Despite the fact grief is one of life’s few guarantees, it still hits like a ton of bricks. There is something about the reality of grief you can’t anticipate or prepare for. It arrives without warning and stays without an invitation; an emotional intruder, if you will.
So, what exactly is grief? As Christians, how are we to understand grief in our own lives and the lives of others? What role can and should the church play in addressing grief?
What is grief?
Grief is “an emotional reaction to a significant loss.” Although most often discussed in the context of death, “loss” incorporates much more than that. Loss also includes broken relationships—physical or emotional—that result from literal or mental separation from others.
Grief also can occur over a diminishing relationship with one’s self. People who are aging or sick may find themselves grieving the disconnect they feel from their bodies as they navigate new limitations, roles, self-image and a declining sense of independence.
Grief also results from broken relationships that may not seem significant to others or acknowledged by society, losses like the death of a pet, the loss of a job or a miscarriage.
More broadly—and perhaps at the foundation of each of the other losses—grief often results from the loss of meaningful connections, stability and a sense of the imagined future. This sense of loss results in general symptoms.
It is important to remember grief is a deeply personal experience that impacts everyone differently.
Christian response to grief
Grief can be a difficult topic even for Christians. For starters, many believe grief and hope are antithetical. As people called to radical hope (Romans 5:1-5; 15:13), some suppose embracing grief negates faith. However, Christian Scriptures paint a different picture.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul offers a pastoral word to the church regarding grief and hope. Like most of the early church, the Thessalonians anticipated the quick return of Christ. When Jesus’ return didn’t occur and members of the church began to die, there was general anxiety about what happened to the dead.
In response, Paul wrote, “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…” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). What Paul addresses here is profound. Not only does Paul root hope in Christ and his resurrection, but he also affirms the place of grief in the believer’s life.
Notice Paul states, “Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” His message was not denouncement of grief but a qualification of how to grieve well—to grieve with hope.
Jesus provides another example. After Lazarus died and Jesus was surrounded by mourners, he wept (John 11:35). Here we see Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world, grieving over a loss. Was this because he had no hope for the resurrection? No. Ten verses earlier we see him explaining to Martha that those who believe in him shall never die, for he is “the resurrection and the life” (11:25).
What we see in this passage is Jesus embracing his full humanity and allowing himself to experience the reality and depth of grief.
Rather than pitting grief against hope, Scripture paints a clear picture that they can and should coexist.
Grief, the holidays and the church
The holidays can be particularly difficult for people who are grieving. Holidays are filled with sights, sounds, smells and traditions that evoke memories of loved ones and years past. These reminders of the past often trigger unanticipated feelings, such as those of sorrow, anger, anxiety and longing. Counselors commonly refer to these as “anniversary reactions.”
As a people called to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), are we taking seriously the call to mourn with others? As the church, are we allowing God’s Spirit to transform us into his image and likeness as we support and draw “close to the brokenhearted” and to “those who are crushed in Spirit” (Psalm 34:18)?
Practical suggestions for supporting those who grieve
Use the pulpit. Unfortunately, it seems grief still is a taboo subject in both society and the church. Merely acknowledging the existence of grief is a good first step toward removing the stigma and shame around feelings of anger, doubt and confusion surrounding a loss. Pastors have the unique position reminding people that expressing grief does not invalidate trust in God. Ministers also should remember while peace, joy and hope are necessary messages of the Christmas season, we must not forget another’s sorrow.
Form support groups. If you know there are multiple people in your congregation experiencing grief, it may be worth developing a church-sponsored support group. You can take advantage of different local resources including licensed counselors to help facilitate groups that will bring support to people dealing with loss.
Create a care committee. Whether an official committee or an unofficial group of volunteers, churches can designate and invest in individuals to keep track of important dates in people’s lives. Specifically, this group can be intentional about remembering important dates, such as birthdays, deaths or divorce, and taking note of upcoming holidays to follow up with loved ones as these occasions approach. Churches also can invest in small groups to serve this role in an organic way.
Host a special service. Allowing oneself to experience and express grief is one of the necessary steps in the healing process. Churches may be able to help with this expression through the designation of a specific service around the holidays. This may look like a Longest Night or Blue Christmas service, which provides a space for people to express their sorrows and doubts. It also can serve as a powerful space of hope and solidarity as the church family unites together alongside those experiencing immense emotional and spiritual pain.
As we enter into the Christmas season, we enter into a season where we remember the faithfulness of a God who entered into the darkness of the world to be its Light and Hope (John 1:4-5). As the church—people indwelled with God’s Spirit and transformed into his likeness—what steps will we take this holiday season and all year long to care for those overwhelmed by the darkness of grief?
Julia Wallace is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and Diana R. Garland School of Social Work and a social work intern with The Center for Church and Community Impact.