I have had several people tell me recently that well-intentioned friends and pastors have thrown a little quip at them when they are grieving, to help them ‘move on’: “those who believe need not grieve”. Needless to say, they have been feeling some frustration and conflict about this comment. I was considering what the source of this anecdote might be, and it seems it could be connected to the Bible passage 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “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.” In the Qu’ran we find the similar passage “Those who have attained to faith, as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians-all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds-shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” Regardless of where the phrase came from, the oversimplification of grief and faith can undoubtedly cause pain to grievers and, hence, is worth a post.
Religion and spirituality are complex but important topics in the wake of a loss. Religion can be an incredible comfort in times of loss. Losses can also cause us to question our faith, as we struggle to make sense of the death. And, in cases like the quote above, grief can confuse our feelings about our faith and our faith can confuse feelings about our grief.
(There is a whole separate discussion in here about those who grieve without belief in God or an afterlife, but that is a post for another day!)
I have absolutely no doubt that in every case the expression, ‘those who believe need not grieve’, is uttered it is with the best of intentions. Just like, “he is in a better place” or “it is part of God’s plan”, these are shared with the hope that they will bring comfort to the griever. What becomes complicated is when one internalizes these quotes and starts to feel that the depth of their grief is somehow reflective of our faith. This can leave believers questioning why they are still feeling the pain of grief, when someone they love is now with God.
Grief is our natural reaction to a loss. We feel a deep and aching pain when someone we love is no longer with us. When someone we love is gone we feel the dozens of emotions that come with grief – sadness, anger, guilt, fear, loneliness, blame and more than I can possibly list. Though faith that someone is in a better place or that you will see them again can be a comfort, this does not remove the pain that the person is gone. It does not change the trauma that can come from watching someone suffer from a prolonged or painful illness. This does not eliminate the anger, blame, guilt, regret or countless other feelings that can come up following a death.
It is not that your grief and your faith should be separate. What is important to remember is that the depth of your grief does not imply a loss of faith. The problem with the statement “those who believe need not grieve” is that one is made to feel that the reverse must be true: those who grieve do not believe. What we are here to say, for all those who have felt conflict that their faith should be enough to eliminate their grief: experiencing grief DOES NOT indicate a loss of faith. Let me say it one more time: experiencing grief DOES NOT indicate a loss of faith.
When a person of deep faith loses someone, it is important to remember that grief is about their own experience of loss, it is not a pain or sympathy for where their loved one is. It is perfectly reasonable that one believes their loved one is in a better place, and still to feel overwhelmed with the pain of being separated from them. Further, one can believe in a greater plan, while still experiencing the pain of their absence. It is not selfish to grieve, it is not a loss of faith. It is a normal reaction to a devastating situation that can co-exist with the comfort of one’s faith and spirituality.
Faith communities should be a place of comfort and support in times of loss. Thankfully for many they are. But the longer I work with grievers the more I learn that not every faith community brings this support. Some bring judgment and criticism for the emotions of grief, fixating on the idea that grief and faith cannot co-exist. Some are left feeling their grief has been minimized or misunderstood when they are not allowed to express their grief emotions. If you have felt this way, I encourage you to consider that grieving the separation from someone you love can exist along with a faith that they are in a better place and that you will see them again.
If you are not finding the support you need in you congregation, it may be worth reaching out to others with a similar faith background who have also experienced losses. We have said it a thousand times before and we will say it again today: you have permission to grieve, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! It is so important to find the people and place that allow you to do that.
Now, Rick and Kay Warren and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues, but a few months ago Kay Warren posted on facebook when she was getting frustrated with people pushing her to move on after the suicide of their son. Though she doesn’t specifically address the internal conflict discussed above, she does give her perspective as a grieving mother and Evangelical Christian. It is safe to say this is one area that I couldn’t agree more with Kay Warren. In case you missed it, here are the words she shared on facebook:
As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” The soft, compassionate cocoon that has enveloped us for the last 11 1/2 months had lulled me into believing others would be patient with us on our grief journey, and while I’m sure many will read this and quickly say “Take all the time you need,” I’m increasingly aware that the cocoon may be in the process of collapsing. It’s understandable when you take a step back. I mean, life goes on. The thousands who supported us in the aftermath of Matthew’s suicide wept and mourned with us, prayed passionately for us, and sent an unbelievable volume of cards, letters, emails, texts, phone calls, and gifts. The support was utterly amazing. But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever.
Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). I wondered if I was being overly sensitive –so I checked with parents who have lost children to see if my experience was unique. Far from it, I discovered. “At least you can have another child” one mother was told shortly after her child’s death. “You’re doing better, right?” I was asked recently. “When are you coming back to the stage at Saddleback? We need you” someone cluelessly said to me recently. “People can be so rude and insensitive; they make the most thoughtless comments,” one grieving father said. You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard in our culture for people to officially be in mourning for a full year. They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a whole lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning; no one ridiculed a mother in black or asked her stupid questions about why she was STILL so sad. Obviously, this is no longer accepted practice; mourners are encouraged to quickly move on, turn the corner, get back to work, think of the positive, be grateful for what is left, have another baby, and other unkind, unfeeling, obtuse and downright cruel comments. What does this say about us – other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss – or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children.
Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes, you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Or “I’m praying for you and your family.” Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”
None of us wants to be like Job’s friends – the pseudo comforters who drove him mad with their questions, their wrong conclusions and their assumptions about his grief. But too often we end up a 21st century Bildad, Eliphaz or Zophar – we fill the uncomfortable silence with words that wound rather than heal. I’m sad to realize that even now – in the middle of my own shattering loss – I can be callous with the grief of another and rush through the conversation without really listening, blithely spouting the platitudes I hate when offered to me. We’re not good grievers, and when I judge you, I judge myself as well.
Here’s my plea: Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB).The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.”
Amen, Kay. Amen.
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