A BETTER KIND OF GRIEVING
by Bill Hybels
From Preaching Today Tape #108
In the last few weeks, I’ve been aware of infant deaths, horrible accidents,
marital breakdowns, impending divorces, loss of employment, medical traumas,
emotional melt downs. I can say with great authority that you have some
losses coming your way. So do I. It’s prudent for us to enroll in a grief
management course today. But we better enroll in the right course because the
stakes are high, and there’s more than one course being offered.
Our key verse is 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “Brother, we do not want you to be
ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who
have no hopes.” The verse suggests there’s more than one way to grieve
losses. The text also suggests that the biblical approach to grieving is a
hopeful approach, and maybe the others aren’t quite so hope filled.
Allow me to summarize society’s approach to grieving and contrast that with
God’s approach to grief management. You decide which is better.
First, here is society’s approach to grief management. John James and Frank
Cherry, in their book on grief recovery, trace the story of a boy named
Johnny. When five-year-old Johnny’s dog dies, Johnny is stunned, and he
bursts out crying. His dog was his constant companion; it slept at the foot
of his bed. Now the dog is gone, and little Johnny’s a basket case.
Johnny’s dad stammers a bit and says, “Uh, don’t feel bad, Johnny, we’ll get
you a new dog Saturday.” In that one sentence, Johnny’s dad is really
offering the first two steps in society’s grief management program: Bury your
feelings; replace your losses. Once you have the new dog you won’t even think
about the old dog any more.
Later when Johnny falls in love with a high school freshman girl, the world
never looked brighter, until she dumps him. Suddenly a curtain covers the
sun. Johnny’s heart is broken, and this time it’s big time hurt. But mom
comes to the rescue this time and says with great sensitivity, “Don’t feel
bad, John, thee are other fish in the sea.” Bury the pain, replace the loss.
Johnny has steps one and two down pat now. He’ll use them the rest of his
Much later, John’s grandfather dies–the one he fished with every summer and
felt close to. A note was slipped to him in math class. He read the note and
couldn’t fight off the tears. He broke down sobbing on his desk. The teacher
felt uncomfortable about it and sent him off to the school office to grieve
When John’s father brought him home from school, John saw his mother weeping
in the living room, and he wanted to embrace her and cry with her. But his
dad said, “Don’t disturb her, John, she needs to be alone. She’ll be all
right in a little while. Then the two of you can talk.”
The third piece in the grieving puzzle was now making sense to John: Grieve
alone. So he went to his room to cry alone, and he felt a deep sense of
Eventually he buried those feelings, and he replaced the sense of loss over
his grandfather with a whole host of athletic involvements. He tried his best
to function normally. But he found himself many months later constantly
thinking about his grandpa: the fishing trips, the Christmas Eves, the
His preoccupation went on for months until he finally told his dad about it.
His dad said, “John, give it time.” Translation: Time heals in and of itself.
This became step four in John’s understanding of grief management.
Have you been keeping track? Bury your feelings, replace your losses, grieve
alone, and give it time because time heals.
Well, John gave it time and more time, but somehow he felt trapped in a cell
of sadness. What made matters worse was that as he relived his relationship
with his grandfather, he realized that he had never really thanked his
grandpa for the fishing trips, the sack lunches, and the late afternoon swims
when the fish weren’t biting.
He had left so many things unsaid–even the big one: “I love you, Grandpa.”
He didn’t get to say it. John said to himself, What can I do about it now? I
guess I’ll just live with regret the rest of my life. That became the fifth
piece in his philosophy toward grief management: If there’s unfinished
business, plan to live with regret; there’s absolutely nothing you can do
As you can imagine, with all the trauma, John does a little elementary
relational math, and he reasons to himself, Close relationships expose me to
the possibility of deep pain; therefore, the way to make sure that this kind
of anguish is never experienced again is to keep an arm’s distance from any
close involvement. Translation of step six: Wall up and never trust again.
Don’t get so close to people that their absence could hurt you deeply. The
sixth step makes the conventional grief management approach complete.
