My daughter died in 2015 at the age of 26. As I grieved her loss, I turned to the Bible, which is steeped as much in sorrow as it is in joy. There I found people who also knew loss: Abraham, Joseph, Job, Isaiah and Jeremiah, to name a few. By reading their stories, I learned that we are not alone in our grief — tears are part of a life of faith.
Yet within a month of my daughter’s death, family members and well-meaning people from work and church encouraged me to cheer up. “She’d want you to be happy,” they said. This may be true, but the phrase is laden with subtle recrimination. If we are not happy, it is implied, we fail to honour our dead. They will be disappointed.
This is nonsense, of course. I suspect that my daughter would prefer that I be true to myself and mourn at my own pace. But it can be hard to permit ourselves the time and space needed to grieve, especially when our faith communities don’t encourage this.
Sadly, some congregations continue to praise as an act of faith the cheerful acceptance of a loss. One study of 184 grieving families found that many believers stopped going to church because they felt ostracized for not celebrating a death or for failing to recover after a desirable period. Others feared that to grieve openly would set a poor example.
The idea seems to be that belief in the Gospel should make Christians immune to grief. Jesus has overcome death, and so if our faith is strong, goes the thinking, we will not weep. Rather, we will be happy that our deceased loved ones are now with God.
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Paul’s comforting words to believers in Thessalonica are often quoted to further this misapprehension: “Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope,” he wrote. But Paul was not prohibiting sorrow. He was merely urging his readers not to sorrow without hope. Grief and hope are not mutually exclusive; they may, in fact, be complementary. After his daughter died in his arms, Martin Luther wrote, “It is a marvellous thing to know that she is certainly in peace and that all is well with her and yet to be so sad!”
Grief is the natural and appropriate response to loss. If a faith community discourages mourning, it may push congregants toward anxiety, depression and emotional detachment. There is a time to weep, the teacher of Ecclesiastes instructs.
In addition to encouraging hope along with grief, Paul also urged his readers to mourn with those who mourn. This provides a clue to one role faith communities may play in times of loss.
My neighbour stopped by within a week of my daughter’s death. He too had lost a child. Ours was an understanding that needed few words. In silently sharing sorrow, we commune with those who grieve, entrusting our tears to a God who weeps with us. This is faith in spirit and deed.
This column first appeared in Broadview‘s May 2020 issue with the title “A time to weep.”
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