My family and I recently attended a funeral service for my wife’s grandfather. It was one of the few funerals I’ve had the honor of attending and the only funeral in which I’ve had the honor of participating, so I don’t write this post as an expert on grief. I’m writing this as a person who recognizes a deep vulnerability in grief, and I care very much about vulnerability.
What Does It Mean to Honor Grief?
Honoring grief is about recognizing that grief is sacred — it’s entitled to reverence and respect. By sacred, I don’t mean that grief is the domain of religion. I mean that grief is a part of life that deserves to be honored (deeply respected) rather than stigmatized and avoided. (Of course, as a person of faith, I do have a religious perspective on sacredness, but I don’t think that’s essential for honoring grief.)
Some cultures do a better job of honoring grief than others. Some communities make space for grief as a regular part of life, and that can help integrate grief in healthy ways. I didn’t grow up in those cultures or communities. I only attended a few funerals when I was younger, and they were never for people with whom I was close. Rather, I was taught to view grief as only being about death and to view death as being transitional into eternal life.
Since physical death was only a gateway to eternal life, language about grief was often dismissive. I wasn’t taught to grieve loss but to rejoice in “salvation” (i.e. a person’s inevitable movement into Heaven). When life transitions into life, death is treated as an after thought — a blip, a fleeting moment — so grief about death and loss were treated as matters of (poor) perspective. The implication was that grieving for too long meant you just weren’t focusing on the correct facts.
In other words, grief was essentially a bad thing. If I feel bad for too long, it’s because I’m not focusing on the right things, and if grief is a bad thing, how can we honor it? Why would we honor it?
Is Grief “Bad”?
When I say that grief is bad or stigmatized, I mean that it’s often talked about as something that, over time, becomes shameful or disgraceful. I don’t know anyone who would say that experiencing grief immediately after losing a loved one is bad. Almost everyone understands, on some level, that loss can lead to sadness, and most people probably understand that greater affection can lead to greater sadness. E.g. we probably feel deeper sadness at the death of a spouse than the death of a distant cousin we met only once, decades ago. The trouble is that grief is uncomfortable, and in mainstream, American society, discomfort is often framed as something to be avoided.
If discomfort is “negative” (something to be avoided), then grief quickly transforms from “an expected response” (neutral) to “something to be avoided” (negative). The longer someone experiences grief, the more uncomfortable it can become for others. The stigma, therefore, is that grief, while “natural,” is ultimately negative.
I think this is one reason why people talk about “moving on” from grief. It’s easier (more comfortable) for people to treat others’ grief as a momentary event rather than a persistent part of life. This is compounded if we’re in communities that only talk about death as a transition into eternal life. It can been seen as shameful to not “move on” from grief, and common language can imply (if not state outright) that a person who continues to grieve is refusing to embrace hope or healing.
Grief and Shame
Grief and shame begin to occupy the same space when we continually talk about grief as negative or as a denial of hope. If discomfort is negative (or even “bad” or “evil,” if a community moralizes it) and dwelling in negativity is viewed as a rejection of hope or healing, then we can start seeing ourselves in that light when we experience persistent or cyclical grief.
“I must not have much faith, because the grief keeps coming back.” “I must be selfish, because instead of rejoicing that so-and-so is in Heaven, I just wish they were still here with me.” Etc. To put it in conservative, Christian terms, if grief is negative or bad, then our inability to move on from grief is essentially like dwelling in sin.
One of the ironies of grief and shame being melded together is that one doesn’t truly accept shame, which means we can’t accept the associated grief. We may resign ourselves to a shameful identity, but that never leads to healing or healthy internalization. Grief that’s only seen as shameful can’t also be seen as sacred.
How Do We Honor Grief?
I think honoring grief starts with acknowledging that grief is part of life. It’s not a momentary event like eating a snack, so it’s also not merely a repeated event, like eating lunch every day. One doesn’t simply “do grief” and then “stop doing grief,” so honoring grief, at the least, means not dismissing its persistence. Grief is.
I’m not saying that 100% of humans experience grief; for all I know, there are some people who literally never experience grief. Even for such people, it’s important to acknowledge that grief is. While the specific experience of grief may vary from person to person, grief exists as part of the overall human experience, whether directly or indirectly, and that should be acknowledged.
Another part of honoring grief is not moralizing it. Like other emotional experiences, grief is an experience that happens to us, not something we decide to enter into. Part of being anti-shame is not holding ourselves responsible for things outside our control, and that includes grief. Grief is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It simply is.
That’s part of what can be so frustrating about grief: it’s not something we control. It can sneak up on us even years later. It can overwhelm and incapacitate us, because it can be elusive. It becomes a part of our story, and unless we can honor it well and integrate it and accept it, it can become like a villain that continually pursues and harasses us.
Accepting grief is, to some extent, a refusal to resist its presence. I was taught that grief is poor perspective, but I believe, now, that grief is good perspective; grief is honesty. It’s honesty about what we love and desire. It’s honesty about our deep attachment to someone or something, an attachment which has been severed. It’s honesty about the depth and the endurance of our relationships.
Grief is not a villain. Grief is our subconscious and our bodies remembering the past. The more we refuse to honor that memory, the more it divides us, but if we accept and respect it, we can press forward with the story of our lives without shame. In other words, grief is an invitation for us to be honest and gracious with ourselves.
If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.