Someone asked this question a while ago, and I have wondered since what would make a “right” reply.
The premise was that if Christians believe that the soul leaves the body — and through Jesus — joins the Father, then what is there to be sad about? Shouldn’t we rejoice that our dear ones have returned home and that we will one day join them?
To where do we look when considering this question? Having been around a few decades personally, I can look not only to my own life experiences, but to those of my friends, colleagues and the broader community. For example, some years ago, I attended a ceremony that included a vignette depicting colonizers landing here and taking the Indigenous children away from their families and communities. It was disturbing to witness, and from the audience arose one voice with a wail that came from the depths of body and soul, vocalizing the pain of immeasurable loss. It was a sound unlike any I had heard before. It was profoundly moving and has stayed with me all these years.
Never did I expect to hear that sound again. And yet, there it was one day, coming from somewhere inside of me — unbidden and unexpected — when my husband died suddenly in front of me. He is a baptized Christian, so I turn to my faith to know where his soul is today, and it brings me comfort. At the same time, even four years later, I still cry. Not every time I think of my husband, to be sure, but whenever something touches that empty place in my heart that formed when he passed away.
And that’s the answer I think. Yes, we rejoice that our loved one has gone home, no more to suffer on this level of existence. We comfort ourselves with this and the thought that we will one day be reunited in God’s heaven. At the same time, we ache with the loss of their physical presence in our life. We miss their love, their companionship, closeness, energy, kindness and even their challenges.
As Christians,we can look to scripture to help us. What is the shortest sentence in the Bible? John 11:35 where “Jesus wept.” It is reinforced shortly afterward by John 11:38 where it says “Jesus, deeply moved again…” (Revised Standard Version) or “groaning in himself…” (King James Version — I like this translation better). Jesus, who was intimately connected with the Father, still deeply felt the impact of losing his earthly friend Lazarus.
We know of course that we grieve over many kinds of losses, if they are profound enough in our life. The more we cherish something, such as our sense of autonomy, safety or community, or our home, job or contribution to society, the more the loss of it claims our grief.
When someone we love makes choices that lead to their unhappiness or even their destruction, we grieve. Jesus is our example at this level too. In Luke 19:41-42 we read that he weeps over Jerusalem thinking ahead to the destruction that was to come: “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”
To answer the question — why do Christians grieve when someone they love dies? Because we are both body and soul. The soul rejoices; the body weeps.
Jesus wept. So why wouldn’t we?