The Good Tears of Grief

The Blog That Speaks: The Good Tears of Grief

I’m sorry.

I have commonly heard this phrase while facilitating grief groups. Although tears are a regular (and expected) part of grief support groups, someone inevitably will have a griefburst and apologize to the group for it.

And you know . . . I get it. I, too, have apologized for crying.

Photo by Javier Martínez on Unsplash

The reasons for such apologies could vary. Perhaps we are feeling embarrassment and/or shame because we need assurance that these tears are acceptable and normal. Possibly, we are feeling concern for the other that he/she will feel uncomfortable, so we are taking responsibility for his/her feelings. Or maybe it is actually we who feel uncomfortable with our tears because our family system and culture have not created space for them.

 Whatever the reason . . . Many of us experience a certain amount of pressure in our Western culture to appear strong, particularly amidst our grief. A contributing factor to such pressure is having heard people evaluate a person’s grief journey in the days, weeks, and months following a death. They may say, “He is struggling with his loss,” or “She needs prayer. She is not so doing so well.” But what precisely do we mean by these phrases? While a person more than likely would cherish additional prayer support, what exactly is the defining standard for doing well after a loss?

  • No tears or lots of tears?
  • Happiness or sadness?
  • Acceptance or shock?
  • Moving forward in life or moving backwards?

Now, all of these are expected as each one may be a part of various grief journeys. But it seems to me that one particular cultural measuring stick for doing well with one’s loss is based on the volume and/or frequency of the griever’s tears. In this case, few tears are equated to healthy mourning while a bucket load of tears is an indicator of unhealthy mourning. As Alan Wolfelt notes about Western culture and tears, if grievers appear strong and in control, they are seen as doing well with their grief.[1] This is regrettable as the public expression of our grief (which is mourning) is how we heal from a loss. Perhaps this indicates why we facilitators educate participants in grief support groups about the appropriateness of tears. It is an effort to deconstruct common cultural misconceptions about tears of grief and mourning in order to help grievers move towards healing.

Unfortunately, the public expression of tears after a death seems to be discouraged in the West and maybe increasingly so.

Consider a shift that I have witnessed in my lifetime. A public death ritual has shifted from being called a funeral to being referred to as a celebration of life. The very name “celebration of life” underscores happiness, connoting this is not a time for sorrow. Some celebrations of life may even be quite explicit by stating that stories and memories are permitted at a person’s celebration of life but not tears.[2] Wolfelt speaks of this cultural change from rituals that provide a space for people to publicly grieve (e.g., wearing black for a year; having several days to view the body; planning a funeral; and participating in a funeral procession) to progressively deterring public grieving by calling them celebrations or parties or foregoing any ritual at all.[3]

This tendency to suppress the public expression of tears of grief is regrettable in light of the fact that research demonstrates that tears of grief contain a helpful, healing element.

Studies show that there are three types of tears:

  1. basal tears assist in keeping the cornea lubricated;
  2. reflex tears emerge from the result of an irritating substance like dust; and
  3. emotional or psychic tears are exemplified by tears of joy or grief.

The latter contains “a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress.”[4] When we cry, biochemist Dr. William Frey found that emotional tears discharge stress hormones “and other toxins which accumulate during stress.”[5] This puts an additional spin on Wolfelt’s saying, “You must feel it to heal it.”

That is, tears of grief are good—they promote healing.

As a Christ-follower who is also a pentecostal, I uphold a theology of healing, particularly divine healing. However, I frequently hear phrases spoken by would-be helpers to grievers after a death which implicitly curtail their healing by squelching a public expression of tears:

  • “At least he is not suffering anymore.”
  • “She is now rejoicing in the presence of God and with her spouse.” 
  • “At least they are in a better place.”

Such phrases may be genuine beliefs of the griever, and would-be helpers may have said them with the best of intentions, but these phrases also may hinder the griever’s healing by impeding the public expression of grief as they imply that death is now our friend, not our enemy.

But this is not the way of Jesus Christ.

Consider these two words “Jesus wept” in John 11:35. It is identified as the shortest verse in the Bible, but despite its brevity, I believe this verse has substantial implications for our public responses to loss and grief.

