The Big Questions of Life: Death and Grief, Part 1

Flowers tied to tree, road in background

This might sound a little strange or even morbid to some, but I am captivated by the topic of death. The first Catholic funeral I attended as a boy fascinated me. I’ll never forget the elaborate Funeral Mass, the foreboding casket lying near the altar, and the priest’s liberal use of incense, which filled the church with a pleasant aroma. The graveside service that followed was also deeply moving as the cemetery struck me as hallowed ground with headstones that bore the names and dates of people who had lived and died before me.

When I was in college, I spent a summer working at a cemetery. Along with performing lawn maintenance, I worked as a gravedigger, which involved a lot of shovel work for me in support of the tractor that actually dug the graves. I was present at many graveside services where I observed people grieving for their dead loved ones. There was of course a lot of sadness and tears but sometimes also expressions of anger and frustration. People express their public grief in various ways.

As a young college instructor, I taught a philosophy course entitled Thanatology: Perspectives on Death and Dying. I taught this course multiple times over about a five-year period. In the class I would cover, among other things, how the world’s religions view death, the controversial topic of near-death experiences (NDEs), and the practical issues of how human beings confront their mortality and experience the dying process. In the research process of preparing my lectures and in the actual teaching of the class, I hoped I would come to a deeper understanding of the reality of death. My thought was that honest reflection upon death would help me live a more authentic life.

I have also thought that by deeply reflecting upon death and looking at it directly in the eye, at least philosophically speaking, I would lose my fear of death and gain the critical life virtue of courage. But when I experienced an actual life-threatening illness in 2003 (a rare bacterial infection caused multiple lung and brain lesions), I struggled with fear and anxiety. However, most of the dread was due to the thought of leaving my wife and my then three young children. I suspect that the development of the virtues needed to confront death with courage and resolve must be aided by heavy doses of divine grace.1

The Stages or Cycle of Grief

One of the topics that captured my interest in studying thanatology is known as the five stages or cycle of grief. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, renowned psychiatrist and author of the classic text On Death and Dying,2 popularized the idea of understanding the grieving process in five stages (though others have later used a seven-stage model).

Kübler-Ross’s five-stage model applies to people who are facing their own impending death as well as to those who are grieving the loss of others. Here’s the five-stage model with brief descriptions:

  1. Denial: sometimes shock precedes the attempt to avoid the inevitable.
  2. Anger: this is often a deep expression of inner frustration.
  3. Bargaining: in this stage, individuals seek any option as a way out of the dilemma.
  4. Depression: those in grief experience sorrow from realizing the inevitable.
  5. Acceptance: as realistic solutions don’t pan out, an acceptance of what lies ahead is gained.

Kübler-Ross didn’t necessarily intend for the stages to be understood in a strictly linear or chronological order. Rather, these powerful mental and emotional states often accompany the grief process. It might be better to think of the stages as a common cycle of grief.

To all those who are grieving, let me take this time to strongly recommend seeking out professional medical, psychological, and spiritual assistance during this difficult time—it is of critical importance. All people need help in navigating the big challenges of life and death.

In parts two and three of this series, I will offer further exploration of the five stages and provide some philosophical and theological reflections on each one.

Reflections: Your Turn

How often do you think about death? Do you agree that there are benefits to be had in life from contemplating death?

Resources

Endnotes

  1. For my own thoughts about what I think it means to die well, see my book Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking about the End Times (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2013), appendix B, 63–66.
  2. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926–2004) was an insightful psychiatrist and performed groundbreaking work in the field of death studies. While her work on researching NDEs is insightful, she personally embraced a mystical worldview and described encounters with various spirit realities. Her spiritual conclusions about NDEs and the spiritual realm overall seem at places to be clearly at odds with that of Christian scholars who have written on the topic.

