“I was asleep in my dorm room when my sister called. She was frantic and crying, and said mum was in a plane crash. It took me a while to digest” says Jimmy. “It was the longest night of my life. On Sunday morning, when I later called home, my father told me they found her, but that she didn’t make it. I think at that moment, my legs buckled and the room seemed like it was spinning and I couldn’t understand it.”
A widow whose husband died at work lamented: “He wasn’t sick before he left the house. He wasn’t given to fasting, so he would always eat well. We ate together before he left the house that morning. So, how did it happen? What happened to him?” Holding her baby in her arms she cried, “He never came back. They only brought his bag home. I never knew I wouldn’t see him again. The next time I saw him was in death. Who would take care of his four children?”
These scenarios play out all over the world. We have all received news of someone’s demise before. He or she could be a friend, relative, marriage partner, colleague, church member, or a lover. We all know how we felt at that moment. “When I received news of my mother’s death, I fainted” said Tope. “I didn’t know my father, but my mother put in all her effort for me to get educated. Death took her away. My hope was gone.”
The first normal reaction to the death of a loved one is sorrow and grief. Grief is a natural response to loss, and loss comes in different forms. It is an emotional suffering one feels when someone (or something) one loves is taken away. The more significant the loss is, the more intense the grief. And the death of a loved one results in the most intense grief. Such a loss usually inflicts a wound on a person’s heart and its scars can remain for a long time.
Some Christians believe weeping over someone’s death indicates a lack of faith. But the Bible furnishes us with examples of godly men and women who wept over tragic losses. Abraham was a man of faith, yet when Sarah died, he “came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her” (Gen. 23:2). David wept over his son, Absalom’s death (2 Sam. 18:33). When the Lord Jesus got to Lazarus’ tomb, He wept (Jn. 11:35). When Stephen died, devout men “made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2). God is not against crying over a loss. It’s not an indication of lack of faith
Grief has several symptoms. This includes sadness, depression, anger, social withdrawal, anxiety, apathy, loneliness, longing for who was lost, blaming of self or others and questioning of beliefs. People differ in the way they grieve, sometimes depending on culture. Some people resort to alcohol, illegal drugs or abuse of prescription drugs to cope with grief. The duration of the grieving also varies from person to person.
According to a Medical textbook: “Regardless of the duration of the grieving process, there are two basic goals: (1) healing the self and (2) recovering from the loss. Other factors that influence grieving are the type of loss, life experiences with various changes and transitions, religious beliefs, cultural background, and personality type” (Textbook of Medical Surgical Nursing, 2010, 105-106).
There are three main stages of grief:
1. Early reaction – this is the stage when you newly received the news of (or witnessed) the death of a loved one. It is characterized by initial shock, disbelief, denial, emotional numbness, and anger.
At this stage, there is a tendency to become angry at the doctors, the hospital, the system, the deceased one for not taking his own health seriously and even at God for taking the person away at a critical time. Stella, who lost her father reflects, “My mother was too flippant with my dad’s health and my dad was too stubborn. If he had listened to her he wouldn’t have died.” This is a normal stage of grief. A bereaved person lashes out at friends and relatives.
2. Acute grief – characterized by mood changes, guilt, self-condemnation, extreme fatigue, insomnia, appetite changes, reduced work capacity, hallucinations- feeling, hearing or seeing the deceased.
A grieving person struggles with guilt. Some blame themselves for talking harshly to the deceased; for what they didn’t say or do; for not doing enough. Ayo, who lost his wife and baby lamented, “The most painful thing for me is that she suffered so much before she died. She cried and bled on and on, but that did not even move [the nurses on duty] … I only took her there because that was where she had her antenatal and they knew her health history. If I had known I would have taken her to a private hospital.”
3. Levelling off period – characterized by acceptance of the tragedy, sadness with nostalgia, more pleasant memories of the deceased and sometimes with humour. This is the stage where people recover. It must be emphasized that there is no fixed pattern of grief or time frame that everyone must follow to recover. The grieving process can be intense or shorter as the time goes by.
How to cope with grief after a loss.
I. Make a conscious determination to move on with life. That implies that you shouldn’t let others dictate to you how you must grieve. Some will tell you if don’t cry enough, you are not sorry about the loss, while some will say that you have to “be strong” in the face of a loss i.e must not cry. These are myths reinforced by cultural stereotypes. Don’t force yourself into a mould created by the society. A grieving person needs to let out that pain and the easiest way is to cry. Though as Christians, we shouldn’t mourn like those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13-14).
