Coping with Bereavement
The loss of loved ones in my life, especially my daughter's death, has caused me to think deeply about grief and what the Bible says about this emotional and very personal subject.
Why am I writing about grief? It is seldom discussed or written about because it is not a positive or uplifting subject. The loss of loved ones in my life, especially my daughter’s death, has caused me to think deeply about grief and what the Bible says about this emotional and very personal subject. I would like to share my thoughts and experiences in two articles.
Our eldest daughter Alison was born in Toronto, Canada. We returned to Australia, where she grew up, accepted Christ in baptism, and married a brother in Christ. At age twenty-two, she died in a road accident. Now, twenty-nine years later, the impact of our loss is still keenly felt. Over the following two years, I endeavored to understand God’s perspective on such a tragedy. To my surprise, there is much information on grief in the Bible.
This awareness reinforced my appreciation of this amazing book–a book that fulfills every need we can have in life. Truly God has provided “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” (2 Pet 1:3).1
The Reality of Death
The subject of death and the consequent grief should not be strange for us. The mortality of man is one of our first principles; indeed, I would argue it is the first principle. From it comes our need for salvation from death, the means of salvation in Christ and fulfillment of that process in God’s Kingdom on earth.
Grief can be particularly deep when it is unexpected.
The foundation of God’s revelation is in Genesis:
“Genesis is the seed-plot of the whole Bible. It is essential to the true understanding of its every part. It is the foundation on which Divine Revelation rests; and on which it is built. It is not only the foundation of all Truth, but it enters into, and forms part of all subsequent inspiration; and is at once the warp and woof of Holy Writ. Genesis is quoted or referred to sixty times in the New Testament; and divine authority is set like a seal on its historical facts.” (Bullinger).2
In Genesis we learn that:
- We all return to the ground at death (3:19).
- There may be a premature, or violent death (4:8).
- Every generation dies—“and he died” (5:5).
Furthermore, we read that disease, famine, and war all reap their harvest. Trouble is inevitable:
- “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7).
- “In the world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33).
- “We were troubled on every side… inside were fears.” (2 Cor 7:4-5).
- “The fiery trial which is to try you.” (1 Pet 4:12-13).
What is Grief?
Grief is the physical and emotional response to the loss of something or someone we love. Similar experiences can occur with unemployment, serious illness, personal offense, a loved one hurting, marriage failure, the death of a loved one, a miscarriage, an ecclesial dispute, or a rebellious child. Grief can be particularly deep when it is unexpected.
Unfortunately, when it comes to our personal experiences, there is little spoken or written about in our community. Historically there was a sense of “toughing it out” or “having a stiff upper lip.” This attitude has made it more difficult to cope, both for the bereaved and the mourners.
Given the breadth and depth of information we have in the Bible, our expectations of life should be realistic. So much of the Bible deals with real people in real-life experiences. It is not just a book of doctrines. How thankful we should be that it is so! Therefore, we discover that many others have had the same or similar experiences in every generation–we are not alone.
Death brings sorrow and pain:
- “She laid her hand on her head and went away crying bitterly.” (2 Sam 13:19).
- “Alas! Alas!” (1 Kgs 13:30; Jer 22:18; Amos 5:16).
- “I bowed down heavily.” (Psa 35:14).
- “I mourned like a dove.” (Isa 38:14; 59:11).
- “I will wail and howl” (Mic 1:8).
- “As one grieves for a firstborn.” (Zech 12:10).
- “A sword will pierce through your own soul.” (Luke 2:35).
Bereavement brings a new awareness of the fragility of life.
Loss and grief are the prices we pay for living and loving. We would not feel grief if we didn’t love anything or anyone. Bereavement brings a new awareness of the fragility of life.
It is important to appreciate that grief has two parts:
- The loss of part of oneself, something of great value.
- We also grieve for unfulfilled dreams and for the future that will never be.
Either of these can be dominant depending on our circumstances.
Normal Grief Reactions
One’s response to loss comes in various forms. While there are many common reactions, each individual’s grief is unique. The reason is because we are all different in temperament, and our relationships with loved ones are unique. Nevertheless, the following physical and emotional reactions are common:
- Tightness in the throat, difficulty swallowing.
- Choking, shortness of breath.
- Sighing respiration.
- An empty feeling in the abdomen.
- Altered sleep patterns.
- Loss of appetite.
- Restless activity–disorganized, aimless behavior.
- Inability to concentrate or make plans or decisions.
- Weeping, often without prompting.
- Emotional pain.
- Rapid changes in feelings from love to grief to anger to guilt.
- The thought that things are unreal, a sense of unreality, that one will wake up and find it is just a bad dream.
- Feelings of regret, yearning, and longing to put things right. “I should have.” “I should not have.”
- Exaggerated blame of self.
- A certainty that we have seen or heard the deceased for a fleeting second.
- Preoccupation with the deceased and parallel withdrawal from activities.
- Dread that one is losing faith or going crazy.
- Nothing seems pleasurable or meaningful. “What is the use?”
Knowing that what we are going through is not unusual is helpful. Much will depend on our circumstances and how we deal with these responses. There is an element of unavoidability, but we can also act to modify our responses, particularly as time progresses.
Dealing with Death
What do I do now that it has happened? What am I going to do about it? I have found the story of Job very helpful. This is something that may seem strange, as I have encountered many brothers and sisters who find this book confusing or depressing. Let’s consider a few points that comfort me:
All of Job’s children died–all ten! (1:2, 19). I have only lost one of my three children.
