Thanatology and Theology
Ernest Becker proposes that depressed individuals (specifically those depressed from death) suffer both doubt in their faith and doubt their value within their worldview. In other words, grieving people often doubt God and they doubt His purpose for them.
Kenneth Doka suggests that “one of the most significant tasks in grief is to reconstruct faith or philosophical systems, now challenged by the loss” (Loss of the Assumptive World; 49). All forms of grief, normal, complicated and especially traumatic grief produce doubts about one’s faith.
If you’re dealing with grief, your entire worldview is probably being challenged. It’s only natural that we attempt to seek council in such times; but, it might not be your best choice to seek your church and pastor’s help.
As many of you know, I’ve battled depression this past year; and while grief and depression are different, there’s many similarities. As I’ve adjusted to life with depression, there’s a number of things that I’ve learned and this is one of them: Most churches and pastors (and religious friends) aren’t equipped to recognize and address the depressed. We should not expect them to be equipped. But we do. They haven’t been trained to understand the psychosomatic nature of depression; nor have they a background in tasks of mourning or grief work models; the different types of grief and how each one should be approached.
And it’s okay to recognize the limitations in our religious community.
Today’s church speaks the language of affirmation, the language of light (cataphatic theology as opposed apophatic theology) to such a degree that doubt and darkness can sometimes be viewed as sin.
Depression, for some religious communities, is sometimes seen as a curse of God.
And grief is something that God might not feel, so neither should we (at least for an extended period of time).
And while some churches can be understanding of grief, and the doubt and depression that comes with it, few are prepared to understand how said grief, doubt and depression affects you.
We can become more course, more rigid and more … unacceptable. And, honestly, it’s possible that we do indeed become unacceptable for many churches, as our darkness and our doubt takes us out of the comfort realm for many within the church.
Indeed, many pastors recognize the limits of their training and can recommend professionals to help with your grief, etc., but some don’t recognize their limits. They can provide first or second level assessment (i.e., “you need some professional guidance”), but the deeper levels of assessment and counsel should be left to those grief specialists.
Unless your church or pastor has a professional background in understanding depression and/or grief, I think we do both our pastors, our religious friends and ourselves a great service by seeing someone who is professionally trained.
The following post was originally a guest post on Michelle Van Loon’s blog, “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.”
The author of the post, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote the following message to me via facebook:
Last June we accepted a foster placement of twin girls who were four months old. We’ve been foster parents for almost 7 years, but nothing prepared us for the sudden death of one of the twins, Ellie, at almost seven months. She went to bed a happy and healthy baby and when I reached into her crib in the morning I pulled out a corpse instead.
I am traumatized. I am an emergency nurse and not unfamiliar with death. I did CPR on Ellie out of reflex but with the full knowledge that she was gone and I couldn’t fix it. I can still taste the breath that I pushed out of her lungs. I’m never going to be the same…and I know it.
I am also a Christian. I think. In fact my husband is a church leader, making me the wife of a spiritual leader.
She then gave me the link to her post at “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.” I asked if I could also post it on my blog and she gave me permission. This post is immensely challenging, and will beg you to vicariously see the grief of a bereaved mother. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s one that will help you understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child. It’s written from the perspective of Holy Saturday … where doubt and silence are the only forms of faith.
Please stop attempting to spiritualize the death of my child. Assigning some thoughtless Christian platitude only serves to deepen my anger and further question my beliefs. If you don’t know what to say, a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” would be far better than these actual attempts at comfort that I’ve received:
1. “God has a plan.”
Really? You serve a God with a plan that involves killing babies? Or at least standing by and allowing the baby to die when you believe that he could have intervened? Because the baby killers I’ve seen get life in prison. And even the convicts know which guy to attack.
2. “Some good will come of this. You’ll see.”
You think that at some point I’m going to see some direct blessing in my life or someone else’s that will make me think, “Aha! Here’s the good that came from my child’s death! I am now so glad that she died so that this could happen!” No! An Almighty God could surely think of some other really creative way to bring about good. Or else I don’t want that “blessing.” I will always wonder why it had to be this way, no matter what good things may come later in my life.
3. “Just think of the ministry you can have someday to parents who have lost children.”
