My friend, I know your sorrow. Who can describe the feeling of gazing on what was once a brother living — now a brother dead! Affection bids you look; feelings unutterable bid you turn away. Death never seems more terrible, the anguish never more acute, than when you thus behold a fellow-branch from off the parent stem, laid low in icy stillness.
It is no wonder that you feel it acutely. Playmates from infancy, how many a sport you had in common! How many boyish pranks, how many a fond adventure you had together! Time came when you must leave the parental roof, both one and other, to launch upon the sea of life in this direction, or in that. His lot it may have been to sail upon the ocean on distant voyage, and live in foreign parts. Such separation for a season, only served to make your mutual affection firmer still, as each reunion gave occasion for new-born vigor of fraternity, and the hearty grasping of a brother's hand spoke volumes unuttered and unutterable.
And now he is taken from you — and, with him, all the circumstances of brotherly relation. Now you are left to mourn him — shall I say without a comforter? Not so, I hope. Nothing can bring him back, it is true — and this is cutting to the flesh, and flesh suggests no consolation — and rightly so, since it has none to give. But there are comforts to be found, not in the lower atmosphere of earthly influences, but in the higher remedies of Heaven. I have said that it is not unmanly to weep tears of sorrow at a brother's grave. Is it unmanly, in your grief, to seek your comforts in the living God? Is it unmanly to humble yourself before your Maker — to make confession of your sins to Him alone who has the power to forgive them — to seek the fountain of Christ's blood to wash them all away? Is it unmanly to seek for wisdom from above — wisdom to see God's dealings in their proper light — wisdom to bear your trial as you ought — wisdom to make the best of what can never be undone — wisdom to plant your footsteps here below, so that you fail not of reaching Heaven?
Is this unmanly? Ponder it, my friend, and let your conscience teach you, if through grace it may lead you to the only consolation. But I forbear, lest you should deem me sermonising, and so I commend you to the grace of God. Ask Him to teach you, and thus to comfort you, as He alone can do.
Or are you a brother mourning for a departed SISTER? This is a loss indeed, involving deep-seated and refined tenderness. There is something in a sister's influence so sweetly penetrating, so all-pervading, unique in family association. How often those who have no sister, envy those who have, from fascination of the tender bond, from the love and playfulness, and all the sweet realities, connected with it; fondness indulged, without the blinding influence of passion; winning familiarity indulged with purity; the interchange of manly courtesy and feminine attentions, without the risk of forming an attachment unhappy in the end.
Have I described in any wise what your sister was to you? If so, how different was home when she was absent! How different your own return, if her radiant smile was lacking at the door! How you longed to spread before her the treasures you had gathered in your travels! And many an incident you kept for her admiring ear.
How hard it was to keep a secret from her, if she was bent on knowing it! Nor were you unwilling to be pressed by her mighty, loving importunity — so winning are a sister's ways. You never were her match in fond entreaty, or persevering aim. You owned her as the victor, and you loved to have it so. Your childhood's years were dotted over with marks of her companionship; and while she mingled in your sports, you, neither of you, lost your distinctive character, while boyhood tempered down its roughness, and she could play, and yet be feminine all the while. Such memories are touching, as they play with dismaying sunlight over your bygone years. They impart to grief a tantalizing character, their very playfulness making sadness tenfold sad.
"Truly this is a grief — and I must bear it" (Jeremiah 10:19). So spoke the prophet in his sorrow. Is this your language too? Oh! there is something desolating in events which cannot be undone — to have to set the face like adamant against obdurate visitations — to eat the bread of bitterness, and drink the waters of despair — to have the heart laid bare to the thorns and briers of unmitigated woe, the sharp occurrence of unlooked-for crosses. But you are not the first to have to realize the Preacher's words, "That which is crooked — cannot be made straight; and that which is lacking — cannot be numbered" (Eccles. 1:15). Among the members of your family, you once could count your sister; now you can number her no more!
My friend, I have descended with you down the steps of poignancy, into the vault of gloom. Say, can you mount with me into the light of better thoughts and manly resignation? Yet it must be manliness after the model of the sanctuary, and not the stoicism of hardening against grief. Can you, then, mount with me that upward path? "How can I mount?" you say. Friend, there is a ladder reaching from earth — to Heaven; from a world of sin and sorrow — to the realms of peace. "What ladder?" do you ask me. It is found in Jesus Christ, the sinner's Savior, and the sinner's friend.
Mark well its rounds, ascending in succession, until they reach the eternal skies. See the first step, so near the ground! Its name is Faith — faith in the Savior's death — faith in His power to pardon of your sins to give you peace, and open up the source of consolation only to be found in Him. On that ladder — on its first inviting step — I beg you, plant your foot, in deep confession of your sins — in humble trust that God will give you grace. And then shall you ascend yet higher, step by step, into the regions of Christian resignation and sanctified distress. Turn not away, offended at my plainness. Call it not useless jargon, unfit to comfort mourners. Ask God to tell you if I have spoken the words of plain, unvarnished truth. Ask your own conscience. Ask the solemn certainty of a world to come. Look well, and see if there are other paths to consolation, lasting and secure.
But, reader, are you a sister who has lost a BROTHER? Yours, doubtless, is a trying case. If, in the brotherly-sisterly relationship, there is something tender on the brother's side — then it is almost sure to be doubly tender on the sister's part. Women are deeper in their sorrow, more unselfish than the men; and as their affection takes a stronger hold, the wrench of separation is the more acutely felt. In a brother's love there may be something of conscious dignity in fostering the "weaker vessel." But a sister's fondness is a simpler principle, less capable of being analyzed — clinging, unquestioning, instinctive love. And this, my friend, I doubt not, was your feeling for your brother who is gone.
