Many years ago, a dear friend of mine lost her husband and two oldest children to a plane crash. After the crushing blow, this young mother carried on with her two youngest, meeting the hardships of life without her spouse. If I ever need a definition of endurance, I think of her. But I notice that around the anniversary of the crash, this brave friend mourns. She also hurts during what-might-have-been-birthdays and holidays. She says, “Some grief is not resolved this side of heaven. We carry it deep in our souls until Jesus comes.”
Grieving may be normal—even a sign of deep love and a normal component of human thriving. But in 2013, the Diagnostic Manual of the American Psychiatric Association took the grief exclusion out of the criteria for major depressive disorder. This meant that grief could be considered a form of depression. In response to this, some argued that failing to distinguish between the two makes grief a disease rather than a normal human response to loss. And yet, as rabbi and grief counselling expert Earl A Grollman says, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity. It is the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
But grief feels a lot like depression. Despairing emotions flood the body. The future looks empty. Hope seems lost. The ability to function is impaired. A person eats or sleeps less or more than normal. Isolating from others is common. It can be hard to concentrate. Fatigue seems to set in easily. Patience and stamina flounder.
Grief can become prolonged grief disorder (PGD), a condition associated with depression and post-traumatic stress. How can we assist those who might be in danger of developing these conditions? Human contact, a helping hand and kind words can go a long way. Also, the support of a religious community can be very helpful. In other words, a church family can be a great blessing to the mental health of the person who is grieving.
The church as grief support
Therapy groups have long supported people through a host of problems. Groups specifically designed for sufferers of grief and loss have successfully included three factors: social support, interpersonal learning and meaning-making.1 A church family can certainly provide help in these three areas.
Social support comes easily in a church context because, at its best, the church is a loving family! Notice the use of the family metaphor. Jesus called “whoever does the will” of His Father, His “mother” and “brothers” (Matthew 12:49, 50). We, the “household of God” or the “household of faith,” treat older men as fathers, “younger men as brothers, older women as mothers and younger women as sisters, in all purity” (Ephesians 2:19; Galatians 6:10; 1 Timothy 5:1, ESV2). While the church family, human as it is, does fall short of the loving support God idealises, it can also succeed wonderfully.
Interpersonal learning is what our walk with God within His family is all about. When a fellow believer suffers a loss, we don’t see them as cursed or defective but as potentially wiser for the cross they must bear. The wise man said, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
The grieving among us remind us all of the fragility of life and our need for God. The biblical authors know this and want to teach us that hardship facilitates growth: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NKJV).
Meaning-making is something the Bible embraces more than any other text in the world. One of the most affirming aspects of its message is the beauty-from-ashes principle—that God can transform human brokenness. One way He does this is by leading us to minister to others out of our own pain. The Bible says that God “comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). We don’t suffer in a vacuum. Our suffering can open channels of benefit to others, lending our lives, and even the suffering itself, rich significance.
Supporting those who are grieving
How do we, as individuals, help people through grief-triggering holidays? We will need to avoid two ditches: either trying to fix grief or sinking with the grieving.
The fix ditch. Should the bereaved express any sadness or fear, we may feel compelled to fix those feelings. This is a normal, albeit unhelpful, human behaviour. Typically, we issue platitudes such as: “You’ll see them again in heaven” or “God will help you through this”. These statements, while true in themselves, nevertheless clatter to the floor as useless or even harmful because the bereaved interprets them as “Get better, now. Your sadness bothers me.” In the Bible, you see Job’s friends tried very hard to fix him, didn’t they? Sometimes, especially when the pain is fresh and acute, simply coming alongside the person, even sitting with them in silence, is the perfect response.
The sink ditch. The other mistake, while it may seem more virtuous, is no less harmful. It might be called the “sink” approach. This approach offers empathy but fails to encourage and redirect the person’s thoughts even when it would be appropriate to do so. Prolonged grief may be prevented by instilling hopeful thoughts—sharing Bible promises with the struggling ones, pointing them to a God of love and His plan to restore all things.
Fortunately, there is a balanced middle. A model of bereavement therapy called dual-purpose bereavement group intervention (DPBGI) resembles the biblical balance. Researchers gave a group of 125 Chinese senior citizens one of two treatments for bereavement: One approach focused on grief support alone, and another approach oscillated between grief support and a focus on restoration after grief. While both approaches helped resolve symptoms, the dual approach did so more effectively.3
Doesn’t the Bible promote this dual approach? It frankly admits human loss and suffering, giving numerous examples of biblical characters expressing emotional pain (have you read the Psalms?) yet offers hope of restoration both in this world and the world to come. Let us look at a few Bible texts:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
“Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up” (Psalm 71:20).
“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you” (Joel 2:25).
Armed with both empathy and hopeful promises, we can come alongside those suffering holiday grief, hear and share their pain, and then gently point them toward heaven.
Get help if things get worse
If the grieving person seems to stay depressed long after the holidays are over, or if you worry about them in any other way, you may want to encourage them to find help. The website <psychologytoday.com.au> will help with finding a local licensed professional in Australia, or <nzccp.co.nz> in New Zealand. If you sense that suicide may be an issue, for example, if the person drops comments such as, “The world would be better off without me” or “I wish I could die”, go ahead and ask, “Have you ever thought of taking your own life?” Don’t be afraid—asking does not increase the likelihood of suicide but rather reduces it! If they indicate any suicidal intention, connect the person immediately to a professional who can help or call Lifeline in Australia on 13 11 14 and 0508 826 865 in New Zealand.
Let’s close with a simple summary of ideas for helping the person who is grieving through the holidays.
Help the grieving person plan ahead. The traditions carried on by everyone else may be triggering sad memories in the bereaved. Encourage the person to feel free to opt in or out of those traditions as they wish. Encourage the bereaved to let other people know their needs and preferences. Help them exercise self compassion and, if they need to, place limits on their contribution to parties, meals and other events. Give the grieving person permission to talk about their feelings, letting them know you’ll be there to listen and not judge. Encourage them to ask for any help they may need.
Finally, affirm that, as author Franchesca Cox says, “Grief only exists where love lived first.”5 Remind them that the same God who put that love in their hearts loves them as well. Offer to pray with them, asking God to heal their sore and aching heart. Open up to them the wonderful promises of God for a better world, saying with the apostle, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14). Assure them that Jesus “will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (verse 16). How good it is to know that God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes, ending grief, loss and death forever (Revelation 21:4).
Jennifer Schwirzer loves God and people and lives to bring them together through the written, spoken and sung Word.
- Alexander Rice, “Common Therapeutic Factors in Bereavement Groups,” Death Studies 39, no. 3 (2015): 165–172.
- Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Amy Y. M. Chow, Michael Caserta, Dale Lund, Margaret H. P. Suen, Daiming Xiu, Iris K. N. Chan, and Kurtee S. M. Chu, “Dual-Process Bereavement Group Intervention (DPBGI) for Widowed Older Adults,” Gerontologist 59, no. 5 (October 2019): 983–994, https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gny095.