A THEOLOGY OF GRIEF
have so many Christmas memories. Does anyone remember Evie singing “Come On, Ring Those Bells”? It was a contemporary Christian music Christmas hit. I also remember the poorly-shaped fir trees my dad would rescue from a tree lot seemingly every year, and that fake snow you could spray on your Christmas tree. Do you remember Bubble Lights? Christmas in the 1980s was marked by these kinds of activities for me.
April 25, 2022. Sad news invades our happy family life; my 82-year-old mom has been diagnosed with cancer. A routine procedure that should have taken just a couple of hours extended from morning to evening, and I knew something wasn’t right as the day progressed.
The Christmas season is full of joy, but joy does not mean a lack of grief, pain, darkness or uncertainty. In fact, woven into the Nativity scene is a measure of all of these:
Mary gave herself over to the will of God when she had her entire life ahead of her.
Joseph wrestled with thoughts of divorcing his pregnant wife.
The young couple had to undertake a long, tiring journey to Bethlehem.
Mary’s labour took its course in a forlorn stable.
The little family faced relocation under threat of death and became refugees in a foreign land.
Herod ordered the terrible Massacre of the Innocents.
Contrast these events with the immense joy also found in the story of the Nativity:
Shepherds’ excitement at hearing that the Messiah had been born.
Angels singing and glorifying God.
New parents holding their newborn Son.
Wise men finding the Messiah after their long search.
Joy is not merely shallow-end happiness expressed externally, but deep-end contentment felt internally. Grief is the equal but opposite emotion. The bright lights of joy may also cast a shadow. Consider this: a lifetime of joyful Christmas memories with my mom now gives rise to an intense, even more pronounced grief in the wake of her departure. Grief isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of the strength of the love my mom and our family shared.
The connection of grief to love is evident in Scripture; those who love will also grieve. As followers of Christ, we are commanded to love—to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). However, Jesus calls blessed those who mourn: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). We know our Saviour grieved the loss of His friend. This is one occasion when we observe Him expressing grief externally: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). We are encouraged to love one another and have empathy: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
And Paul reminds us that as Christians, our grief is held in check by our hope in Christ: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, NLT).
April 26, 2022. Cancer has penetrated the wall of the bladder. It may have spread. Doctors are hopeful and believe there are treatment options that could give mom a good year or two.
At Christmas time growing up, Jesus was not merely in the background. Our mom made sure He was central. Along with our dad, she would open our home to everyone, offering Christ-centred hospitality. At gatherings big and small, Christmas carols were sung. Love and generosity were expressed through feasting and gift-giving, with lots of laughter and fun. Prayers were offered before meals and before we all left for the night. (The last one was very long; my dad was long-winded. I would resort to pinching my unsuspecting cousin in the hopes that she would laugh during prayers.) Attending Christmas events was part of the fun, and at the centre of it all were Scripture readings from Matthew on Christmas Eve and Luke on Christmas Day.
Late on April 26, 2022, a CT scan confirms the cancer has spread. It is now considered Stage 4 with likely no meaningful treatment options. She will be with us for a few months, perhaps through Christmas 2022.
I’ll never forget what my mom said to us when she understood the seriousness of her diagnosis. For me, her words sum up my theology of grief:
“Well…” she paused, looking to the side, then fixed her eyes first on my brother and then on me. “This isn’t our permanent home. Our permanent home is with [the] Lord.” Her words were spoken with conviction.
Christmas 1985 was memorable because of the trouble I got into. My mom expressed her love in small ways, like getting thoughtful gifts and taking time to wrap them carefully. A couple of days before Christmas, a neighbour came by to enjoy some of her warm hospitality. It was the perfect distraction to keep mom occupied. I could hear them talking in the distance; I was in the clear. Searching through all the gifts and unwrapping them just enough to see what was inside, I looked for Voltron. I couldn’t wait until Christmas Day to assemble him and rescue the universe…. Then I got distracted … and caught. “Paaaa-aaaaaaaaalllllll … what [are] you doing??!”
