Grief and Hope
By Rev John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
Many a person of faith has taken great comfort from these words of the Apostle Paul:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13)
Paul’s point is that when we trust God, and God’s creation, we can face loss knowing that we will survive it and even find new life beyond the devastation we feel in the fresh moments of grief. Those who trust in this way experience hope for the future, even though, in the freshness of their grief, they can scarcely imagine what that future might look like.
As someone has reminded us, “Even though we cannot see beyond the headlights we know that the road goes on.” That is what it means to have hope! And in the face of loss that is what it means to grieve as others do who have not yet experienced such hope.
I have observed, however, that sometimes people of faith feel guilty or embarrassed when they fall to pieces during a memorial gathering for a loved one who has died. They suppose that, as a person of faith who does not “grieve as those who have no hope,” they should demonstrate their faith by appearing composed, serene and confident in every moment, and that if they don’t, others will suppose that that are lacking in faith.
But Paul was not suggesting that people of faith should not grieve at all. He was not urging us not to wail and feel the pain of loss at the deepest level of our being. He assumes we will grieve, and must grieve and that grieving may be the hardest thing we have ever gone through.
Paul is only reminding us that our grief will be different from the grief of others who have no hope. In other words we can grieve and hope at the same time.
It has been helpful for me to turn the equation around and look at it from the other side: If I can grieve but not without hope, I can also hope but not without grief. Indeed, I am strongest when I am experiencing both—the pain of real grief and the hope that something positive lies beyond that grief and even in the grief itself!
The Gospel of John contains several beautiful passages where Jesus speaks of the separation that evokes grief and, at the same time, the possibilities that lie in and beyond that grief. Knowing that he is soon to die, and that his disciples will be devastated by their feelings of loss following his death, Jesus invites them to consider how his departure is an opportunity for his coming in a new way:
“I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you. In a little while the world will not see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:18-19)
“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away and I am coming to you.’” (John 14:28)
“Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn . . . ; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16: 20-22)
I dare say that if you have not already experienced this wonderful marriage of grief and hope, there is a good chance that you will—sooner or later!