Grief is all around us. As I write this our nation is grieving the death of a revered United States senator. Our Christian community is grieving the tragic death of a teenager in a car accident. In our neighborhood there is someone in grief. It is a part of life.
Grief is an emotional response to loss. Everyone experiences it. We respond emotionally when we lose our car keys and when we lose a loved one. The difference is the intensity of the response. The death of a loved one can bring out a variety of emotions, which means we often find ourselves riding an emotional rollercoaster for a very long season.
Throughout my years of ministry I have heard people cry out, “God, where are you when I need you?” There is a simple answer to the question, although the implications can be complex. God is always with us. That is his promise. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
Sources of Comfort
Christians find at least three sources of comfort in times of grief. The first is God. That should be obvious, but many times it isn’t. We get so caught up in our emotions that in reality God seems very far away. He isn’t. We need to draw ourselves closer to him.
The second source is other Christians. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
The first two sources of comfort are obvious. The third isn’t. I think it is the most helpful.
The death of a loved one often magnifies our self-interest. It is our loss, our heartache, our grief, our emptiness. But if we can see things from a different perspective we will find comfort. We can find a great deal of comfort in the book of Psalms. Here we are reminded, “Precious in the sight of the lord is the death of his faithful servants” (Psalm 116:15).
From our perspective death is a loss. But it’s not a loss in God’s eyes. Eternity in the presence of God is the ultimate goal of life. Death is the pathway from this life to God. God sees death from a different viewpoint than we do. We can take comfort in seeing death through God’s perspective. It is not a loss; it is a victory.
Permission to Grieve
The one thing we must not do is try to stifle our grief. Some Christians think it is un-Christian to grieve. This is a mistaken interpretation of what Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14).
Notice Paul didn’t say not to grieve. He simply said Christians don’t grieve like those who have no hope.
In my nearly 50 years of ministry I have conducted countless funerals. I have met with families of saints and with families of those who had never professed Jesus. It doesn’t take long to distinguish between the two. The difference is hope. Families who have hope act differently. There is something to look forward to and something for which to express gratitude. Without hope there is nothing but emptiness and loss.
How to Grieve
So, how is a Christian to grieve?
I am troubled by the movement in our American culture to move away from traditional funeral services. Funeral directors regularly tell me about families who do not want to do anything when a loved one dies. They ask that the family member be buried or cremated without any type of service.
I understand that the high price of funeral services today is moving many families in these directions. Many simply cannot afford the cost. The other side of the situation is that we cannot afford the cost of doing nothing.
God has created us with the capacity to grieve and the grieving process leads us to healing. When we avoid funerals and other expressions of grief we may run the risk of delaying or obstructing the healing process. Ultimately we get caught in a web of complicated grief. The resulting inability to function well physically and emotionally can become a serious detriment to our daily lives.
Most funeral homes have minimal packages that allow for a proper funeral service. You just have to ask. My suggestion is that you don’t put all of your money in the ground to honor a loved one.
Four tasks are necessary to properly grieve the loss of a loved one. The process allows you to develop a new normal for your life since life as you once knew it will never be the same.
The first task in the grieving process is to accept the reality of the death. Denial is a common response to the loss of a loved one. Not everyone experiences denial, but it often occurs in cases of tragic or sudden death. I call this God’s emotional shock absorber. It allows us to gradually come to accept this reality. It can be a long way from our head to our heart. Finally accepting this reality is necessary.
The second task is to experience the pain associated with the death. When I lead grief support groups I talk about what it means to allow ourselves the luxury of experiencing the pain. Pain is a necessary part of healing. When we go to great lengths to avoid pain we can actually interfere with the healing process.
The third task is to learn to live without the one who has died. This means learning to do the tasks that they did when they were alive. Women are more adept in this area. Many men have a tough time with the kitchen and the laundry room.
The fourth task is to reinvest the emotional energy we used to maintain our relationship with the person who died. When my father passed away a few years ago my mother took up the task of serving funeral dinners at her church. She made apple pies to keep in the freezer and provide them as she served with the funeral team. If we don’t use our emotional energy, it will build up within us and create stress and anxiety.
Completing these four tasks helps create a new normal for our lives. Please note that these are not necessarily sequential steps, but rather tasks to be completed.
As the psalmist reminded us, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
Mason Seevers is pastoral care minister at Whitewater Crossing Christian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.