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What I Misunderstood About Grief

Andrew Le on Unsplash

Eighteen months after my son died, I had a conversation with a pastor friend that enraged me.

His first child was going to college, and he expressed the sadness and difficulty accompanying the milestone. In describing his sorrow, he repeatedly used a certain word. “We’re grieving her leaving us. We’re grieving her being so far away. We’re grieving her absence in our house.”

With each enunciation of “grief,” I grew angrier. Having buried my son in the previous calendar year, I wanted to say, “No, no, no. Grief is reserved for really bad things. Grief is reserved for death. Grief is reserved for people like me, not your healthy, living child going to college!”

What Changed My Mind

Fast forward two years. I noticed the new strength required to lift my now-4-year-old daughter for a hug. Her increased self-sufficiency and growing vocabulary contrasted starkly with memories of that chubby baby girl who used to crawl around the house.

As I pulled up videos from the toddler and baby phases, a funny thing happened. My heart ached with sorrow, and tears filled my eyes. I realized I was experiencing what my pastor friend felt as his daughter went to college: grief.

A sense of loss lingered as I knew that a treasured season had passed, never to be recovered. Daddy’s sweet girl no longer got excited about watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Good Night Moon was done. She was figuring out that an “r” belonged on the front of “remember;” she was correcting the cute mispronunciation—“amember”—that previously melted my heart. On the next trip to Disney, she would realize the real Cinderella doesn’t reside in the Magic Kingdom.

All grief involves loss. A joyful hope for the future dies, or a cherished aspect of the present slips into the past. And we grieve.

Grief and the Fall

All grief originates from the fall, when Adam and Eve tarnished a rich paradise of joy, squandering endless possibilities of pleasure, hope, and life. Regardless of what we grieve, there is a keen sense that life wasn’t meant to be this way. We taste moments of glory where we receive a glimpse of Eden—and we feel sadness and pain as those transcendent moments pass. Whether we’re lamenting the death of friends and family or sorrowing over dashed dreams, our hearts mourn that this life falls drastically short of God’s original intent.

We are born with an innate sense that life was meant to be so much more. The toddler who throws a tantrum when the playdate ends demonstrates (even if sinfully) that moments of joy, vitality, and friendship were never meant to cease. Along with the rest of our sin-marred creation, the child subconsciously grieves what was lost in the fall.

For people who have lost small children, so much of their grief involves losing the joys and journeys of the different phases of childhood. They grieve missed birthdays, a nonexistent first day of kindergarten, a graduation ceremony that never comes. They painfully wonder how their child’s personality and appearance may have evolved over time. The seasons of enjoying that child are lost.

Regardless of the severity, all sadness, frustration, and anger are expressions of grief. We all mourn the loss of Eden and the life for which we were meant.

Recovery Is Coming

Romans 8 points to the ultimate solace for humanity, trapped under this excruciating curse:

The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:22–23)

This groaning carries connotations of grieving. There is a deep, guttural pain lurking within the fallen state of the world. There is a grinding frustration with how life falls miserably short of our desires and longings.

But Paul doesn’t leave us with hopeless grief. He points to Christ’s second coming, where believers receive and experience their full “adoption as sons” and “the redemption of [their] bodies” (Rom. 8:23).

Our son died at age 3, but I cling to this hope: The times and experiences lost with Cameron in this life will be regained and renewed a thousandfold in the world to come. As I wrote in Therefore I Have Hope:

Remembering that Cameron is still my son and that he is still alive in heaven reminds me that nothing truly will be lost and that everything will be recovered. I will see my little boy again. We will have a beautiful, fun, intimate, joyful life together for eternity in heaven. We will have adventures and lessons and laughter and meals and celebrations. We will hug and snuggle and kiss and laugh and play in heaven.

Wait with Joy

The real sense of loss that undergirds all the pain, disappointment, and grief in this life has been reversed through the gospel and will be enjoyed—fully and forever—in the age to come. Jesus will recover all of the fallout from Adam and Eve’s demise.

The gospel is a hope that God will never leave us empty-handed. Never. Knowing this hope, I, along with all other believers, can wait, endure, and persevere. And not just wait, but wait with joyful expectation.

Editors’ note: 

Cameron Cole will lead a workshop on “Preparing Kids and Adults to Suffer: Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy” at our 2019 National Conference, April 1 to 3 in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of 74 speakers and 58 talks. Register soon!

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