One of the few things that is certain in life is that everyone will die at some point. Recently, we had a funeral for a 96-year-old woman who had been very active in the church. Her death had been coming for a while. Not every death is expected. We lost a beloved soccer coach last week who was only in his 60’s. His death was a complete shock. One of our deacons died this week and that was a complete surprise.
Over the years in my own family the age of death has varied. Most have been people in their 70’s or 80’s but my great-grandmother lived to be 102. On the young side, one of my cousins had a new-born baby die.
Sometimes death can be expected. In the case of my great-grandmother at 102 it had been expected for a while. Her death was relatively easy to bear. My mother died when she was 63. She had emphysema for a number of years so in one respect her death was expected but it didn’t seem to make it any easier.
Other times death can be completely unexpected as was the case this past week in the parish with the coach and the deacon. An unexpected death can bring shock. It may not seem real. We might ask how can this be? It’s called denial.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief that may occur when we loose a loved one. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first thing to realize with these stages is they can occur in any order and in different magnitudes. We may find ourselves bouncing between stages. Each person grieves differently and it also depends on who we are grieving.
When a person dies unexpected the denial can be especially strong because it doesn’t seem possible. Yet, we might also be in “denial” about the death of someone we knew was going to die soon. We don’t want to have to admit they are no longer with us. With the expected death we might be angry if we think the person didn’t fight hard enough. In an unexpected death from an accident, we might have anger towards the person who caused the accident (even if it is the person who died). We need to move past the anger.
We can face depression because of the loss of a loved one. We’re depressed because they aren’t with us. Sadness is always normal but when it lingers and affects us long-term it can be depression.
When we speak of the stage of acceptance, I don’t think we are talking about the “fact” of their death. The “fact” of their death is medically determined and when we see their body at the funeral, it seems obvious that they are dead but that doesn’t mean that we accept their death in the sense that we aren’t ready to make any changes that might come because our loved one is deceased. We want live to be the same. Not every death requires us to change anything about our lives but when we make any changes in a healthy way, we are accepting the death.
Our Christian Faith is a vital part of how we face death. Before Jesus death was seen as a final end. There was no real understanding of death after life. Death was final. In his own death, Jesus gave us a new perspective on death and through his Resurrection Jesus shows that death is not our final end. God has something far better waiting for us in the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus changed the way we look at death. Jesus’ death and resurrection gives us hope.
If you like to read books on spirituality I would suggest “Here On the Way to There” by William H. Shannon (St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, OH, 2005). It is where I first learned about Kubler-Ross’s five stages of the dying process.