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Understanding Life's Most Difficult Times: The Death of a Loved One
Monday, January 23, 2023 by Dan R. Graham, LPC-S

 

“Mr. Schmuckitelly, my name is Officer Joe Smith. I’m sorry to inform you that your son, Jonny Schmuckitelly has died.” What typically follows then, is a short explanation that never satisfies the soul.

“Danny, this is Cousin Ann. My brother Larry died this morning about 7:30; they found him dead at the bottom of the stairs – probably a heart attack but we don’t know yet.” These near exact words were spoken to me several years ago, in 2008. Larry was the fourth sibling in his family to pass away in the last few years, not to mention both of his parents. My older brother died the year before. In 2022, Cousin Ann died too. Now, six out of seven siblings have passed on. Death has a way of interrupting life and ravaging families. No family is immune; not mine. Not yours.

Many of us have pondered how we would respond when WE hear those deafening and defining words – from a police officer, commander, coworker, chaplain, doctor, friend or relative. We hope the words never come, but we all know they do – sooner or later. And if they don’t come to us regarding a loved one, the words will go to them – regarding us. Death seems to be a lose-lose proposition; either we go first, and they bury us or somebody close to us goes before we do, and we bury them. Either way, no matter how you slice it, death disrupts close relationships. Once it comes upon a person, there is nothing anyone can do to change the outcome. Its permanency is unfathomable.   But, what about us? What about the living? What can we do to survive the darkness of our own burden of loss?

I approach this topic for the benefit of those who have lost a loved one. Some have lost a grandparent, spouse, child, or perhaps a pregnancy through abortion or miscarriage.  Some of us have lost a sibling or other relatives; the loss of a close lifelong friend can be equally devastating. Our individual, personal loss may not necessarily be focused upon the physical death of someone we love. It could be the loss of a relationship through divorce, separation, relocation of a close and respected friend or colleague, or even the demise of a beloved pet that we cared for and nurtured for so many years. In your family or circle of influence there is likely somebody coping with the loss of health, financial independence, of youth, of a career, or a host of other perceived calamities. There is no end to the list of possibilities.

This brief article is not meant to ‘fix’ anything or address every possible situation, but to give encouragement to those of us who are grieving in some way over a loss we have experienced. Most of the focus will concern those grieving the loss of a loved one. The overall premise, however, will be the same for any who are grieving, what ever the loss. The underlying message is one of hope - hope in God, in oneself, and hope in the future (Jer. 29:11). Hope gives us confidence that we can travel safely to the other side of the valley (Ps 23.4). As you read this essay, I invite you to refer to the Bible references cited in parenthesis. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, that’s fine. Look in a Bible’s Table of Contents to figure out what the abbreviations mean and where to find the reference given. There is much wisdom and encouragement in Scripture. For example, the Old Testament character Job suffered many unrelenting losses. He survives and prospers due to God’s unmitigated gift of grace being poured out in the middle of his tragedies. That same grace is available to us, even today.

With that brief introduction, let’s explore the heart wrenching experience of loss and grief.  According to June Hunt there are five stages of sorrow, or grief.[1] When heart breaking news comes, many people respond by denying its reality, hense denial is stage one. There seems to be a certain amount of solace in denying the reality of death or other great loss (Job 8:20). At best, the relief is temporary since denial is nothing more than a defense mechanism that serves to postpone emotional pain – pain that will, by its very nature, wait on us. It may wander off for a while, but not for long! It is inevitable. To deal effectively with the loss, we must first acknowledge it, regardless of what the loss is. We must recognize that our humanity comes with emotions that tend to spin us around repeatedly in our time of grief. Emotions tend to go from one extreme to the other and back again. If you’re not aware of the pending emotional roller coaster, it will take you by surprise and scare the wits out of you. You may even wonder if you are losing your mind; others around you may wonder too. But rest assured, you’re not losing it; nor are you abnormal. Your mind is simply trying to process recent (and maybe not so recent) events. While part of your mind is attempting to process and cope, the other part is attempting to protect and procrastinate the onslaught of emotional pain. At this point we may attempt to bargain with God to sidestep or mitigate the pain, stage two.

Some of us tend to bargain with God (Job 13: 20-21) when we are at our lowest emotional point, as if He were a flea market peddler. We attempt to make deals with God saying “God, if you do XYZ I will promise to do ABC or quit doing 1, 2, and 3.” The common cliché that says, ‘there are no atheists in fox holes’ is represented by the prayer, “God, if you only get me out of this situation” or “God, if you will only let my Johnny live, I will….” (fill in the blank). Certainly, God desires our fellowship and prayer, but His will is sovereign. He is not known to ‘make deals.’ It didn’t work for me and probably won’t for you either. He is known however, for His love and grace which he gives freely. He is willing and able to sustain us even in our darkest and loneliest of moments (1 Peter 5:7; Ps 91:2).

