A Time to Grieve
By John T. Schwiebert, ThM
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . .
A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance . . .”
These familiar words of scripture are traditionally read in many churches that gather for worship on New Year’s Day. These words invite us to reflect about our lives as we move into a new year.
But what exactly does the writer mean who says that there is a time to weep, or a time to mourn?
When I first read these words as a child I assumed what many people of my generation assumed—that the writer was conveying to us that there are times when the open expression of grief is appropriate and socially acceptable, and by contrast other times when we’d best keep feelings of loss to ourselves or risk being considered abnormal. In fact, in general I tended to view the Bible as a manual of “shoulds” and “oughts” that I was supposed to learn and follow.
Regrettably, some mental health professionals today also view grief as something that should be contained within a chronological time framework. For them the “time to grieve” ought to be limited to one month after a personal loss or, for persons of certain personality types, maybe as much as three months. But, according to this way of thinking, if a person has not gotten over their loss within the prescribed time period his or her mental health is considered to be at risk, and psychotherapy may be suggested.
But now, in my advanced years, I hear something much different when I read these words from Ecclesiastes. I am now convinced that the message of the writer is not meant to be proscriptive but simply descriptive. The writer is not trying to tell us what ought to happen over a period of time, but is rather describing what he or she observes as a common human experience. Moreover the “time” to which the writer refers is not chronological time—time measured by clocks and calendars—but time as in such common expressions as “it came as just the right time,” or “we had a wonderful time together.”
The message of these verses in Ecclesiastes for those who are grieving is simply this, “There is a time (and there may be multiple times) when you will weep and mourn. It’s natural. Get used to it. Don’t be surprised if grief suddenly overtakes you when you least expect it. And don’t think you have to apologize when grief happens! Just know that when it happens you have entered into “a time to mourn” that is uniquely yours.
The writer also says that by contrast there is “a time to laugh” and a “time to dance.” Again there may be a misconception about what the writer means by this. Some will assume the writer means that after you exhibit the behavior that society expects of a bereaved person for a prescribed period of time, you should then resume the posture and behavior of a person who has passed beyond grief and is now entitled to have fun again.
In actual experience, those who grieve have often been surprised to discover that they can weep one moment and laugh the next, and that they can feel deep sorrow and great joy at the same time. Why? Because in the world observed by the writer of Ecclesiastes, God has made a time and a season for everything. Each “time” is a gift. And these gifts of time are all good!
So, whenever it is your time to grieve, just do it, without apology, no matter how many months or even years have transpired since your loss. Trying to avoid grieving in such a time will probably not serve you well.
And when you feel like it’s a time for dancing, even though your loss is recent and your grief intense, just do it, again without apology. God smiles with approval as you enter into the pain and the joy of life whenever you accept that it is time to do so!