What God Says About Grief

Written By: Sierra Okoniewski


July 18, 2023

The world became a different place the day my mom passed away.

In 2022, my mom underwent back surgery to correct a collapsed vertebra. There was no indication that there would be obstacles afterward, but she never recovered. Instead, nine months later, she slipped into cardiac arrest during a test in the ICU, and the medical team wasn’t able to save her.

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense to us. In the hospital, doctors told us that her heart wasn’t functioning properly. But she’d had no preexisting conditions before the surgery. It was — and still is — impossible to understand how she could have just…died. It was as if my family had been ripped open, and a gaping wound was left in the space that once belonged to her.

As my family has processed my mom’s death, I’ve come face-to-face with the hollowness of intense grief. Things that were once familiar no longer exist, as if a piece of my soul was amputated and the rest of me was left in a completely different world. The sudden plunge shocked me physically and emotionally, leaving me stranded in limbo — still at the hospital — while the rest of the world continued on, seemingly unaffected.

I’ve come to understand that no two experiences with loss are the same, but there are ways to connect them. As I contemplated the reality of a life without my mom, I noticed fragmented similarities in occasions of past grief: the messy end of a close friendship, separation from a would-be fiancé, and painful isolation from a trusted church family. In each of these situations, I was faced with a different kind of loss. And each time, I had to make a choice about how to view God in response.

It hasn’t been easy for me to bring my pain to God. Years ago, I was in shambles after leaving a church that I loved. I wanted to go to God with my heartbreak — but in my devastation, I had no idea how. I was angry at the injustice of the circumstances that caused me to step away from a community that had been at the center of my life. I wrestled with hatred and deep depression, not knowing how to pray when all I could convey was bitterness. So, I shielded myself from God. I didn’t blame Him for my grief, but I didn’t think He wanted to deal with it either.

The more I drew away from the Father, the further I fell into a black hole of despair. I stopped caring about my life. I made reckless decisions, looking for anything that could mute, even temporarily, the constant stream of hurt I was living in. Finally, when I couldn’t function anymore, I looked to God with the smallest part of my heart and whispered, “Help.” And slowly, He reached into the depths of my anguish and pulled me back to Himself.

It’s this experience that has pointed me back to Jesus as I’ve grieved the loss of my mom. When she died, I knew I desperately needed to bring God into my pain. As I’ve listened for the Father in this space, I’ve come to understand grief in a new way. Here is some of what I’ve learned:

We were never supposed to experience grief. At the beginning of the world, God called His whole creation very good (Genesis 1:31a). It wasn’t until the fall (Genesis 3) that we were introduced to the effects of life separated from our Creator, the source of goodness. This single event in history tattooed the existence of pain onto the human experience — pain that God compassionately chooses to shoulder alongside us. The story of Lazarus’ resurrection especially stands out to me in this way:

“Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled. And He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.” John 11:32–35

I notice that Mary came to Jesus with the full weight of her grief. She doesn’t hold back her anguish, but instead says to God, Where were you? You should have been here. And in His love, Jesus receives her. He doesn’t rebuke her, but weeps with her. This strikes me — Jesus weeping at the tomb of His friend minutes before calling him out of the grave. The Son of God, in full knowledge of the resurrection that lay ahead, stops first to mourn the bitter effects of death on those He loves. This is just one example of how God sees us in our pain. He doesn’t remove Himself from grief; He experiences it with us.

My mom was an incredibly joyful person — always so full of faith. Jesus was her rock and center, and she sought God constantly in everything she did. After she died, I was surprised at the amount of peace that my family experienced together. The juxtaposition of peace and pain was strange to navigate at first, but my sister and I quickly realized that the sense of calm we felt came from knowing that our mom is ultimately where she belongs. Paul speaks to this in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

“…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 4:13–15

As my family has leaned into God through our grief, He has held us together in ways beyond our understanding. We truly believe that we’ll see my mom again, and so our heartbreak is mingled with the knowledge that she’s waiting for us. Life without her is enormously difficult, and I don’t expect that to change. But neither will the promise of eternity through Jesus Christ — the redemption of every loss — ever falter. And that, in and of itself, is enough.

“Therefore…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1–2