  One thought on “The Big Questions of Life: Death and Grief, Part 1

  1. June 20, 2017 at 6:46 am

    This was a great post. Personally, I think about death almost continuously – at least it’s always in the background and it’s just there looming and one can never escape it. This mortal coil is such a brief flicker. I have had this feeling since I was about 5 years old, about the age that I could reason, and prior to my Christian conversion, I had a very morbid dread of death, which still surfaces at times.

    The fact of our mortality also reinforces just how miraculous is the fact that we are here right now and that we exist at all.

    Ken, this struck me as very much a classical Stoic idea….
    “….by deeply reflecting upon death and looking at it directly in the eye, at least philosophically speaking, I would lose my fear of death and gain the critical life virtue of courage…”
    I believe that this does not really work, and that at a deeper level we just cannot ever have total peace with the thought that we will be forever gone from the world. I for one, have honest doubts at times about the truth of eternal salvation – our complete erasure from eternity is a very scary thought.
    Only strong faith can overcome it – but this kind of faith is not always easy to come by. But, I believe that only Christian faith can fully approach the question of death and afterlife. Other worldviews fall short here.

    –Wm. Francis Brown MD
    Forest, VA

    • June 20, 2017 at 9:41 am

      Dr. Brown:

      I appreciate your comments. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has had such an awareness of death.

      Thanks for the comment about my attempted Stoic response. I agree with you that it doesn’t work. May the Lord grant us a deeper faith and courage to encounter death. Best regards.

    • June 20, 2017 at 5:33 pm

      Thanks for the mention.

      Ken Samples

  2. June 20, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    I’ve been fascinated with the aspect of death in our culture, too. As a culture, we all seem to try and keep death behind closed doors; we don’t want to remember that it is our fate, like it or not.

    Years ago, I stumbled upon a NPR show about Hospice Care workers and their experiences with the dying. A book was written on the topic called “Final Gifts.” I highly recommend taking a look at that book, too. The stories these workers tell are just amazing!

    Since then, I’ve read about a half-dozen books on NDEs, and can’t seem to get enough of those stories, either. Thanks for a very interesting blog post!

    • June 20, 2017 at 5:31 pm

      Appreciate your comments, Lisa.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  3. Dr. Jacques LaFrance
    June 20, 2017 at 7:57 pm

    Please check out my new book A Composite Portrait of Heaven. It integrates the experiences of 19 people who experienced heaven and told about their experiences as recorded in 16 different books. In it you will find a composite picture of what heaven is like, a more extensive description than that in most other books. Because of the consistency of the different eyewitnesses, it should answer any questions about these experiences being hallucinations. It will give you a better perspective on death and what comes next for the followers of Jesus. It should help alleviate most fears of death. But I also report on seven experiences of hell, and those should genuinely cause a great fear of death.

    • June 20, 2017 at 8:41 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Doctor.

      Ken Samples

  4. Chase
    June 26, 2017 at 7:31 am

    As a hospital physician, I think about death and dying on a daily basis. I help patients and families think about and work through this topic as well. What a tough, emotionally charged topic to engage in, especially in the midst of the stress of a hospitalization.

    The opportunity for preparedness is a major benefit to contemplating death and dying.

    Those who have thought about death and dying can create an advance directive to help dictate their care when they’re incapacitated. They can discuss their medical conditions and medical philosophy with their family, so there are fewer surprises and fewer intrafamilial conflicts when the patient’s health declines. It can allow for a structure to clearly think through decisions ethically and logically, with a level head.
    As opposed to those who don’t think about it and don’t prepeare, death, or at least the prospect of it, comes almost as a surprise. Decisions seem to be made desparately and with less certainty.

    I think the ethical issues that come up with end of life care are difficult to navigate without some thoughtfulness on death and dying. Again, near death is an emotionally charged time that tends to lead to chaos and poor decision making if it’s not reigned in. Pre-thought allows for clear/straight thinking that you can fall back on in the midst of the storm.

