Understanding the Grieving Process

A depiction of an ancient Egyptian funeral procession

The Apostle Paul calls God “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).

One way that we see God as the God of all comfort is the fact that His Word, the Bible, has so many descriptions of grieving people and funerals.

This shows us that God comes alongside us at these times and is with us.

Ultimately, it points us to Jesus who is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:1). He knows what it is to grieve as we we are reminded when He stood before the tomb of Lazarus: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

In the many funerals of the Bible, God teaches us what it means to grieve. He teaches us about the grieving process which is a process that He has created for human beings to recover from loss.

A funeral for a loved one isn’t the only time we enter into the grieving process. We may need the grieving process for all sorts of losses: when loved ones move away, when we lose a job or a dream is shattered, when opportunities are lost, or when we experience trauma. However, funerals represent one of the strongest forms of grief, so they are particularly helpful in teaching us about grieving for all sorts of loss.

One example of a funeral in the Bible is the funeral for Jacob in Genesis 50. There are several important points about this funeral:

  1. They expressed their emotions. “Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1). Later, they spent a whole week expressing their emotion at the loss (v. 11).
  2. They took time. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob for 70 days (50:3).
  3. They talked about it. They didn’t hide it. They openly shared that they were dealing with struggles, and Joseph even asked Pharaoh for a leave of absence so he could process the grief (50:4–6).
  4. They got support. Joseph and his brothers didn’t do this alone. They took along those who cared about them and were a part of their lives (50:7–8).
  5. They used rituals. This whole section of Scripture involves detailed rituals that the Bible and ancient wisdom recognized as a good means for walking through the grieving process and recovering from loss.

This same pattern can still be used today. The grieving process is what God has created for human beings to recover from loss.

When I say that it is a process, I do not mean that these five points are a checklist such that once you’ve checked off all these things from your list, you are done grieving. No. These five things are just the sorts of things that we must do in order to walk through the grieving process.

We also cannot say for certain how long or how often we will have to walk through these things in order to recover. As Scott Floyd writes: “Grief allows no timetable” (Crisis Counseling: A Guide for Pastors and Professionals [Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008]).

Indeed, there is a sense in which recovery is never complete. There is real and substantial recovery in this life but rarely a perfect one. As C.S. Lewis explained: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop” (cited in Floyd, Crisis Counseling, 79). In other words, sorrow becomes part of our lives and is incorporated into it, even when we find substantial healing.

The continuing presence of an element of sorrow in our lives causes us to look forward to the life to come when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4).

Our culture is the culture of the quick fix, but the human soul is not designed for a quick fix. If we follow the Bible’s wisdom, we can help people enter into the grieving process that God has created for recovery from loss and teach people what it means to mourn as those who have hope (1 Thess. 4:12).

Preparing for Suffering and Trials

Trauma can happen to anyone. We should expect suffering. Trials are part of life.

When we read these things, we know they are true.

However, everyone seems to get the belief that somehow they will be exempt. “It won’t happen to me!” we think. Or we don’t think about it all. We just live as if life will go on forever the way it is.

It won’t.

The more we can recognize that this is the case, the more we will be equipped to deal with trials, suffering, and trauma when they occur.

That doesn’t mean that suffering won’t hurt. It just means we’ll be in a better place to process it.

That’s why the Bible constantly tells us to expect suffering. I did a brief survey of passages on suffering. It is truly amazing how often the Bible warns us to expect suffering. Here’s a brief list.

  1. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2–4).
  2. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
  3. Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).
  4. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Heb. 12:7–8).
  5. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).
  6. When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future (Ecclesiastes 7:14)
  7. Jesus wept (John 11:35).
  8. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Pet. 2:21).
  9. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said (Acts 14:21–22).
  10. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know (1 Thess. 3:2–4).

Another thing that helps us to process suffering and loss is to learn ahead of time the comfort that can come in the midst of suffering.

Here are a few ways to think about suffering and loss that will help us deal with them when they occur.

  1. You’re not alone. Suffering is the lot of human beings in this fallen world. When you feel intense grief, you may feel like you’re going crazy or strange. This is not true. The grief process is part of processing loss, and everyone who experiences loss has to walk through it in one way or another.
  2. God is shaping us through it. That’s why James says to count it all joy when we experience various trials and temptations. The testing of our faith produces character.
  3. God will be with us. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Is. 43:2–3).
  4. God brings light out of darkness. After a long period of time, Joseph was able to forgive what his brothers had done in large part because he saw how God had used it for good by putting him in a position to save his family and many others (see Gen. 50:20). We shouldn’t rush to conclusions about how God is going to do this, but over time, we will often see it.
  5. God Himself has entered into the suffering of this world. Tim Keller writes in his excellent book The Reason for God that Jesus’ death on the cross may not answer all the questions, but “we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition” (31). He has entered into it.
  6. Suffering is generally temporary in this life. The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time and season for everything, a time to weep and a time to laugh. There are times for both in this life, and life goes through its seasons.
  7. Suffering is absolutely temporary for believers in Christ. For believers in Jesus, this is the time of suffering. In the new heavens and new earth, there will be no suffering, for we have this promise: “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

If we keep these things in mind, we will weep but not as those who have no hope. Processing loss will be a process, but the God of all comfort will comfort us so that we can comfort others with the same comfort that we have received (2 Cor. 1:3).

The more we can recognize that this is part of life, the better we will be prepared to process loss when it happens.