Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Faith and Grieving

No matter your beliefs, helping people who are grieving is a matter of compassion, not theology.

If you are a person of faith, no matter what religion you follow, you probably feel torn between how you think you should feel and how you actually do feel, between the great promises of your faith and the stark reality of your situation.

There are a lot of shoulds we put on ourselves. A lot of guilt. When grief slams into us, our fears and doubts come pouring forth, we feel ashamed that we can’t handle the onslaught. We feel weak. But there are no shoulds in grief. How we feel is how we feel, and this is where we have to start.

This seems to be a Buddhist notion, to do a reality check and see where we are without making any judgments. Slowly I am learning how Buddhists deal with death.

I am more familiar with the landscape in Christianity where there is tension between feeling joy that our loved ones are in heaven and feeling grief over our loss. The shoulds that creep in generally work to deny our feelings. We should be stronger in our faith. We should believe that everything is happening according to God’s plan. We should have unquestioning faith. We should be joyous at all times.

I’m going to give three examples from the Judeo/Christian side of things for why we should hang on to our emotions.

First, if you’ve ever read the Psalms, you know how the psalmists ranted and raged against God. How they despaired and plunged into depression. How they cried day and night and couldn’t find any comfort. How they got angry and argued with God over what they thought were injustices. And God accepted them with their emotions. God accepted them as they were.

In the 16th century, the wife of the poet-priest John Donne died. He wrote “Holy Sonnet 17” that expressed his gratitude that she was now in joyous heaven where it was always autumn with its warm, rich colors. Then he wrote about his despair in “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day,” feeling like he was every dead thing. For Donne, sorrow was a deep, human response to something tragic, and it was as much a natural part of faith as was love.

In the 20th century, the Christian writer C.S. Lewis spoke honestly of his grief after his wife died. He said that an unexamined faith was likely no faith at all, but hollow. If we do not have questions about our personal faith, if we do not seek answers for what we do not understand, then we do not grow.

Besides accepting our emotions as valid, think about this for a moment. Now that someone close to us has died, maybe God wants us to learn what grief feels like. Maybe God wants us to walk through the valley of the shadows of death so that we understand how desolate and abandoned it can feel. Maybe God wants us to explore grief so that we will learn how we can help others who are grieving.

If faith is to be real, it has to be rooted in our struggles. It is in the ruins of our heart that words of consolation find their meaning. It is here that hope finds its footing, and here that we learn how much we need the help of others if we are going to survive. The incarnation is rooted in our struggles for a reason — not to deny our struggles but to help us confront and transform them into sources of strength. We survive grief as a community that shares its heartaches.

The journey of grief takes us deep inside our faith. It is here that we find the wisdom and compassion to help each other.


  1. We are on the same wave-length this week, Mark, and I thank you for sharing your insights on this topic. I've added a link to your post beneath my own, "Religion and Spirituality in Grief," here: http://j.mp/1HrWe9R

  2. We are thinking alike this week, Marty, on our blog posts! I left a note on your site.