    Boldness and a sense of urgency for evangelism are also benefits of pondering death. This is important when you encounter people on a daily basis who are at the end of their lives. Having thought about death and dying and the consequences of dying without knowing The Savior, excuses fall to the ground. I’m frequently the last encounter they have with a believer who can proclaim the gospel to them in an otherwise dark time in their life. How do I do this effectively? How do I do this thoughtfully and tactfully, but also boldly? Eternity is on the line for them and there isn’t time to beat around the bush. Thinking about death and dying helps motivate me to prepare for these encounters.

    I’m glad you brought up the stages of grief. If you haven’t thought or experienced much regarding death and dying, these stages can come as a surprise as you experience them in yourself or others. Thinking through this topic gives you the opportunity to gain some perspective and address these stages appropriately. It would otherwise be easy to be off-put by these reactions and emotions or think something is wrong with you. Understanding gives you recognition and with recognition you can seek to help those who are grieving appropriately and without condemnation or seek help yourself as you move through the stages.

    The consequences of this topic are the hardest part of my job. Even with the amount of brain time I’ve put into it, the topic of death and dying is hard. The weight of responsibility I feel for others during these times and the desire to do what is pleasing to the Lord can be weighty.

    Thank you for your ministry.

    • June 26, 2017 at 9:49 am

      Dear Chase:

      Thank you for reading my article and for your thoughtful comments on the challenges you face as a hospital physician. Death and dying is a major life topic that needs to be reflected upon medically, philosophically, and theologically. I’m glad you are able to offer advice and counsel to people who desperately need it in a crisis situation.

      The stages of grief are difficult to navigate without some awareness of the phenomenon. Making decisions in a crisis about matters of death and dying is extremely difficult. I think churches would be wise to offer counsel and classes in thinking through death and dying issues.

      May the Lord continue to guide you and use you in your unique calling. You have a special ministry in caring for people medically and spiritually.

      I’ve got two more parts to this series coming in upcoming weeks. Please keep up your critical work as a doctor and as a Christian.

      My very best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  5. Rita
    July 3, 2017 at 10:34 am

    I’m entering this discussion late, having been out of town several weeks. Before the tragic death of my younger son’s bride of seven weeks, I hadn’t thought much about death except from observing it and reading about it, with little feeling. Then came the awful news in the middle of the night that my darling daughter-in-law was on the way to emergency and my son’s plea to please pray for her. Never did any of us think this was a life-and death situation (she died suddenly of a blood clot). My son was heart-broken and we in the family suffered along with him over the devastation – a marriage we thought was heaven-sent. I experienced what grief was like (horrendous) and labeled my life as “before Kimberly died” and “after Kimberly died.” I never had thoughts of dis-believing God, but I had some hissy fits with him with accusations of “how could You let this happen?!” I read many books on grief and the one that spoke to me most was C.S. Lewis,’ A Grief Observed. And someone’s article about God being Omniscient and I am not. That settled it for me, but I had difficulty with capturing joy in my life again. I thank God it has returned. And I understand the horror of death and it not being God’s original plan. I think the casualness of showing death in most TV programs and movies shows how little people understand it.

    • July 3, 2017 at 11:19 am

      Thank you, Rita, for sharing a little about your pain and sorrow. I’m so sorry for your loss.

      Your before and after comment is so descriptive of intense grief. I’m glad the joy of the Lord has returned.

      Thank you for reading my articles. I have two more articles on this subject coming over the next couple of weeks.

      With my best regards.

      Ken Samples

  6. Bob
    July 3, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    I think about death almost every day, and I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with me because of that. I’m 64 and mostly healthy, but I regularly think of what stuff I should get rid of so that whoever has to to clean up after I’m gone doesn’t have too much to deal with.

    • July 3, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      Hello, Bob. You’re not alone in your acute awareness of your mortality. Some of us are reflective in that way.

      I have two more articles in this series coming up in the next couple of weeks. I hope you’ll give them a read.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

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