This past week a beloved leader of one of our churches passed away, and my father, one of my best friends, was put on hospice. Neither one of the illnesses seem to be Covid related, but they did thrust me personally into the heartache that many in our nation are facing right now with the illness and loss of loved ones. In a culture of affluence, and amazing technologies, we get used to controlling the world around us in ways that increase our comfort and ease. We push a button and our house cools, avoiding record April heat. He turn a key and we can speed down the road to get food brought to our towns from Chile, Australia and France. Most of our lives we are able to ignore the unpleasant reality of dying. But as the scriptures say in Job 5:7, “Man is born to trouble, as sparks fly upward.” Just as a fire will inevitably produce orange specks in the rising smoke and ash, so will the human life produce times of suffering and eventually death. These difficulties are compounded when we believe the modern western narrative that suffering can be avoided and death can be delayed. If we expect not to suffer, it makes the suffering even more difficult. When early followers of Jesus were suffering for their faith, St. Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal… as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12). Hardship in this life is the lot of humanity, but we don’t have to fear it.
In Kübler-Ross’ classic study, On Death and Dying, she observes the 5 stages that often accompany the dying process. These stages can be experienced by the dying person, their loved ones, and their care givers. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They don’t necessarily come in order, and individuals experience these cycles differently. But they can be helpful ways of processing and talking about an issue that is difficult for many people. The denial stage includes the initial shock, and sometimes avoidance, of losing a loved one. One of the difficulties that I experienced in the past week was the realization that sometimes you lose a loved one long before they take their last breath. I wasn’t prepared for that, and it thrust me into this stage of grief. During the anger stage it is common to experience irritability and anxiety. Why couldn’t something have been done about this? The bargaining stage includes a search to make sense of the situation. It can be assisted by reaching out to others and sharing the story of what you’ve gone through with your loved one’s death. The depression stage can include feeling overwhelmed by facing life without your loved one, feeling helpless, hostility or a desire to disappear behind closed doors. If we know that this a natural part of mourning and grief, it can keep us from despair when we go through these feelings. The acceptance stage entails having a new plan to carry on. Options are explored and some traction is gained with finding a different way forward.
When the stages of grief are explained, they may seem neat and orderly, but they are nothing of the sort. CS Lewis explained it well in A Grief Observed,
“For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
Truly the loss of a loved one is an amputation of sorts. We have lost a part of ourselves when the other has died. And there is no easy way to avoid this suffering for those that have given part of their heart to another. When we consider death in light of the Christian faith, there is some comfort in the conviction that death isn’t the end. There is the promise of eternal life for those in Christ. But maybe what is more helpful when we are in the grieving process, is to hear God say through tears, “I’ve lost a child. My only Son died. I understand what you’re going through.”