By Ruthanne N. Arrington
When my father-in-law had a heart attack, I spent lots of time in the hospital critical care waiting area. Over the course of a week, I observed numerous families and interacted with many. Perhaps the most tragic situation was an 18-year-old motorcycle accident victim. As the family learned more about his injuries and the prognosis, the mood was increasingly dismal. When doctors told the family the young man had no brain activity and asked them to decide about removing him from life support and consider organ donation, their level of anguish was palpable.
As I hugged one of the family members, I asked, “Is this young man a Christian?”
“I think so,” she replied with hesitation. “He goes to church sometimes.”
My heart sank with her answer because I couldn’t honestly offer the words of comfort and assurance I would to the family of a known, dedicated believer. For this family, grief would likely manifest as a hopeless, stagnant condition from which they would never fully recover.
Grief is something none of us can escape. We can run from it, but eventually it catches up with us and demands acknowledgment. Grief is necessary, but as Christians our grief should be only for a season, with eyes focused on the future.
The following are some things to consider as you process grief:
• Grief is real. The Bible acknowledges grief and its expression. Grief is not something we should try to hide. Grieving affects everything about us and often shows on our faces. Scripture recounts King David’s anguish over the death of his son. “And the king held his face in his hands and lamented loudly, O my son Absalom, Absalom my dear, dear son!” (2 Samuel 19:4, The Message).
• Grief is acceptable. For some reason, our society isn’t very open to visible grief. Maybe we Americans have adopted the “stiff upper lip” attitude of our British forefathers, or maybe we think we’re too refined to express grief in a demonstrable way. But other cultures show grief. We don’t get points for hiding it. Jesus modeled grief for us in the familiar passage about the death of Lazarus (John 11:35).
• Grief comes in forms other than death. There are many sources of grief, and they don’t always involve the death of a loved one. Grieving can occur for a lost relationship, a changed way of life, from persecution or heartbreaking disappointment. It’s important to acknowledge and grieve other life losses.
Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king (a high government position). Although Nehemiah tried to hide his sadness, he grieved the loss of his city, and it showed on his face. The king knew Nehemiah well enough to know something was wrong. “So the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart’“ (Nehemiah 2:2, New International Version). The king was perceptive because he realized Nehemiah’s grief was borne of deep heartache. “‘The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’ When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:3, 4).
Hannah grieved for an unrealized dream—she couldn’t have a baby. In a time when producing offspring was the measure of a woman’s worth, Hannah’s barrenness was a huge source of suffering and emotional pain. “Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat” (1 Samuel 1:7).
Joseph is perhaps one of the best biblical examples of a man who expressed grief. He was abused by his brothers and sold into slavery, cut off from the family he loved. While he adapted to his circumstances, he still grieved the loss of his former life, separated from his family and familiar surroundings. Many years later, when Joseph was a government official in Egypt, his brothers approached, asking for help because of a famine. Joseph was so overcome with emotion he had to leave the room. Later, when Joseph saw his father, “he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time” (Genesis 46:29).
• Grief is an individual process. Like many other things in life, grief takes time—there is no set formula. Often we move forward in the grief process only to encounter a fresh pocket of emotion that sends us backward for a time. Don’t try to model your grief on someone else’s time frame. And don’t feel you’ve failed if someone says you should be finished grieving by a certain point. Each of us is complex and unique, and grief is an individually unique journey. When he thought his son Joseph was dead, Jacob “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34).
At some point, you may realize you are stuck in grief. If so, consider talking to a licensed counselor or minister about your grief. There is no shame in asking for and receiving help.
• Grief is only for a season. Job is the biblical go-to character for moving beyond grief. While we often focus on Job’s physical ailments, his greatest grief surely came from losing all 10 of his children at once. Job could have let all that happened to him ruin his life, but he didn’t grieve forever. He remained faithful to God, praising him despite his circumstances, and God blessed him. The Lord restored his fortune and gave him more children; and Job lived to be an old man.
King David mourned for the son whose death was the consequence of his own sin. Perhaps his grief was even more acute because of this knowledge. But despite his heartache, David provides a picture of recovery. He got up, took a bath, ate, and went to worship. Certainly this didn’t signal an end to his grief, but David moved back into normal activities and self-care, despite his grief.
Grief is not a permanent condition, but often it’s hard to look beyond current circumstances and realize we’re not always going to feel the way we do now. Resist the urge to isolate yourself. Allowing others to offer support and comfort helps you along with the grieving process. When you feel ready, begin to comfort others who grieve. Some of the most valuable and compassionate support comes from those who have walked the same path.
TRUSTING GOD, MOVING FORWARD
While it’s often hard to understand the timing and circumstances surrounding loss, grief is a normal part of life. Sometimes in our humanness we blame God for the loss. Confess this to him. He already knows, but expressing it may help you move beyond anger. Then look for blessings in your current circumstances, find joy in small things, and remember the hope of eternity in Heaven.
Continue to read God’s Word and ask him to help you become forward-looking rather than focusing on your loss. “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, New Living Translation).
Paul encouraged believers to look beyond their current loss in these verses: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children . . . We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!” (Romans 8:15-17, MSG).
Jesus left his disciples with hope, and we gain encouragement from his words: “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy” (John 16:22, NLT). God is our greatest source of comfort and hope. Trust him for healing, restoration, and better days ahead.
Ruthanne N. Arrington is a freelance writer in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Christian counselors can help you navigate the grief journey. You can find a counselor near you by looking on the website of the American Association of Christian Counselors.