In reading Martin Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Council,” I was struck by how profound many of his insights into healthy grieving were. Since I currently work as a hospice chaplain, I spend extended time with patients and families both before death occurs and up to 13 months after it happens, I see many types of grieving behavior. Those who grew up being admonished for not “getting over” the loss of a loved one quickly or for grieving “inappropriately” would benefit from reading his wise words. Far too often, Christian leaders have used 1 Thessalonians 4:10 (do not grieve as those who have no hope) out of context. This verse does not preclude mourning, wailing or giving lament to one’s loss. It does prohibit the giving up of one’s hope of ever seeing a fellow believer again or losing one’s self to self destructive despair.
Luther insists that while we should not become hysterical, there is nothing disgraceful about mourning, nothing unfaithful in giving vent to one’s feelings (just read Job or Habbakuk.) The stiff upper lip mindset we inherited from Victorian England should have been retired long ago. Indeed, a Christian can grieve harder over death because he or she knows that death is unnatural, a consequence of the Fall. Death is described in the New Testament as our enemy. We mourn over what should have never been — separation in this life. We grieve hard over the death of non-believers, knowing their fate. The fact that they are lost to us forever cuts us deeply. Luther, in fact, suggests that it is a sign of unfaith when people never mourn.
In “All Our Losses, All Our Griefs,” by co-authors Kenneth Mitchell and Hubert Anderson, there is this quote: “To be a follower of Christ is to love life and to value people; things that God has given us in such a way that losing them brings sadness.” p38.
Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death. Jewish people and many other cultures hired mourners and grieving went on for several days, sometime weeks. A whole book of the Bible, Lamentations, deals with loss as do many Psalms. Scripture records that the mourning for Jacob’s death lasted 70 days and for Moses 30 days (Genesis 50:3 and Deuteronomy 34:8) Why would we think that a few days off of work is all a person needs to come to terms with a significant loss.
We mourn – not at the thought of a person being lost to us forever (with the exception of non-believers), nor because we do not know where they are. We mourn because we valued them as a person made in God’s image, a unique person. We miss their camaraderie, their love, spontaneity, friendship and a thousand other things that made them special to us. We need to let people grieve fully. We need to stop telling them to “get over it” and “move one.” Let God work the healing process. He is far better at it than you could ever possibly be. There is a time for everything, including mourning. It doesn’t last forever — one morning joy will come again and surprise us when it does. The deeper one loves the deeper one grieves. The deeper one loves God, the better one can lean on Him for strength in times of sorrow. He is well acquainted with grief. Jesus is described as a Man of Sorrows and one who suffered many losses.
I mourn my losses deeply, more deeply as the years go by, but I don’t fly into hysterics because I know my God and He is good. I trust in Him to make sense of it for me when I can’t see any sense in it. I have faith that He is both just and merciful in equal measure and that He knew what was best for my loved one’s life.
When you council with the grieving, let them know that they have permission to cry, to feel lonely, to hurt, to vent feelings without being judged. The best way to help them grieve is to help them remember the loved one. Share memories, share experiences with them. This sharing time helps to normalize the reality of death and allows the griever to know that their loved one’s life mattered to others. By talking about them, sharing pictures and moments about them it keeps alive, in a way, and diffuses the pain. Many times it allows laughter to mix with the tears. We are called to share each other’s burdens and the burden of grief is one that all of us can use help shouldering.