Part I written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church
When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross lay dying at her home in Arizona, she was progressing through the classic stages of death which she had so beautifully set forth in her first book, "On Death and Dying." She observed with some dismay: "People love my stages. They just don’t want me to be in one." How sad! She was just as human as anyone else. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who had helped so many people negotiate their exit on the "Long Journey," and who was soon to be flying with the angels deserved better than that!
We all experience many different kinds of loss in the course of life. It is difficult to rate any particular loss on a scale that is universally applicable to everyone. There is no such thing as a typical response to loss, and there is no typical loss. Our grief response to loss is highly individual.
Early in her professional life as a psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed a framework in which most people work out their grief response to loss. Her initial research was at Cook County Hospital in Chicago from which she wrote her most profound book, "On Death and Dying," which lists five stages through which people tend to move on the way to death. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are tools that help us identify what we may be feeling at certain times in our grief. It should not be supposed that everyone goes through all these stages, or that everyone moves through these stages in a prescribed order.
There is no loss that brings a more profound sadness or leaves a more indescribable emptiness than the death of a loved one. I am not sure that the prospect and process of our own demise is as great or any greater than the death of a loved one. The whole world stops. Intellectually you know that life will continue but you are not sure about how or why, or even if you care. Since this is a situation we see in others more often than we experience it personally, how can we be helpful to our friends as they deal with this intense and life altering experience? This is one of the most sensitive and difficult things we are called upon to do for friends.
It is surprising, and unfortunate, how often we try to talk grieving friends out of their grief instead of helping them with this most essential element in the process of dealing with death. I was touched by a "my turn" piece in the May 28, 2007 issue of Newsweek. It was titled: "‘I’m sorry’ shouldn’t be the hardest words," and written by a 25 year old teacher who lost her 58 year old father. She writes a graphic description of her profound feelings of loss, and then describes the unintentionally insensitive way in which many friends tried to console her by trying to talk her out of her grief. There is nothing more natural or essential in dealing with the death of a loved one than to not only allow, but to encourage the natural flow of grief. Jess D. Hinds, the young author of this article, spoke of how many condolence cards and letters she received that tried to talk her out of her grief. One friend wrote: "You should be happy to have your memories." Another: "You should feel lucky you got to be with your father in the hospital."
Miss Hinds’ response was: "You have got to be kidding!" Others tried to distract her from her grief with such questions as: "Are you applying to grad school?" "How is your teaching going?" "Are you still renovating your apartment?" "Are you keeping busy?" Miss Hinds opined how in our society we tend to want mourners to just "snap out of it" because observing the grief of others isn’t easy.
A casual perusal of sympathy cards on the rack at pharmacies and at Wal-Mart affirms how when we "Care enough to send the very best" but are too lazy to write, the generic cards almost always miss the deep feelings of those who mourn. Our condolences should not tell those who mourn how to feel but rather reach out to touch those natural feelings of grief that are already there, and which we had really rather avoid.
I am not finished here. More next week.
AN ENCOURAGING WORD for July 26, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church