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Grief in the Church

From 2020, it has been an uphill journey for us all. We have been moving from one lockdown to another, with breaks few and far between. In that time, the sense of community and the availability of interaction has been greatly limited; with working from home to online services, we have incorporated this new lifestyle, and it has, for many people, become the norm. However, now that more and more aspects of life are opening up, we find ourselves in the unique position of reintegrating into what used to be everyday interactions. With this reintroduction comes our own experiences and hardships of the past few years, as well as the hardships of the people we interact with. This brings us to the harsh reality of change; we may find that many people are left with a hole in their lives associated with loss. This may be the loss of a job, a home, and possibly even that of a loved one. COVID-19, among other things, has brought about devastating change to many, with many casualties up until this point, and the lives of many changed drastically. The reintroduction into social gatherings where their loved ones would have been present would be met with confusion, followed closely by the realisation that they are no longer there. The question then comes in, how do we, as Christians, tackle such interactions? And how does the church equip us with the tools to deal with these situations?

We all experience grief in many forms. We understand how difficult and complex it could be when navigating through it. This is usually why we find it difficult to comfort others; because we know the various nuances associated with grief, especially grief brought about by loss. It is an uncomfortable topic, and when in uncomfortable situations, in most cases, we look for the easiest method of escape from the situation. This is where the classic lines of “It will get better”, “They’re in a better place”, and “Why don’t you pray about it?” come in. Many of us have probably used these very phrases before and have probably had them said to us as well. While it may be said with good intentions, it has also become somewhat of a default response in those situations. Is there a reason for this that we could find in the bible, or could it be an issue of negligence in terms of the church not equipping its congregation to face these situations?

The first and most important question would then be, how did Jesus deal with different aspects of grief? There are two key moments we can consider: the first is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus dealt with his own grief, and the second is in regard to Lazarus, where Jesus deals with the grief of others along with his own. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is faced with the grief of what was to come and the heaviness it bore upon Him, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matthew 26:38 NIV). He did not try to hide his feelings; in fact, He even asked his disciples to keep him company as he faced that situation. He experienced and expressed his grief. He did not shy away from it or hide it like it was a problem. He shared it amongst his friends, even seeking out companionship before he fell and let out his grief to God. We often tend to shy away from our grief or suppress it in the hopes that it may go away or that we will not be a burden to others. However, grief should be accepted and expressed., We should ask for help and company, especially in deep grief. Why, then, do we not express this more in churches and with our peers? The likeliest explanation would be that we know what the response is; rather than someone to share our grief with, more often than not, we are met with a sentence or two that amount to “it will be ok” and suggestions to pray about it in the hopes that it would “fix” our grief. It is rare that we get a response that encourages us to grieve. So then, how should we as Christians go about handling grief, and how should we translate that into helping others with grief?

Looking into Jesus’ experience with the death of Lazarus actually offers us great insight into this question. As the story goes in the bible, Jesus was away when Lazarus was sick. When he received word, he stayed for two more days and then made his way back. During that time, Lazarus had already died. Jesus was quite close to Martha, Mary and Lazarus, so when Martha and Mary saw Him, they grieved with Him over their loss. They also took out their frustrations on Him for not being present at the time. At that moment, how did Jesus react? He wept along with them, sharing in their grief as well as expressing His own. Now He knew that Lazarus was about to be resurrected; however, He still felt the grief of loss. Knowing the outcome, He still grieved over the loss before He proceeded to glorify God through the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). Based on this story, we get a clear guideline for how we, too, could face such situations in order to express and overcome grief. If we look at Martha and Mary, they knew that they could let out their frustrations on Jesus and that it would be accepted. They told Him how frustrated they were that He had not been present, and once they got their frustration out, they proceeded to get their grief out along with Him by weeping with Jesus and together as a community.

Jesus shows us how when our friends, loved ones or even congregation come up to us with their grief that we should welcome it and mourn together as one united body. We must not forget that before they committed it to God, they expressed their emotions; frustration, anger, and sadness. They did not hold back their grief but were encouraged to let it out. They were also not simply given words of encouragement but shown acts of love.

How, then, should we, as a church, handle our own grief and the grief of others? First and foremost, we should not shy away from expressing ourselves. We should avoid holding in our feelings and emotions or pretending to be alright. In both instances, we see how Jesus openly wept when He felt grief. When it was his own, he took it to God and wept to God, taking out His frustrations on Him before saying, “may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42 NIV). With Mary and Martha, He listened to their frustrations, wept along with them and afterwards prayed and glorified God with them. As humans, we naturally feel so many different emotions. These emotions should be expressed because suppressing them leads to increased frustration and isolation. The church should therefore encourage the ways of Jesus. When someone is going through grief, it is not enough to just pray for them. It is also important to be there for them and accommodate their feelings and create a safe space for them to express their emotions. Once their feelings are expressed, that is when you pray with them and glorify God together. As a believer, we should also take our frustrations to God and cry our hearts out and then seek comfort in Him. We should be open with our fellow believers and not fall into the trap of thinking, “because I’m a Christian, I should be alright because I should pray and leave it to God”. God, Himself encourages us to express our emotions; therefore, we should be able to express our grief together and with God.

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