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:
- Denial: sometimes shock precedes the attempt to avoid the inevitable.
- Anger: this is often a deep expression of inner frustration.
- Bargaining: in this stage, individuals seek any option as a way out of the dilemma.
- Depression: those in grief experience sorrow from realizing the inevitable.
- 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?
- For a Christian physician’s evaluation of NDEs, see Michael Sabom, Light and Death: One Doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences.
- For a Christian apologetics evaluation of NDEs, see Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality.
- For a philosophical discussion of death in light of Jesus’s resurrection, see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, chapters 1 and 2.
- On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (book)
- The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying by Lynne Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland (book)
- 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.
- 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.