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