How to Grieve as a Christian
Since my dad passed away at the end of October I’ve been learning a lot about grieving. In God’s kindness I haven’t had a close family bereavement like this until now. I’ve watched others grieve; as a Pastor I’ve helped others in their grief. But this is the first time I’ve experienced the pain of being bereaved for myself. In no particular order, here are some lessons the Lord has been teaching me through this trial:
1. Christians do grieve. Paul gives believers theological truth about life and death in 1 Thessalonians 4.13 ‘that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ Christians don’t grieve for believers who have died in the same way as unbelievers grieve—but we do still grieve. Grief is still grief—it hurts keenly. The pain is greatly eased by knowing that our loved ones are blissfully happy, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are not here with us and we miss them desperately. We are glad for them, but we are sad for ourselves. Death is an unnatural intruder into God’s world, the wages of sin, part of God’s righteous curse on the human race. It hurts. Some Christians can give the impression that grieving is a lack of faith. Perhaps they forget that Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend. Grieving is a good sign—it’s evidence that we loved the person who has died, that they meant a lot to us, that we are the poorer for having lost them. Isn’t that the conclusion onlookers drew about Jesus’ relationship to Lazarus? ‘So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”’ (Jn 11.36)
2. Express your emotion. We are not disembodied souls. Our Bibles teach us that we are made up of two parts—a body and a soul—and there is a complex interplay between these two facets of our being. We don’t just think thoughts. We feel with the emotional register God has given us. There is nothing sanctified about repressing emotion—it’s a denial of our God-given, God-designed humanity. It is more Stoic than Christian. Our emotions are from God. Yes, sin has polluted them, like every other part of our humanity, but that doesn’t mean they are themselves evil. There is a godly way of expressing emotion. We need to confess our emotional sins, along with our intellectual ones. We get sad about things we shouldn’t get sad about, or to a degree that we shouldn’t get sad—and we don’t get sad about things we most certainly should get sad about, or we don’t get sad enough about them. We need to strive to express our grief appropriately, at the right time and place. But there is a time and place for expressing grief. A good cry is a cathartic blessing from God. Jesus wept—and so should we. Remember too that we all feel and express emotion in different ways, according to the personalities God has given us. There are wrong ways of expressing emotion, but there is no one right way. Two friends of mine in the ministry conducted the funeral services for their fathers, whereas I didn’t trust myself to speak a single word at my dad’s. Some might weep copiously every day, others hardly at all. Our love is not measured in cubic centimetres of tears!
3. Take one day at a time. It’s tempting to look down the long tunnel of the next twenty, thirty, forty years and think ‘How will I cope for all this time without my loved one?’ But Jesus explicitly tells us not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow has enough trouble of its own (Mt 6.34). He promises us grace sufficient for each day (2Cor 12.9) and teaches us to come each day humbly depending on him for the needs of that day (Mt 6.11). Don’t panic about the next month, year or decade—ask God to bring you through this day, with its challenges and demands. He will. And then tomorrow ask him for grace for tomorrow. An elderly widow in our congregation who lost her beloved husband nearly twenty years ago, and who found the morning of each new day a difficult time, draws great comfort from Psalm 46.5: ‘God will help her when morning dawns.’
4. Talk about your loved one in the present tense. They are no longer here on earth with us, but that doesn’t mean they are nowhere. Christians who die may be away from their bodies, but they are present with the Lord (2Cor 5.8). They are more alive than you and I are. That’s the point C.S. Lewis made so powerfully when he talked about this world, this age as the ‘Shadowlands’. The place our loved one has gone to seems vague, ethereal, shadowy, unreal—but the truth is the other way around! They are the ones living in the real world, the solid world! It’s good to think about what they might be doing right now, who they might be talking to right now, even as we go about our work in this world. It brings the unseen, eternal world closer to us—something we badly need to stop this world blotting out eternity.
5. Look to God for comfort, not idols. Find your comfort in the Lord and his word. Don’t become dependent on people (though God ministers his comfort through people); don’t become dependent on rituals, like visiting a grave (though God ministers his comfort through little rituals); don’t depend on food or TV for comfort, withdrawing from the responsibilities of life.
6. Be prepared for grief to affect you in a wide and unexpected variety of ways. A couple of friends who lost their fathers shared with me how they were affected by their grief in ways they hadn’t imagined they would be, even years later. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and only God knows how strongly the innumerable strands of memory and relationship and upbringing bind us to others, especially those in our immediate family. One friend wrote: ‘I was surprised to find that, for some months afterwards, I felt somewhat listless and lacking in motivation and rather joyless. I have recently started to emerge from that time. It was not very dark, yet it did cast a shadow over things. At first, I wondered what it was, as it was rather unexpected, but friends who had had similar experiences helped me to understand it.’
7. Focus on present responsibilities. One of the temptations that grief can bring is to wallow in it. To put life on hold and allow grief to consume you and paralyze you. Although time is needed to begin to heal after the trauma a death inflicts on our souls, we do have responsibilities and obligations that must be fulfilled. Others can take up the slack for a time, and it’s right to allow ourselves time to rest and adjust. But sooner or later we need to dry our eyes, at least for a few hours, and take up the work God has given us to do. More often than not, attending to our responsibilities is one of the ways God helps us to begin to heal.
8. Accept help. If you had sustained a serious injury to your body you wouldn’t think twice about accepting help from your church family and friends. Bereavement is a serious injury to the soul, so we shouldn’t hesitate to accept help when it’s offered. We should do this for our own sake—because we need help, but also for the sake of those offering it. People want to show love and we should do to others as we would wish them to do to us and receive it gladly with thankfulness.
One day we will look back on this world with its griefs and sorrows in the way we look back on a childhood illness or fracture. Agonizing and prolonged at the time, but just a fleeting moment in our memories, for the Lord himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things will have passed away. (Rv 21.4) Just a few more short years and we will never again experience these painful feelings of loss. Yet another reason to breathe each day that prayer of the early church, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’