To Cry, or Not to Cry

Here’s a different angle on processing your losses

“The people of Israel mourned for Moses on the plains of Moab for thirty days, until the customary period of mourning was over.”

Deuteronomy 34:8

This post is dedicated to my brother-in-law, Bob Dodson, who passed away unexpectedly while serving as a missionary in Tanzania, East Africa. He’ll be sorely missed. Sometimes death gives notice that it’s coming beforehand, but sometimes it doesn’t. In Bob’s case, there was no notice. A heart attack made his departure an abrupt one. We were braced for my Dad’s passing back in the spring, but not for Bob’s. That funeral we weren’t expecting.

Not yet anyway.

Speaking of funerals, have you noticed that there are different approaches these days? At some funerals the theme is hopeful mourning while at others the theme is celebration of life. The latter approach seems to have gained popularity in recent years. These services are a bit of a departure from traditional funerals as they emphasize celebration and de-emphasize grief.

At first glance, the idea of skipping grief and mourning over a beloved’s death may seem to represent a more mature perspective. It sounds positive and focuses on the bright side, which in general is a good thing.

But biblically speaking, I wonder if this approach is missing something. As Christians, one of our best practices is to look to Scripture for guidance on what to believe, how to think about things, and how to live out our faith (2 Timothy 3:15-17). So if you track down what is a normal response to the death of a loved one in Scripture, it becomes clear that grief and mourning are appropriate.

For example, in the Old Testament narrative, the faithful would set aside an extended period of time to feel the pain over the loss of a loved one (Numbers 20:29; Deuteronomy 34:8). Rather than gloss over their sadness at someone’s passing, they would feel it. Deeply. What’s more, they would visibly demonstrate what they were feeling – no pretense, no putting on a face to avoid awkwardness or embarassment.

In the New Testament, this practice of mourning continued, even with the new emphasis on life after death. Notice in 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s teaching about how to process the death of a Christian relative:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

Is Paul teaching here that Christians should not grieve? Or, is he saying that Christians should not grieve like non-Christians grieve – without hope? I would suggest the latter. Comparing Scripture with Scripture, it seems that what Paul is saying is that as Christians we, too, feel grief and sorrow over losing someone we love, but yet when we grieve, we do so with resurrection hope. We have permission to mourn, but our mourning is hedged by our hope that we will see that person again one day.

Perhaps the best case for this view is in the example of Jesus. Notice how the Lord processed the news of the death of his friend, Lazarus (whom he would later call out of a tomb). Knowing full well how the story would end, Jesus grieved over Lazarus’ passing. Rather than containing his emotion, he fully released it. The shortest verse in the entire Bible reads like this:

Jesus wept.

John 11:35

Generally speaking, somewhere along the way the necessity of grieving our losses has been lost on Western culture. And as it often happens with cultural shifts, this trend has made its way into the church. Instead of reckoning with and processing our grief, we may be making a mistake by superficially glossing over it with platitudes and pleasantries, leaving our grief to accumulate layer upon layer for another time and another place.

Enough of that. Let us take a cue from our ancestors in the faith and process our grief. Let us take the time to talk with God and with others about it, even if it means lots of tears, runny noses, and kleenex. There’s healing in those tears.

Serving as a pallbearer at Bob’s funeral was the last thing I was expecting to do this summer. Nevertheless, it will be my honor. I’ll probably hug my sis as she says goodbye to her husband of 46 years and we’ll cry together.

This is the way it’s supposed to be.

It’s a new day with God. Run with it.

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