4/26/11

On Dealing With Death

It's been a blur of a year now since my mother died. So I figure it's time to type this out, and deal with losing a loved one, word by word, line by line.

As I struggled through attempting to understand just how to react, I found the K├╝bler-Ross model quite helpful, and yet somewhat confusing. As each person experiences a unique loss, each person's response is unique. Well, here's a tell-most of how I have fared with each stage, if indeed I have not been hindered by delusion. In no particular order:

Denial

She died on a Monday. I returned home from work around 5:30pm, to hear from my step-father, "Jon, I have some news, some bad news. Your mom passed away this afternoon." She had been in a hospice for a couple of days, and the fact she was going to die soon was on all our minds. The year and a half leading up to this point had been a numbing emotional adventure. Like tone-deaf ringing after an explosion, our psyches had been shocked for some time. There was no accident, or sudden event, that claimed her life. It's a strange thing to work through the levels of grief while your loved one is still alive. So when the news hit, I initially denied it, but quickly accepted it. We rode over to the hospice to see her upright in a bed, silent. My grandfather, who stayed at the hospice that afternoon, was serene and wise. We took deep breaths, said our goodbyes, and retreated into the courtyard to, I don't know. Then they came and got her, we cried, and went home. I really don't remember that week.

Here's where my twisted denial sets in. I was more concerned with her eternal state at this point. I began following Christ at the age of fifteen. My mother did not hate the idea, but she definitely had problems with it. Suffice it to say, words like brainwashed, mistake, and immature, were thrown around. Whatever her take, I was convinced, as my life completely changed at conversion. So how does a person who has experienced the joy of Christ react? He prays for 10 years that his family can understand what he understands. Let's get nitty-gritty. God's chosen were hand picked before the foundation of the world, Eph 1:5. Yet, whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, Rom 10:10-13. Hmm. I believe both, and I'm not willing to twist Scripture to settle into one camp or the other. One thing you can't get away with, is the idea that all are saved, unless God has some huge surprise for humanity, which is doubtful based on all Jesus had to say about hell. Round and round the debate goes of a low view of sin, God's holiness verse forgiveness, the question of God altogether, etc. If this really interests you, go read the Bible. That's nitty-gritty enough for my purposes here. With my background, I have found that a peace that passes all understanding sets in after a while, that is, if you pray about it. It takes too much energy to stay in the fantasy of denial, so my heart must find rest. Conclusion: God's mind and his plans are intricately perfect. And no, I don't believe that whole-heartily, every minute. My denial often fast meshes with my anger.

Anger

Mad at God. And the lightning didn't strike. I guess I had the luxury of not having to be mad at nothing. For ten years I prayed for her, and I saw no results. Either I didn't pray well, she rejected it, she quietly accepted it, prayer is meaningless, prayer is for a different purpose; that is quite frustrating. Christians go through this. Often you bear your heart on your sleeve, and nothing happens. If you're honest, you wheel your way through doubt, anger, peace and acceptance, and hopefully you learn something. For me: Maybe God wants us to be angry. Maybe then we come thrashing up to him, beating our chests, to realize that death is not good, though it is normative in this world. I hate death. All the "no's" become "why's" at this point for good reason. Maybe we have a hard time accepting it because we intuitively know that we are not supposed to die. That's a great reason to be angry, and over time I am redirecting anger towards God to anger at sin. Here's a story you haven't heard, because I have not been able to process it.

The night before she went to the hospice, I sat alone with her in the hospital room. As the brain tumor crippled her ability to speak, I figured out that she could communicate by squeezing hands. I realized her time was short; the doctor has just admitted she probably only had a few days left to live. For the hundredth time I ran through the gospel with her, that Jesus offers peace and forgiveness to those who call on his name. I asked her if she wanted to pray and accept that, and she stared at me, and squeezed my hand "no." I was devastated. An hour after I left, my father and step-mother came by to sit with her. My dad unabashedly presented the gospel to her again, and this time, according to him, she prayed with him.

I was doubtful and still angry when I heard this. Not because she didn't pray with me, but because there is no way to get closure from that. Plenty of people have deathbed conversions, but there was no way to gauge what she understood, if anything. If you're not a Christian and reading this, I don't expect you to sympathize at all with my theological dilemma. Either way, this was psychological distress for me. Not because I want to win souls for Jesus, but because the way I have studied and understand the gospel according to Scripture. It was a heaven and hell decision, and there's no way to know which she picked.

