Death, Dying and Grief

NEW BLOG SERIES TO BEGIN:

DEATH, DYING AND GRIEF

Beginning March 2018 we will begin an additional ministry at Norway Avenue Church of Christ – GriefShare. GriefShare is a network of thousands of grief recovery support groups meeting worldwide. Our purpose is to use their resources to help us in offering ongoing, weekly GriefShare support groups here at Norway.  This life-changing material will minister to grieving people in our church and throughout our community.

Along with our new ministry of GriefShare we want to educate us all in better understanding and coping with death and grief. For that reason I will write an extended series of blogs on death, dying, and grief for a good part of this year. These blogs will focus on issues of understanding the death process and grief.

I have discovered, among other things, the only point where one can start to talk about anything, including death, is where one finds oneself. For a long time now – I do not know when it began – I have been challenged to incorporate the awareness of death into my daily living. It isn’t primarily a practice of thinking of one’s last hour, or of death as a physical phenomenon; it is a seeing of every moment of life against the horizon of death, and a challenge to incorporate that awareness of dying into every moment so as to become more fully alive.

For over thirty years I taught about death, dying and grief in a university course entitled “Death and Dying.” It sounds like a morbid course but as my students suggested it was not but should rather be double-titled “Life and Living.” Over that time I thought and re-thought my own philosophy, beliefs and doubts, hope and fears and biblical knowledge about the big “D.  Understanding death from a Biblical, historical, sociological, and psychological perspective is paramount in our total approach to understanding our Christian journey.

Death is a universal Experience

Death is a universal experience shared by each one of us. Until the “Death Enlightenment” period of a few years ago, death in our society has been a subject of great taboo. While death is all around us, there has often been a conspiracy of silence. Death is not talked about except in hushed tones.

A young boy wrote a letter to God. He said:

“Dear God,

What is like when you die? Nobody will tell me. I want to know. I don’t want to do it.” -  Mike

There are two concepts of importance here.

1.    “Nobody will tell me” – the reluctance of discussing death.

2.    “I don’t want to do it” – an expression of fear (the fear of death in a death denying society).

Let me assure you that discussing death will not invite it. In fact you invite not death, but rather invite life!

Several years ago I participated in a seminar on death and grief in which participants handed in their reflections on death. One student handed in the following:

“I am fully aware that I will die, and in some ways I am dying now. I look forward to the event, because I am curious about how I will feel when it happens and if there will be anything at all on the other side. I accept the fact of my death as an integral part of my having lived. I can say I have fully come to terms with my death.”

And then he added, “I can also walk on water and fly like a bird!”

And so it is when we come to think of our own deaths. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? The dynamics of our death denying attitudes are revealed in a comment made by a man to his wife. He said, “When one of us dies, I’ll go to Paris.” We deny the reality of death: by costuming it, by cosmetics, by avoiding discussions of it, and by institutionalizing it – putting it out of sight, and hopefully out of mind.

We are all terminal. The understanding of death, dying and grief are integral to our living our life to the fullest and to the glory of God. When the eighty year old Plato was asked to sum up his sixty years of work in a few sentences, he is supposed to have looked down from that awesome level and have said, “Practice dying.” The whole of religion and philosophy seem aimed at preparing for the moment of death. In medieval literature there was a manuscript called in fact, “The Art of Dying” (ideas about dying).

Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., said, “It is important to talk about death, because death is so integral to life.” He further said, “Suppressing our relationship to death is a form of numbing which spreads to other areas and tends to limit our capacity for feeling in general, and therefore, our vitality.”

Perhaps it is because of our fear and our guilt or our life instinct or any number of other reasons that death became the great cultural “taboo” or even the last obscenity. Thanatologists (scientific study of death) who speak of the pornography of death in our society point to the obsession with violent death in so much of our television and movie viewing as evidence of a way of way of coming to terms with the harshness of death without any of the normal, and especially the tender emotions which surround death. The tragedy is that too often the human element is removed from everything surrounding dying, death, and grief so that this ultimate and final experience is totally dehumanized.

However, one of the premises of our blogs is that our denial of death is caused not so much by the fear of death but by our anxiety and uncertainty about living. Or, to put it another way, we are afraid of death in the future because we are afraid to live in the present.

I read an essay written by a terminally ill patient who was exploring her own death and the effect it would have on others. She asked, “Are you who are alive so uncertain of your life that you cannot help another die?” Could not a healthy wrestling with our own mortality lead us along the road to a more human understanding of life and death?