The Many Steps of Grief

World Challenge Staff

Mourning is never easy, but some cultural practices give us greater avenues to avoid painful feelings; however, God made us to experience and go through this stage of life. 

The real-life tragedy of Chad Boseman’s death resulted in a complete rewrite of the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever film. Most cinematic juggernauts refuse to be slowed down by an actor stepping out of a major role or passing away, much less allowing a producer to rewrite the entire movie and delay it by years in order to honor the fact that an actor is no longer able to play the main character.

Industry executives more or less planned to do just that when Boseman died. Fans were furious at the idea of replacing the iconic actor with someone else. The Disney conglomerate shifted tact and began plans to just CGI Boseman’s face onto another actor. The producer refused, and Disney finally gave permission for a new script to be written.

The producer publicly announced, “Chadwick Boseman was an immensely talented actor and an inspirational individual who affected all of our lives professionally and personally. His portrayal of T'Challa the Black Panther is iconic and transcends any iteration of the character in any other medium from Marvel's past. And it's for that reason that we will not recast the character.”

The film opens with the Black Panther dying — it is an homage of its own for Boseman’s passing — and his little sister Shuri scrambling to engineer a medical solution. Someone tells her that she should go to her brother’s side, but she refuses, stubbornly determined to create a cure for his unspecified terminal illness. Their mother finally approaches Shuri and tells her to stop. It’s too late. In her refusal to accept death’s approach, Shuri has missed her last chance to speak to her brother.

The entire nation of Wakanda gathers to collectively mourn their king’s death, but Shuri and her mother are excluded. As royalty, they are expected to maintain a stoic façade. Shuri barely succeeds until the last moment as her brother’s coffin is about to be taken away. With a haunting cry, she rushes forward and covers the engraving’s hands with her own, a poor substitute for being able to take her brother’s hands in his final moments.

So often our resistance to grieving the loss of a loved one only leaves us with more to mourn afterward.

I’ve often wondered why God allows death to sometimes be so traumatic and why we all (with two notable exceptions in the Bible) must go through it. I know there’s theological theories about how death is our echo of Christ’s death and completes our sanctification, but that doesn’t logically track with the exceptions of Enoch and Elijah or all the believers who will be raptured at the end of time.

Does God allow death as a harrowing reminder that we do not ultimately have control of our lives? It’s an element of this world that we don’t fully understand and can’t predict very well. People get into horrific accidents that should kill them, and yet they survive. Others seem healthy and well only to abruptly be swept away hours later by a seemingly small health issue. Even with all our modern medical advancements, so much of surviving and dying is beyond even the best doctors. Death humbles us all. It’s not predictable. It often doesn’t seem fair. Serial killers and rapists go peacefully into the good night while resting in their prison cell. A beloved grandmother goes through weeks of agonized struggle on life support before finally convulsing and dying. How is this right? What does this mean?

While the Bible doesn’t offer answers for why people’s experiences with death is so different, it does seem to indicate that death is a necessary part of our pattern in a sinful world. “Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28, ESV). Just because it’s necessary doesn’t make it pleasant, and it doesn’t mean we can dismiss the pain of losing a loved one.

Like many things that we don’t have good answers for, we rush past it with trite assurances and pat verses slapped over the loss. Alternatively, we may sit with the grief but only for a limited time. Like Job’s friends, we become impatient with sorrow that lingers in either our own hearts or others’.

Jesus didn’t rush people through grief. He told listeners in his sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:3-4). When he went to Lazarus’ funeral, Jesus wept even though he knew he was about to resurrect his friend. He told Lazarus’ sisters to have faith, but he didn’t shame them for their grieving. In fact, scripture says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:33). In the same ways, Jesus extends great compassion to us in our sorrow even though he knows that death is part of living and that God will gather us up afterward. He still is deeply moved.

God promises to see us and bind up our grief and sorrows, but he doesn’t promise to do it immediately or on our timeline.

Certain scriptures are often quoted to those going through the grieving process, but we rarely think about the significance of these simple verses we highlight. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3, ESV). Binding up wounds doesn’t mean they’re instantly healed. It simply indicates that the injury is being cared for until it can heal. In our era of opiate drugs and other powerful painkillers, we also tend to forget that binding a wound doesn’t mean the pain vanishes. Far from it, in fact.

Binding an injury always makes me think of a cast on a broken bone. Anyone who’s gone through that particular experience knows that the mending process can be extremely slow and painful. Doctors may, depending on the type and placement of the break, say that the bone will heal anywhere between six to 12 weeks; but that’s entirely dependent on the age, body and health of the individual. The break could take much longer to heal. Even after it’s technically ‘healed,’ the trauma area can be sore for a long time afterward. In particularly bad breaks, it may take a bone up to nine years to fully replace the damaged tissue. Even then, that bone will always be more susceptible to breaking again in that same region.

If broken bones must heal in such a slow process, why do we expect a grieving heart to be much different? Just like with a broken bone, trying to force it to a place of ‘wellness’ before it’s actually ready is an excellent way to cause more damage.

There’s actually a term for this: inhibited grief.

Those who ignore the grieving process, stuff it down or convince themselves that they’re well before they actually are often show physiological symptoms of this repression. Professionals note that clients who have gone through a major loss and yet say they are fine often are also experiencing insomnia, lack of appetite, unusual muscle tension, stomach or digestive issues. Psychological issues tend to crop up as well, things like increased irritability, hyperalertness, apathy, depression, addictive behavior.

In times of hardship, believers often turn to psalms like “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40:1-3).

They read this and say, “Where’s my deliverance? When will God pull me up out of my own pit or terrible experiences?” Let’s return to the beginning where the psalmist wrote, “I waited patiently…” How long did he wait? We don’t know. It might’ve been a while. Almost certainly it must have felt longer than the psalmist wanted to be waiting.

The same patience is needed for our healing, whether it’s with broken bones or hearts.

For those who believe in the resurrection, we’re often told that we shouldn’t grieve because the person who is gone is with God now, and that is true to a certain extent. Paul rightfully wrote to the early church, saying, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).  

Of course, this presumes that the person we’re mourning has chosen to spent their eternity with God. If they haven’t, then our grieving can take on a very different dimension. Even if we do know that we’ll see that person again in heaven, Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t grieve.” He simply noted that our grief is different because we do have hope.

As believers, we are held in a tension our hope for life after death and the very real tragedies that surround death such as suffering, the absence of someone dear to us, the conversations and apologies that can never happen now. All of this is amplified when we have reasonable doubts about whether we will see the deceased in heaven. Healing will take time, and to some extent, we will feel the lingering ache whenever we suddenly remember a conversation we wanted to share with them or spot something they would’ve loved. We hope, but grief also has its rightful place.