Q: Someone I love recently died. I know that we believe in life after death, but I am still struggling. Am I wrong to be sad? Is it OK that I wish they were still here?
A: Thank you so much for your question. And please know of my prayers for you and for all those who love and now miss your loved one. Death is one of those things that can just shake us in the most secret and hidden depths of our souls. Death often reveals parts of our hearts and areas of ourselves that were hitherto unknown. Sometimes we find a new strength to be there for the people who are left. Sometimes we discover a new compassion and patience for others who are hurting. And sometimes we find new wounds; we can experience loss and loneliness, grief and sadness at a depth we hadn’t known was possible.
All of these emotions get to be a part of your grief.
There are no “correct” emotions. I apologize if this is obvious, but there is no emotion that you “ought” to feel, and no emotion that you “ought not” to feel. Emotions are like scents in the air; some might be more pleasant than others, but there is no “right” smell. As long as you can get enough oxygen to your system, you’ll survive.
At the same time (to really stretch the analogy), some smells will give us an indication of what is going on around us. If you smell gasoline, there might be some kind of leak or a spill. If you smell fresh baked bread, it might be almost time for supper. If you smell coffee being brewed, it might be time to wake up. In this case, certain scents can be cues for us; they indicate something about our environment.
Similarly, our emotions can give us an indication of what is going on within us and outside of us. A friend of mine once said, “Our emotions do not reveal the truth about reality, but they do reveal the truth about the state of our hearts.” So we would be wise to pay attention to our emotions.
Because of this, you do not need to worry whether or not your emotions are “Christian enough.” You have human emotions. That’s all. To experience fear or anger or sadness in the face of death is neither right nor wrong. It just is. In fact, the Bible is filled with holy people who experienced normal and powerful sadness when confronted by death. Abraham and Sarah were married for well over half a century. When Sarah died, Genesis 23 states that Abraham “went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.” Jacob mourned for years over the apparent death of his son Joseph. When David’s son, Absalom, died (while trying to kill his own father), David went up to the gate over the city and could be heard weeping and crying aloud, “My son, my son, Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you! My son, Absalom!”
Even our Lord Jesus Christ was moved to tears by the death of his friend Lazarus. We know the story of how the brother of Mary and Martha had been sick for a time, only to die four days before Jesus arrived on the scene. When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend, Jesus wept. Even though Jesus knew what he was about, even though Jesus knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead in a few short moments, when confronted with death (and with the grief of those who mourned Lazarus), God wept.
Later, when St. Paul was leaving his friends and fellow disciples from Ephesus, they threw their arms around him and wept because they would never see him again in this life.
All of this is to say that Christians grieve. Christians feel the sting of loss like everyone else. Christians know that death is a real parting. It is a real loss.
Christians can wish that we did not have to say goodbye to those we love. After all, we will never see those people in this life. We do not know when we will see them again. It is only natural that goodbyes would cut a part of us to pieces.
And yet, for the Christian who dies, we believe that “life is changed, not ended.” We believe that those whom we love who die in Christ are alive in Christ. We believe that the souls of the just are in the hands of God, and that no further torment can touch them. We believe that because of Jesus, death no longer has the final word. We believe that, while death can steal our loved ones from this world, nothing can take them from the Father’s hands. We believe that God is good and that he does not abandon us in death. We believe that, because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, death has lost, death has been defeated, death has lost its ultimate sting.
Of course, there is still the sting we feel here and now. There is still the fact that our loved ones can no longer love us in the way they did while they walked this earth. They can no longer speak to us or hold us. They can no longer give us a word of encouragement or a reminder that they love us. They can no longer drop by and spend time with us.
But they do still love us. They can still pray for us. Those who are in heaven actually love us more perfectly than they ever could whilst they were on earth, because their love has now been purified, because they now see God as he is, and they can see us as we are. Because of this, they can love us in the exact way that we need. And yet, it is different. As we say, “changed, not ended.”
So, there are going to be times when the ache in our hearts wishes that they were still here. That isn’t a flaw; it’s just how love works. We can have absolute confidence in God’s triumph over death and still miss the people we love. We can fully believe that they are finally where they are more joyful than any of us could imagine and still feel our own sorrow. We can rejoice that they get to see God and still grieve the fact that we don’t get to see them.
We grieve because we love. But, as Saint Paul wrote, “We do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We get to have moments of boldness and levity in the face of death because we know that they have the One whose heart they were made for. And we can be sad because we do not have them with us.
I invite you: let the waves of grief come and go. Every time there are tears, let them remind you of the fact that there was someone in your life who loved you and whom you loved, even if imperfectly. And every time you smile at the thought of what they might be doing in heaven with the Lord, thank God for the gift of Jesus Christ who has declared that death no longer has the last word. The last word is life. The last word is love. The last word is Jesus.