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Verbalizing Grief

D. G. Hart

There is nothing like the death of a family member in a congregation to put the outcome of a presidential election in perspective. While many Americans were crying over, lamenting, and fuming about the election of the Republican Party’s nominee, providence required some Christian Americans to mourn the death of a church member. Although the emotions experienced and expressed in reaction to the presidential contest were much more noticeable than the quiet and sober sorrow that family and church members exhibited at funeral and burial services, depth of grief was likely inversely proportional to the sufferer’s volume or emotional intensity. The reason could be that believers understand that anger or hysteria over death, no matter how sudden, is unbecoming for those whose hope of salvation is based on the death of God’s only begotten Son. Contemplating death is basic to Christian devotion.

Having a healthy perspective on death’s significance, however, is not the same as finding the right words to say to a fellow Christian who has lost a family member. Whether in the case of an older spouse or a young child’s death, expressing empathy and consolation can be one of the most challenging aspects of Christian fellowship. Part of the reason is that no two persons’ experience is the same, which is a truism that assumes profundity when looking for the right way to commiserate with those who have lost a loved one. Just as a couple married for three decades and knowing each other well may react differently to a book written by one of their mutually admired authors, so their experience of a friend or child’s death will likely prompt diverse reactions that have to do with each spouse’s unique relationship to the deceased, his and her season of life, not to mention each person’s previous experience with death. No one in a congregation, no matter how close to the bereaved, is equipped with the sensitivity and knowledge to say “just the right” words. In fact, the search for the right thing to say can lead, if pondered too long, to stage fright. You don’t say anything, just hug.

Here is where Scripture might be a help, not only because of its own consolation that death does not have the final word, but also by its very brevity about the grief of mourning saints. At least on two occasions, Jesus heard troubling news about the deaths of persons close to him. Arguably the best known is the account of Jesus raising his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. But before that miraculous feat, John’s gospel includes the shortest verse in all of Scripture which concludes a a description of Christ’s own grief:

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (John 11:32–35 ESV)

The other notable example of Jesus’ reaction to the death comes in Matthew’s narrative about the execution of John the Baptist:

[Herod] sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. (Matt. 14:10–13a ESV)

In both cases we see a restrained description of deep emotion. The Bible acknowledges Jesus’ grief but does not explain or plumb his experience of loss. Readers sense that this is genuine, that Jesus experienced real loss and empathized with those who mourned, not at all a surprise since the writer to the Hebrews asserts that in Christ all believers have a high priest able to sympathize with his people’s weaknesses. Not only was Christ tempted to sin, he also experienced the kind of loss that leads some to question God’s love and goodness.

What a better way to comfort those who mourn than to raise the deceased from the dead. Of course, Christians need to encourage fellow believers to wait and long for that day when the dead in Christ will be resurrected. Until then, knowing that the Bible reveals a Savior who grieved over death but did not say much may be an encouragement when we mourn with those who mourn but find ourselves at a loss for words.

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