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To One Facing the Waves of Grief




On February 13, 1884, the handsome young Assemblyman from Manhatten received a telegram.

It arrived accompanied by the congratulations and celebrations of his friends and coworkers, for the statesman’s wife had given birth to a beautiful 8lbs 12oz baby girl named Alice. Eventually, the revelry died down, and the room returned to the serious work of earnest men until a second telegram arrived, and the New York City native rushed out and into the cold.

On Valentine’s Day, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt’s mother, Mittie, died of typhoid around three o’clock in the morning. Eleven hours later, his wife Alice, namesake of his now days-old daughter, succumbed to Bright’s disease and joined her mother-in-law in eternity. 

That night, the future 26th President of the United States penned this devastatingly simple phrase in his journal;

“The light has gone out from my life.” 

Death rarely comes on schedule for those who remain. It is an all-together final thing, an ending of conversation, and an extinguishing of experience. There is no more extraordinary strangeness than feeling the same compassion, love, and admiration for, or pain and pity towards, someone you will never have another moment with here on Earth. One cannot put into words the sensation of a sudden stab of sadness so intense that breathing is a conscious effort all triggered by a photograph. Death rarely comes on schedule for those who remain; perhaps that is why we seem so ill-prepared for it. Maybe our lack of readiness is generational – a leftover stigma from the 1960s when hospitals moved terminal patients to the back of buildings and doctors withheld prognoses from the fading and their families. Perhaps our uniquely privileged position in time has limited our exposure to the frequent goodbyes that would force open our eyes to how thin the veil is between life and death. Or, maybe it is our fault that, out of fear, we have neglected the lessons of our Father and flown quickly by the lament and grief found in Holy Scripture in favor of passages that lead us more rapidly to rejoicing. There is no one correct answer, and the list of reasons why we may be the generation least prepared to deal well with death is long. 

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and rejoicing may end in grief.

Proverbs 14:13

Twenty words in Hebrew are translated by “grief” or “grieve.” The differences between them are as distinct and subtle as the differences in the experiences they convey.

In all twenty words found in the Old Testament, the list continues to try and decode the complexity of grief as understood by those who have felt it, but sorrow and grief are nuanced, both fleeting and present for lifetimes. Their very nature manifests in as many ways as a person can feel; snapping in anger and weeping in sadness. Unconquerable and unavoidable, grief can simultaneously be the immovable object and the unstoppable force. 

But, as the original language of the old testament shifts to that of the New, we can find a promising change:

In the Greek of the New Testament, we find just a few words translating to some form of grief. While only two deal specifically with the emotions we might feel after the death of a loved one, they are all as applicable to a generation more globally-connected than any in human history. Today, as we are spoon-fed tragedy after tragedy on a communal, local, and international level, our hearts cannot possibly contain all of the complex labor needed to process the atrocity we witness. 

For the Christian, with the understanding of the eternity set in our hearts, working through this tension could become all-consuming in its own right unless we can find an anchor.

The less frequency in the NT of words denoting “grief” is significant. Christ came “to comfort all that mourn—to give a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” Christians, however, cannot but feel sorrow and be moved by grief, and it is to be noted that in both the OT and NT, God Himself is said to be susceptible to grief.
W.L. Walker

“God Himself is said to be susceptible to grief.” 

Therein lies our hope. 

God Almighty, the Author of all Creation, is not insulted by your sorrow, nor is he unacquainted with it. Jesus himself, in whom the fullness of The Sovereign’s divinity dwelt (Col 2:9), wept (Jn 11:35).

Lost At Sea

Steven Callahan was as qualified to navigate the waters between Spain and the Caribbean as anyone in 1981. Aboard Napoleon Solo, a twenty-one-foot sailboat he had designed and built himself, were all the resources and supplies he would need to traverse the Atlantic.

“I wish I could describe the feeling of being at sea, the anguish, frustration, and fear, the beauty that accompanies threatening spectacles, the spiritual communion with creatures in whose domain I sail. There is a magnificent intensity in life that comes when we are not in control but are only reacting, living, surviving. I am not a religious man per se. My own cosmology is convoluted and not in line with any particular church or philosophy. But for me, to go to seas is to get a glimpse of the face of God. At sea I am reminded of my insignificance—of all men’s insignificance. It is a wonderful thing to be humbled. 

