[Note: For an expanded version of this article, click here. The expanded version appeared on A Life Overseas in December, 2013 and is geared more for a missions/TCK audience.]
Someone dies, or gets cancer, or gets cancer and then dies. Someone else says something eminently useful like “All things work together for good” or “He’s in a better place” or “I have a time-share in Florida and the carpet’s getting replaced this week.”
Someone moves to a foreign field, and it’s hard, and it’s sad, and they have kids. And the kids feel it too. They’re sad. They miss grandma, and McDonald’s, and green grass. Someone tells them, “It’s for God,” or “It’ll be ok someday; you’ll look back on this as one of the best things that ever happened to you.” Maybe their parents tell them that.
And grief gets outlawed, and the curse descends. And the child understands that some emotions are spiritual and some are outlawed.
People do this in many ways, both to others and to themselves. Is it ok to be sad? If it’s ok to be sad, how long can something be acknowledged as sad before it’s no longer ok to be sad about whatever it is that made you sad? When exactly are you supposed to “just move on”? It’s almost as if you can’t have grief and faith at the same time.
Outlawing grief is something super-spiritual, and is often supported by Bible verses. Forget the past and press on. God’s got a plan. God is sovereign. It’s very Biblical to outlaw grief, after all. If you grieve a loss of something or someone, then you must not have all your treasures in heaven. You can’t lose your treasures in heaven. If you grieve, you must not have faith, because the truly faithful person would know the goodness of God and would cast themselves on that goodness. If you grieve, you must not believe that God is sovereign and in control. How could you question the plan of God by crying?
If you grieve over a loss that was caused by someone else (through neglect or abuse), then it’s obvious you haven’t forgiven the offender. You should work on that, because everyone knows that once you’ve truly forgiven someone the painful effects and memories disappear forever.
Annoyingly, grief is not on a timetable and doesn’t run on schedule. Sometimes it even leaves the station, only to double back and park again. And stay. Sometimes, outlawed grief goes underground. It becomes a tectonic plate, storing energy, swaying, resisting movement, and then exploding in unanticipated and unpredictable ways. A tectonic plate can store a heck of a lot of energy. Sort of like grief, once outlawed. It descends below the surface. And sometimes heaving tectonic plates cause destruction far, far away. Really smart people with even smarter machines have to do smart things to pinpoint the actual location of the destructive shift.
So please allow grief, in your own heart and in the hearts of your kids. If you’re uncomfortable with other peoples’ grief, you might want to look deep, deep down in your own soul and see if there’s some long-outlawed, long-buried grief. If you find some, begin gently to see it, vent it, feel it.
And if you come across someone who’s grieving a loss, please remember that they probably don’t need a lecture, or a Bible verse, or a pithy saying. But they could maybe use a hug.
For more thoughts on grief, check out Don’t Be Afraid of Me, Please (and other lessons from the Valley)
Jonathan Trotter is a missionary in Southeast Asia, serving with the church planting mission Team Expansion. Before moving to the field with his wife of thirteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. In preparing for the field, Jonathan worked as an ER nurse in an urban hospital, where he regularly witnessed trauma, suffering, and death. His little sister died when he was six, his mother died of breast cancer when he was seventeen, and his father died of brain cancer when he was twenty-five.