“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (1:21). Our children are a gift from God and are returned to Him when they are baptized.
Job’s wife (equally, if not more so, affected) reacted differently to him (2:9). My wife Dianne and I did not react the same way to the death of our daughter. Neither was our subsequent journey through grief exactly the same.
His three friends came to visit, and they said nothing (very wise of them–what do you say anyway?) (2:11, 13). They did visit, even though they would not have enjoyed the experience.
His grief was very great (2:13).
But his losses were too great for him to bear, and he broke (wouldn’t you?) (3:1-26). This reaction was not prompted by any unhelpful comments by his friends.
Job asked “Why?’” (3:11, etc.). God did respond, but not in the way he wanted or expected (38:1; 40:1). Job acknowledged that his challenge to God was wrong (42:5-6).
The Death of a Child
I think it is indisputable that the death of a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. It is their worst nightmare. This is because it is against the natural order. We all expect parents to die first and realize our marriage partner may die before us, but we never think about our child dying before us.
My daughter’s death felt like, and still feels like losing a limb. The wound heals, but the limb does not regrow—the loss is permanent in this life. Even God, our Father, felt the death of His Son and covered the earth with darkness. The scene was too shocking to look upon (Luke 23:44-45).
Nevertheless, most, if not all, parents would say that if they had known they would only have their child for a few years, they would still have had them. Our love for another does not depend on them or how long we have known them. Like, God, we choose to love—unconditionally. Our God and His Son are the supreme examples of love. Their love for each of us is demonstrated over and over in Scripture. Examples of their love in the past show us how they still love us.
A brother wrote to us after Alison died: “One thing we know and are assured of is that the loss you suffer is felt by our heavenly Father, for Alison was His daughter also. Likewise, our Lord Jesus Christ who had compassion on those he healed in the days of his pilgrimage, will have the same compassion towards his brethren and sisters now.”
What You Can Do to Help the Bereaved
There is much we can do to help the bereaved:
- Be warm and friendly in the good times so your help will be more readily received in bad times.
- Visit the bereaved (Job 2:11; John 11:19). Our presence says more than words.
- Reach out, often and repeatedly, to the person experiencing grief.
- Avoid evading the bereaved.
- Don’t be put off if you are not wanted. Try again later (however, they may have enough help already, or even too much).
- You will not feel good about going but choose to go.
- The bereaved need company. They gain comfort from your presence, your acceptance of them, your consolation. They need warm affection and encouragement.
- Demonstrate that you do want to share their burden.
- Do not be ashamed of tears; they are a healthy release of emotion.
- “Weep with those who weep.” (Rom. 12:15).
- Be patient and understanding, do not judge.
- You can’t make them feel better; there is no comfort.
- Send messages (2 Sam 10:1-2) cards and letters. Write of your love and respect, of your memories of the one who has died, by name.
- Telephone, text, or write at later times, especially on the anniversary of the death. When it appears that everyone else has forgotten (they haven’t), it is comforting to know others are thinking of you.
- Give food. They are not able to think about cooking and shopping at this time.
- Bring flowers to brighten and beautify.
- Go for walks with the bereaved.
But what do you say? You don’t need to say anything special.
- Say “I care” and “God cares.”
- Say what the dead person meant to you, mention their name, and reminisce (this gives the bereaved “permission” to talk if they want to).
- Encourage the bereaved to talk; it helps them to clarify their feelings, release their emotions, and receive reassurance.
- “What help can I be?”
- “How are you doing?” Show you mean it.
- Do not ask them how they are unless you are prepared to hear the answer.
- Be prepared to hear about their unbearable pain.
- Do not use clichés such as:
- “He had a good life” or “He is out of pain.” These may be true but don’t address their needs now.
- “She would not want you to grieve.” How do you know, and what does this mean anyway? Their grief is because they loved so much.
- “You must keep up for the children’s sake.”
- “You are young; you will find another partner if you pray about it.” This was actually said to our son-in-law!
- Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You do not know how they feel.
- Talking about the resurrection is fine, but that was probably never in doubt. Knowing there is a resurrection does not stop the grieving process (John 11:21-27, 32-33). It is not the future that is causing grief, but the present.
- Listen. Learn how to be a good listener (Prov 18:13; Jas 1:19). “To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.” (John Marshall).
- Above all, pray. Pray for them and tell them you have. Do not feel this is strange or boastful. But we have found it immensely helpful. Consider how many times in the New Testament, prayer for others is mentioned. See the list in the endnotes.3
The case of Epaphras (Col 4:12) is very instructive. He was known for “always labouring fervently for you in prayers.” Either Paul overheard his audible prayers, or they discussed their prayers with each other. Either way, this knowledge would have greatly encouraged the Colossians.
Hyde Park Ecclesia, SA
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
- Bullinger, E.W. The Companion Bible of 1909– Appendix 2. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994.
- John 17:20; Luke 22:32; Rom 1:7-10; 15:5-6, 13, 33; 16:20, 25-27; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 1:2-4; 13:7, 14; Gal 6:16, 18; Eph 1:2, 15-23; 3:14-21; Phil 1:2-3, 9-11; 4:23; Col 1:2-3, 9-12; 2:1; 4:12, 18; 1 Thess 1:1-3; 3:11-13; 5:23-24, 28; 2 Thess 1:2, 11-12; 2:16; 3:16; 1 Tim 1:2; 6:21; 2 Tim 1:2-3, 16-18; 4:22; Titus 1:4; 3:15; Phm :3-6, 25; Heb 13:20-21, 25).