I’ve found relief by selecting a time and place of my own choosing, on a near daily basis, to allow the memories, pain, and sorrow to surface. It was a horrendous experience that occurred several times, but one that promoted my own emotional health and well-being. The intentional personal time allowed the emotion to express itself in a positive manner. Having a set 'appointment' not only allowed me the opportunity to focus on my loss during the appointed time but also gave me the freedom to focus on other things outside of that time - without feeling guilty that I had somehow abandoned or ignored the deceased. The process may sound a bit silly, but it’s a very effective and useful method to process grief.

The third stage is anger. Sometimes we become angry at God for allowing the circumstance (Job 10:1). We may become angry with ourselves or those around us, and for no apparent reason. Anger, in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing; it just seems to happen. Keep in mind that anger is an amoral emotion. It is neither good nor bad – it just is. Jesus himself became angry (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11: 15-19; Luke 19:45-46) when the religious leaders of the day were profiting from the temple worshipers. His anger was righteous and justified. He was angered but didn’t sin. We too can be angry and not sin (Eph. 4:26; James 1:19). It is the uncontrolled, unrighteous, and malicious anger that is destructive and wrong.

Anger can present itself in different ways. Fear for example, of one’s own mortality; the realization that we are mortal. Anger can mask guilt which may arise from some perceived wrong you may (or may not) have committed toward the deceased that you are no longer able to make right. Survivor’s guilt is occasionally experienced – guilt that the deceased died, and you didn’t. These are examples of feelings that can and do play havoc within the emotional makeup of many people. These emotions can be frustrating because they and the circumstances causing them are beyond one’s control. These feelings are normal also but should be addressed and reconciled. If not, they can lead to serious emotional issues later.

As a person slowly realizes the finality of the loss, feelings of despair may come in the form of depression (Job 7:16), stage four. This is where long term grief seems to take its hold. Questions concerning one’s future swirl all around. Nothing seems to make any sense; the more we ponder, the more confused we become. Slowly though, during stage five, we begin to experience acceptance of the loss for what it is (Job 42.5) and allow ourselves to grieve. We have lost someone near and dear to us. We have lost a longstanding relationship that will never, ever be the same. Those who say ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘time heals all wounds’ need not apply for a caregiver position at the local church. I don’t even know what that bone-headed statement means! Most of us don’t just ‘get over it’. But we do learn to live with the loss. To suggest a person ‘just get over it’ is to imply that the person we lost, and the relationship thereof was no big deal in the first place when, in fact, the person and relationship was very important to us. When we accept the inevitability of a permanent loss, we learn to live with the idea of it – to coexist with it. We are able then to acknowledge the loss while simultaneously appreciating the value, worth and impact the departed has had on us; we are also free to cherish their memory. The ongoing relationship has been severed, but the recollections have not. Each of us contributes to the lives of others. Though that special person may have passed away, his or her contribution into your life – and or your contribution into their life, will not. I have a picture in my office that reads “The only thing you will leave behind that has eternal value is that which you have invested in the lives of others.” So true it is. The value of a loving, wholesome relationship is not diminished by death.

Each of these stages are normal for a grief-ridden individual. These stages may come at different times and in a different order, but for most people, they will come. Often the grieving person may not realize what is happening. And even if they do, they may not know how they are ‘suppose to’ respond. To be clear, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, short of violent or destructive behavior. Each of us as individuals will process emotions differently. However, there are healthy, AND unhealthy ways to grieve. Suffice to say, refusing to grieve by maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip’ is not healthy. Long term benefit is never gained. Maintaining strict emotional equilibrium during the end of life situations, funeral planning process, and the funeral itself may be temporarily useful to maintain critical thinking necessary for wise decision-making. Once the business aspects are complete, attention to one’s own health and functionality should be a priority.  

We have touched on the emotional aspect of death, loss, and grief. What about the spiritual aspect? We will address those concerns from a biblical, theological perspective. You may want to ask similar questions of your pastor, priest, or other clergyman.

The spiritual aspect of physical death is where, ironically, true hope is realized. It is the doorway to one’s eternal destiny (Heb. 9:27). Physical death is the absence of corporeal life. It is the separation of the spirit and soul from the present physical body (James 2:26). It is inevitable (Ps 89:48). Each person’s life span is determined by the creator, God (Ps 139:16). Death is considered the last spiritual enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor.15:26) and generally speaking, the final earthly result of our collective and personal disobedience and rebellion toward God. That rebellious, sinful state separates us relationally from God. If death finds us unrepentant, we will remain separated from Him throughout eternity. An eternal, spiritual existence isolated from God (and others) is the natural consequence (Matt 25:41) we bring upon ourselves for rejecting God’s offer of forgiveness and fellowship (John 3.16-21).

