In 1934, writer Clare Harner, grieving her brother Olin’s death after a sudden illness, published a poem with these lines: “Do not stand by my grave, and weep. / I am not there, I do not sleep. / I am the thousand winds that blow / I am the diamond glints in snow. . . . / Do not stand by my grave, and cry—I am not there, I did not die.”
Before you criticize Clare for her wishy-washy theology, stop to consider whether you’ve heard or uttered a “more biblical” version of her comforting words yourself. “Don’t cry. She’s in a better place.” Or, in the negative, “God is going to bring something beautiful from his death. Prolonged grief shows lack of trust in God.” When it comes to death, we all long to tell a different story than the one we truly see through tears, in dust and ashes before us.
When we’re neck-deep in trials, we grasp for these platitudes hoping they’ll offer us a lifeline. Whether we’re offering flimsy hope to a friend or to ourselves, the myths we tell ourselves about grief don’t serve us well. Consider these four myths you may need to debunk to offer grief the space it needs to exist and foster true hope.
Myth #1: She’s in a better place.
Clare Harner titled her poem “Immortality.” She missed her brother deeply, and she wanted to believe he’d somehow always be with her. If, like her, you’ve suffered the death of a loved one, you long to know there’s life beyond the grave as well—that love’s bond that held you in life hasn’t dissolved entirely. You crave the promise of immortality.
The myths we tell ourselves about grief don’t serve us well.
While you might not be willing to say your loved one is in the wind or snow, you may be tempted to force back your tears because she’s “in a better place.” You may try to explain away your (or a friend’s) very present sorrow with the tepid consolation, “Don’t be sad. She’s free of pain. She’s in heaven now.” In an attempt to push past grief’s pain, you determine that heaven will become the sole focus of your hope.
The truth is, of course, that our loved ones do exist beyond the grave. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), a reality that Paul acknowledges is “far better” (Phil. 1:23). And yet, we and the whole communion of saints departed still long for an even better place—where all who call God Father enjoy him face-to-face with incorruptible, transformed bodies. We don’t long for heaven as we know it now. In this world of heartbreak and tragedy, we ache for the return of Christ and the consummation of all things made new. Our hearts hope and hurt at the same time.
As Christians, we live in the tension of the now and not yet, of the inaugurated kingdom of God and our very real and painful lives with loss. Because we carry these potent longings, we can release the need to diminish our losses or convince ourselves that heaven makes death hurt less. Instead, we can hold these truths in tension: our loved ones are safely in God’s care, and death hurts because that “better place” is still yet unseen by all who trust in Christ.
Myth #2: Prolonged grief reveals weak faith.
When suffering strikes, it reveals our weakness and humanity in stark form. We understand, perhaps for the first time, how deeply the curse has invaded our world. While trials often send us running to God’s arms, many Christians worry that prolonged grief reveals weak faith. We assume a person who still struggles with her loss years after its occurrence harbors a quiet sin problem, that her doubts have turned to despair or her questions have diminished her trust.
Rather than being a symptom of weak faith, grief shows us that true faith is always willing to ask hard questions.
On the contrary, throughout the Bible, we see God’s children use persistent questions, doubt, and even despair to direct their hearts toward him. Psalms channel anger and frustration into praise. Longing and lamentations trace their path through centuries of faithful living. Rather than being a symptom of weak faith, grief shows us that true faith is always willing to ask hard questions. True faith claims God’s promises by holding him accountable to them. Prolonged grief is the expression of sorrow at the brokenness of this world, a persistent testimony to our faith in God even when we walk with him in the dark.
Myth #3: You need to find the purpose in your pain.
In one of the most beautiful promises of Scripture, the apostle Paul reminds the Roman church that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18, NIV). If you’re a grieving person, you could sit with that verse for years and find fresh comfort every day inside those words! The sorrows we carry do not define us; there’s more for which we can hope. God’s glory will one day be revealed in our pain.
Unfortunately, we often believe that God always reveals to us the things he has worked out for our good. We jump past the subsequent verses in Romans 8 about the Spirit interceding for us with inexpressible words, and we expect that we’ll be able to discern God’s intention in our pain. Like children with a decoder ring and a secret message, we begin to search our pain for purpose. We attempt to overlay lessons on a friend’s sorrow to “make this suffering count.”
You can search high and low in Romans 8, however, and you’ll not find God’s promise that he’ll reveal to you the specific good he’s working in your grief this side of glory. The truth is that, many times, we don’t know why God allows us to suffer. We don’t need to be Job-like example of suffering or faith in trial. We don’t need to find a silver lining. Instead, releasing the myth of understanding, we can believe God is working—he simply asks us to be faithful in our pain, trusting that, as Paul says, those God has loved, chosen, and known will be glorified in their suffering.
Myth #4: God will never give you more than you can handle.
When we’re consoling a grieving person, we often offer the platitude, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” We want to encourage each other with the comfort of 1 Corinthians 10—temptations and trials are common for humanity, and what we go through won’t break us. But the way we apply these comforts can be problematic. Saying that God won’t give us more than we can handle encourages the myth that our innate resilience will help us to manage our burden of sorrow. These platitudes imply closure is a reasonable goal, that “it could have been worse,” and that God has left us with our assignment of grief to walk with it the best we can.
Instead of these myths that fall flat on hurting ears, we can offer ourselves and our loved ones the true comfort of Jesus’s presence in our pain. The heavy burdens we carry are eased by Jesus yoked beside us. Our deepest sorrows he has known when he plunged into death on our behalf. The Giver of good gifts doesn’t despise our frailty but invites us to acknowledge our weakness and rest in his strength.
The heavy burdens we carry are eased by Jesus yoked beside us. The Giver of good gifts doesn’t despise our frailty but invites us to acknowledge our weakness and rest in his strength.
Contrary to Clare Harner’s popular poem, it’s OK to stand at your loved one’s grave and weep. He or she is dead. She does, in fact, sleep. However, that sleep will not be forever; this is the bedrock of our hope. Asleep in the arms of Christ, our loved ones, like us, await a better place in God’s renewed creation. As we long for that true and perfect home, we can grieve as long as we need. We can lean into God’s mysterious goodness even when we don’t see the immediate purpose in our pain, and we can trust that God’s care for us covers our weakness and helps us to walk on toward that glory he’s promised to us.