Question: "What does the Bible say about bereavement?"
Answer: Bereavement is the condition of having lost a friend or loved one in death. Bereavement usually results in a period of time when we mourn. Cultures worldwide differ in their responses to bereavement and the expectations surrounding the circumstance of such a loss. Scripture gives many accounts of bereavement and mourning, the first being Abraham when his wife, Sarah, died (Genesis 23:1).
God does not prescribe in Scripture how the bereaved are to mourn. However, we can find patterns from the Old and New Testaments that show us that God cares about our grief. God does not condemn the bereaved for grieving for those they love. Jesus Himself knew bereavement, and the shortest verse in the Bible reflects the heart of God when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
One of the patterns we see in Scripture is that actively mourning the death of a loved one was usually limited to a certain timeframe (see Genesis 38:12 and 2 Samuel 11:27). Again, a particular time is not mandated by Scripture, and the fact that an official “mourning period” ends does not take away from the ongoing process of grief. Scripture presents people weeping bitterly or grieving deeply at the death of a loved one (Genesis 21:16; 2 Samuel 3:32; 18:33). It is natural for bereavement to produce an intense emotional state, and it is natural to express that emotion.
Often, the scenes Scripture gives us are of bereaved people lying down or kneeling, face to the ground with many tears. In these accounts, no one is pushing the bereaved to pick themselves up and stop crying. When Abraham grieved for his wife, Sarah, he lay weeping at her side (Genesis 23:1–3). After a time (we don’t know how long), he arose to take care of her gravesite. Similarly, when Job was mourning the loss of everything he had, his three friends came and sat silently with him for seven days and seven nights “because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:11–13).
In Scripture, the mourning period after bereavement does not continue for lengthy periods of time. Seven days is often repeated as a time period for this part of grieving (Genesis 50:10; Job 2:13; 1 Samuel 31:12–13). Shiva is Hebrew for “seven” and the basis for the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva,” shiva also being the week-long wake observed after the death of a family member (www.shiva.com/learning-center/understanding/shiva, accessed 12/29/21).
Our culture today makes it difficult to dedicate time to mourning, but Scripture shows us the wisdom of allowing ourselves a period of grieving after a bereavement. We should not rush ourselves or others through these days.
Another biblical pattern we see, which Job’s friends demonstrated, is that it is natural and needed to allow others into our place of mourning. Times of bereavement should include other people. When Moses died, the entire nation grieved together (Deuteronomy 34), as did all of Egypt when Joseph’s father, Israel, died (Genesis 50). There will be times of private grief, but we must also share our mourning as part of the healing process.
Another pattern of bereavement shown in Scripture is the resuming of normal life activities. This doesn’t mean that the pain has stopped or abated, but it does show that God intends for us to continue on after a loss. Abraham took care of his wife’s funeral (Genesis 23:1); Joseph saw to his father’s last wishes (Genesis 50:3–4); and David asked God how he should proceed after his close friend Jonathan died (2 Samuel 1—2).
The intense period of grief right after a bereavement should be protected, honored, and shared. It should also have an ending. We show love to those in mourning through the guarding of our words, the companionship of our presence, and the support of their steps forward, however tenuous. We should allow ourselves these graces, too.