How Should Christians Grieve?

grief3Christians have a strange connection with grief.  In the first place, death no longer has a hold on who we are which implies grief is misplaced (or so some would say).  The scriptures teach the following regarding death:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)

One can also find in the life of the early Christians that death seems to have been something viewed as a mere transition and nothing to grieve about.  You get that sense when reading the account of early Christian life below:

“And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another near. “ (Aristides, a second century philosopher describing the early Christian community)

So many times people come to me for counseling because they’re struggling with the death of a loved one.  One needs to be careful about grief counseling because grief in and of itself is normal, not abnormal.  We don’t want to pathologize someone mourning the loss of a person he or she loved.  If grief becomes so intense it impacts someone’s ability to function then he or she  might need counseling, but overall a general sense of loss is acceptable and doesn’t require professional help.  More than a professional consultation someone grieving just needs time and the loving care of other people.  Grief is often best healed through the support of family and friends carrying the burden of the loss together until one can carry that burden alone.  Yet for many grieving Christians a more complex emotional configuration emerges because grief is often associated with guilt. You can see how guilt finds its way into a Christian’s experience of grief if you just revisit the above passage from 1st Corinthians and the account of Aristides regarding the Christian life.  The question inserting itself into the Christian’s mind through the mourning process is “Why do I feel such a sense of sadness when I know the person who died is in a better place?”  The Christian is confused because feeling the need to mourn their loved one contradicts the idea that this loved one is in a better place with Christ.  Rather than mourn it seems the logical emotional response should be one of joy and happiness for that individual’s new life with God.  The incongruence between how they feel and what they know about eternity  causes them to ask questions like, “I must not truly believe.” Another emotion some Christian mourners express is one of feeling selfish.  The idea that one’s sadness is a reflection of their selfish need to have the person in their life rather than let the deceased be with God causes the mourner to think they’re being selfish.  Grief and mourning for the Christian can be a confusing experience.

Let me share some thoughts with those of you experiencing feelings of guilt, confusion, and grief over the loss of someone you loved.  First, mourning is a natural response to the fact  you will no longer have someone you cared about  in your everyday life for emotional support, companionship, and security.  In psychology we talk about “attachments” which are psychological connections we make with people because they meet particular needs in our lives.  We all make emotional/psychological attachments and our hope is these attachments will be stable, secure, and provide support throughout the life of the relationship.  When that attachment is working well a deep subconscious connection forms making us feel safe and able to be ourselves with that individual.  Attachments primarily occur between children and parents but these basic attachments can then be used as a template for attaching to romantic partners, friends, our own children to some degree, etc.  They help us form emotional relationships.  When death rips that attachment apart our psychological self feels a great sense of pain.  You can’t ignore that pain.  If you do, you cause yourself even greater psychological dysfunction.  Grieving is a way of healing the break caused by death.  God created us to have these connections with other people and he created us with a process for healing the breaks that occur when the connection crumbles.   It’s not sinful to feel pain and grieve, it is a natural response to a difficult situation.

Secondly, having feelings of pain and sadness doesn’t imply you have a weak faith and an unbelieving heart.  What we know in our minds doesn’t always direct what we feel in our hearts,  particularly in a short span of time.  Grief is an immediate emotional pain.  You can’t just talk yourself out of emotional pain, it takes time.  What you believe about the afterlife is a powerful “healing tool” that can be applied over and over again during the healing process.  By reminding yourself your loved one is in a better place you use that truth of the Christian faith as a source of comfort over and over again slowly numbing the pain you’re experiencing.  We need not question our beliefs or feel guilty because of how we feel rather we can use what we know as an instrument for helping the healing process.

Reviewing the short quote above from Aristides helps us discover there’s more to his idea that “They rejoiced” then first uncovered.  Aristides also remarks they rejoiced “as if he were setting off from one place to another near.”  That reminds us we can feel sad because our loved one has journeyed to a place we can no longer directly experience them just as one might go on a trip across the world leaving us to mourn them in that way.  It’s natural to feel a loss when someone we love travels far from us.  However, our loved one is not as far as we might think.  Just as the earthly traveler settles in another country leaving us with only the means of a phone call to shorten the distance, our loved one’s travelling to heaven also leave us a way to shorten the distance between them and us.  The memories we created in this life allow us to bring them close whenever we need.  We can rejoice in the life they lived; loving us, supporting us, and being a great companion, friend, son, daughter, or spouse.  Yet that rejoicing doesn’t have to replace the pain we feel, it’s just another tool helping us live our lives without them.  Believing in an eternal life where we will see our loved ones again and rejoicing for the times we had in this life with them is a healing salve soothing the natural experience of pain we feel at their loss.  Death is the result of sin and we were never meant to experience it.  We should grieve the fact in this life we lose those we love to it’s power.  Don’t feel guilty experiencing sadness over the fact we still struggle with the effects of sin; that’s a healthy response to a painful situation.  However, along with these feelings of pain, allow your faith and joyful memories to cause your heart to sing those very words mentioned in the scripture passage above knowing you will be with your loved one again one day.  Sing that hymn reminding us in the end, death is already defeated:  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

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