In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief,” which represent feelings of those who have faced death and tragedy.
Based on her years of working with terminal cancer patients, Kubler-Ross proposed the following pattern of phases many people experience:
- Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will .”
- Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what has happened.”
While no single pathway through grief exists, people do share common responses.
Although these are common responses to loss, there is no structure or timetable for the grieving process. That said, understanding grief and its common symptoms are helpful when grieving. Recognizing the difference between trauma and depression is also beneficial.
Besides understanding how stress can take a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually, we need to understand the practical guidelines to ease the process. These include taking care of our bodies, spending time with others and reaching out to the church community.
Finally, there will come a time when someone close to us experiences a significant loss. Knowing how to respond to a grieving friend is a good first step in acting as a reliable companion.
The death of a loved one is a shattering experience with far-reaching implications. As difficult as the loss may be, it is possible to move forward with hope for the future.
Death, the total cessation of life processes that eventually occurs in all living organisms. The state of human death has always been obscured by mystery and superstition, and its precise definition remains controversial, differing according to culture and legal systems.
During the latter half of the 20th century, death has become a strangely popular subject. Before that time, perhaps rather surprisingly, it was a theme largely eschewed in serious scientific, and to a lesser extent, philosophical speculations. It was neglected in biological research and, being beyond the physician’s ministrations, was deemed largely irrelevant by medical practice. In modern times, however, the study of death has become a central concern in all these disciplines and in many others.
“So many more people seem to die nowadays,” an elderly lady is alleged to have said, scanning the obituary columns of a famous daily. This was not just a comment on the documented passing of a cohort. Various journals now not only list the dead but also describe what they died of, at times in some detail. They openly discuss subjects considered too delicate or personal less than a generation ago. Television interviewers question relatives of the dying—or even the dying themselves—and films depict murders or executions in gruesome and often quite accurate detail. Death is no longer enshrined in taboos. Popular readiness to approach these matters and a general desire to be better informed about them reflect a change in cultural attitudes perhaps as great as that which accompanied the more open discussion of sex after World War I.
Thanatology—the study of death—delves into matters as diverse as the cultural anthropology of the notion of soul, the burial rites and practices of early civilizations, the location of cemeteries in the Middle Ages, and the conceptual difficulties involved in defining death in an individual whose brain is irreversibly dead but whose respiration and heartbeat are kept going by artificial means. It encompasses the biological study of programmed cell death, the understanding care of the dying, and the creation of an informed public opinion as to how the law should cope with the stream of problems generated by intensive-care technology. Legal and medical quandaries regarding the definition of death and the rights of the terminally ill (or their families) to refuse life-prolonging treatments force physicians to think like lawyers, lawyers like physicians, and both like philosophers. In his Historia Naturalis (Natural History), the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that “so uncertain is men’s judgment that they cannot determine even death itself.” The challenge remains, but if humans now fail to provide some answers it will not be for lack of trying.
A few summers ago, when my Pop-pop and Nana were both still with us, we had a family picnic. My Nana’s mind at that time was not what it once had been. Dementia was setting in. Things became so difficult that she couldn’t recall my name or the names of other family members. But there was a name she had not forgotten: the name of her Lord Jesus Christ. And she hadn’t forgotten the hymns she had spent her life singing.
At that picnic, my grandparents sang a few hymns for the rest of us. One of those hymns was “Does Jesus Care?” In the midst of the many challenges of aging, my Nana sang:
- Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth and song;
- As the burdens press and the cares distress
and the way grows weary and long?
Then came the answer:
Oh, yes, he cares, I know he cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
. . . I know my Savior cares. (Frank Ellsworth Graeff, 1901)
God’s Care for His Aging Saints
We have limited, and sometimes no, control over how gracefully our bodies and minds age. But if we know the Savior’s care for us, and if we believe that he will give grace for every need, then we will rest in the arms of the one who carries us even to our old age (Isaiah 46:3–4). The grace of God enables us to age gracefully. The gospel empowers us to face old age with a firm belief in God’s unchanging care for us — not only his care for our souls, but also his care for our bodies.
The Bible gives a poetic description of our aging bodies (Ecclesiastes 12:1–7). What happens when the days of our youth are gone? We will be bent with old age. Strength will fail, teeth will be missing, sight will falter. In Psalm 71, the psalmist gives voice to the fear we can experience when we think about growing old. He cries to the Lord, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” (Psalm 71:9). In 2 Corinthians 4:16–18, Paul calls it outwardly wasting away.
For many, the difficulties of aging lead to despair. Grief and anxiety overtake us. We quickly become disoriented. But as life’s chapters begin to close, our union with Christ orients us to what is real. For those in Christ, aging is more about hope than fear, more about honor than dishonor, more about holiness than decay, more about gain than loss.
The realities of aging can fortify our hope by causing us to fix our eyes on the bright future Christ has for us.
Nothing a Good Resurrection Can’t Fix
There is a tendency among some Christians to devalue the importance of the body, denigrating the physical and elevating the spiritual. But the gospel brings the good news that God became man in Christ in order to secure a full salvation for his people, including resurrection, healing, and eternal life for our bodies. In this life, our bodies are weak and our capacities diminish over time. Perhaps your body is currently failing you, and you fear that things will only get worse. The best thing we can do is to look beyond old age, beyond the grave, to the return of Christ and the future of our bodies.
D.A. Carson once said, “I’m not suffering from anything that a good resurrection can’t fix.” That is incredibly good news for us all. Imagine a body with no sickness, no disease, no fragility, no limping, no aches, no allergies, no physical or mental impairments.
Paul says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21). He says this bodily transformation, “the redemption of our bodies,” is the great triumph of the gospel and the hope in which we are saved (Romans 8:23–24). We age now in the comfort of knowing that, with every passing day, that redemption is closer than ever before.
We Will Be With the Lord
None of this means growing old is easy. I visited my grandparents the summer before my Nana died. My Pop-pop told me he never knew he was capable of crying so many tears. He said that the hardest part was not being able to communicate with Nana because of her dementia. They couldn’t do games and puzzles like other elderly couples could.
We talked a lot about the return of Christ and the glory of heaven that day. My Nana sat in a chair all day; she could barely move or speak. Yet she was so full of grace, and the power and glory of Christ rested on her. This is what flourishing looks like when physical health fails us and mental wellness declines. Aging and all that it brings will not alter the essence of who we are and what life is truly about. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
That day at my grandparents’ house I pulled a chair close to my Nana and sat down. Through tears I read the beginning of Revelation 21 to her. I could barely finish.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3–4)
This is our great future. In Christ, aging is the path to glory. What is sown in weakness will be raised in power at the return of Christ. We will be with the Lord forever. In the meantime, aging is the accumulation of more stories of the faithfulness of God and a display of God’s determination to love and care for his own.