This morning, I had the privilege of joining the radio show Kurt and Kate Mornings on Moody Radio in Florida. They asked me to discuss a recent post titled, It is a Weakness of Faith to Refuse to Mourn the Death of Loved Ones. If they release the segment as a podcast, I will link it here. In preparing for the discussion, I reflected a little more on that post and the importance of funerals. As I lay out my thoughts, I am not primarily addressing those who are mourning, but the rest of us who are called to surround the grieving with support in their time of need.
One of the reasons I believe many Christians try to suppress grief at funerals by emphasizing the hope we have in Jesus, as if grief and hope in Christ are incompatible, is because we need an excuse to avoid confronting someone else’s pain. It is as if our faith is not strong enough to face the death and pain they are experiencing head-on. The mourner’s pain is natural and can coexist with a heart full of confidence in the greatness of our God, but if we are unable to be confronted by the pain they are experiencing, that inability is evidence of a weakness of faith on our part. True faith can look the enemy death square in the face, feel the pain it brings, and still trust God. In fact, this is where we learn best that God is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18)
We must understand what survivors are going through, not only to be a good friend to them but to be ready ourselves when death comes to our door. Mourning is not something that comes and goes quickly. It lingers for years. Todd Billings, in his excellent book The End of the Christian Life, paints the following picture. Many people picture grief as a short and curable illness that lands you in the hospital where you get the procedure you need; everyone brings you a casserole, you heal, and you are back to normal in no time. That is an incorrect picture. It is more like finding yourself in the hospital only to learn you have a chronic illness that will affect you for the rest of your life. In this situation, everyone comes to visit you, but you are still left with the disease after they leave. You may slowly feel a little better over time, but life will never be the same.
When it comes to grief, the first six months are the most difficult. However, a two-year mourning process is not abnormal, and it may take two more years before they have settled into their new life entirely. Let us also not take for granted the severity of grief in those first six months. It is not merely an emotional experience; it is physical. It is not unusual for the mourner to feel physically sick. Tim Challies alluded to his experience with this in his most recent family update (we continue to pray for you and your family, Tim). Traumatic grief is visceral. It affects the nervous system in countless ways. If you are in the midst of it, know that what you are experiencing is natural. For those of us seeking to support others in a time of loss, let us use this knowledge to keep from falling into the old trap of thinking, “It has been two months; why aren’t they over this yet?”
This information brings us to the importance of funerals. In another exceptional book, The Art of Dying, by Rob Moll, he reminds us, “The funeral is when a mourner is for the first time among society as a different person.” He goes on to write, “Funerals and other Christian rituals following death are meant, in large part, to nurse those wounds and reunite a community that has fractured.” What does this mean to those of us on the outskirts of their pain? First, we need to be there if we are able. Second, if the funeral is the mourner’s first significant social event as a new person, we must be a community that accepts them with their pain. Along with pointing them to the hope found in Jesus, the funeral service needs to tell them, “You and your grief belong with us.” We love you as you are. If their first time back in the Christian community sends the message, “We want you here as long you do not bring your sorrow,” we have failed catastrophically.