No. At least not the ministry you’re thinking. That would require me to say that God is somehow in this for them and I happen to know that’s not helpful. Plus, I don’t want that ministry. I’ve spent twenty years of my life trying to serve God full time. I’ve put every major decision of my life through “God’s will” as a filter, including setting aside life dreams for myself. All of the big things I’ve tried to do for him have been heartbreak for me. I think I’m done with ministry at this point.
4. “God loves you.”
Imagine If I were married to someone who said, “I love you. I mean, you’re going to get hurt and I won’t stop it. In fact, I might even cause it. But I love you! It’s for your own good! It’s because of my great love for you.” You would encourage me to get to a women’s shelter immediately for my own safety. Where’s the safe place from this kind of “love?”
5. “God’s perfect love casts out fear.”
I’ve been dealing with a moderate amount of anxiety since my baby’s death. I’m not a very anxious person by nature, so I’ve sought some help dealing with the feelings of panic. I struggle with coming home after a night shift and wondering what I might find. I compulsively check on my children at night. Going to the doctor with another child of mine is a trip through some very dark places of fear. I’m constantly wondering which of my family members is next on God’s hit list. The advice that God’s love will fix those fears isn’t really resonating with me right now.
6. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Just depend on Him.”
The Christian grief counselor we saw put it this way: “God doesn’t give sorrow to people unless he knows they can handle it.” Really? Well, he was wrong. I can’t handle this. And if he doesn’t give me more than I can handle, why do I need to depend on him? The last time I was depending on him, my child died. So, yeah. That’s not likely to happen again soon.
7. “You’ll see her again someday.”
Is that day today? Then no, this isn’t helpful. It’s minimally hopeful if I can be sure that it’s true, but there’s no Scripture to really support this belief. There’s inference and tradition and conjecture, but there’s no chapter and verse that says, “Infants who die go to heaven.” Besides, If I live an average life expectancy, I will have to live at least another fifty years of missing her. ”Someday” could be a long, long time from now.
8. “Look at all of God’s blessings in this situation already! At least_______”
All of your “at leasts” aren’t blessings to me. Anything you say that starts with “at least” only minimizes my feelings.
9. “Just read [insert Bible verses here] and you’ll feel better.”
Passages that have been suggested to me include verses about God’s judgment, the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, a passage instructing me that my heart is deceitful and wicked, and other similarly “helpful” Scriptures. This advice also assumes that I know no Scripture to which I can turn. You know which verse has been ever on my mind ever since the day my child died? “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve been reading the Bible for almost thirty years. I know where to find verses. Not too many of them are helpful right now. Bludgeoning me with Romans 8:28 is especially painful.
10. ”Just trust God. He is in control.”
I was trusting God at the time my baby died. She still died. If God is in control, that assumes that he killed my baby. My sweet, smiling, dimpled baby. If he didn’t kill her, he stood by while she died and didn’t stop it. Still guilty. I’d much rather believe that fate or chance had a hand in her death. I’m a lot more likely to have a continued relationship with someone who didn’t cause my baby’s death, either directly or indirectly.<
11. “This happened for God’s glory. Maybe someone might even get saved!”
This has been said to me with much excitement and expectation. You mean to tell me that God couldn’t have orchestrated some other way to get glory or reveal himself to someone? Or that some person out there is going to say, “Oh! God allowed ‘T’s’ baby to die. I should start a relationship with him and trust him with MY life!” Doubt it. And even if that actually did happen, should I then feel that this was all worth it?
12. “This world is not our home. She’s in a better place now.”
Yeah? Well, I live here right now, so it’s my home. If you actually believe this, why haven’t you committed suicide yet? As for me, I’d finally be in a better place if I died, too? And no, I’m not at all suicidal. I’m just saying that no matter where she is, I’m in a really painful place right now.
13. “Just imagine what tragedy or heartbreak God saw in your baby’s future that he decided to save her from.”By killing her? I’m sure there was another possible work-around or two. For that matter, this has been a devastating tragedy and heartbreak for me. Why didn’t I die as an infant so I wouldn’t have to go through this now?
14. “God will carry you through.”
If this is the kind of thing God is going to carry me through, I’d like him to please put me down.
