Integrating Grief and Hope: Reflections from Christian and Islamic Traditions

Published February 01, 2019 by Hina Khalid

Hina Khalid reflects on grief from a theological perspective, with reference to Christianity and Islam.

In recent years, the taboo around issues related to death and dying has somewhat lifted – the emergence of 'Death Cafés' (where individuals can gather to talk about death over tea and cake), the rise of what is often called the 'death awareness movement'[1], and the development of palliative care services around the country, have all played a formative role in initiating a wider public discourse on death. Integral to this has been a shift away from understanding grief as a series of stages to be linearly moved through and finally gotten over, towards a more sensitive recognition of grief as a complex, often life-long process of returning and re-accommodating to the loss: it is neither circumscribable into a set of tasks nor can it abide by any established timeframe.

Where does religion fit into this perspective? It is not uncommon to hear from individuals who have suffered a loss, that their religious friends or family members have (unintentionally) 'trivialised' their grief by words to the effect of: 'don't worry, he/she is with God now', 'they are in a better place' – provoking the question of whether grief can ever be an adequately faithful response to loss. What emerges from this picture then, is that there is the experience of grief on one hand, and religion on the other – parallel lines that do not meet: the former affirms the reality of loss while the second blithely assures us of hope in an afterlife. But is there a way to situate the experience of grief within, and not outside of, a theological context: so that the intensity of loss, heartache, brokenness, and all that the experience of loss brings, can find meaning within, even emerge from faith, rather than stand as an alternative to it?

I offer here just a few reflections from the Christian and Islamic perspectives, though this topic is broad and certainly merits further discussion. First, a brief note as to why this issue matters: not only is it of importance theologically (i.e. to the inner coherence of theological frameworks on issues related to death and dying) but above all, it matters pastorally: what our religious traditions and teachers say on loss and grief, and where their emphasis lies, is of profound importance in understanding how faith can continue to shape communal, and individual lives. The essence of this is what we might call 'lived' or 'embodied' theology: the effort to meet the human need that is before us in a way that flows from, and thus reveals, the character of faith.

Hope in an afterlife is a cardinal belief of both Islam and Christianity, and it is true that Islam thus promotes the virtue of sabr (patience) when encountering loss in life, and in the Bible, we are told not to grieve 'as others do who have no hope' (1 Thessalonians 4:13), precisely because Christ's resurrection promises renewed life beyond death. Yet, as Andrew Davison points out, what is striking here is that Scripture does not 'tell [us] to avoid grieving altogether, just not to grieve as those without hope'.[2] In fact, where the secular death awareness movement affirms grief as a natural reaction to loss, the insights of the Islamic and Christian traditions move beyond this, ascribing a particular theological (even spiritual) meaning to grief itself that says something profound about the life of faith. In Islam, it is said that when his son took his last breath, the Prophet held him, tears flowing, and one of his companions expressed his surprise for he thought that the Prophet had spoken against 'excessive' displays of grief. Muhammad affirmed that his tears were 'signs of tenderness and mercy' and then uttered what became a foundational ethical and spiritual teaching in the Islamic tradition: 'He who is not merciful will not be shown mercy'. The expression of grief, as a testament to one's love and an abiding awareness of the finitude of human life, brings one ever close to the Mercy (Rahma) of God.

Turning to Christianity, we find in the Bible such statements as 'blessed are those who mourn' (Matthew 5:4), 'weep with those who weep' (Romans 12:15), and Jesus himself is said to have wept at the death of Lazarus. Here, grief is located in the particular virtue of empathy: weep with those who weep, and is understood as a 'blessed' state. Faith does not deny the experience of grief, nor does it simply affirm it as natural[3] - it is, in both cases, an active partaking in the mercy, love and vulnerability that is the very fabric of human life. The Islamic and Christian teachings on grief point us towards a shared vision, and an important theological principle for working with grief and bereavement: the fact of grief is real, and can be affirmed from within the resources of faith itself, rather than as an aside to it. Indeed, in the examples of Christ and Muhammad, grief is a testament to human love and fragility and is not to be denied, but held in a beautiful harmony with, the value of hope.

This article is written by Hina Khalid who is an MPhil student of Theology at the University of Cambridge. Her particular interests are cross-cultural philosophy of religion, comparative mysticism, religious language and theology and science.

[1] Lucy Bregman, Beyond Silence & Denial: Death and Dying Reconsidered (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), p. 45.

[2] Sioned Evans & Andrew Davison, Care for the Dying: A Practical & Pastoral Guide (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2014), p. 21.

[3] Though this is, importantly, part of the Islamic and Christian perspectives too.

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