Recently I suffered the death of a loved one – a terrible, painful and traumatic experience. It’s one that changes one’s life forever, making clear why the Bible called Death the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). The path from bereavement to recovery could certainly be called, in the words of the psalmist, “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). The closer you are to the deceased, the greater the suffering is likely to be.
All of us will lose a loved one at some point in life, and we will grieve that loss. Grief is actually the work of undoing the bonds that built the relationship. Loss and grieving are a natural part of life, but more often than not we are ill-prepared for it. The process requires time, work, and the facing of much pain. Some forms of bereavement can be particularly devastating, such as the loss of a spouse, a child, a parent (when one is still a child) and a loss to suicide.
In my family’s case, the loved one was terminally ill, and family members experienced anticipatory grief – the process of coming to terms with the potential or impending loss.
When a loved one dies, the bereaved person usually goes through three phases:
- Shock and denial. Often the initial reaction to a loss, shock protects the bereaved person from being too suddenly overwhelmed by the loss. Shock may last minutes, hours or days
- Suffering and yearning. This is the long period of grief during which the bereaved person gradually comes to terms with the loss. It is characterised by feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety and despair. These feelings may erupt suddenly and without warning, even after a period of relative calm. Even though one knows intellectually for some time that the loved one will not be coming back, it has taken much longer for that fact to become emotionally real. Research points to an increased risk of illness and even death after bereavement, especially for elderly persons who have lost a spouse or partner.
- Recovery. The goal of grieving is not to eliminate all the pain or memories of a loss, but rather to reorganise one’s life, so that the loss is one albeit important part, rather than the focus of life. It is a time in which life slowly comes back into focus; in which a purpose for living is slowly reborn; when one may begin to make some kind of sense out of what occurred. There is no single, predictable timetable for grieving. It may take months – or years – for the pain to subside.
We need support when we are grieving – even if we don’t know it. It’s fundamentally human to seek comfort at a time of loss. Most of us turn to family and friends, who provide us with the bulk of our support, but they may not always know how to support us when we’re grieving, especially if they too are grieving.
Responding to death can be awkward, uncomfortable and even frightening. As such, friends and family may avoid the subject, avoid the bereaved person, or try to ‘fix’ how the bereaved person feels. Statements such as, “You must be strong”, or “It’s good that she didn’t suffer”, while well meaning, can actually hinder the grieving process. Additionally, many people have the misconception that bereaved people should completely recover within months, often quoting Bible verses like “Rejoice always”, “All things work together for good”, “In everything give thanks”.
The most crucial item at this point is a bereaved person’s belief system. What a person has always believed about God, life and the world has just received the greatest possible challenge in the face of the death of this loved one. Suddenly, life no longer seems safe, secure or understandable. Where was God? Why didn’t He prevent this? Doesn’t He care? The person may say: “I always believed He would protect my family and me from such things. What happened?” Since the belief system is undergoing such an assault, it’s easy to understand why the word ‘despair’ is also used to describe this period.
Grief and belief are not mutually exclusive. Grief is an appropriate response to death, even for the believer. There is ‘a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance’ (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
Writing to the believers at Thessalonica, Paul urges them to consider the promise of the Lord’s return and the resurrection which will then take place: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Notice that Paul doesn’t use the hope of the coming of the Lord as a reason to avoid grief. Rather, he points out that a believer need not grieve as though there is no hope. In other words, Christian grief has a definite end. Its end is in the hope of the appearing of Christ.
It seems clear that people in Scripture sorrowed, mourned and grieved at times of loss. Should less be expected of contemporary Christians in their times of bereavement?
New Jerusalem Church