You can judge me for being judgmental. I'll point to Scripture, not because it's a scapegoat, but because I'm convinced it is story of God coming to save man. Let me go on record as saying I often reject the gospel. I've plunged myself into realms of doubt and open-mindedness, bouncing around from atheist to agnostic, just to see if there's anything else out there worth my attention. To see if there is any other peace I can attain. I've neglected reading the Bible for months at a time, filling my time with all kinds of distractions. The worst part of this was/is, I'm trained to help people like me. I can point you to the chapter and verse that will rock your world, yet I couldn't bear to read it myself. As I skipped through the denial of her death, I often found myself tantalized with anger, as it has released countless nagging demons to question not only my understanding of God, but also my goals in life. Reading Romans 8 will give you a taste of my dilemma. If you want to read it, go here. While my faith has not been defeated, I confess it has certainly been rocked by this.

Bargaining

Bargaining goes like this: "If I could get more time, I promise to change ______," or "If I could just live a few more years to see _______." It seemed like my mother was stuck in denial/depression. She did not even think she was going to die in the hospice. Melancholy over lost jobs and various other events leading up to the discovery of the cancer seemed to deflate any idea of bargaining. And when the chemo and radiation wreaked havoc on her body in the last months, her mental state was deteriorating in such a way that she just accepted her sickness; yet she somehow stayed optimistic. Her stubbornness and steadfastness fascinated me at times, as I didn't know how to grieve. I did want her to make it to my wedding; But, as I stated, in the last months of brain radiation, she would often ask me if I was already married. So in a way, she had already accepted the fact, and was excited for Rachel and me. To add a twist, I think my brief interest in universalism/agnosticism is also a way I've tried to remedy death. To wrap up this stage, I would surmise that my mother, in her mind, completed everything she had set out to do. She had fun, plenty of friends, two degrees, a career, and a family.

Depression

"It gets easier day by day. The sun sets and the sun rises, life keeps going on, and it gets easier." My dad told me this the night she died, and as simple as it sounds, it's spot on. The slew of deep sadness gave way to wedding plans and job searches, to getting a dog and an apartment, to school and graduation, and on and on. At first you feel unable to move, then guilty for moving on, but after you cry so many times, you start to cope. The wedding could not have come at a better time, as weird as that sounds. To be able to be busy and surrounded by so many friends and family members was an incredible, fortunate experience that I believe helped the entire family cope. It was heart wrenching to not have her there, but we had to move on. That shock, I believe, saved me from severe depression. Another curious thing about my family is that all of my grandparents are still alive, and for the most part, doing well. I feel incredibly blessed to have so many people to fall back on. There is a lot more I could write about here, but no one wants to read about depression, and after all I dubbed this a "tell-most."

Acceptance

I'm getting a little bleary-eyed after writing for what seems like two hours at this point, so I'll be brief here as well. My theological concerns over my mother's eternal life are outside of my control, and I'm still learning that. I cared deeply for her in this life, and I only want the best for her in the next. Not having her around torments me at times. I want to see her, and I think about her everyday. Sometimes that statement sounds trite, so I'll reemphasize, I think about her, at least once, each and everyday. And I wait like all my fellow man to see what death brings. But I must confess that whatever qualms I have with how God works must be set aside. I haven't grasped acceptance completely, but I state this confidently:

O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 comments:

  1. refreshing to read your vulnerability Jon- thanks for posting this.

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  2. Hey old friend,
    I read this today and I just wanted to thank you for your words. As someone who lost her own mom almost 18 years ago so many of your words and experiences ring true for me.

    Particularly the part about shifting anger from God and on to sin. It was about 6 years ago when a spiritual father of mine made that statement and said to me and and another friend whose mom had died that he was so angry at sin for stealing life. It shifted my perspective entirely. I think death causes anger to well up no matter who you are, and for sure as a Christian, it's hard to figure out where that anger is to be directed. It makes me hate the sin in my own life. It makes me long for the day when sin no more has a grip on me or the world around me.
    Thanks for sharing all of this. Words of truth- words that will cycle through in your life over and over in light of losing someone so dear.

    Thanks Friend,
    Jessica

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