Let’s review. Bury your feelings; replace your losses; grieve alone’ let
time heal; live with regret; never trust again. How does that sound? It
sounds familiar. It’s been society’s approach for years.
Eighty-five percent of us have most of those pieces in place in our system.
Is grief recovery happening, or might there be lots of people walking around
with wounds on the inside, which distort the way they live their daily lives?
In the reading I did on this subject, I was shocked to learn how many
grief-laden people wind up in the ditches of alcoholism, workaholism, broken
relationships, and compulsive eating and spending patterns–all seemingly
driven by an inability to recover and rebuild their lives after incurring a
devastating loss. The message to me was loud and clear: If you grieve right,
you can live right afterwards. If you grieve wrongly, all bets are off.
Relief pitching ace Donny Moore couldn’t seem to resolve his anguish over
losing an American League championship series game a few years ago. In a
moment of total torment, he shot his wife and then shot himself.
Compare that with Dave Dravecky, who loses not only a game but a career, a
livelihood, his pitching arm, and his shoulder. HE is energetically
rebuilding his life and looking forward to whatever tomorrow might bring. You
tell me how important it is to grieve appropriately.
I have given you a peek at society’s approach to grieving. You’ve tasted
that. Let me give you a taste of God’s approach to grieving. The way I can
serve it up to you is by contrasting society’s approach with God’s approach,
point for point.
Society’s approach says, step one, bury your feelings. God’s approach says
exactly the opposite; he says, “Feel your feelings and express them. Don’t
stuff, bury, deny, discount, or put on a false image of bravery.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13, our key verse, begins with the one word: grieve. Don’t
grieve inappropriately, but grieve. There is hope beyond grief if you work
One day Jesus hears that his close friend, Lazarus, had died. Lazarus and
his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were special friends to Jesus. Jesus
travels to the town where he meets the two sisters. The crowd is waiting,
holding their breath, wondering what the Son of God is going to do when he
stands outside the tomb of one of his closest friends. The Scripture says,
Those two words speak volumes about grief management. I think people all
over the world and throughout history would be well-served by watching Jesus
weep. It might give them permission to weep. .Weeping is called the language
of the soul. The cleansing river of emotional release.
A friend of mine has a brain-damaged daughter. Sometimes the sadness she
feels over her daughter’s condition overwhelms her, as it did recently. She
wrote me this letter and gave me permission to quote from it:
“Bill, I can hardly bear it sometimes. My most recent wave of grief came
just last year before her sixteenth birthday. As the day approached I found
myself brooding over all the things that she would never be able to do. What
did I do. What I’ve learned to do again and again; I did what I believe is
the only thing to do to conquer grief, and that is to embrace it. So Bill, I
cried and cried and cried, and faced the truth of my grief head on.”
People who feel their feelings and express them freely begin the journey
toward hope. I wonder how many of you have felt free enough to grieve your
losses–not just death, but lesser losses: childhood traumas, parts of your
past, health losses, relational losses, financial losses. God says to you
this morning, “Look how my son, Jesus Christ, responded to a searing loss. He
wept. So go ahead, let the cleansing rivers flow.”
Society’s second step is to replace the loss as soon as you can. Turn the
page. Fix it quick. Move on. Don’t hang out in sad places because it’ll ruin
your karma. Scripture teaches exactly the opposite. God’s approach, step two
in the grieving process, says, “Don’t just replace the loss, review the
loss.” Hang out in the sad place long enough to allow the full effect of the
loss to settle into your soul.
I had a three-hour lunch with a seasoned Christian counselor this week. I
asked her to talk to me about grieving. I asked her to tell me what she
advises people to do when they’re dealing with losses. She said, “Of course I
tell them to feel their feelings. But then I also urge people to reduce
radically the pace of their lives. I urge them to review their loss, talk
about it openly, think about it thoroughly, write about it reflectively, and
pray through it.”
She continued, “It’s my experience that people want to run from their pain.
They want to replace pain with another feeling as soon as they can. To
recover from pain, you have to face it. You must stand in it and process it
before it will dissipate. That’s God’s way.”
