American culture does not deal well with the reality of death. Most people live in denial of it. We pretend it will never happen to us or to someone we love. When death touches our life in some way, most of us don’t know how to act, what to say or how to grieve.
In other cultures death is accepted and confronted in all its reality. It used to be more so in our recent past. People would be cared for at home and often die there. The body would be viewed and the wake held at home over perhaps a few days. All would go to the cemetery, and watch as the body would be placed into the ground and buried. Now we have sanitized the whole death and burial process, and many things are kept out of sight. The intent is to soften the cold reality of death but are we really helping people?
One thing that cannot be softened is the hard pain of loss and grief. People are not allowed to grieve for months. Life has to go on and everyone has to quickly get back to their normal routines. We think people are doing well if they don’t show much emotion or grief. They are even celebrated for being “strong.”
What is healthy grieving? How do we come to terms with the painful losses of life? What is God’s view about our grief? If life is primarily about relationships, how do we cope with the loss of a major life relationship? Let us look at how to deal with death’s realities from different levels.
The theology of death
Death is a life reality “…It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9.27). Death is
an enemy, for we were created by God to live forever. Death is part of the curse of sin. (Genesis 2.17; Romans 6.23) So what happens to us when we die? Is there life after death?
Well first of all consider the view that nothing happens, you just cease to exist — death ends it all. If this is true, what is the purpose of life for “You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4.14). What does it matter the few short years we exist. As Paul said, in regards to there being no resurrection, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If all we have is this life then this life is all vanity or emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1.12).
The Apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 to give us a proper theology or perspective on death and what happens when we die. He didn’t want us to be ignorant about such an important event. We will have sorrow and grief at the loss of a loved one; this is normal. Even Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, a friend He greatly loved (John 11.35). However, the grief of a believer is different; it has hope. Death is not the end; it is just a temporary goodbye. Absent from the body the believer is home with the Lord awaiting the resurrection. When the trumpet sounds the dead in Christ will rise first and believers, alive at His coming, will have their mortal bodies changed into their immortal resurrected bodies. All will be caught up to be together forever with the Lord. These truths are the source of great comfort to us while we await the resurrection and reunion with our loved ones and Lord.
Dealing with the pain of loss
Even though we have this certain hope of the resurrection and eternal life, it still hurts to lose a loved one. Grief is painful, and when you are experiencing grief, it will seem like it will last forever. Your life is transitioning from an old normal to a new normal, and it does not want to make the transition. It wants the old normal along with the loved one back. Grief is about letting go of the old normal and being able to accept the new normal. It doesn’t mean you quit missing the loved one. It does mean you reach a resolution and accept the old normal is gone and are able to move forward in the new normal.
A part of grieving is emotionally processing through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining or the ‘what ifs,’ sadness depression and finally resolution. It takes time, a willingness to identify your losses and grieve each one.
People grieve differently and at different speeds. There is no one right way to grieve — the greater the loss the longer the grief. Don’t allow others to impose their timetable for grief on you. Grieving the loss of a mate or child can take one to two years. The first year is very hard because everything is the “first” time without the person being there. Some losses are more complicated than others such as a suicide and are more difficult to process through.
Do not be afraid to get help in your grief. It can keep you from getting stuck in the grieving process. With God’s grace and the help of a grief counselor you can make it through. Give yourself time, and allow yourself to feel the emotions of grief. Eventually the fog of grief will lift, the sun will shine again, and you will move forward in life’s new normal.
Dr. John D. Hawkins, Sr. and his son, John Jr. run Gateway Counseling Center in Boynton Beach. They can be reached by visiting gatewaycounseling.com.