The context of this verse is that his dear friend Lazarus has died, and Jesus is standing, weeping at the tomb. Scholars are divided as to the reason for Jesus’ tears. Some believe he is weeping about the unbelief or misconceptions of those around him. Or perhaps he is weeping due to the power of sin and death in the world. As such, scholars will argue that Jesus is not weeping because Lazarus is deceased since Jesus is about to raise him from the dead.

Unfortunately, this proposal seems to fall short in highlighting Jesus’ humanity, and that could lead us down an unhealthy path as to what it means to be a human as a Christian. To understand what I mean, it is important to keep in mind that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. As such, Jesus Christ reveals to us what it means to be human while also revealing to us who God is. Thus, if Jesus Christ, who reveals genuine humanity to us, does not weep because Lazarus is dead since he is about to raise up Lazarus, then what would stop us from saying that we, too, are not to weep when our loved ones are dead since they, like Lazarus, will be resurrected? Such a response seems to deny: our very humanness; death as an enemy; and the entirety of the scriptures (e.g., Matt 5:4; 1 Thess 4:13; 1 Cor 15:26).

Hence, I propose that we consider Jesus’ revelation to us on how to be fully alive as human beings. In this light, Jesus Christ’s weeping over the death of Lazarus communicates the normalcy of humans to weep over the death of their loved ones. As New Testament scholar Marriane Meye Thompson comments:

“That Jesus will soon raise Lazarus to life, and so manifest God’s glory, does not mute the genuine sorrow that he experiences and expresses. Jesus’ weeping at the tomb of Lazarus demonstrates that grief over death is not an inappropriate response.”[6]

Thus, to fully embrace our humanity means we will publicly weep—we will mourn.

Furthermore, such tears may also be a protest against death. It may be said that the entirety of Jesus’ atonement (life, death, resurrection, and ascension) is a protest against death. Jesus’ incarnation involved dying so that death may be defeated through his resurrection. It is here, then, that I agree with scholars that a reason for Christ’s tears (but not the only one) includes his sorrow over sin and death. Weeping, then, becomes a way for us to participate in Jesus Christ’s objection to death.

Thus, to fully embrace our humanity means we will publicly weep, joining Jesus in his protest against humanity’s enemy, death.

At the same time, let us remember that Jesus Christ is also fully divine. This means that his whole being, his person, is an act of ministry as the divine ministers to humanity within the person of Jesus. That is, the fully divine nature ministers healing to the fully human nature in Jesus’ being. Therefore, taken what we know of the healing quality of tears of grief, Jesus Christ’s weeping is an additional way for the divine to heal Jesus’ human sorrow and that of all of humanity. In other words, since Jesus is humanity’s healer and tears are healing, his tears may also be seen as a divine healing balm for humanity.

Thus, to fully embrace our humanity means we will publicly weep, thereby participating in Christ’s ministry of healing.

In light of this discussion, perhaps doing well with a loss is expressing the good tears of grief. As Jesus indicates, tears are welcomed in his kingdom:  

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

May we also welcome them.

[1] Alan Wolfelt, Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart (Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2003), 90.

[2] Wolfelt, Understanding Your Grief, 27.

[3] Alan Wolfelt, “A Wake-Up Call: Are you a Party Planner or a Creator of Meaningful Funeral Experiences,” Johnson Consulting Group website, December 5, 2011,, (accessed February 26, 2021).

[4] Joseph Stromberg, “The Microscopic Structures of Dried Human Tears,”,
November 19, 2013, (accessed February 22, 2021).

[5] Judith Orloff, “The Healing Power of Tears,”,, (accessed September 3, 2020).

[6] Marriane Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 248-249.

When Expectations are Unfulfilled

The Blog That Speaks: When Expectations are Unfulfilled

Many of us form expectations as to how we believe our lives will proceed.

  • We attend college with a specific career in mind.
  • We image the type of person we will marry and when we will marry.
  • We decided to have two children.
  • We plan for retirement with our spouse.

But when these expectations are derailed, it may send us into a downward spiral.

  • The career fails to pan out.
  • We do not get married.
  • We are unable to have children.
  • Our spouse dies prior to the age of fifty.

Since these are not the customary patterns for life in our world, our personal world is turned upside down, and we are thrown into an unexpected journey of grief.

