Easter Grief

Some years ago I was invited to preach at a Good Friday service. The text was from John's Gospel and I focused on death. Somewhat annoyed, one member of the congregation took me to task after the service and asked, "Why didn't you preach about resurrection?"

In response, I pointed out that there were two reasons. "One is purely prudential. If you steal the rector's Easter thunder on Good Friday, he will never ask you to preach again, but the other reason," I pointed out, "is spiritual and theological. We are meant to sit with death on this day. That's the spiritual discipline of Good Friday, and Easter is not a sequel to the loss of this day. It's a reversal of death's hold on us."

That said, I understood the man's frustration. We don't like death very much. For that matter (truth be told), I don't like death very much. And we bend every effort to do an end run around its emotional toll. Some Christians will argue that if you are genuinely spiritual, you will be unmoved by it—even happy in the face of death. And some of the more therapeutically oriented will argue that acclimating to its burden is part of a "process" that ends somehow with "closure."

The latter is emotional nonsense. The former is spiritual nonsense.

Of the therapeutic end-run around death the questions have to be asked, What does it mean to get over, process, or find closure about losing someone dear to you? How do you transcend the loss of a mother or father who nurtured you and deeply shaped the world you inhabit? What does it mean to "get over" losing someone with whom you lived intimately—physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

To be sure, it is necessary to "relearn the world," as one writer puts it, but such losses are folded into life, they are not shed like old clothes. I suspect that the only people who process, "get over," and "find closure" around such losses are typically people who are emotionally damaged and narcissistic—people who (sadly) lack the capacity to connect deeply with other people in the first place. Like the man who on learning his wife had died complained at her funeral, "Who is going to take care of me now?"

The spiritual end run is equally problematic. The hope of resurrection does not erase the reality of death or the toll it takes. Good Friday will come again next year. Some who have lost those they love this year will lose still others in the year to come. Some of those whom have been spared this year will not be so fortunate in the year to come.

Is the measure of how deeply we believe the Easter message the extent to which we are unmoved by death? No. Paul doesn't say, "Thanks to the resurrection, we don't grieve." He says, "Thanks to the resurrection we don't grieve as others do."

So, maybe this year it's time to remember the promise of "Easter grief"—

  1. an approach to grieving that is honest about the toll that death takes
  2. the kind of grieving that acknowledges that death happens, but isn't final
  3. the kind of grieving that is clear-eyed about the way in which death robs us of a loved one's companionship, but also affirms that death can never rob us of their love or them of ours

Perhaps this year it is time to say, as Henri Nouwen did when his mother died, that "if anyone should protest against death it is the religious person, the person who has increasingly come to know God as the God of the living."

Contrary to the nonsense we are sometimes taught, Easter grief need not be a place of emotional surrender and existential catastrophe. It can be the most honest, whole, and faithful place we can possibly stand—and find hope.