Grief is a natural part of life, so why is it so difficult to embrace? It doesn’t take long to notice things in this world that are worth grieving: broken relationships, death of family members, job loss, illness, school shootings, etc. When we see others in grief, it’s natural to try to be helpful and give comfort. So, why does the church sometimes struggle to be the hands and feet of Christ in grief?
It may be a shock to think of yourself or your church as not being a healthy support to those who grieve—especially since we have “the love of Christ” in the DNA of our professed gospel and faith. But the reality is that the church is full of sinful saints, who are hurt from life and thus can’t apply perfect healing to others. But as we look to Scripture and the character of Jesus Christ, there is hope for a better understanding of what grief provides and how to healthily engage with it.
Our American culture stinks at “being” in moments of discomfort. I say this not only from the numerous clients I see in my office each week but also from my own journey of emotional reflections. Grief is uncomfortable because it is “being present in” the weight of sadness. After all, it is an emotion God gives us to express.
What we do with grief
Far too often, the way in which one tries to offer comfort in words, silence, or actions can unintentionally add pain to the other’s grief. We have to be aware of not inhibiting healthy grief and understand what it takes to allow others to grieve well—and us too.
Of course, it is always harmful to not acknowledge the grief at hand. This is often done because one is afraid of what negative significance is implied if grief is indeed validated. Avoidance conveys a sense of dismissal or belittling of another’s grief.
In my experience, there can be two unhealthy judgments toward another’s grieving process. The first unhealthy judgment is about what the person is grieving, or rather, do we believe the loss is actually worth grieving? The second unhealthy judgment is about how the person is grieving. Do we think the person is overreacting to what he holds with grief?
“She brought that upon herself with her own actions.”
“Is your heart choosing to be joyful in Jesus at this moment?”
“Don’t cry; look at all the good things in your life.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
People offer these phrases from ignorance and incompetence when trying to handle grief. Usually, the person in grief doesn’t need specific answers (or ethical judgments)—just the stability of knowing someone sees their grief and can hold it with them. In fact, the “what” and “how” of grief are rarely an ethical issue.
We see an example of unhealthy grief responses in the Bible’s narrative of Job. Like Job’s three friends greatly adding insult to Job’s sorrow, we are all capable of doing harm if not careful in how we engage another’s grief.
Here are three false narratives Job’s friends bought into as they interacted with his grief. And your church might still buy into them today.
- Something wrong caused this grief (Job 4)
- God protects those who are “good and deserving” (Job 8)
- Your response to grief is “too much” or “wrong” (Job 11)
1. Something wrong caused this grief
Amid grief, it’s not comforting to hear a lecture about how “you brought this upon yourself” or that “it wasn’t worth grieving about.” Like Job’s friend, we often condemn a person when we condemn the object or process of grieving. Eliphaz tried making sense of the terrible events leading to Job’s suffering and grief by assuming it was a byproduct of Job (or his family) not being “right” before God.
We must learn to be healthy supporters for those grieving around us by not narrating what is “right or wrong” outside of the grief. Jesus certainly held compassion for those in mourning and did not choose those moments to judge first.
2. God protects those who are “good and deserving”
Job’s friend Bildad displays the second false narrative. Here, the message he holds for Job is: “God will hold good for you if you are deserving.” This type of response attaches shame to one’s grief: “If I’m sad, then it must be my fault.” Grief itself is not a bad thing; it is the ability to rightly acknowledge the felt pain of a deep loss. It is a true reflection of God’s heart when sadness can be felt in a sobering way.
3. Your response to grief is “too much” or “wrong”
Zophar highlights the third false narrative, telling Job he has no business grieving with pain and anger against God. This is often a problem in faith communities as we fear it disrupts the order or power of God’s deity. But He is big enough to hold our strong, messy feelings. We see it as “wrong” to continue grieving as the barren woman, jobless man, disgruntled spouse, single college student, etc. Job was honest about his feelings, and he needed answers.
We too often downplay one’s “right to grieve” when we judge it from our perspective, rather than their place. Jesus always put Himself alongside others in order to be compassionate. We can show up well in others’ grief when we allow them “to be” in their emotions, not condemning them for what they feel.
Sitting in the grief
Despite the hurtful responses, Job’s friends did one thing well—and it was before they spoke a single word to him (Job 2:12-13). Here, they saw his distress, and they joined in weeping and sorrow. They sat in silence with their friend.
Everyone will experience grief in this life, and it never reflects the merit or personhood of the griever. Let’s be careful to not urge someone along into “the next good thing” just because we are uncomfortable with the displayed grief. We don’t need to offer a solution to the pain of sorrow. This isn’t the time for a lesson in morality. This is a time to reiterate compassion for the griever by caring deeply for his pain. If we can be safe in silence, then we can be trusted in conversation.
“A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples in silver settings” (Proverbs 25:11, CSB).