Life may become even more complicated when a person believes he/she has heard from God concerning his/her future. Pentecostals, in particular, are known to rely on the supernatural to guide and help them. But what happens when the supernatural occurs, providing some direction, but the pentecostal’s expectations attached to such guidance remain unfulfilled? It is not often discussed, but it happens. I do not claim in this blog to speak for others and their experiences of unmet expectations, be it on a personal, national, or global scale. I simply write of my own experience of loss in relation to my own supernatural experiences and unfulfilled expectations in hopes that my story may be a place of identification and healing for others with unfulfilled expectations, be they with or without the involvement of the supernatural.

I viewed it as somewhat of a God-thing when my heart shifted during my first two years of college.

My desires were transformed from “I will not serve overseas” to “I want to serve overseas.” This desire moved to a sense of call during the summer between my second and third years when I had an epistemological pentecostal experience of I-know-that-I-know-that-I-know: I knew I was to minister overseas, and I was to teach.

Within a few months … and in true pentecostal fashion … this sense of call was confirmed through supernatural means via individuals who were unaware of what I had sensed in my heart of hearts. And ten years later when my husband and I applied and were appointed to serve in Asia through our denomination, it seemed we were living the pentecostal minister’s dream. God had supernaturally broken into my world and directed my career path, and now it was coming to pass. It also seemed to me that our climbing the clerical ladder of success by being appointed for overseas ministry was its own substantiation of God’s plan for us.[1]

This was to be our life: No longer would we serve stateside but rather overseas for the remainder of our lives.

But … despite our plans, the unexpected occurred. After completing twenty months of itineration in the United States and three years of ministry overseas, we sensed God directing us to return home.

It made no sense to me. How could God go to such extensive efforts to place me overseas and then send me home after only three years?

It was not just my expectation to remain overseas. It was also others’ expectations, including that of our denomination.[2] Years later when my husband briefly shared the story of God directing us home, another pentecostal expressed surprise as he said, “God can do that?”

But it was plain to us, and so we returned home … as difficult as it was. As one man aptly commented, “It was harder for you to obey by returning home than it was to go.”

It was considerably difficult to reconcile my understanding of God’s call to go overseas to God’s call to come home. When faced with such a challenge, the human tendency is to draw upon our perspective of how the world operates in order to build a more satisfactory, meaningful narrative. This perspective includes assumptions that we form about the world. We may believe that when we obey, we will be blessed, and if we disobey, we will be punished. Or if someone tries hard enough, he/she will be successful. Or I have control and predictability of the outcomes in my life. Based on my pentecostal and familial upbringing, the story I told myself was: It is my fault that we were sent home. I must have sinned, which made God angry.

Unfortunately, while my narrative seemed like a reasonable conclusion to me, it did little to heal the pain in my heart. I became moody, volatile, and isolated. In short, I felt as if I was going crazy.

I eventually came to understand that I was experiencing loss and grief. God’s call on my life and the supernatural confirmations of that call were not fulfilled as I had envisioned. Too often, people mistakenly categorize loss under one type of classification, death of persons. However, as Judith Viorst states,

“For we lose not only through death, but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on.”[3]

For John Harvey a clue to ascertaining a major loss is the degree of “emotional investment” the individual has given of him/herself.[4] Therefore, individuals may place large quantities of time, physical, and emotional energies toward the investment of a hope or a dream, only to discover they are forced to release it. This type of loss may be described as an intangible loss as it is abstract and not as apparent to others. Some refer to this type of loss as a non-event. Nancy Schlossberg and Susan Porter Robinson define “non-event” as “the absence of an event that can be reasonably expected to occur.” The word “reasonably” is significant as it is only when an event will conceivably transpire but does not that one may frame it as a non-event.[5] It is at this time that one acknowledges a loss, which is the first step in learning to cope with this intangible loss.

Now … naming the loss may be more difficult than it sounds in our mourning-avoidant culture. Pauline Boss points out that in American culture

“the goal is to win, not lose. Because of this strong value, there is in our culture a tendency to deny loss. Grieving is acceptable, but we should get over it and get back to work.”[6]

Would-be helpers use various phrases to motivate grievers to do just that, such as sentences that begin with the phrase “at least”:

  • “At least you were able find another job.”
  • “At least you have two other children.”
  • “At least you were married to her for 25 years.”

Instead of joining alongside the person in her grief journey, would-be-helpers are standing above the griever, attempting to push down her grief, so it is out of sight.

