Good Grief

With Malcolm Duncan

This subject is sensitive and difficult for many of us. Grief and sorrow can be so difficult to navigate.  If you are living with recent or past losses right now and you are getting help from a counsellor, doctor or therapy group, please continue to get that help.  If you are getting help and support from your church, I’m thankful for that too. I pray you will find your way through your grief and take the support that is offered to you.

Grief is all consuming. It can dominate our thinking.  In my own life I have lived with it for many more decades than I thought.   Walking with people through the darkest moments of their lives is one of the great privileges but also one of the great responsibilities of pastoral ministry.

One of the names given to Christ is Immanuel God with us.  The time of loss is not a time to be dominating.  It is a time to remind them that the God who can comfort them is right beside them. He has come near in His Son and He will carry them through if they will let Him.

My book “Good Grief” came out of a season of loss.   In 2002, my father dropped dead.  It was a catastrophic event.  My wife and I lost two children in early pregnancy.  Then in an 18-month period, eight people in my close circle died including seven family members, three died by suicide and two died in traumatic circumstances. All these losses caused me to reflect on what I believe about grief, sorrow and sadness.  I have also been pastoring for almost 32 years now and have walked with people through every type of loss (from national disasters and terrorist attacks, to accidents and suicide).

As we reflect, my prayer is that whatever brings you to this seminar, you will be aware of God’s grace and this will be a safe place for you to be reminded of God’s comfort, His presence and His nearness to you.

I want to look at four questions.

Is Good Grief possible? 

Is there a way we can navigate the journey of grief, healthily?

  • Job 16:16 – Job who has lost everything, who has seen his life decimated.  He said, “My face is red with weeping and deep darkness is on my eyelids.”
  • Psalm 23:4 – even though I walk through the darkest valley (or the valley of the shadow of death).

Pain comes in many forms and many stages in our lives. When it strikes, it strikes hard.  CS Lewis commented in A Grief Observed, “It felt like being suffocated or being drunk.” And yet Jesus promised that when we mourn He would comfort us. 

  • Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  
  • In Luke 6:21“Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.”  

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he read from Isaiah 61, “The spirit has anointed me to bind up the broken-hearted… to comfort all who mourn, to provide for all who mourn in Zion…”    

God’s comfort to His people is a promise to bring hope, strength and courage.  It requires honesty and requires a change in our perspective.  The New Testament picks up on this idea of a comfort that will help and sustain us. 

In Thessalonians, Paul says, “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who have died… so you may not grieve as others who do not have hope.” 

Grief and pain and sorrow are completely explicable if you don’t believe in God.  But for those who are Christian and believe in a God who is good and powerful, then grief becomes hard to navigate. 

At the heart of Christian orthodoxy is the belief that God is both good and powerful. Many people can find themselves feeling angry with God.  I was.  I have said, “Why did you let this happen?”  

If we believe in a God who is good and who is all-powerful, He could have changed it if He wanted.  He could have removed it.  But a good and powerful God who is present with us, allows us to go through grief. 

Giving us permission to be honest about our struggles and questions is helpful    Telling God, “I cannot make this without you and I don’t understand everything that I’m going through.”    One Sunday morning at around 5.30am, I was preparing to preach for the first time after another family loss.  For a brief moment, I thought about giving it all up.  I said to the Lord, “I’ve read all of these books [one my shelf] and they are not going to carry me through these days and this challenge.”  

I was reminded of a verse in the gospel of Matthew when many abandoned Jesus and He turned to them and said, “Will you leave me too?”  Peter responded, “To whom else can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” 

Kneeling in my study, I made choice, “Too whom else can I go? You alone have the words of eternal life. I’m not going anywhere.  Unless you help me, I’ll not make it but you’ve promised to help me.” 

The sadness of grief becomes a space where I can discover something about God. We need to discover a theology of grief. Darkness is associated with loss, fear, isolation and loneliness but it also a place of encounter.  It is where mystery becomes meaningful.  Reflect this week on the reality that the creation doesn’t begin with light, it begins with God and darkness. It is out of the void that God reveals Himself. For me, my journey through grief is where the darkness has become a place of encounter.  

Grief is a valley.  Psalm 84 says passing through the valley, we can find a spring of living water. The valley of dry bones can become enlivened by God’s grace.  In the valley, a flower grows – the lily of the valley, which doesn’t grow on the mountains. Good grief is possible but only when we realise that we can encounter God in the darkness, sorrow and struggle in a way we cannot encounter Him anywhere else.  Grief can be suffocating.  Walk slowly with grief and pause often. God’s presence in the mystery can help us navigate the journey but only if we can bring our uncertainties to God.

