Christians and bereavement

'The hell-believing Christian carries an additional burden of uncertainty'

Grief is hard work for Christians as it is for everyone. The journey towards first accepting the reality of a loss is as variable in duration as it is for someone of another, or of no, religious faith.

Facing the reality that a loved-one is gone and not going to return is unavoidable. Pressing through beyond numb shock to feel the pain of loss is a task that is no respecter of religious belief.

Bereaved Christians share the common mourners’ tasks of adjusting to the loss of roles that the deceased had previously played in their life whilst also getting their head around what it means to be ‘me’ now that a significant other person has died.

Similarly, letting the dead person go and re-investing in life requires commitment and energy unique to every individual’s network of attachments and social circumstances.

In thinking about Christian grief we must begin with shared human experience. Only from there can there be exploration of the singular opportunities and challenges that face Christians who grieve.

Although it’s natural to jump to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as that which offers a well-spring of hope to transform a Christian’s grief, the Jesus who wept over the death of his friend Lazarus is perhaps a better starting point.

This endorses the pain of loss to an extent that can sometimes be lacking in Christians’ expectations of their own grief. You might think that belief in Christ’s victory over death and the promise of life beyond the finality of the grave would temper the pain of losing a loved-one. For many Christians this is vital and tangible comfort but can make it harder to engage in grief-work.

Geoff Walters did the Christian community a huge favour when he published his Why Do Christians Find it Hard to Grieve?. Walters had spotted that some Christians’ permission to grieve seemed to end at the funeral which was to be viewed more as a 'coronation'; a testimony to the wonders of everlasting life with God.

From my own days as a minister I could see just what Walters was describing when Evangelical Christians put pressure on themselves to minimise their feelings of loss because their loved-one had 'gone to be the Lord'. The immense comfort they derived from their faith in this promise of life forever through Christ was sadly tarnished a little because it was somehow felt inappropriate to talk of hope and grief in the same breath.

Despite the caricatures of Christians as rather too ready to define heaven, I most often found grieving believers healthily agnostic on the details, but firm in their conviction that God could be trusted with their loved one. Such consolation bore them through the long and arduous tasks of grief that could not be by-passed.

One context of grieving is, however, singularly problematic. Among Christians who believe in the possibility of everlasting loss, the fate of a loved one whose faith-stance is ambiguous (or who clearly rejects the Gospel) can generate considerable anxiety.

Such a Christian searches, often in vain, for signs that that this deceased loved one will certainly not be going to hell. Still believing that only God knows a person’s heart, the hell-believing Christian carries an additional burden of uncertainty, sometimes significant fear, that their loved one will not be raised to enjoy everlasting life or, worse, be raised to everlasting punishment.

There is a Christian form of grieving and it relies on the Jesus who wept being the Jesus who was resurrected.

Dr Eric Stoddart is Lecturer in Practical Theology and Associate Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics at the University of St. Andrews

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.