While many well-intentioned Christians may believe it is their responsibility to immediately provoke others out of their grief, this is not the way of Christ.

As I have stated previously, the Son becomes human, which conveys the divine’s validation and normalization of humanity in the very person of Jesus. Jesus creates space within himself to receive humanity’s stories and heal them. This is Jesus Christ’s uniqueness: he is the human-divine one (hypostatic union) so that the divine heals humanity’s losses and grief by being present to humanity within his very being.

But Jesus also illustrates to us in Luke 24:13-35 how we as humans may create space for the sharing of the stories of those with unfulfilled expectations. Ironically, the unmet expectations in this story are about him. Even so, he provides an opportunity for the loss of these unmet expectations to be expressed. Thus, this story offers a unique window into these expectations, the loss and grief that ensued, and Christ’s response to them.

In this story, two of Jesus’ disciples are walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus after Jesus’ crucifixion when they unknowingly encounter Jesus. The text conveys a passionate discussion between the two men by using the words “debate” (suzētēo in v. 15) and “discussing so intently” (pros allēlous in v. 16). Perhaps such passion illustrates how emotionally attached Jesus’ followers were to their expectations of Jesus. They were fervently invested in the belief that Jesus was the Messiah who would be their “national ‘ruler and deliverer,’”[7] despite Jesus’ earlier words to the contrary that he would suffer and die (Luke 9:22). They understood that the scriptures spoke of a Messiah, but like others within Judaism, they did not associate suffering with the Messiah.[8] Thus, when Jesus died, their expectations died with him. They grieved not only the loss of a person, Jesus, but also a non-event, an intangible death, the deliverance of their nation through this Messiah.

It is important for our purposes to note how Jesus begins his dialogue with these men who are engrossed in conversation. Jesus leads with curiosity (v. 16) and follows that up with more curiosity (v. 19) even though he knows intimately of the divine plan. He is setting aside his own interests for the interests of others. Luke points to the disciples’ grief when he depicts them as appearing sad when Jesus asks what they are discussing.

It is this curiosity that provides the disciples with the space and opportunity to pour out their grief.

But let us notice the full sequence. It is only after they are seen, heard, and valued through the telling of their story that Jesus unfolds the scriptures about himself (v. 27). And then it is after this that their eyes are open while eating with him so that they recognize the resurrected Jesus as being with them (v. 31).

Similar to Jesus, then, it is possible that we as listeners may have a broader view of the griever’s situation, unlike the one who grieves unfulfilled expectations; however, this moment in time is not about us but about the grievers’ story.

  • This is the time to permit the grievers the opportunity to express their losses.
  • This is the time to sit and allow them to teach us about their grief journey.
  • This is not an occasion to be in front, pulling them, and neither are we to be behind, pushing them.

Instead, we are to walk alongside them by normalizing, affirming, and validating their experience as Jesus does both in his very being and in this story. As Alan Wolfelt states,

“Affirmation prior to integration.”

Affirmation comes through listening to the story of unfulfilled expectations, and it usually involves the hearing of many tellings. Unlike the two disciples, those who experience the losses of unmet expectations today generally will not behold an immediate resurrection. Grief by nature is slow. Thus, it is necessary to patiently hear the story until a resurrection after, or reconciliation of, the loss occurs. It is only after we repeatedly affirm through listening that … maybe … in time … we will have the opportunity to speak words of wisdom into grievers’ lives.

Holy Spirit, may you empower us to be curious, enabling us to walk alongside the griever.

[1] R. Paul Stevens agrees when he writes, “So Protestants have their own hierarchies: the cross-cultural missionary at the top, followed by parish priests and pastors, then youth workers and parachurch ministers (including seminary professors). R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1999), Kindle, loc. 224-225.

[2] Romans 11:29 is commonly used in my tradition to argue that if you are called into ministry, it is a calling for life because the call of God is irrevocable.

[3] Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses (New York: Free Press, 1986), 15.

[4] John H. Harvey, Give Sorrow Words (Ann Arbor: Sheridan Books, 2000), 18.

[5] Nancy K. Schlossberg and Susan Porter Robinson, Going to Plan B: How You Can Cope, Regroup, and Start Your Life on a New Path (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 28.

[6] Pauline Boss, Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss (NY: W. W. Norton, 2006), Kindle, 4.

[7] David Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 952.

[8] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2015), 721.