I didn’t do that when my father died. I replaced that pain real fast. I
think I missed only four days of work. And I just replaced the feeling of
loss and disappointment with a frenzied ministry schedule. And I ran from it.
That was a bad move for me and for other people around me. I wonder how many
of us do that. Anybody running from pain today? Are you trading in your pain
prematurely for some other feeling? It’s not God’s way.
The third step in society’s approach to grieving is to grieve alone. God’s
approach is exactly the opposite: “Grieve in community.”
The Bible has hundreds of texts urging the brokenhearted to band together
with family and friends in order to grieve in community. Once again Jesus,
when his upcoming death was looming large in his mind, grabbed Peter, James,
and John, and he said, “Come to a quiet place with me. A loss is coming, and
I need some brothers around me. So pray with me, and hold me up.”
Apparently Jesus’ followers learned well to grieve in community, because
after Jesus’ crucifixion, Christ’s followers were grieving together in
community when the knock on the door came announcing the resurrection of the
Savior. Grieving in community can bring both healing and bondedness. Many of
us would give attestation to that.
When my father died, Don Cousins was one of many who drove 180 miles. He
stood at the grave site, wrapped his arms around me, wept with me for about
five minutes, and walked away. I don’t think he said a single word. But I’ll
remember the embrace until I go to my grave.
Society’s approach, you remember, is bury your feelings, replace the loss,
grieve alone. God’s approach is feel your feelings, review your loss, grieve
in community. Step four, society says, is that time will heal. Step four in
God’s approach is that only the Holy Spirit will heal. He’s called the
Fifty years ago industrialists thought they could just bury toxic waste and
it would go away. We have since learned it doesn’t just go away. It makes
trouble. It leaks into the water table, contaminates crops, and kills
animals. Buried grief does the same thing. Raw time doesn’t heal a thing.
Buried pain leaks into our emotional system and wreaks havoc there. It
distorts our perceptions of life, and it taints our relationships. That
contamination happens subconsciously.
Many times people don’t know what’s making their world so cloudy and why
there’s a river of sadness underneath it. They say, “It wouldn’t go back to
the loss in my childhood, or the loss nine years ago, would it?’ Don’t be so
sure. Time itself doesn’t heal a thing. God’s approach says feel your
feelings, stand in your pain, review your loss, grieve in community, and
humbly ask the Holy Spirit to heal your broken heart in his time.
That doesn’t mean you’re not going to carry some scars. You won’t ever be
the same after a tragic loss. But you’ll be able to move forward without the
mysterious contamination that I just described. Your emotions can start
working properly again. Your perceptions and relationships can get cleared
Sharon Morris writes, “Finally, a remarkable thing happens. You notice that
for short periods of time the hurt is not so great any more, and this signals
the beginning of healing.” That’s what the Holy Spirit does.
Fifth, society’s approach says if you have unfinished business with someone
who dies, get used to living with regret because there’s not a thing you can
do about it. God’s approach to grief management says, “Oh, yes, you can still
express your regrets.”
There’s a theme running like a river under the whole story line of the
Bible. The theme is reconciliation. Of course, the major motif of the Bible
is for all people to be reconciled to God through Christ, his Son. But close
on the heels of that major motif is the call for people to be reconciled to
one another, to speak the truth in love, and soften their hearts toward one
another so that they can be in relationship with each other.
The Bible offers an amazing provision for people who have unfinished
business with someone who won’t or can’t reconcile because they’re
recalcitrant or because they’ve died. The provision is found in Romans 12:18,
which says, “As far as it depends upon you, be at peace with all men.” This
verse teaches that you can finish your part of the unfinished business with
anybody. Subsequently you can live without the nagging feeling that you won’t
ever be able to bring closure to that relationship.
A friend of mine had a tension-filled relationship with his father. In the
middle of all the hostility, his dad died of a heart attach. The sadness over
all that unfinished business just about overwhelmed my friend. Year after
year I could see it was destroying his life. Finally a wise Christian
counselor took him to Romans 12:18. Over the next six months, he and that
counselor discussed all the destructive dynamics of his relationship with his
dad. They processed all the pain. That led the counselor to challenge the
young man to write a final letter to his dad in order to express the
unexpressed and bring closure to the relationship.
