Biblical and Buddhist Grief: A Comparison

Job and Kubler-Ross

Biblical and Buddhist Grief: A Comparison

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Job’s lamentations, according to Patricia Byrne (2002), represent the painful process of redefining his place in the world. Before Satan’s challenge to God to test Job’s faith, Job’s life was the envy of his neighbors. With seven healthy and vibrant sons and three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, one thousand oxen, five hundred donkeys, and an untold number of servants, Job was a profoundly wealthy man (Job 1:2-4, King James Version). Job’s sons and daughters feasted every day, leaving the reader to imagine a life of happiness and fulfillment. To forestall vanity however, Job thanked God daily for all he had been given. When Satan challenges God to test Job’s faith, all this is stripped away and his body and mind are tormented with disease.

Job begins his grieving process by cursing the day he was born and wishing he had died on that day before he took his first breath (Job 3:1-26). Job appears to be in a state of shock and anger, although it is hard to intuit the emotional content from some of the passages. For example, Job could be either angry or depressed when making the statement: “Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” (Job 3:11). Hope appears to be lost and Job wishes that the life he has been given had never happened. The third chapter in the Book of Job probably fits best into the anger phase of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief (Kellehear, 2013), although shock and depression also seem evident. The co-occurrence of different stages of grief is consistent with Kubler-Ross’s model, which suggests that the five stages of grief tend to occur in sequence from denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but that these stages are rarely mutually-exclusive.

Deborah Lyon (2000) interpreted earlier statements by Job as consistent with denial stage of grief. The statement: “… the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), seems to indicate a lack of comprehension of how serious his situation is. At this point in the story, Job had lost all his livestock, servants, sons, and daughters, so Lyon’s point is well taken. Lyon considers the seventh chapter as an example of the anger phase of grief, specifically 7:11-15. Within these passages Job has seemingly recovered from the deep despair evident in chapter three and has begun to vent his rage and frustration. As Job vents, argues, and discusses his fate with his friends, Job transitions back and forth between the first four stages of grief as defined in Kubler-Ross’s model, but never fully reaches acceptance before God steps in and restores Job’s former life.

Roshi Joan Halifax (2006), a practicing Zen priest in New Mexico, had to contend with grief on a personal level when her mother passed away. Although she recognized that a ‘good’ Buddhist would let go of any remaining attachments to her mother and accept the reality of death, she instead found herself immersed in her own sorrow. When she later took a trip to the Himalayas and Tibetan monks instructed her to “… let her [mother] be undisturbed by grief” (p. 261), she discovered that she was ready to do exactly that. From the Buddhist perspective, the grieving process seeks acceptance from the very beginning, whereas in Kubler-Ross’s model acceptance comes after denial, anger, bargaining, and depression have run their course.

The Joy-Grief Paradox

The experience of joy and grief often comingle. When Halifax (2006) went to the desert to scour her heart out with sorrow, she brings with her letters and photos that remind her of the joy she experienced with her mother. Job cries out in anguish, in an attempt to understand why he has been forsaken by God (Job 7:20). This overwhelming sense of loss and suffering implies that Job’s former daily practice of faith brought joy to his life. These examples imply that grief would not be possible if joy had not been experienced.

Pilkington (2006) discusses the paradoxical relationship between joy-sorrow and grief and how they represent cycles of human becoming. This implies that the lived experience of human beings necessarily cycles between joy and grief, among many other emotional states. If this hypothesis is applied to Job, then his torment is a product of past joys lost and his hope that joy would someday return. This cycle is completed when God ends Jobs suffering and restores his former life (Job 42:12-16). Roshi Halifax (20060 was finally able to take the advice of the Tibetan monks and end the grieving process for the sake of her memories of her mother. This advice allows Halifax to make the transition from grieving to the next stage, which is acceptance of her mother’s death and the ascendance of her mother to ancestor status. The latter could be seen as a return to experiencing the joy of her mother, but now as ancestor.

Personal Views on Grief

Based on the above analysis, finding a path through grief to acceptance will be different for different people. Since most of us cannot attain the perspective of Buddha and skip the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression phases of grief, the most we can hope for is enough space for this process to progress naturally. Job found space with his friends, who were willing to sit with him day after day while he suffered unimaginable torment. Roshi Halifax found the space by scouring her heart in the New Mexico desert and a later trip to the Himalayas. The most we can hope for is to have family and friends strong enough to remain by our sides as we transition from joy to grief and back to joy.

My views have not changed as a result of my research, except to be more tolerant of how variable the grieving process can be for different individuals. Job’s grieving process was very messy, as was Roshi Halifax’s. The five stages of grief are not very predictable, as Kubler-Ross mentions (Kellehear, 2013), and often comingle with other emotions, including joy.


Byrne, Patricia Huff. (2002). “Give sorrow words”: Lament — contemporary need for Job’s old time religion. Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, 56(3), 255-264.

Halifax, Joan. (2006). A Buddhist’s perspective on grieving. Explore, 2(3), 260-261.

Kellehear, Allan. (2013). On Death and Dying: Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the Five Stages of Grief. Retrieved 18 Sep. 2013 from

Lyon, Deborah S. (2000). Before Kubler-Ross: Lessons about grief from the Book of Job. Obstetrics & Gynocology, 96(1), 151-152.

Pilkington, F. Beryl. (2006). On joy-sorrow: A paradoxical pattern of human becoming. Nursing Science Quarterly, 19(4), 290-291.

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