15. ”Be thankful for what you have.”
The assumption here is that I wasn’t thankful before (I was), that I’m not thankful now (I am), and further minimizes the loss I feel. How do you suggest that I answer even the simplest question of how many children I have? I’m thankful for what I have AND for what I no longer have. It’s impossible to answer this question correctly now. Similar, but even more guilt-producing is “You have your husband and children to think about now.” Thank you for the suggestion that my grief and pain are invalid by comparison and should be left unmanaged for the good of my family. See? There. I was thankful.
16. “Things will get better.”
When? How do you know? Because for me, bad things just keep happening. It can get worse and I can name at least fifty ways it could get worse right now. So don’t say that things will get better. It could go either way.
17. “Maybe God is trying to teach you something.”Well, maybe he could have just texted me the instructions instead. Seriously. All I’m learning is that God can do whatever he wants and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A similar platitude, “Maybe God is trying to draw you closer to himself”, is equally insulting. Can’t he see the future? Didn’t he know that using an infant’s death to deepen our relationship might backfire? Please don’t presume to know the mind of God or impart your opinion of it to me.
18. “She’s with the Lord now.”
She wasn’t before? How about the rest of my family? I’m not with the Lord? Well, I’m glad he’s with someone, I guess.
19. “I know how you feel. I felt exactly that way when my grandparent/great Aunt Lucy/Fluffy died or when my child was sick, but then got better. But I just prayed and kept my eyes on God and he got me through. He’ll get you through, too.”
You have no idea how I feel. I wouldn’t wish how I feel on anyone. And what will he get me through TO? Can you guarantee that whatever is on the other side of this trench in life is something less painful? Because whatever it is, it will be a life missing my child and all the things that loss means.
20. “I was so devastated when your child died that I couldn’t go to work that week/I’m still struggling a month later.”
Both of these are actual things said to me by people who had seen my baby fewer than six times in her whole life. Other ways people who barely knew her have tried to be a part of the drama and somehow connect themselves to this tragedy include Facebook statuses or tweets with her name as a hash tag, prayer requests without my permission or in inappropriate places, and most difficult: “How are you doing? Because I’m so sad that ____.” There was an expectation that I should comfort THEM. Exhausting.
21. “You should_____.”
Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t want to exercise more, eat better, read that great book about God, go to a grief support group, focus on God, get involved more at church, get alone with God, go away for a weekend without my kids, take sleeping pills, talk about it more, or think about it less. I can’t afford to take any more time off work. I can’t concentrate enough to do much of anything right now, honestly. And a bigger list of things I “should” be doing right now is simply not helpful.
22. “If you need anything, let me know. I’m here for you.”
No. I’m here. Alone. It’s not possible for you to be here for me or I’d gladly give it to you. I’m glad you want to help, and I don’t doubt your sincerity. But this comment is a substitute for any kind of real help. You’ve absolved yourself of actually helping me in any tangible or intangible way and placed the onus on me to come up with some idea of what I need. You know what I need? I need my child. Alive and giggling. I need the image of her lifeless in her crib out of my mind and the taste of her dead skin out of my mouth. I need her siblings to grow up with her. I need for my husband to have never experienced this depth of pain. If you can’t give me any of these things, you’re kind of on your own with suggestions for helping me. Maybe send a sympathy card. It will make you feel better.
23. “Well, I’ll pray for you.”
Aside from the doubt that exists over whether you’ll actually do it or not, how is this helpful? Who knows better than God what I need and why hasn’t he already given it to me? Your asking for it will make it magically appear? The worst part about this statement is that it usually comes at the end of your listening to me or grieving with me. As in, “You’re done now. I’ll pray for you, okay? You’re making me uncomfortable with your intense sadness and hard questions.”
I know that I haven’t left you anything to say. Maybe that’s the point. I also know that, if you’re a typical Christian, you’re defensive and even deeply wounded by what I’ve said here. You’re thinking, “But remember, here’s what God is REALLY like and here’s where you’re wrong. Here’s where you need to adjust your theology and get your heart right with God.”
Whether you like it or not, no matter how uncomfortable this makes you feel, no matter what you believe or even what I believe, these things you’ve said are not helpful to me. In fact, many of them are so hurtful that I’ve been awake more than one night trying to work through them.
