“Grief is powerful and grief is not wrong, however, if it is left to fester it can be a hunting ground for the Devil. A defect in our understanding of God, leads to a defect in our hope, which leads to a defect in the way we grieve.” – Femi Kalejaiye shares these words, during his sermon, where he delves into the topic of Dealing with Loss (here).
Grief. Growing up in church I always had a misinterpretation of grief that made me feel like an impostor to the experience. I followed suit in the example that I’d witnessed by many of my aunties and uncles, my mother and father, church mothers and deacons; I never displayed my grief publicly. It slowly became harder to even experience grief alone. I remember when my mum’s best friend (who was practically a second mother to me) died in 2010, I remember feeling like a zombie as I walked past her open coffin, stone cold and expressionless. People around me wailed and wept till the last chair was put away, and the final light in the church was turned off, but even on the silent ride back home, I still could not cry a tear. I felt guilty. She was gone but I convinced myself that I hadn’t properly grieved her because of the my absence of tears.
I had clearly misunderstood an essential thing about grief – that is neither linear nor is it monolithic in experience. However, I had also misunderstood another thing. I grew up thinking Christians were not meant to feel grief let alone display it. Empty platitudes such as ‘All is well’, ‘Praise God anyhow’, ‘He will fix it’ and ‘I’m not sad, but blessed and highly favoured’, were commonplace in my church upbringing. During times of grief, not only were they unhelpful, they were insensitive, superficial and untruthful responses to the experience of pain and suffering. When I look back I wonder how much the owners of these responses were suffocated by the false invincibility that God does not call them to bear in the first place?
Although I am probably an unqualified candidate to speak about dealing with loss and experiencing grief as my encounter with it has been scarce in comparison to others, I would like to share some truths that I believe will encourage you when grief comes knocking on your door. Because it will happen, it is inevitable. That’s the first truth.
Grief Wears Many Faces
One thing I wish someone told me as a child when I was unable to cry while dealing with the loss of a loved one, was that I was in fact still grieving nonetheless. Grief is a varied experience and looks different for everyone. Job wept whilst feeling suicidal (Job 3:1-26). Hannah refused to eat (1 Sam 1:7). Saul fell into manic depression (1 Sam 16:14, 18:9-12). I’ve spoken with close friends during acute periods of their grief, who have told me some days they felt numb. That grief made it difficult for them to process their emotions. Some days they felt like they had their grief well-managed; they were able to go outside and have fun with friends and enjoy the beauty of life. Other days their grief felt uncontrollable and the wave of sadness overwhelmed them to the point that the beauty of life was marred with pain and they felt no reason or need to leave their bed.
The psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross notes down the ‘Five Stages of Grief’ :
It is important to acknowledge that all waves of grief whether it’s numbness from denial, rage from anger, or endless tears from sadness and depression; these all are normal responses to the brokenness we feel in relation to suffering and pain, especially when dealing with loss from death. Even more so, we must not forget that each of us in our experience of grief may fall on different places on this scale. In addition, it is more than likely that we will move forwards and backwards during different periods of dealing with loss. Grief wears many different faces and we must be willing to embrace all these differences in both ourselves and others.
As Christians, we must discard the misconception that these emotions are signs of unbelief or lack of faith. Instead, we must embrace the truth that God created each and every one of these emotional responses and is glorified in each of them. He has given us these emotions as a means to process our grief and suffering all while tasting His goodness, even in the saltiness of our tears. Paul himself did not encourage the saints to appear to have it all together and be strong. As seen in the words of James, we should ‘not boast and deny the truth’ (James 3:14). Paul, instead invites us to be honest in our weakness, and therefore rest and boast in the strength of Christ, the One who cares for us so much so that he implores us to cast our grief-stricken burdens onto Him (2 Cor 12:7-10 , 1 Pet 5:7)
God is Present
There is no set time span as far as grief is concerned. And we should not rush such a process. Or expect people’s grief to have an endpoint. Instead, we should take stock of the treasure we have in pain. The peace we have in torment. The joy we have in sadness. This being our God, who is entirely present with us throughout our grief. David made note of this reality in Psalm 34;
The LORD is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.Psalm 34:18
While grief may feel like an unsettling deserted island, in the discomfort of our pain we must settle ourselves in the peace of Christ. During tough tides of grief when we are tempted to give up on hope, we should lift up our cry to our LORD who is waiting to listen to our groans of distress and hears intently to our pleas. He is there in a long and meaningful embrace from a sister. Or in the presence of a brother who sits with you in silence to comfort you as tears fall uncontrollably. Whether it is through His own words from Scripture or comfort from other fellow believers, He is always willing to be our respite. We have a family of God and we have God Himself. We are never alone.
We Do Not Grieve Like Others Do
Ultimately as believers, we have something that makes our grief bearable. This something is a living hope, which is the fact that our grief will not remain forever. Femi Kalejaiye highlighted during our Gospel in a Broken World event that regarding life after death, Christians face a completely different reality to unbelievers. For our loved ones who believe in the death and resurrection of Christ and trusted in Him and have now passed away, they are united with Christ; as are we, who are still alive and still believe and trust in Jesus.
God guarantees that through Jesus Christ, He will bring those who are dead in Christ along with Him so that when Christ returns we will all be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air. This is a beautiful picture that Paul paints for us, of the church, in 1 Thess 4; a spotless Bride joining with the Bridegroom and praising and worshipping Him as He ushers in a new heaven and earth. This should be something that we, who have lost our loved ones in the faith, should look forward to and anticipate with hope and relief. We will see them again. He will not allow any one of us who are in Him to be lost or left behind. We cannot be separated from Him (Rom 8:31-39). Our lives are in Him and His in us (Col 3:3, Gal2:20). This should be an encouragement to believers when they mourn the loss of other believers because even as Jesus died and rose again, God will also resurrect those who have died in Christ (1 Thess 4:14-16). This certainty should lead us to grieve differently from those who do not believe in Christ and have no hope. We should grieve in faith, expecting this day to arrive.
This day will arrive at any time, we should always be ready and anticipate this eternal reality as we watch the world fading. More importantly, it should spur us on to preach and share the Gospel with those who are not believers; our loved ones who are not in the faith, for their salvation and so that we will see them also in eternal glory, with Christ.