The locale in which that isolation takes place is known as Hell. In a way, the logic is pretty simple. If a person rejects the offer of God’s forgiveness and fellowship while alive, that lack of forgiveness and fellowship will continue in death. But Hell is much more than isolation; it is a place of judgment and punishment brought upon the stiff-necked individual who rejects God’s preordained way of salvation.

In his infinite love and mercy, He provides us a way to escape His judgment upon our sin. God’s sense of justice demands that sin be punished, yet He loves the sinner who commits the sin. To reconcile this perceived dilemma, the dynamic between God’s justice and God’s love – God offered his sinless Son, Jesus (who is the Christ) as a gift to us that He might suffer the consequence of our sin, on our behalf. As with any gift however, the intended recipient must accept the gift when the opportunity arises. In accepting the gift, God expects us to confess (or admit) to the sin we have committed, and ask for His forgiveness, which He freely gives. He then expects us to turn away from willful disobedience so we can experience the eternal forgiveness and fellowship He offers through Jesus Christ. Herein lies the Christian concept of salvation.

God offered salvation freely via Jesus Christ when Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; 1 Peter 3:18).  According to the New Testament, salvation can not be earned by our works or good deeds. (Eph. 2:8-10). All we can do is receive the gift by faith. It has been offered to each of us. We choose to accept the gift of fellowship and salvation, or we don’t. We can pay the penalty for our own sin, or we can ask Jesus Christ to be our substitute. One of us will suffer the cost – Him or the individual. That is what the cross is all about. It is substitutionary. Jesus is willing to be our substitute and assume our consequence via the cross – or we can assume the penalty for ourselves upon our death. When Christ rose from the grave, he conquered death and the dismal defeat it represents. That is what Easter celebrates – victory over death, over sin, and eternal redemption for sinners. God made the offer; Jesus paid the price; we must choose.

Salvation concerns the idea of being saved from something, eternal Hell. It also implies the idea of being saved to something, eternal Heaven. The Bible teaches that physical death is the doorway to eternity – to Heaven or Hell, to hope or to hopelessness. The questions people consider at this point concern Heaven and Hell. Their concern seems to take on a sense of urgency at funerals when their own mortality is brought unwillingly to their consciousness.

Briefly then, the Bible teaches that Hell is eternal separation from God, from His love, fellowship and person. It is a place of regret for the willful refusal to accept the gift of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ (Matt. 25:41). Hell is also a place of eternal punishment which involves physical, emotional, and spiritual torment (Rev. 14:11). It is a place of fire without light, a place of eternal darkness. On the other hand, Heaven is just the opposite in many ways. God has created Heaven to be what he intended Eden to be (Gen 1 & 2) – Paradise. It is an eternal existence in which perfect holiness reigns. It is an absence of evil and pain (Gen. 2:8). It is a place of perpetual rest (not sleep) whereby the redeemed are at peace with God and with all others enjoying the same reward (Rev. 21:3-4). It is likened unto a wedding feast, a celebration with God himself being our host (Rev. 19:7). Heaven is the House of the Lord where believers are welcomed to dwell with a sense of belonging and intimacy with God and others (John 14:2).

The whole subject of death, Heaven and Hell make some people squeamish. Many people have questions concerning their future. The Bible is replete with answers, some of which we don’t want to hear, i.e., God’s judgment, Hell, damnation, etc. Other biblical themes are more encouraging  – God’s love and mercy, grace, Heaven, eternal fellowship, etc. What may be comforting is the knowledge that the same omniscient God created both Heaven and Hell and He did so for specific purposes – one for reward and the other for judgement. Both ideas and places are equally valid. Having trusted oneself to God’s loving care through Jesus Christ offers much comfort to believers throughout their life and particularly at the time of death. Believers in Christ have the hope that they will see Him and each other again. Yet, those who have rejected or neglected God’s offer of fellowship and salvation don’t have such an assurance. Death appears to be a hopeless end in itself; alas, physical death is paramount to eternal death. If one is not destined for Heaven, according to Scripture, there is only one other alternative.

It is my hope that this article has brought you some level of understanding concerning the subjects of death and the related emotions of grief, pain, loss, eternity, and the hope that can accompany them.

We at Homestead Hope Counseling stand ready to assist you in any way we can. Feel free to call us should he have the need.

We offer help today so that you can have hope for tomorrow.

 

[1] June Hunt, Biblical Counseling Keys; Death

Article First Published 2008; Updated 2019, 2023

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