Maybe someday I’ll be ready to accept my child’s death with a little more grace. But for now, I’m afraid you’ll have to stick with, “This sucks,” or a simple, “I’m sorry.” You know what’s even better? The sound you make when you stay quiet.
The funeral industry as we know it now in America allows for some of the greatest examples of both human graces and disgraces. The disgraces are all too publicized, and rightfully so. Most of us may remember the 334 bodies found in the back yard of the Tri-State Crematory in Georgia. Instead of fixing their retort, the crematory simply placed the bodies in the back yard to decompose and in place of the actual cremated remains, they gave the families boxes filled with wood chips, cement powder and wood ashes.
Many of us have seen the Nightline reports where funeral directors were caught bypassing laws on a regular basis, trying to scam money off of the elderly and acting more like greedy salesmen than compassionate professionals. Unfortunately, there are many funeral directors who are all too willing to use disadvantaged people to their own advantage. It’s ugly. It’s exploitation at its most base level. Yet, it happens. The unfortunate result of mixing grief clouded minds and greed poisoned hearts.
But, there are those of us who work hard, with undying honesty and integrity, sweating yellow tinged stains on our white collars. We withstand the sweat rolling down our backs into our cracks on the hot summer days as we stand in the caustic sun at the graveside. My great grandfather used to mow the funeral home yard in his shirt and tie. We’re probably still the only practitioners who ask for winter suits … they only make the medium grade suits today because white collar workers just aren’t out in the cold. Our backs are one of the main occupational hazards in this industry. And we get dirty too … crimson red on a bright white cotton shirt. Our collars may be white but our hearts are bleeding blue.
There are those funeral directors who see their profession as a calling; who find a sacredness to their calling, as though there was something spiritual about their work. As though they are more so ministers than death merchants. They are understanding, compassionate, hard-working, service oriented people who are more concerned about the richness of life in death then the wealth of their bank accounts. There are those who give their services for free to the less fortunate and downtrodden. Those of us who push families to buy caskets under their financial means instead of over. There are those of us who go above and beyond our contract expectations; who spend that extra five hours making the car accident victim viewable so that the family can see him one more time. There are those of us who offer more than just pre-need and at-need services … those of us who are there for the family months after the fact. There are those of us who understand that our integrity and honest direction can make Death a lot less hard for a whole lot of people.
The ancient and famed Egyptian embalmers understood that to be good death practitioners you also had to have religious and moral over and under tones in your life. And although we don’t divine like Egyptians, there are those of us who view this profession first as a practice of spirituality and secondly as a business; and, who do both with a strong work ethic. That’s the mold that I’m trying to fit into. A blue, white and clerical collar.
Here’s some psychological, biblical and historical evidence to provide some support that Jesus died from the “broken heart syndrome” (technically a psychosomatic phenomena called “stress-induced cardiomyopathy“).
Older couples that have been married for many years suffer intense grief when their spouse suddenly dies. Some times the husband and wife are so close that when the one dies, the other will end up dying soon after because of pain of being separated from their loved one.
People have studied the psychosomatic effects of rejection and separation. Dr. James Lynch wrote a book called, The Broken Heart, in which he states:
“stress, pain, anxiety, fear and rage sometimes appear in indexes of textbooks on the heart but never love. In surprising number of cases of premature coronary heart disease and premature death, interpersonal unhappiness, the lack of love and human loneliness, seem to appear as root causes of the physical problems.
We have learned that human beings have varied and at times profound effects on the cardiac systems of other human beings. Loneliness and grief often overwhelm bereaved individuals and the toll taken on the heart can be clearly seen. As the mortality statistics indicate this is not myth or romantic fairy tale. All available evidence suggests that people do indeed die of broken hearts”
Dr. Arthur Brown has been acknowledged by over sixty medical journals and publications for his findings. His findings also suggest a major relationship between heart disease and emotional stress.
Dr. David Jenkins states in the New England Journal of Medicine, “that a broad array of recent studies point with ever increasing certainty to the position that certain psychological, social and behavioral conditions do put persons at a higher risk of clinically manifest coronary disease”.
