Love and fear share a kind of polar opposite kinship. When we grieve, most of us experience the kind of fear that has little to do with love. Some of us live with a kind of chronic fear that feels like quiet desperation. Some of us live with low-grade fear that causes us to be constantly on the defensive. Though some of us live through grief with a fair amount of equanimity, unexpectedly we may be waylaid by episodes of fear that threaten to unhinge us completely. Grief, fear, love—strange bedfellows indeed.

In grief there is a precarious balance between love and fear. When death upends our world, nothing is the same—everything changes. Suddenly the emotional and spiritual imbalance of grief sparks our worst fears. Fear is compounded by countless, sometimes nameless questions—for some there will be answers, for others not. In grief, fear thrives on the underside of the unknown.

The dilemma of grief is whether we succumb to our fears and live in darkness or find the perfect love that casts out fear within the comfort and presence of God, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). This is the faith part of grief—the seeking, stretching, striving part that makes us better as we pursue the hope and joy of fearless love. Our ongoing quest for perfection in love inspires us to persevere in life despite the absence of the one we love and now grieve.

In darker moments of pain and sorrow, some may feel that the death of a loved one is punishment. When my beloved husband died, for a long time I had a very real sense that I was being punished. I grew up in a home ruled by fear and punishment and was well schooled in the consequences of imperfect love. It took many months of deep soul searching before I could fully embrace the biblical truth that God does not punish us, that illness, accidents, and death are not personal. God is, in fact, the one true embodiment of perfect love.    

When fear and love co-exist in a relationship, many who grieve are emotionally conflicted after the death of one they love. Deconstructing the walls we carefully erect as protection from our fear of punishment is arduous work that sometimes requires the perspective of a counselor or therapist. If we assess the damage to our heart and soul and rely on the resources of our faith for healing and wholeness, in time we are able to open ourselves to a different kind of love that is more perfect and courageous than we have ever before known.

Perfect love casts out fear. If you have ever had a child or held a child, or if you are grieving the death of an infant or a child, you know first-hand that children are not born with fear. You have felt the sweet breath of God’s perfect love in the unconditional love of an innocent child that trusts completely without so much as a whisper of fear. This is about as close to perfect love as any of us will ever experience on this side of heaven. This is the love of God, the fearless love with which we are born, the perfect love that speaks heart to heart and binds our soul together forever with those we love and grieve, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

We are not intended to live in fear or in the shadow of fear left over from the past. As we sort out our relationships and reconnect with our own spiritual and emotional center, over time we realize that fear is not where we will find our future. Rather, we are created to live in the presence of God with the perfect love that comforts us in our grief, assures us of life after death, and casts out every fear. We are to “go on toward perfection” (Hebrews 6:1).