Steven Callahan was qualified, he was experienced, and in the sea, he had even found something so vast that the lens through which he viewed his cosmic scale had been almost properly calibrated (although, as any sailor would tell you, a few degrees off in a heading means a destination far from where you expected.) In his mind, he was prepared. 

“Disaster at seas can happen in a moment, without warning, or it can come after long days of anticipation and fear. It does not always come when the sea is fiercest but may spring when waters lie as flat and imperturbable as a sheet of iron…but the sea does not do it for hate or spite. She has no wrath to vent. Nor does she have a hand of kindness to extend. She is merely there, immense, powerful, and indifferent.”

Around 23:30 Greenwich Mean Time on January 29, 1982, a whale collided with the bottom of Napoleon Solo, dooming her to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean in minutes and marooning Steven Callahan aboard his six-man life raft for the next 76 days. From that night until the day fishermen discovered him off the coast of Guadeloupe, he battled waves, sharks, and the slow degradation of the rubber of his raft, repeatedly fending off a silent slip into the abyss with seconds to spare. In his memoir, one thing is clear: along with the blind luck that he confesses was needed to survive such an ordeal, it was his experience, preparation, and equipment that kept him alive.

Grief can feel as serene and sudden as the sea. There are moments of beauty so stark that it almost feels peaceful, and then in an instant, the waves crash, and cold water snatches your breath from your chest. I am thirty-four now, older than my father was when he lost his mother and younger than my Grandmother was when she lost her son. I’ve watched friends cope with the loss of a child, held a young man as he wracked his mind to understand the death of his brother, and read the hope of heaven aloud over my father-in-law in his last hours. 

“At that same moment, the doleful music stopped. And the dead King began to be changed. His white beard turned to gray, and from gray to yellow, and got shorter and vanished altogether; and his sunken cheeks grew round and fresh, and the wrinkles were smoothed, and his eyes opened, and his eyes and lips both laughed, and suddenly he leaped and stood before them – a very young man.” — C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

I am far from an expert. Each of us will, without a doubt, walk a path interrupted by the sudden knock of death time and time again until his call is for us. I’m not sure that any essay penned can sufficiently lessen the pain accompanying such a visit. All I have to offer is what Steven Callahan carried with him: experience and equipment, along with a prayer that when you are thrown about through the waves, you will have a compass leading you back to the God who knows the depths of your loss. 


Greif cannot easily be described to the unacquainted. It is then beautiful that as the Church, we are grafted into a family encompassing the full breadth of experiences and endeavors. I will tell you what I tell my son whenever his heart quickens and his eyes fill with fear; you are not alone. Steven Callahan talked to fish. You don’t have to. Teddy Roosevelt retreated to the badlands; you mustn’t. The temptation to isolate yourself, to draw away not only from God in your anger, sadness, and frustration but to hold the community He meant to carry you at arms-length is a cruel ploy. While loss is unexplainable, it need not be explained to those who have also endured its stab. Listen to the stories of people who have walked this path before you and sit in their experience. Take note of what direction the waves came from and how they managed to stay upright when they did. Death is as prevalent as life; each of us will meet it at some point, and to ignore the wisdom and experience of those who already have is to cut yourself off from a source of peace and comfort that God may have meant for you. Further, you may deprive yourself of the position to watch as God turns your experience into that same grace and comfort for another.  

The writer of Hebrews must have sensed humanity’s urge to withdraw amidst seasons of unbelief, writing the explicit instructions to: 

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice,

    do not harden your hearts

    as you did in the rebellion.”

Hebrews 3:12-15

Loss forces us, unlike any other experience, into a state of examination, where our motive is never more under attack from the enemy and, therefore, more in need of protection. How simple is it for a sly tongue and a slick word to enter a man’s or woman’s mind in pain? How easily do we allow anything which may bring us a moment of relief into the equation, even if to do so is to sin against almighty God? 

Is it a sin to grieve? Unquestionably, no, Jesus himself did so. Grief is no more alien from the life of a believer than joy. We walk with it hand in hand as old friends. It may be present in our commutes to work and sit beside us in darkened movie theaters. Perhaps we converse with grief as we set sail into our dreams and over coffee when we wake. But what do we permit it to say? What truth does this friend bring to mind? Like a tempest, does it cast you into the depths, unable to remember the words of Jesus who stood among his friends, once dead and now alive, and eased their fears?

