Faith is balm for ‘collective grief’ after tragedy

By Julie Yarbrough, Special Contributor…

“We know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-4, CEB)

When an entire community is stunned and shocked by large-scale loss, most recently the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, a kind of collective grief envelops everyone touched by the tragedy. Usually this grief is exponentially more intense in small communities where there are far fewer than six degrees of separation between neighbors, friends and family. People know each other personally and intimately, many related by birth and a shared geographic heritage.

Julie Yarbrough

It was inspiring to see a news report from West on Sunday, April 21, about members of a large church there worshipping outside together in the bright sunshine of a spring day. There were tears. There was sadness. There was determination. There was hope: “And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5 NRSV)

Life’s extremes collided in the lives and hearts of those gathered in a field to share their collective and individual grief. And there was joy—joy to be alive and connected, safe amid the public and private outpouring of love and care that is God’s inspired response of the human heart.

The nature of collective grief is that sometimes it lifts rather quickly, such as when a suspect is apprehended. All of Boston, indeed the entire country, was relieved and jubilant when the manhunt for those responsible for a senseless act of violent terrorism ended after four days of searching. Yet in Newtown there will always be a collective grief that lingers in the hearts of those who sustained unimaginable loss and suffer deep heartache. It could not be otherwise. There will always be grief—always—for the children and adults slain that December day. Grief for their tender age, their innocence, their self-sacrifice. Those who survived live daily with circular projections of the mind about a future that will never be—the “what if” and “if only” at the core of the great, unanswered, “Why?”

The rites and rituals of collective grief can bring us, eventually, to a sense of comfort and reassurance. Yet the work of grief that ultimately leads to healing demands that we first acknowledge our pain and loss, and engage with ourselves at a deep spiritual place where we encounter what it is we’re feeling and what it is we believe.

In 1 Peter 5:10 we’re promised that our grief will not last forever: “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (NRSV) God promises to restore us, to support us, to strengthen us, and to establish us—and the best part is that God promises to do it himself. God does not delegate God’s intentional care for you or for me. God is a hands-on God who uses many of our earthly resources and opportunities to comfort and encourage us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, especially at times of great sorrow, loss, and human tragedy.

On the last occasion my beloved husband was in the pulpit, he offered this pastoral prayer: “We have come this far by faith, and we will continue to walk with our hand in yours wherever you lead us.” I cherish this spiritual affirmation, the promise of our faith that in life, in death, in life beyond death, and in our grief, God is with us.

We are not alone.

Ms. Yarbrough is a member of Highland Park UMC in Dallas, where her late husband, the Rev. Leighton K. Farrell, was longtime pastor. She’s the author of a series of grief resources, Beyond the Broken Heart, published by Abingdon Press (

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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