Running from Death

Christ came for those chained to the “fear of death” (Heb 2:15). We all lie under this death sentence. Death produces fear and this fear becomes lifelong bondage (Heb 2:14-15). Richard Beck wrote a book on this very topic, he argues that our fear of death drives us to fierce avoidance of our mortality. He states,

“Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance. . . . Persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness. When they are asked how they are, they really can say and really do say, “Fine . . . fine.”

In spite of this avoidance and believing that “our deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death) we cannot escape it. Death is personified in Scripture as a ferocious monster that consumes everyone and everything in front of it (1 Cor 15:26, Rom 7:24, 8:1, Rev 6:7-8). 

Death must be looked in the face. Wisdom requires it (Ps 90:12). Without this, we run the risking of not taking our mortality to heart (Eccl 7:2). Just as sin drives us to the cross for forgiveness, death pushes to the empty tomb for hope and assurance. The gospel is the only good news in the face of death.

Jesus buried, this is one of the most critical yet overlooked facets of the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-4). The sting of death was full absorbed by Christ. He lay lifeless in a tomb for three days. Yet, as he lay there he was unraveling death itself. He came that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14). Death was his instrument of undoing our sin, undoing the evil one and destroying death itself. The third day was the death knell of death itself.

Running from death will not help us. We must face it and run toward the gospel. The buried Lord and the resurrected King tell us that all will be okay, we do not need to be controlled by the fear of death.

What Vulnerability Creates

I have been thoroughly enjoying Richard Beck lately. I read his book on the Slavery of Death and found it to be challenging and compelling. He discusses at length the linkage between vulnerability, understanding our frailty, embracing our mortality and the possibility of love marking our relationships. Check out what he has to say.

“Notice in Acts 4 that there were “no needy persons among them.” Why? Because they shared with “anyone one who had need.” The expression of neediness in the community allowed the economy of love to flow. But in churches in America and other places where affluence poses special problems, the situation is very different. These cultures are enslaved to the fear of death and death avoidance holds serious sway. In these cultures the expression of need is taboo and pornographic. What results is neurotic image-management, the pressure to be “fine.” The perversity here is that on the surface American churches do look like the church in Acts 4 – there are “no needy persons” among us. We all appear to be doing just fine, thank you very much.

But we know this to be a sham, a collective delusion driven by the fear of death. I’m really not fine and neither are you. But you are afraid of me and I’m afraid of you. We are neurotic about being vulnerable with each other. We fear exposing our need and failure to each other. And because of this fear – the fear of being needy within a community of neediness – the witness of the church is compromised. A collection of self-sustaining and self-reliant people – people who are all pretending to be fine – is not the Kingdom of God. It’s a church built upon the delusional anthropology we described earlier. Specifically, a church where everyone is “fine” is a group of humans refusing to be human beings and pretending to be gods. Such a “church” is comprised of fearful people working hard to keep up appearances and unable to trust each other to the point of loving self-sacrifice. In such a “church” each member is expected to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, thus making no demands upon others. Unfortunately, where there is no need and no vulnerability, there can be no love.”

Exploring Grief: A Look at Grief Models

I would like to spend some time this month exploring grief. I will explore it from different angles with the aim of developing a healthy framework for conceptualizing grief, practicing grief and helping others grieve. To start off, let’s talk about three models of grief.

Brenda Mallon’s book, Dying, Death and Grief explores various models that attempt to capture the grief process. It is a helpful read that drills down into the roots of common North American perspectives on grief. Here are two of the most influential models.

Bowlby and Parkes (1970) presented four main stages in the grief process:

  1. Numbness, shock and denial with a sense of unreality;
  2. Yearning and protest. It involves waves of grief, sobbing, sighing, anxiety, tension,loss of appetite, irritability and lack of concentration. The bereaved may sense the presence of the dead person, may have a sense of guilt that they did not do enough to keep the deceased alive and may blame others for the death;
  3. Despair, disorganization, hopelessness, low mood
  4. Reorganization, involving letting go of the attachment and investing in the future.

In the 1960s Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born physician and psychiatrist, pioneered death studies. Her seminal book On Death and Dying (1970) was based on her work with dying patients. She adopted Parkes’ stages of grief to describe the five stages of dying experienced by those who were diagnosed with terminal illness:

  1. Denial – the patient does not believe he has a terminal illness.
  2. Anger – Why me? Anger towards family or doctors because they have not done enough.
  3. Bargaining – The patient may bargain with God or some unseen force, to give him extra time.
  4. Depression – The patient realizes he is about to die and feels very low.
  5. Acceptance – Given the opportunity to grieve, the patient may accept his fate, which may lead to a period of quiet reflection, silence and contemplation.

Kubler-Ross’ model has worked its way into the American thought process on grief. Ask most individuals about the grief process and they will likely have a version of the five stages of grief. It is intriguing how influential this model has been considering it was never intended as a model for individuals grieving the loss of someone else. It was originally research on individuals facing their own deaths.

Another way forward in this discussion is a framework called the Dual Process model. The Dual Process Model of Grief and Loss was introduced in 1995 by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut and was the first to state that there were no defined stages of grief.

They described two types of coping processes. ‘loss-oriented coping’ deals with the loss of the deceased person, and ‘restitution-oriented coping’ deals with specific problems and the development of new activities. People oscillate between these two as they go through grieving. Current thinking on grief encompasses both the letting go of bonds and the holding on to the attachment (Klass et al. 1996).

This Oscillation Model, going in and out of grief, remembering and forgetting, focusing on the past and paying attention to the present, seems to reflect the actual experience of the grieving process. Grief does not cooperate with our boundaries or processes. As some have said, “grief takes as many forms as there are grieving people.”