The Edge of Life - Dying,
Death and Euthanasia
288 pp., £9.00. ISBN
1 903087 30 9.
John R. Ling (2002). Day One, Epsom.
Chapter 26 Loss and bereavement
Losses are a function of human life—we are all acquainted with
Everyone has already lost yesterday, our childhood has also long
gone, and by now, many of life’s opportunities have vanished. But
not let this sort of introspection make you miserable. Come on—we
have today, we have put away childish things, and new prospects
horizons are before us. Those notwithstanding, we must admit that
growing old brings with it a unique set of losses. They may be
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
health, like sensory losses, mental losses, physical incapacities,
independence, and the like.
26.1 Loss as bereavement
And decisively, there is the loss associated with
experience is common to all men, women and children, Christian and
If you have not experienced it yet, you will. It can be
dangerous to our health—as many as a third of bereaved people
depressive illness, albeit, mostly of a temporary nature. However,
bereavement need not be such a feared and damaging experience
there is good evidence that it can also bring about maturity and
And, because of its universality, bereavement, like death, can,
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
turmoil for the bereaved. The Christian must show self-control
5:23), and is not ‘… to grieve like the rest of men, who have no
Thessalonians 4:13). Nevertheless, grief is a Christian emotion.
‘Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him’ (Acts 8:2),
‘Jesus wept’ at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus (John 11:35).
mourning at the death of a Christian are real and to be expressed,
they are to be mingled with hope and joy because, ‘Blessed are the
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
On the other hand, many of us have felt dejected and despondent
is an unbeliever who is being buried. The sorrow and mourning at
of a non-Christian may also be genuine, but they cannot be mingled
hope and joy. Family and close friends who continue to reject
cause us to have, ‘… great sorrow and unceasing anguish …’ (Romans
Yet, usually, we can never be entirely sure that such rejection
until death—there is that hope of the deathbed conversion.
So, like dying and death, bereavement can be a tough
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.
bereaved pass through three phases of grieving. The first phase is
distress that occurs around the actual time of death. This is
suppressed, and a period of numbness, lasting for hours, or even
follow. Second, there are usually intense feelings of pining for
person, often coupled with severe anxiety. Appetites are lost,
go awry, mental concentration is short, and the person can become
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
with additional emotions like shock, disbelief, relief and denial,
vastly variable. They do not automatically occur in a strict
order, nor are
they necessarily passed through only once. For example, while it
quite normal for a widow to weep every day over the loss of her
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
Physical changes can also be apparent. For example, body weight
fluctuates—during the first four months of bereavement, it is
lost, then it
returns, then, by perhaps month six, overweight can set in.
good signs usually begin to gather momentum. There is a slow
caring for personal appearance, the renewal of social contacts,
within two years, most bereaved people will recognize that they
The vast majority of people do readjust, move on, and re-engage
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
spouse is rated as one hundred points, then moving to a new home
by most people as worth only twenty points, a vacation thirteen.
of a spouse … is almost universally regarded as the single most
change that can befall a person in the normal course of his life.’
Furthermore, Toffler noted (p. 303), ‘… that death rates among
and widowers, during the first year after the loss of a spouse,
than normal … the shock of widowhood weakens resistance to illness
tends to accelerate ageing.’ A generation later, Toffler’s remarks
26.3 Helping the bereaved
However, such losses can be minimized, if not eventually overcome,
that will happen sooner and better, if the appropriate help is at
Principled compassion is the great need of bereaved people. For
especially the confused, careful explanations, perhaps seeing the
attending the funeral service, and visits to the grave, can help
often-repeated questions. Simple tokens can be profoundly
phone call, a written note, or an apple pie can be so effective.
appropriate touch or hug can sometimes be more helpful than many,
words. The bereaved should be reassured that their emotional
are nothing other than normal. Accurate and honest answers should
given to questions. These are the proper ways forward. The first
anniversary of a death can be an especially difficult time. Some
people need to know that their obligations to the dead loved one
completed and that they have permission, and the opportunity, to
with their lives. Though the typically-observed, initial episodes
grief will lessen with time, they may never entirely disappear
events, such as anniversaries and family gatherings, can easily
and fond memories of the absent loved one.
All this can be a hard time for the Christian, as well as the
for none is immune to the effects of bereavement. Christian faith
tested and previously-held beliefs may well be questioned. Of
prayer, fellowship, worship, and the reading of Scripture are the
comforts for the Christian. This is undoubtedly a ‘time of need’,
Hebrews 4:16 must be applied, ‘… so that we may receive mercy and
grace to help us …’ Pity the poor non-Christians with no such
they need help.
We should be careful not to dismiss the emotions of the bereaved
‘perfectly understandable’ and thereby miss the real opportunity
them. Nor should we adopt, or recommend, the stiff-upper lip
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
and troubled’ (John 11:33). The result was that ‘Jesus wept’ (John
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
children also die, and they too are bereaved. About 3,000 babies
youngsters die each year in the UK. The death of a child is one of
painful and heart-rending preludes to bereavement, especially for
parents and siblings. Parental death also affects something like
under-nineteen-year-old children each year in the UK. And, of
children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and more distant family
also die. Children should never be excluded from the actualities
it can only make bereavement harder for them to bear. If Mum or
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
died, and then guilt for even entertaining such emotions. Children
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
understanding of death, and between the ages of five and eight
understanding can be well-informed. Explanations and some
of the imminence and inevitability of the death of a family member
help children prepare for bereavement. Attending a funeral service
be advantageous, but they should be protected from excessive
expressions of grief that can sometimes occur on such occasions.
Bereavement can be a good time for parents to explain the
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,
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
great pastoral opportunities—we should make the most of them.
This was never intended to be the definitive guide to bereavement.
are good books to read and, hopefully, there are good people
own circle to talk to and enquire about specific information. They
enable you to cope with both the simple and the complicated
concern here has been to provide some general outline of what we
expect to happen during the common course of bereavement. After
are all going to experience it, probably several times within our
span. And the best recoveries are seen among those who are best
to face it.