II. Do not grieve alone. The grieving period is the time to turn to family and friends for support. Don’t burn all your bridges. “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgement” (Pro. 18:1). It’s dangerous for a grieving person to be abandoned by people. Even when Job experienced tragedy, his friends came around to comfort him (Job 2:11). If you are comforting a grieving person, you may not need to talk much, your presence and sympathy alone goes a long way.
When I lost a close friend in 2012, I visited her mother. She was overwhelmed with grief. As I was struggling to offer some words of comfort, I sensed that she needed someone to listen to her tell her side of what happened. She had been accused of killing her daughter and had a lot of anger on the inside, but my presence assured her that someone wasn’t judging her, and that made a difference.
III. Don’t be in haste to make any critical decision. This includes moving to a new place, selling or giving away your home or items belonging to the deceased or entering a new romantic relationship. Give yourself some time to reflect on the steps you want to take. When you are under a huge emotional stress, your sense of judgement may be clouded and you may regret some decisions later if you make them hastily. “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Pro. 21:5).
IV. Look after your physical health. Grief causes either a loss of or increase in appetite for food or sleep. If these are not checked, they can affect one’s physical health. It is normal for a bereaved person to feel disoriented and anxious, but adhering to your normal daily duties and activities can help. Have a specific time to sleep, get up, eat or do certain chores. You can combat fatigue and stress by eating, sleeping and exercising right. Avoid numbing your feeling with drugs or alcohol.
V. Find your feet spiritually. Grief makes a person vulnerable to doubting the love and power of God. There is a sort of anger that is often directed at God for not answering our prayers made for the deceased to live or for taking the person away at a critical time. A man who lost his 4 children in a building collapse cried “I thought God would even spare one of them for me. But they came to tell me that none of them is alive.” This pain leads to doubt or apathy towards the things of God.
The devil uses painful experiences to attack one’s helmet of salvation and break off one’s shield of faith. Some people can direct their anger inward and it drives them to suicide. This is why the grieving period is the time to renew one’s faith in God’s Word and seek solace in Him in prayer, otherwise it’s easy to fall away. Look up to “the father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2Cor. 1:3) and allow the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to comfort you in your grief. Open your heart to Jesus, the Balm of Gilead to heal your pain.
There is a misguided belief that a Christian who dies from an accident, a sickness or natural disaster must have lacked faith in God or His approval to have so died. This is a myopic thinking. The Bible indicates that accidents can happen to anyone at anytime (Eccl. 9:11). As Wayne Grudem points out in his work, Bible Doctrine, death is a reality, whether for Christians or non-Christians; it doesn’t mean that it’s a penalty for their individual sin.
We live in a fallen world and we all experience injuries, ageing, and natural disasters (floods, violent storms and earthquakes). Although God does answers prayers to deliver Christians (and also non-Christians) from some of these effects of the Fall for a time, nevertheless, Christians eventually experience these things. Our salvation doesn’t make us immune to illness, ageing or physical death. Death which is “the last enemy” is not yet destroyed (1Cor 15:26). Until then, all of humanity is still subject to it.
While the world’s highest goal is preserving one’s own physical life at all costs, for a Christian, obedience to God and faithfulness to Him even in death is our greatest goal (Phil. 1:20, Rev. 12:11). Reflecting on this, Wale, who lost his mother to cancer said, “Even though she died when she was supposed to enjoy the fruit of her labour, I’m happy that she is no more in pains. And I’m glad that she accepted Christ as her Lord and prayed for each one of us before her death.” For a Christian, death is not the end, it is only an exit door to be with God in eternal glory.
Drawing spiritual strength from Christ during a loss is also vital because you are more vulnerable to superstitions, hallucinations and false beliefs at that period. Some people claim to see or hear the deceased – in dream or reality – and from there conclude that the dead protect the living. Many cultures also perform various rites to honour the dead, and in some cases, supposedly invoke “their spirits” to avenge their death.
A lady said these to her father’s remains: “Father take care of us as if you are alive…rest but don’t forget us and don’t sleep, don’t rest.” These are unscriptural prayers (or concepts) that shouldn’t find a place among Christians. When a person dies, his spirit has departed. It’s unbiblical and illogical to suggest that a person gains the ability to answer prayers or protect because he is dead. Some will say “He/she was my everything,” That is not true, God is our everything and He must always remain God in our lives no matter the loss. Church leaders and members need to support the bereaved with God’s Word and prayer.
Finding a support group where you can talk about your loss is also helpful. You can write down what you like about the deceased and the moments you shared. You can also make an album of photographs or letters. Participate in new activities that will fill that void. You can also use your experience to encourage others. Like Valene who lost her 19 year old son to brain tumour, her husband committed suicide due to the grief. She finally overcame her pain and today has a support group to help other people heal after a loss. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). There is light at the end of a dark tunnel.