This post might get a bit heavy - not heavy in the "I can't lift it" sort of way, but heavy in the "that's serious" sort of way. Now that you have been warned, let's dive in.
Years ago Elizabeth Kübler-Ross made the phrase 'death and dying' popular (I've always thought it should be dying and death - I mean don't they come in that order more often than not?). The fame of her work and the mission of the resulting organization - now widely known as Hospice - has brought many of the issues around death and grief to the forefront. In her trend setting "Stages of Grief" model, Kübler-Ross has helped us understand that all people must travel through grief (to a great or lesser degree) when faced with a significant loss. Our grief journey isn't usually direct, neat or painless - but it is necessary. I've included a brief recap of the 5 Stages of Grief at the end of this post - since I know you are
Here's the deal. People with a theistic worldview often turn to god-talk to try and deal with grief - quickly. The guiltiest of this are those of us who are looking from the outside-in at someone else's grief. Our thoughts and comments seem loving and well intended (yes. We all the road to hell is paved with good intentions). Ever hear or say one of these:
"We can take comfort that they are in a better place now."
"It is part of God's larger plan."
"I know he/she will be celebrating in heaven tonight."
"At least they aren't suffering anymore."
"He/she's with Jesus now."
Sound familiar? What could possibly be wrong with saying stuff like this? Two BIG problems.
First these are statements that are being claimed from the outside of grief and most likely are disconnected from the current experience of the grieving person. It isn't typically helpful to others - and most likely is an expression of our own difficulty dealing with the complex and uncomfortable emotions and concepts surrounding loss, death and our effort to understand the world. It is, in a way, like telling the child who just dropped their only cookie into the mud that "That's the way the cookie crumbles." We might as well say, "Get over it, kid." We need to be allowed to move through each step of grief - not challenged to jump to the end.
Secondly, when we toss around well meaning references to our perceived larger truths, we may be assuming the person even has a similar faith tradition. In a recent article in USA Today | News, an atheist's perspective on well meaning people of faith bring this to reality.
"We are facing an absolute loss, so when someone projects onto that the idea that we are going to be able to hold our children again or communicate with them, it is essentially dismissing the magnitude of that loss." - Rebecca Hensler
Common respect for another's belief should give us pause before laying down well meaning platitudes. My point (and I thank you for hanging on to my ramblings long enough for me to make it) is that we should approach discussions about dying and death "with fear and trembling" and thus, a high measure of respect. I would suggest we allow ourselves to be in the real and necessary discomfort grief - with the grieving. Perhaps we can learn another phrase or two:
"I know grief is hard."
"Death is tough to deal with - more than we usually imagine."
"My heart hurts with your loss."
"I can't know what you are feeling, and I want to help in any way I can."
I remember when a good friend and mentor of mine died. I was speaking to his widow a few days after his death and said, "I know this is a hard time and that there really isn't anything I can say or do to make it better, but is there anything little thing you need?" She looked at me a said, "Yes. Bananas." I must have looked surprised, because she started to smile and then we both laughed. Truly, she needed bananas to make a recipe for her son's school the next day. Sometimes, the best thing we can do to help people through their grief and for ourselves - is to just walk through the days with them. Bananas. Go figure.
The 5 Stages of Grief, popularly known by the acronym DABDA, include:
1. Denial — "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."
Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death.
2. Anger — "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; '"Who is to blame?"
Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy.
3. Bargaining — "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."
The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand I will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time..."
4. Depression — "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die soon so what's the point... What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"
During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.
5. Acceptance — "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."
In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event.