All of us at various points in life experience significant loss. Family members, friends, and other people with whom we are close pass away. We may prosper one day but lose everything the next. Each new phase in life may bring new possibilities but also means the end, or loss, of what has gone before. Grief is our natural, almost instinctual, response in the face of loss. Something of importance in our lives is no more; we must find a way to recalibrate, to honor what has been lost so that we can continue to live in a healthy way. In a very real sense grief is the recognition that we have loved; the loss of a person, standing, etc., is significant enough to create a void in our lives, and we must work to chart a new way forward.
Unfortunately, all too often, even fellow Christians prove miserable comforters in times of grief, and this may compound the alienation, despair, and thus suffering of those in the midst of grieving. Let us explore how Christians sometimes prove miserable comforters in times of grief and how we can best strive to strengthen those who grieve.
“Why are you sad? Don’t you believe the departed will be saved? They are better off!” As Christians we have the blessing of the hope of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Peter 1:3-9); confidence in seeing fellow faithful Christians again “on the other side” provides great solace in the days of grief. Some Christians interpret any sadness or distress at the departure of a faithful Christian as a lack of faith in God or the hope of resurrection. They may even claim that Christians have no reason to grieve, and appeal to 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
One certainly can try to read 1 Thessalonians 4:13 as “that ye sorrow not as the rest who have no hope,” presuming Paul is commanding Christians to not show any sorrow or grief when a Christian falls asleep. In doing so, however, one is hard pressed to explain how Epaphroditus’ death would have caused Paul sorrow (Philippians 2:27), or to make any sense of why Jesus would weep and mourn over Lazarus’ death, especially since Jesus was about to raise Lazarus from the dead (John 11:31-37). We make better sense of 1 Thessalonians 4:13 as “that ye sorrow not as the rest who have no hope,” in which Paul expects Christians not to mourn as those who have no hope or confidence in the resurrection would mourn.
If we have confidence of the departed’s standing with Christ, we can entirely agree that they are better off and await the resurrection. But grief is not as much about the one who has departed as much as it is about the one who remains; even if they are better off, we remain and must grapple with the loss we have experienced. We do better to encourage one another in the hope of resurrection, and pray for strength and comfort to those who mourn (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
“Why are you acting that way? You should be doing x instead.” Or, “I understand exactly what you are going through right now.” We like to think we understand what grief is like because of our own experiences or what we might imagine a person should do in a given circumstance. But grief is an intensely personal experience. Different people grieve in very different ways. Some people prominently and publicly mourn; others almost fully internalize their grief. Some people want to talk about it all the time; some people want it never mentioned. Likewise, even we may grieve differently depending on the intimacy of the relationship and our position in life. We should neither demand nor expect others to grieve like we do; even if we have suffered what might seem to be a similar loss, the one grieving may have experienced a different type of relationship, may be in a different stage of life, or experience a host of other factors which make their experience entirely different from our own. We do better to give those who grieve whatever they need, be it presence, space, time, and/or an ear to hear their emotions and thoughts.
“The departed is now an angel in heaven.” “God needed them.” “It was their time.” Funerals or memorial services prove awkward and difficult for many people. We feel like we need to say something, and so we try to come up with things to say that sound good and religious. In the process, however, we may be expressing bad theology and/or statements which do not well reflect upon God or the situation.
There is no basis in Scripture to suggest that humans ever become angels. The Hebrews author goes to some length to demonstrate that angels and humans are quite distinct (Hebrews 1:1-14); Paul expected that Christians will judge angels at some point (1 Corinthians 6:3). God’s ways and will are inscrutable; we cannot know them (Romans 11:33-36). If the Apostle Paul was granted more time and was not immediately necessary to the Lord in heaven, why would we imagine that the recently departed prove more vital there than here (cf. Philippians 1:19-26)? While God certainly allowed for the departed to die, how can we be certain that such requires that it was their time? And how do such statements reflect on the nature of God? We do better to express our sorrow and condolences to those grieving for the loss of the departed, and pray for them.
“Why haven’t you gotten over it/him/her yet?” We should never, ever say or intimate that a grieving person needs to “get over” their grief or their feelings about the departed. Grief means that a person loved; we do well to find new ways of honoring a person’s memory so we can carry on with life, but such never demands that we “get over” a person. We do better to pray for those who mourn, and encourage them to take the time and give themselves the space to grieve. Grief is a difficult matter, intensely personal, and requires significant effort at times. Our culture does not handle grief well; people are not given the time and space to grieve. Even those who are managing grief well may experience especially difficult periods; such experiences may recur over a long period of time.
Our community strongly influences how effectively we are able to grieve and heal. As Christians we do well to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15); we should support and strengthen each other in a time of loss. May we find ways to strengthen and comfort those who mourn, and not be miserable comforters in times of grief!
Ethan R. Longhenry