“Peace be with you.” 

Or is it possible that grief, alongside the encouragement of the church based on the Scriptures, may be a companion who speaks to us with authority and holiness, pushing us towards a yearning for our God, the one who will make all things right, and by whom we were rescued such that death is merely a stepping off point into the next great adventure?

I encourage you, Christian, to be steady with your encouragement, gentle with your rebuke, and receptive to both. Walk with Christ long enough, and you will be both the wise and the weeping. The discovery you will likely find in both scenarios is that, like an anchor, Jesus alone will hold you and those you love. 

“Do not mourn like those who have no hope.” 

So simply said, so intensely difficult to do.

It was not the grief of the Thessalonians that led to Paul’s rebuke; it was their despair. That absence of hope precluded their ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel and left them no different from their pagan neighbors who had rejected the core doctrine of the resurrection and, therefore, “had no hope.”

If we follow the same path and allow hopelessness to supersede not only our fundamental belief but the hope we inherit as a result, then our grief is no longer fit to reflect the splendor of the eternity with God we long for. Our own temporal and temporary anguish is just that. When we become the focus of our loss, when we do not allow the Church to reposition our pain, we lose sight of the goodness of God, and we cease, even momentarily, to trust Him. 

Thank God for grace; praise Him for His mercy. 


Now, if I may offer a humble warning: platitudes and niceties formed not from the clay of the Word of God are momentary and in danger of becoming malignant. They may even be, as Jonathan Edwards would write, misapprehensions of the mind.

Yet we are to comfort, to console, and to encourage both ourselves and those around us who have suffered the sting of loss. Thank God for the power of His Word; once again, you are not alone. Through the apostles and the prophets, we are gifted a scripture narrative rife with lament and faith therein. If Scripture is God’s story in relation to Humanity, then it must contain our humanity. Search throughout the text, and you’ll discover you are far from the first to grieve and couldn’t possibly be the last. Let us return to that passage in Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica and take our time to draw from it the encouragement we need. 

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 

[pause] – As believers, our grief is no less real than those who are outside of Christ; it is, however, transformed by His hope. We have the chance to feel the present pain coupled with the future promise. As with almost all of life, the lens through which we observe death and the language we wrap around it will frame our mindset toward it.    

For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 

[pause] – O Death, where is your sting? While a predictable plot may ruin a book or movie, knowing the end of our own story may bring us nothing but comfort. We may grieve our inability to hold, laugh with, or fall asleep next to our loves, yet each day without them brings us nothing but closer to them once more. For those united in Christ, death is but an intermission. Our stories will begin again come the sound of music.

According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 

[pause] – How blessed are those who have gone before us in the faith, for it will be their privilege to do so again! For 35 years, I was never forced to live in a world without my Grandmother; what a comfort to know that I will not exist in eternity without her either. What an inexpressible joy for a parent to know the infant they wept over awaits them in the presence of God.  

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 

[pause] – Remember in whom eternity is anchored. It is the power of the Lord that will bring an end to our hope when it is at once realized. Unlike Steven Callahan, we will not float aimlessly, desperate for rescue. We are promised a shepherd. The same Jesus who you may draw comfort from amidst your grief has already defeated death; it’s “power” bends to His words, and He is coming. Let your song of sorrow turn to joy, and your tears give way to laughter. 

After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore, encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Death rarely comes on schedule for those who remain. We weep as we should for what is lost, for the entirety of what will no longer be. But, in time, it is my prayer that we properly call to mind what will be. The time is coming, dear one, when you and those you miss with an aching heart will be with the Lord forever. Many more chapters can and truthfully have been written along these lines, and yet you are here, so allow me, if you will, to fulfill the call from the Apostle to lift your head, if just for a moment. 

Weep if you must, 

if you can. 

For what you’ve lost,

what you’ll never have again. 

Feel the fullness of emptiness

and weep.

But remember, dear heart, 

for you must

And you can. 

The fullness of Jesus,

the emptiness of his grave

and weep.

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Scripture References

  • Proverbs 14:13
  • Hebrews 3:12-15
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
James Vore James Vore serves Passion Equip as our Content Director. After graduating from The University of Georgia, James has spent the last decade writing for ESPN, Catalyst, and Passion. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Victoria, and their two children. He loves movies, being outside, and (like Jed Bartlet before him) will watch almost any sporting event possible.