The Edge of Life - Dying,
Death and Euthanasia

John R. Ling (2002). Day One, Epsom.

288 pp., £9.00.   ISBN 1 903087 30 9.

Chapter 26   Loss and bereavement

Losses are a function of human life—we are all acquainted with them.
Everyone has already lost yesterday, our childhood has also long
gone, and by now, many of life’s opportunities have vanished. But do
not let this sort of introspection make you miserable. Come on—we still
have today, we have put away childish things, and new prospects and
horizons are before us. Those notwithstanding, we must admit that
growing old brings with it a unique set of losses. They may be work-related,
such as fading job satisfaction. They may be due to retirement and
therefore include losses of a working role, the social aspects of
employment, income, and so forth. They may also be due to declining
health, like sensory losses, mental losses, physical incapacities, losses of
independence, and the like.

26.1 Loss as bereavement
And decisively, there is the loss associated with death—bereavement. This
experience is common to all men, women and children, Christian and non-Christian.
If you have not experienced it yet, you will. It can be potentially
dangerous to our health—as many as a third of bereaved people develop a
depressive illness, albeit, mostly of a temporary nature. However,
bereavement need not be such a feared and damaging experience because
there is good evidence that it can also bring about maturity and wisdom.
And, because of its universality, bereavement, like death, can, and should,
be anticipated and prepared for.

26.2 Expressing and coping with grief

The death of a loved one, even when expected, is a time of emotional
turmoil for the bereaved. The Christian must show self-control (Galatians
5:23), and is not ‘… to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope’ (1
Thessalonians 4:13). Nevertheless, grief is a Christian emotion. After all,
‘Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him’ (Acts 8:2), and
‘Jesus wept’ at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus (John 11:35). Sorrow and
mourning at the death of a Christian are real and to be expressed, though
they are to be mingled with hope and joy because, ‘Blessed are the dead who
die in the Lord from now on’ (Revelation 14:13). Many of us have
experienced that warm blend of solid joy and genuine sorrow at a believer’s

On the other hand, many of us have felt dejected and despondent when it
is an unbeliever who is being buried. The sorrow and mourning at the death
of a non-Christian may also be genuine, but they cannot be mingled with
hope and joy. Family and close friends who continue to reject Christ will
cause us to have, ‘… great sorrow and unceasing anguish …’ (Romans 9:2).
Yet, usually, we can never be entirely sure that such rejection has persisted
until death—there is that hope of the deathbed conversion.

So, like dying and death, bereavement can be a tough time—Christians
and non-Christians alike can go through the emotional mangle. The
bereaved want to cry, look back, and search for what has been lost. Of all
the emotions that accompany bereavement, grief is the chief. Typically, the
bereaved pass through three phases of grieving. The first phase is the
distress that occurs around the actual time of death. This is often
suppressed, and a period of numbness, lasting for hours, or even days, can
follow. Second, there are usually intense feelings of pining for the dead
person, often coupled with severe anxiety. Appetites are lost, daily routines
go awry, mental concentration is short, and the person can become irritable
and depressed. Then the third phase of grieving occurs, when
disorganization, and misery, and gloom can become established.

The expression of these phases of grief, which are usually jumbled up
with additional emotions like shock, disbelief, relief and denial, can be
vastly variable. They do not automatically occur in a strict order, nor are
they necessarily passed through only once. For example, while it can be
quite normal for a widow to weep every day over the loss of her husband, if
this continues for more than a year, there may be cause for concern. On the
other hand, some people express little or no emotion, and that can be
equally undesirable.

Physical changes can also be apparent. For example, body weight often
fluctuates—during the first four months of bereavement, it is lost, then it
returns, then, by perhaps month six, overweight can set in. Thereafter,
good signs usually begin to gather momentum. There is a slow return to
caring for personal appearance, the renewal of social contacts, and, usually
within two years, most bereaved people will recognize that they are

The vast majority of people do readjust, move on, and re-engage with
society. However, for a few, the trauma of bereavement can prove to be too
much. As Alvin Toffler observed (p. 299), long ago in his rather
sensationalist book, Future Shock,(Pan Books, 1970), ‘If the death of one’s
spouse is rated as one hundred points, then moving to a new home is rated
by most people as worth only twenty points, a vacation thirteen. The death
of a spouse … is almost universally regarded as the single most impactful
change that can befall a person in the normal course of his life.’
Furthermore, Toffler noted (p. 303), ‘… that death rates among widows
and widowers, during the first year after the loss of a spouse, are higher
than normal … the shock of widowhood weakens resistance to illness and
tends to accelerate ageing.’ A generation later, Toffler’s remarks are still