“The connection of grief to love is evident in Scripture; those who love will also grieve. As followers of Christ, we are commanded to love—to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40).”
In the process of my search, I had somehow unwrapped everyone’s gifts. Fully. Our neighbour was in hysterics; my mom tried to yell but laughed simultaneously. Then it was all grace from there, with frustration giving way to laughter.
April 27, 2022. Further investigation confirms a large tumour in the right lung and numerous nodules spread throughout both lungs. The prognosis is now less than a few months and likely just weeks.
“Mom, why do you do all this work?” I was asking this about everything she did for others over Christmas. My mom kept any suffering or pain she experienced between her and the Lord. Even as a child, I realized there was sacrifice involved in all she did for me, my brother, Dad and extended family and friends. She fit it all in, by God’s grace, and worked full-time as a nurse. She was also significantly involved in the life of our church. Like many other parents, she was up late on Christmas Eve wrapping gifts and then getting the turkey ready at the crack of dawn for a big family feast later that day.
“Mom, why do you do all this?”
“Love,” she would say.
On June 8, 2022, I slept overnight with my mom in the hospital, as I often did after she was admitted, with my dad covering the daytime. We did not want to leave her alone. On this night, her breathing was laboured, and she was no longer speaking. Unless the Lord willed otherwise, she wouldn’t have much time left with us here.
The following morning, I got out of my chair next to her bed and opened the curtains. The sun was rising and beamed in through the windows. My mom was frail now, a gaunt version of her old self, and was looking in my direction. She loved the morning sun.
I put on some instrumental hymns. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine….”1 I hummed along. I took my mom’s hand in mine and lowered her bedrail to sit at her side. I told her I loved her and that if it was her time to go, she could—no one else was there to get upset, like dad or my brother, Peter. She had said at one point that my father and brother would be too upset if she passed into God’s presence.
“Mom, if Jesus is coming to take you home, it’s okay to go now.” I sang:
“Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Saviour am happy and blest;
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Saviour all the day long….”2
As I sang the refrain, she passed from this life into God’s presence. It was 7:05 a.m.
Mom can no longer manage Dad’s overly-detailed and long-winded stories or prayers at Christmas. She isn’t around to yell at our cats and claim that they are multiplying, nor is she there to enjoy Christmas dinner or lavishly spoil our kids (though grandpa does a great job all on his own). However, Christmas is the time of year I am especially aware of all my mom did for me and the Christian example she was. It is also when I missed her most this past year.
But I remember her theology of grief which is now mine: this isn’t my permanent home, and though I grieve, it is not like someone without hope. Our pain in grieving is put into perspective by God’s promise of eternal life with Him. We don’t grieve as those without hope. But we do still grieve.
Too often we adhere to the adage “never let them see you cry” where ministry and leadership are concerned. It seems to me that our leadership styles and ministries could benefit from the authenticity that only comes from grief observed. These are the moments when people we care for see us in our grief. I think of David (2 Samuel 12:15-20), Paul (Acts 16:16-40) and Jesus (John 11:35; Luke 22:44), among many other biblical examples. The sense of loss expressed by their grief strengthened the credibility of their leadership. Grief is a human equalizer; it deepens our ability to connect with others. But it cannot do this work if we hide it.
From a spiritual perspective, the grieving process is necessary because it creates opportunities for us to mature spiritually. Loss, setbacks and even the death of those we love most provide an opportunity for the spiritual terrain of our lives to develop more fully. Life’s most challenging moments break up the fallow yet fertile soil of our hearts, revealing the fruit of the Spirit. C. S. Lewis said, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”3
The process of leading people into new spiritual landscapes goes through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4, NKJV). There is no shortcut through grief, but in time, it will lead us to new spiritual landscapes in God. I have observed this in my own life. Christmas will never be the same, but I eagerly await the new landscapes coming into view.
Paul Khosla is the lead pastor of Faith City Church in Halifax, N.S., where he lives with his wife and two children. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter @paulkhosla or contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.