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, https://www.johnsonconsulting.com/a-wake-up-call-are-you-a-party-planner-or-a-creator-of-meaningful-funeral-experiences-alan-d-wolfelt-ph-d/?xanax-for-sale, (accessed February 26, 2021).

[4] Joseph Stromberg, “The Microscopic Structures of Dried Human Tears,” smithsonianmag.com,
November 19, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-microscopic-structures-of-dried-human-tears-180947766/ (accessed February 22, 2021).

[5] Judith Orloff, “The Healing Power of Tears,” drjudithorloff.com, https://drjudithorloff.com/the-healing-power-of-tears/, (accessed September 3, 2020).

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