26.3 Helping the bereaved
However, such losses can be minimized, if not eventually overcome, and
that will happen sooner and better, if the appropriate help is at hand.
Principled compassion is the great need of bereaved people. For the elderly,
especially the confused, careful explanations, perhaps seeing the body,
attending the funeral service, and visits to the grave, can help settle the
often-repeated questions. Simple tokens can be profoundly beneficial—a
phone call, a written note, or an apple pie can be so effective. An
appropriate touch or hug can sometimes be more helpful than many, or any,
words. The bereaved should be reassured that their emotional experiences
are nothing other than normal. Accurate and honest answers should be
given to questions. These are the proper ways forward. The first
anniversary of a death can be an especially difficult time. Some bereaved
people need to know that their obligations to the dead loved one have been
completed and that they have permission, and the opportunity, to move on
with their lives. Though the typically-observed, initial episodes of intense
grief will lessen with time, they may never entirely disappear because
events, such as anniversaries and family gatherings, can easily trigger deep
and fond memories of the absent loved one.

All this can be a hard time for the Christian, as well as the non-Christian,
for none is immune to the effects of bereavement. Christian faith will be
tested and previously-held beliefs may well be questioned. Of course,
prayer, fellowship, worship, and the reading of Scripture are the great
comforts for the Christian. This is undoubtedly a ‘time of need’, so
Hebrews 4:16 must be applied, ‘… so that we may receive mercy and find
grace to help us …’ Pity the poor non-Christians with no such comforts—
they need help.

We should be careful not to dismiss the emotions of the bereaved as
‘perfectly understandable’ and thereby miss the real opportunity to help
them. Nor should we adopt, or recommend, the stiff-upper lip approach.
This is stoicism and it is not the Christian way. Upon hearing of the death of
his friend, Lazarus, the Lord Jesus Christ ‘… was deeply moved in spirit
and troubled’ (John 11:33). The result was that ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35)—
the shortest verse in the Bible, but also one of its most tender.

26.4 Children and bereavement
It is not only the elderly who die, nor is it only adults who are bereaved—
children also die, and they too are bereaved. About 3,000 babies and
youngsters die each year in the UK. The death of a child is one of the most
painful and heart-rending preludes to bereavement, especially for the
parents and siblings. Parental death also affects something like 40,000
under-nineteen-year-old children each year in the UK. And, of course,
children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and more distant family relatives,
also die. Children should never be excluded from the actualities of death—
it can only make bereavement harder for them to bear. If Mum or Dad is
dying, they should be told—they should never be lied to.

The death of a sibling or a parent can be especially difficult for a child to
bear. The child may feel anger and frustration towards the one who has
died, and then guilt for even entertaining such emotions. Children should
certainly not be dismissed as ‘resilient’ and therefore ‘best left out’ of these
matters. Children, as young as two or three years old, can have some
understanding of death, and between the ages of five and eight their
understanding can be well-informed. Explanations and some forewarning
of the imminence and inevitability of the death of a family member can
help children prepare for bereavement. Attending a funeral service can also
be advantageous, but they should be protected from excessive public
expressions of grief that can sometimes occur on such occasions.

Bereavement can be a good time for parents to explain the veracities of
life and death, heaven and hell to their children. Above all, it is a time to be
sensitive to their dear offspring. Similarly, for teenagers, bereavement can
precipitate huge personal and spiritual turmoil, but also personal
development. It is here that the Christian parent or close relative can shine
in displaying care and compassion. In the providence of God, these are
great pastoral opportunities—we should make the most of them.

This was never intended to be the definitive guide to bereavement. There
are good books to read and, hopefully, there are good people within your
own circle to talk to and enquire about specific information. They will also
enable you to cope with both the simple and the complicated situation. The
concern here has been to provide some general outline of what we might
expect to happen during the common course of bereavement. After all, we
are all going to experience it, probably several times within our own life
span. And the best recoveries are seen among those who are best prepared
to face it.

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