Was he a manly fellow, sincere and hearty, reared with you in the nursery — from infancy your friend? Your little plans were formed together in childlike confidence — none knew them but yourselves. When school-days came, what grief you had in parting with him! And while he sometimes teased you — he kissed your tears away. You knew his boyish pranks; and when he teased you, you loved him all the more. And as he grew toward manhood, you leaned upon his arm, and, as you walked along, were proud of your protector.
Brothers are often shy of telling secrets, but not always so; and your brother may have loved to open up his heart to you, confess his youthful scrapes, expecting your reproof all the while. Gentle were your chidings, though sincere. Perhaps he bore from you what he would bear from no one else. His very faults endeared him to you, since they proved the sweet occasions of sincere avowal, and of faithful love. Such retrospects are tender beyond expression, and, as you think of them, you weep.
Perhaps you spoke to him of Jesus, pointing out sin and its consequences, and the need of pardon from God — for sisters mostly take precedence of their brothers in the path of spiritual life. But he may have been a character, from very infancy, commanding your respect, virtuous and amiable — a brother of brothers — such as you rarely meet. At any rate, he was your brother still, in this respect or that endeared to you. Your roots entwined with one another, as kindred suckers from the parent tree. The severing was hard to bear — the disentangling of those fibers, who can tell how agonizing!
I pray you, mourner, humble yourself under the mighty hand of God. Has He not a right to do as seems best to Him? And can we say He ever does wrong? You would not charge the Lord with having chastened you unjustly! Had He not a purpose in it, holy and just and good — some lesson to be learned, something that you required to know concerning Him — yes, and concerning self, and your condition in the sight of God?
Will you accept a prayer befitting the occasion? It suited Job's affliction, and why not suitable to yours? It was thus the patriarch spoke, "Teach me what I do not know" (Job 34:32). Depend upon it, He has done it to make you think, as it is written, "Let us search and try our ways; let us lift up our hearts with our hands unto God in the heavens" (Lam. 3:40, 41). May God help you in the search, my mourning friend, and show you why He chastens you. May He show you your true condition, and (if you are still without those blessings) grant you repentance for your sins, faith to believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit to make you a new creature, and a life consistent with His holy will. Thus may He teach, and, in His teaching, comfort you. Then shall you learn to thank Him for His chastening love!
But are you a sister mourning for a SISTER? You have my warmest sympathy. How sweet the bond of sisterhood! Of all the affections of the human heart, it is among the purest; and so, because it is pure, intense in intimacy. In Heaven alone is perfect unity — because there alone is perfect purity. Discord alone prevails in Hell — because in Hell prevails impurity. And thus, because the tie of sisterhood is pure (speaking comparatively of earthly things), it most resembles Heaven, though still imperfect in its purity.
Am I not right? Does not your sorrowing heart bear witness that the bond was of surpassing unity? It may have been that you never kept a thought from one another — so thorough was your partnership in mind and feeling. Who but a sister can satisfy a sister — when thoughts are to be told, or plans devised, or prospects to be looked at, or events to be considered? And then it is not as though two were pondering, but one — so close the mutual assent, as mind responds to mind. No effort is there in their fellowship — their hearts, their tastes, their interests are one. See how they cling together, as, sitting in the summer-house, or walking by the way, the stream of loving fellowship rolls on. And how they fly to one another, impatient to express some novel thought, or to impart some fresh communication! How easily one hits the other's meaning! It is plain they have a language of their own, the speech of looks and smiles, with which a stranger does not meddle — their intent transparent to each other, compared with which words are but clumsy vehicles of meaning.
If such the sweetness of the bond — then what must the separation be, when death, unlooked for, intervenes and snaps the bond in twain! My friend, you know it, and your aching heart has many a history to tell of former pleasures and of present pains — how once you walked together, and now you have to walk alone — how once you had a friendly bosom to recline upon in weariness, a loving ear to listen to each tale of care, a sister's heart thrown open to receive your every pain. How sweet it was! How surpassing sweet!
But now — that mournful NOW! — your thoughts return upon you with blank persistency, with no response of sympathy, no message from the inmost soul, no savor of your sweet companion, your other self. And thus you go, mourning your desolation — each care, each sorrow, each perplexing thought, pressing on you alone — your once beloved partnership dissolved, your counterpart no longer here! What tongue can tell your bitterness! What balm can heal your wound!
What balm! did I say? I must retract my words. As deep as your wound may be, or fresh the sore, "is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" Why then is not your health recovered (Jeremiah 8:22) — the fever of unrestricted sorrow checked — the oil of heavenly peace administered? Is there no God in Heaven? No Savior, Jesus, within call? Is there no Comforter to heal the wound?
Oh! think again, poor mourner — think of Jesus and His tenderness — of Jesus, mighty to console! I beg you to go to Him for consolation. Tell Him that you have lost a sister — your pet, your darling sister. Tell Him that you desire to be comforted. There is nothing like a word with Jesus. Speak to Him, my friend. Only take care you do it, prepared to take Him for your Savior, even Him alone — to look for nothing in yourself, no righteousness, no remedy in yourself — but simply look to Him to take your sins away.
Make friends with Jesus, I entreat you. It is your only remedy. If Jesus is once your friend, you know not what help, what sympathy awaits you; nor how He can supply the place of her who is gone. He does not forbid you to weep for her — He bids you love her still. All He requires of you, is that you fix your eye on Him. Gaze on Him, then — the Lamb for sinners slain. Let your eye be filled with Him, yet shall your loved departed one not be hidden from view. The more you look on Jesus — the more consoling, the more subdued, shall be your thoughts and memories. Your trial shall be made a blessing, and your sorrow turned to joy!