The Big Questions of Life: Death and Grief, Part 2

He's having a rough time

When thinking through the big questions of life, we must include honest reflection about our mortality. Just as we are born, so also shall we die. Medical technology may lengthen the human life span somewhat, but it will not succeed in curing or eliminating death. So while it isn’t always easy to think soberly and realistically about our inevitable demise, the living of a truly reflective life requires it.

Yet for those who embrace the historic Christian world-and-life view, there is deep strength and comfort to be found in the biblical message that this life is only the beginning of true and eternal life. Because Jesus Christ conquered death in his resurrection, all who know him as Lord and Savior will also rise on the last day.

Hear Jesus’s words regarding his power to raise the dead and the great resurrection to come:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:25–27)

In part 1 of this series, I discussed my enduring interest in coming to grips with death as well as provided an introduction to the five stages of grief. In this second part, I will offer some philosophical and theological reflections upon these common mental and emotional stages that define aspects of our grief.

To all people who are grieving, let me say that it is of critical importance to seek out professional medical, psychological, and spiritual assistance during this challenging time. My reflections given here are intended from a merely philosophical and theological point of view.

The Five Stages of Grief

Again, psychiatrist and thanatology (the study of death and dying) expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the five stages of grief in her groundbreaking writings on the topic. This five-stage model applies to people who are facing a terminal illness as well as to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Brief Reflections on the Stages

1. Denial

According to the scholarly literature on the topic of death and dying, many people avoid thinking about their mortality. That is understandable since death is a mysterious and scary reality. But of course, death is not a matter of if but rather when. So reflecting upon the big issues of life, including death, can lessen the shock and state of denial that so often accompanies the grieving process. Nevertheless, even a philosopher like me who had spent many years reflecting upon death was numb when my doctor told me that I had a potentially life-threatening illness.1 We can theoretically know that we’re going to die, but it is another thing entirely to hear your doctor say, “Get your house in order.”

The word “death” seems to always carry a jolt that we’re not quite ready to hear and process. Yet Scripture tells us plainly the bad news: “the wages of sin is death.” Thankfully, the same verse goes on to reveal the good news: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

2. Anger

When death’s shadow makes an appearance either in our life or in the lives of our loved ones, it is easy to feel the sting of a seeming unfairness. “Why me?” “Why him/her?” Anger often results when our deepest desires are not satisfied. And many people face lots of suffering in life only to be followed by an early death. The challenging problem of pain and suffering can leave anyone angry at God or at providence.

However, historic Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ, the divine-human Messiah, came into the world and suffered with and for human beings. The basic Christian response to the problem of pain and suffering is that God in his love and sovereignty brings good out of the challenging and difficult circumstances of life.2 Contemplating these great philosophical and theological truths can help to soften the raw emotion of anger that so often accompanies grief. Yet every grieving person may have to experience a season of anger.

In part three of this series, I will offer reflections upon the other three stages of grief.

Reflections: Your Turn 

What promises and assurances does the Christian worldview offer believers in light of death? How do you go about helping someone who is grieving?

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. For a defense of God’s goodness in light of evil and suffering, see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), chapters 13 and 14.

  One thought on “The Big Questions of Life: Death and Grief, Part 2

    • July 4, 2017 at 8:59 am

      Thanks for the reblog.

      Ken Samples

  1. July 4, 2017 at 7:17 am

    I think that these stages very according to the individual. For example, for others the stages might go more like this:

    1. Confusion
    2. Painful grief
    3. Trust in God; hanging on to his promises even when everything seems lost
    4. Spiritual growth
    5. Deeper faith

    That’s how I personally responded to a tragedy in my life that occurred 12 years ago. I think stage 3 was largely a process of the will and taking action; mostly by seeking wise Christian help and submerging myself in scripture.

    • July 4, 2017 at 9:02 am

      Thank you for your comments, William. I appreciate your insights concerning grief.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  2. Rita
    July 11, 2017 at 9:40 am

    My experience was similar to that of williamfrancisbrown above. And a Christian worldview made all the difference in my intense grief. What helped was the friendship and love of friends coming alongside; two words from Christian friends of God’s future blessing in the situation that anchored in my soul like a direct promise of hope from God, not just easy platitudes, (and did eventually come to pass); and the knowledge that I could speak with God honestly – at times, angrily – and realized that God was still loving me and never leaving. I would hope to be that same kind of support to others as they were to me, knowing that there is a God who loves us, One who makes all things work for good for us who love Him, and One we can trust for a future with Him here and forever-after.

    • July 11, 2017 at 9:49 am

      Very thoughtful comments, Rita. C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves describes friendship as a special form of love.

      Romans 8:28 is a precious promise especially during the valleys of life. I’m glad the Lord has restored your joy.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

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