Dr. George Ingle from Rochester University Medical School, did a careful study for six years that explored the backgrounds of 170 sudden heart attack deaths. His studies showed that a great majority of sudden death cases had a close personal lose precede their death.
Grief is proportional to intimacy.
The more you love somebody, the more you are hurt when that person dies or rejects you. Can you be so close to somebody that their rejection can literally break your heart?
The Biblical Evidence
Jesus had a great amount of rejection and grief. Let’s look first at what the Bible says about Jesus’ rejection.
“He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hid their face, he was despised, and we did not esteem Him” Isaiah 53:3.
“Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone (the stone refers to Jesus) which the builders (teachers of Israel) rejected, this became the chief corner stone;” Matthew 21:42.
“But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance.’ And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” Matthew 22:38-39.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” Matthew 23:37.
“But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” Luke 17:25.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and world did not know Him. He came to His own and those who were his own did not receive Him” John 1:10-11.
“And you are unwilling to come to me that you might have life” John 5:40.
“’They hated Me without cause’” John 15:25b.
These are a few passages that talk about Jesus’ rejection. There are others that state or imply His rejection by the world that He “so loved.” Several of the parables are about how the multitudes rejected Jesus. The parable of the landowner (Matt. 21:33-42), and the parable of the wedding feast (Matt.22:2-10) both depict the rejection of Jesus.
The scripture makes it clear that our Lord and Savior was rejected by the majority of those He loved.
Since love suffers when it cannot give
and intimacy is proportional to grief
we would assume that Jesus must have had an overwhelming grief.
The Bible states clearly that Jesus did indeed have great amounts of grief.
In Matthew chapter 26 verses 37 through 38, Matthew writes,
“And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death (italics added); remain here and keep watch with Me.’”
The entire chapter of Isaiah 53 describes Jesus’ grief. Here are the excerpts: “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”; “surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows he carried”; “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief”; and “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied”.
The gospel of Luke (22:44) states, “And being in agony he was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.”
C. Truman Davis, M.D. writes in his book, The Crucifixion of Jesus,
“Though very rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat”.
Jesus bloody sweat is evidence of great grief.
The crucifixion was a horrible means of putting somebody to death. The criminal was nailed onto the cross in such a way that his legs would be bent at the knees. The bend in the knees placed all the criminals weight on his arms. This, of course, hurt the hands, but it did more than hurt the hands. The position that the cross placed the criminal in would cause muscle cramps throughout his body.
C. Truman Davis states (speaking of Jesus), “Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled” This disabled the criminal to let out his breath. In order to prevent suffocation, the criminal would have to push up with his legs to change position. After spasmodically pushing up with his legs, the criminal would take a quick breath of air before letting himself back down again.
The criminal would eventually die of asphyxiation, or suffocation. It was said that a strong man could hang on the cross, some say, up to ten days before their bodies were so tired that they could not continue the process to get breath. Jesus, who was most likely a healthy man (he was a carpenter) was on the cross for only six hours before He died (Mark 15:25, 33). Pilate, himself was astonished that Jesus died so quickly (Mark 15: 42-44).
The Roman soldiers were surprised Jesus died so quickly. The Jews did not want the bodies of the criminals to remain on the cross over the Sabbath, so they
“asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; (breaking the legs disabled the criminals to push up so that they could exhale the carbon dioxide; thus, the criminal would suffocate to death) but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs” John 19:31-33.
Jesus was in his early to middle thirties and was most likely a strong man since He was a carpenter and walked most everywhere He went. If Jesus did die the normal crucifixion death, why did He die so quickly? Couldn’t he have lived longer on the cross?
We read in John’s gospel (John 19:34) that “one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water.” C. Truman Davis writes concerning the medical significance of the blood and water, “We, therefore, have rather conclusive post-mortem evidence that Our Lord died, not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure…” (8). Heart failure that began to develop in the garden when Jesus was sweating blood, continued to build when he was rejected by many of his disciples and came to utter fruition when his people nailed him to a cross.
Let me suggest that Jesus died from stress-induced cardiomyopathy as a result of the rejection and grief he experienced as he walked the world.
Final thoughts from theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff:
God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our suffering, sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffer. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love. Suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. The tears of God are the meaning of history.