Do not hurry
as you walk with grief
it does not help the journey.

Walk slowly, pausing often:
do not hurry
as you walk with grief.

Be not disturbed
by memories that come unbidden.
Swiftly forgive;
and let Christ speak for you
unspoken words.
Unfinished conversation
will be resolved in Him.

Be not disturbed.
Be gentle with the one
who walks with grief.
If it is you,
be gentle with yourself.

Swiftly forgive;
walk slowly,
pausing often.
Take time, be gentle
as you walk with grief.

What do we do when we have no answers?  

A theology that tells you that you must bottle up those questions will hurt you and harm you in the long run.  Unresolved grief can lead to trauma and to all kinds of challenges in our physical and mental health. But God never invites us to bottle up our questions.  

I sit within the evangelical wing of the church. If we were writing the Psalms we wouldn’t be so honest.  One of the challenges we must face is that a theology of death is not a theology of defeat, neither is that of despair or lament.  God invites us to bring our questions to Him.  

We must always be willing to listen to His answers.  Mary and Martha both bring profound questions to Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died?”  After my dad died, I was plunged into a period of chaos.  I don’t think there was a 10 min period when I didn’t say “Why?” and like CS Lewis’ experience, God said nothing. 

I read His word and it felt hard and hollow.  I didn’t give up believing.  I didn’t give up my faith in Him. I was just arguing with Him and angry with Him.  I was beating on God’s chest.  Then there was a moment when I felt that God’s spirit prompted me to realise that one day God would answer every question that I had ever had.  And on the day when He answers the questions, those question will no longer need an answer. 

I can either trust God amidst the questions and leave them with Him or I can keep fighting.  I made a conscious choice to stop fighting. In the moment I dropped my arms [stopped beating my hands against His chest], my Father was able to embrace me again and comfort began to return to my life. 

Our questions are okay. The safest place to leave our queries is in the hands of God. If you are going through recent trauma, be kind to yourself.  We can minister out of our scars but not out of our wounds.  Allow God to begin to comfort your.  Leave your questions at His feet and listen to His answers.  

Some of those answers are deeply uncomfortable. Not long after my mum died in 2016, I said, “Please Lord don’t let me have to bury someone else in my family, I don’t think I’ll be able to cope.” God said to me, “You will never bury your best friend because He has died, was buried and has risen again. You have allowed your family to become more important to you than me.  When you re-prioritise those things, you can bury anyone because you will never bury your best friend.” I had allowed my family to be idols and therefore the thought of living without them became a religious thought.

God began to work in me and reorient my heart.  He may say some challenging things but never to harm you. You may have to face anger, guilt, regret.  As God confronts you with those things, He is not doing so to hurt you but to heal you.  The scripture is true.  He is our sufficiency and all that we need is in Him.

What happens next?  

How do you step into the future when your future has been re-defined?  How do we live with loss?    We were not made for death but if we are to navigate into another chapter, we have to break the myth that we get over loss.  

I will never get over it.  I’ll never get over losing my parents.  I will never get over losing my loved ones to suicide. In my head and my heart there is always room for them. There is always a space at my table and there is always an empty chair.  I don’t think we are supposed to get over it.  I’m supposed to walk into a future, I had not planned, a future that feels like plan B.  I must be allowed to name my loss, and to acknowledge that it has changed me. 

Grief does not destroy us.  Grief doesn’t have to define us but it can refine us. 

 I’m more dependent on Him that I’ve ever been. But in order to step into the future I didn’t expect, I have to reimagine it.  

How does hope survive sorrow, loss and sadness?

Hope is possible. Joy is possible.  I’m not betraying my loved ones when I smile. I am honouring them.  I’m not abandoning my deep sense of loss when I laugh. I am simply living. I think hope in Christ is indestructible.  Through the Lazarus story in particular we are reminded that hope has a heartbeat.  Lazarus’ resurrection assures us of our resurrection.  

Death is a liar and a deceiver; it says, “I have the last word” but Jesus says, “I have the last word.”  

We may go through death but we don’t remain in death.   It is okay to live with the heartbreaks but in the end, it will be okay. The story of Lazarus reaches back into our story.  Every day that I live is a day further away from when I lost my loved ones.  But it is also a day closer to reunion. I choose to change my perspective.

“Good Grief – living with sorrow and loss” by Malcolm Duncan

Available in Faith Mission bookshops and online stores.

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