Pains of Grief


From September 1857 to June of 1858, Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens served as a “cub pilot” on the sidewheel steamboat, “Pennsylvania.” Due to a stormy relationship with the pilot, William Brown, his service abruptly ended. However, before this happened, he secured a job for his younger brother, Henry, as a “mud clerk.” A “mud clerk” did odd jobs throughout the steamboat. On June 13, 1858, after the departure of Samuel, a boiler exploded near Memphis, Tennessee. Of the 450 people on board, 250 died. Henry, critically injured, would survive until June 21 before passing from scalded lungs and skin. Five days after the accident on June 18, 1858, Samuel wrote a letter to Mollie Clemens, the wife of another brother, Orion. Samuel came to Henry’s side and remained there for six days until his death. He wrote the following to Mollie.

“. . . lost and ruined sinner as I am—I, even I, have humbled myself to the ground and prayed as never man prayed before, that the great God might let this cup pass from me—that he would strike me to the earth, but spare my brother—that he would pour out the fulness of his just wrath upon my wicked head, but have mercy, mercy, mercy upon that unoffending boy. The horrors of three days have swept over me—they have blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time. Mollie, there are grey hairs in my head to-night. For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised, but uncomplaining brother, and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair. Then poor wretched me, that was once so proud, was humbled to the very dust,—lower than the dust—for the vilest beggar in the streets of Saint Louis could never conceive of a humiliation like mine. Men take me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me “lucky” because I was not on the Pennsylvania when she blew up! My God forgive them, for they know not what they say.”

The emotions brought on by grief are some of the strongest emotions we feel. The closer to the individual we mourn, the more intense the feelings become. Many times people will express, as Mark Twain did, that they would gladly change places with the one hurting or who passed. The pain of grief brings people to their knees, seeking God for comfort. People struggle trying to understand why their loved ones must suffer. 

In these times of grief, people will try to console us and cheer us up with sayings that seem to comfort us but only bring more hard feelings and questions. Our attempts to console by the things we say often produce the opposite effect. Words meant to help can be interpreted by grief differently, with people meaning well and only wanting to help.

Like Mark Twain, we will turn to the one we know can help, God. We lower ourselves, declaring how unworthy our lives are to petition the Father. Yet we know that He is the one that holds us all in his hands. In the end, he is the one who can decide the fate of those we love.

King David once spent days praying for the life of his son to be born through Bathsheba. He fasted and prayed for hour after hour, seeking God’s favor, even though he knew his life had not been what God wanted. In the end, the child died. David got up from prayer, cleaned up, ate, and continued his service. He trusted in God no matter what God’s decision. He then continued to serve the God who loved and cared for him.

Grief is a heavy burden that we each must take some time in our lives. However, eventually, grief fades, tears dry, and the hurt lessens. But the scars will remain, and there will be times that moments of grief flare-up. However, we know that God never leaves us, and He is always there to comfort us with His love and promises.

Mark Twain longed to trade places with his brother, willing to give his life up for him to be healed. God did not allow that to occur. However, there was a time when God did allow someone to trade places. The people of the world were lost, and saving themselves was impossible. Then some two-thousand years ago, God sent His son to give His life to save a lost world. Mark tells it, “For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”

God understands our pain in grief. He understands how the loss or pains of our loved ones take a toll on our lives. No matter where we find ourselves in the grief process, we are never alone. We serve the same God of the Israelites. His words to them ring true just as much today as then. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6 (NIV2011)

Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ


  • Our human experience is indeed difficult. The pain of other’s suffering cannot be transferred to us. Oh, we can relate very closely to it and suffer in that manner but we cannot consume it. The sacrifice of Jesus is a phenomenal act of God on our behalf and it is an absolute assurance of His love for us.


  • I had never heard that story of Clemens’ brother’s death. What he wrote to his sister-in-law expresses so eloquently the pain I have felt at times in my life when all appeared hopeless. I know from studying Mark Twain that his life had many, many tragedies. He was no stranger to grief. Thank you for sharing this story.


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