Although an assurance, death is never something for which we seem to be prepared. As those who are left in its wake, our confidence is often shaken and our endless questions remain. Though answers sometimes elude us, what is certain is that we as a collective do not discuss the process enough or even know how to handle its aftermath.
This week, I took part in the receiving line at my father-in-law’s funeral service, a viewpoint of death from which I had not previously experienced. Standing next to my family, I shook hands with extended relatives, friends, former students, and past co-workers, all of which had wonderful stories and anecdotes about how he had touched their lives. Outwardly, we attempted to put on the bravest face we could find, reaching down deep for some sort of superficial courage, but inside, we were wracked with shock and a bevy of emotions at our loss. Although mostly unspoken, I could see the deep grief etched into the faces of my family and those who were left behind.
Grief has come to be understood as a necessary part of the process; it’s the survivor’s way of grappling with death firsthand and with the confusion that comes as a result. Yet, we seem to have a problem with how to address grief. Mistakenly, many view grief as a weakness of faith and do not fully understand or accept it, so we tend to be unsure as to how to deal with it when we encounter it. Because we don’t talk enough about it, when we see it we attempt to cure it, thinking that grief is a human flaw. However, grief is a sign of faithful individuals wrestling with the complexity of life and the seemingly contradictory nature of death when juxtaposed with an all loving creator.
So, when we expressed our grief to some, we received well-intentioned but dismissive comments intended to halt our grieving process. When people saw us struggling with grief, their work mistakenly turned away from comforting and gravitated more towards justifying the situation, moving from an emotional response to a logical one. In our faith journeys, we are sometimes (although not enough) taught to question everything, but when grief rises to the surface, we are too quick to dismiss it instead of embracing it and allowing it as part of that journey.
Reasonably, the limitations of human knowledge lead to uncertainty within all of us. We are unable to answer the simple question of “why,” as the answer eludes us as long as we reside on this side of the curtain, while the heavenly realm continues to exist behind the thin veneer that separates us from our complete knowledge. Resultantly, doubt creeps in from the lack of answers, not as a sign of our loss of faith but instead from a lack of satisfying responses to our endless questions. Hence, when we are filled with pain and doubt, grief emerges not as a sign of faithlessness but as a sign of our humanity. In Matthew 27.46, a crucified Christ, limited by human knowledge and wracked with pain, cries out in grief to His father and creator. “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” Much like ourselves, Jesus’ answer was not provided to Him in that moment, and like Him, we are fundamentally forced to confront our doubt. Also like Him, our agonized uncertainty is not a reflection of faithlessness but is the sign of one’s individualized wrestling with questions and a frustration with our limitations as imposed upon us by our humanity, none of which should be dismissed.
Grief makes us not so much question God’s existence but instead question our understanding of our faith, refining it not through commonplace platitudes but through empathetic understanding and acceptance. Despite the emotional toll it may take, we need to resist the urge to halt or dismiss grief, as we need it to help us through these difficult times and emerge a more mature Christian. Although oftentimes unpleasant, a Christ-like wrestling with our faith and our doubt through grief leads us to a stronger, steadier understanding of our existence and further solidifies our relationship with God. Amen.