Whenever Christians experience a loss, we are quick to remind each other that we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). But implicit in Paul’s encouragement that we grieve with hope is that as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, we will grieve.
Because of the true hope we have in Jesus, sometimes our grief can catch us by surprise. We tend to underestimate it. Sometimes, we ignore it. But God invites us to face it.
Here are four surprising realities of grief.
1. We Grieve Far More Often Than We Realize.
Most of us associate grief almost exclusively with death. Sure, you might be having a bad day, a tough month, or a discouraging year, but unless we’re lowering a body into the ground, does what you’re experiencing really rise to the level of grief?
In short, yes. Because grieving the loss of a loved one is only one type of grief. It’s the most clearly identifiable, as John Onwuchekwa notes, because it is tangible. Everyone knows how to show up when someone you love dies. We have tools and skills to face that grief.
But then there is ambiguous grief.
“Ambiguous grief is different,” writes Onwuchekwa. “It’s not as tangible, clear and certain. Matter of fact, it’s anything but tangible, clear and certain. It’s a grief with no definite boundary or closure. Deaths with no funerals or caskets.”
Ambiguous grief can be sparked by any number of losses: the death of a dream, the end of a relationship, the loss of a church community, a departure of a loved one who has moved to a different state, a chronic illness, or any other loss that reshapes your daily reality.
What’s remarkable is that many of these things happen all the time. In many ways, to live is to grieve. You might not have even realized that you’re grieving right now. But the sooner we recognize it, the sooner we will be able to face our grief in light of our hope and faith in Jesus Christ.
As Onwuchekwa argues, “Sometimes being able to name your feelings can change everything. It’s like getting a prescription for an illness that no one’s been able to identify. The prescription paper doesn’t actually change anything. But it changes EVERYTHING.”
2. Grief Warps Our Sense of Reality.
When it was revealed in 1963 that C.S. Lewis had authored “A Grief Observed” in 1961 under a pseudonym, many of his Christian readers were so troubled by what he had written that they argued the book must have been a work of fiction written from the first person perspective rather than Lewis’ actual thoughts.
And that’s because in the midst of his grief, which Lewis was recording in real-time, the world renowned apologist who had come to the Christian faith only after spending years evaluating its arguments seemed to be questioning that very faith. At the time, Lewis was mourning the loss of his beloved wife, and he was questioning whether God is even real. And if he is real, does he even care?
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy…you will be or so it feels welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited: It seemed so once. And that seemed as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
Lewis goes on to express that his deepest fear isn’t that he would stop believing in God, but that he would come “to believe such dreadful things about Him.”
In our darkest moments, we tend to think dreadful things about God. Our sense of reality, at least for a time, can become warped. But it’s a natural part of the process, if we are willing to engage in it. Later, Lewis reflects that God was not unwilling to help him in his hour of greatest need but rather that he was not ready to receive God’s help, which perhaps he always knew.
But that didn’t make a difference when he felt the door was being slammed in his face. And here’s the thing: He wasn’t in the wrong for expressing himself in that moment. Neither would we be.
God can take it. I don’t think we’re in danger of hurting his feelings by being honest about our current state of belief. And if you don’t believe me, open up your Bible and read even a handful of lament psalms.
RELATED: Christian, Do Not Bypass Your Grief
3. Grief Changes Your Past as Much as It Does Your Future.
When we go through grief, we are often keenly aware of how the loss will affect the future. The dreams we had, the plans we made, our hopes and aspirations the future are dashed away. But grief also has a funny way of changing even how we understand the past.
In “A Grief Observed,” Lewis describes visiting places he used to frequent before he was married and where he had good memories, adding that he felt summoned into “a past kind of happiness” from before he met and then subsequently lost his wife.
However, Lewis notes,
But the invitation seemed to me horrible. The happiness into which it invited me was insipid. I find that I don’t want to go back again and be happy in that way. It frightens me to think that a mere going back should even be possible. For this fate would seem to me the worst of all, to reach a state in which my years of love and marriage should appear in retrospect a charming episode like a holiday that had briefly interrupted my interminable life and returned me to normal, unchanged.
Characterizing such a prospect as akin to watching his wife die twice, Lewis goes on to lament, “Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left? You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared.”
In other words, once you endure a terrible grief, even if you weather the storm with your life and faith intact, there is still no going back. Things will never be the same. Furthermore, a measure of sorrow now accompanies the recollection of even your fondest memories. Grief echoes into the past.
Even though God restores, what is broken will not magically become what it once was. Instead, God gathers the broken shards and creates something new. And while it is beautiful—perhaps even more beautiful than what came before—what was lost, in many ways, remains lost.
This often serves as a lesson in learning to cling to nothing other than God himself.
4. Grief Is Formational
In her memoir, “All My Knotted Life,” Beth Moore recounts some of the darkest moments of her life right alongside the deepest moments of hope, describing a childhood full of both love and abuse and a life full of both purpose and heartbreak.
In the end, she concludes that all of it is a tangled up knot. Moore writes,
I’m growing old now, quickly, the clock ticking, the days flying. I’m not very sure of myself anymore, if I ever truly was. But I am utterly sure of one thing about my turn on this whirling earth. A thing I’ve never seen. A thing I cannot prove. A thing I cannot always sense. Every inch of this harrowing journey, in all the bruising and bleeding and sobbing and pleading, my hand has been tightly knotted, safe and warm, with the hand of Jesus. In all the letting go, he has held me fast. He will hold me still. And he will lead me home.
The path God is leading us down often isn’t clear until we are further along down the journey. And while any rational person would wish away any and all of the circumstances that have caused us to grieve, in some cases, we never would have gained greater clarity of faith without going down the path of grief.
Before our grief, we thought we knew who God was. But, as it turns out, he is infinitely more complicated—and more good—than we could have imagined. As Lewis writes, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.”
God is the great iconoclast. In the midst of our pain, he shows us that he is better than the notions we have about him. The god that we worship is often so much smaller than the God who is calling us to himself. Though I do not believe that God is in the business of sending suffering our way to teach us some kind of moral lesson, I do believe that he is powerful enough, and creative enough, to take the darkest, most awful aspects of our lives and use those very spaces to do his best work in our hearts.
And when he does, we see the world more clearly. We see ourselves more clearly. Most importantly, we see him more clearly.
If you found this article helpful, consider checking out this book, which has helped to shape my understanding of grief: “We Go On: Finding Purpose in All of Life’s Sorrows and Joys” by John Onwuchekwa.