My friend told me that was the most difficult assignment of his life. He
wrote a thirty-page letter, which he read word for word to his mom, and his
brothers and sisters, in the presence of the counselor. He said, “When that
was over, a weight was lifted that I had carried for almost a decade.” He
made peace on his side of the equation.
God’s approach says you don’t have to carry a backpack of regret the rest of
your natural life. You can still reconcile your side of the relationship. You
can still say what you need to say before God and a few trusted friends. Some
of you need to cut off that backpack. You need to grieve God’s way.
Finally, society’s approach says, once burned, twice smart; once a loss cut
you deeply, wall up and never let it happen to you again. Now, listen to me
carefully. This last point makes perfect sense to me. I think it’s sound
counsel for anybody who doesn’t have Christ at the center of their lives. Let
A few years ago, a couple I know lost their house in a fire. Fortunately,
they were able to snatch all the kids out just before the whole thing
collapsed. They stood out on the sidewalk hugging and kissing and thanking
God. Why? Because despite the fact that they had lost their shelter, they had
not lost their treasure, which was their kids.
That loss was a knock down but not a knock out. The Bible teaches that when
a sinner recognizes his sin before God and looks to God for forgiveness and
grace, God will grant it on the basis of what Christ did on the cross. When
that salvation transaction occurs, that man or woman suddenly realizes the
centrality of Christ in their lives, He becomes their treasure. The Bible
then promises, from cover to cover, that Jesus Christ, the treasure at the
center of your life, is not vulnerable to any destructive force or power in
this world. Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the
age.” Translated, “You might lose your shelter or your fortune or your spouse
or your kids or your health, but you will never lose me. Never, never, never.
I am not vulnerable.”
Because Christians never lose what is central to their being, they are
capable of recovering from any loss that comes their way–not easily, not
overnight, but eventually through the steps that I’ve outlined in God’s
approach to grief management.
Sometimes people outside the family of God do a very dangerous thing. They
put something or someone in that central place of their heart, where only
Christ should be. Some people outside the family of God put something or
someone in the center of their life and make it their treasure.
Friends, when that treasure gets ripped out of their lives, the anguish is
unbelievable. Their lives cave in. The reason for living goes up in smoke or
gets lowered into a six-foot hole. It only stands to reason if you lose the
center of your life, there’s only one thing to do: Wall up and never put
yourself in that position again. Once burned, twice smart.
God’s approach to grieving says, “People, you matter to me whoever you are.
I know how I made you. You’re too fragile to have your treasure ripped out.
So, do yourself a favor. Admit your need for God and for forgiveness. Make
Christ your treasure. He will be secure and invulnerable.”
That will change your whole perspective. If you take some hits and losses,
you’ll know that all is well in the center of your soul. After a time of
feeling your feelings and reviewing your losses and grieving in community and
allowing the Holy Spirit to heal you up and reconciling all your regrets,
because of the strength at the center of your life, you will be able to
engage in relationships again. Life can go on.
There you have it. Two approaches to grief management. Society’s approach
and God’s approach. They’re distinctly different. You’ve got to make a choice
A man we’ve tried to hire two times to work on our church staff was riding
home from a family function two weeks ago, and a drunk driver crossed the
center line going seventy miles an hour, hit his car head on, and within an
instant that man lost his mother, his wife, and his four-year-old daughter.
Three generations of women in his life were killed before his eyes. When I
heard the news, I felt as if someone kicked me in the stomach; I almost
How do we counsel him to grieve? Society’s approach or God’s approach?
What are you going to do when the phone rings and brings a message that
kicks you in the stomach? What are you going to do when the doctor walks out
of the room with that ashen look on his face, or your boss says, “I’m sorry,
I tried?” When the person you love says, “It’s been real; I’m out of here?”
What are you going to do? Which way are you going? The stakes are very high.
I hope you make the right choice, and so does God.
Copyright 1995 (c) Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP JOURNAL