Our heads know that death brings new life yet our hearts are pierced with grief.
The loveseat was one of my favorite spots when I was a kindergartner. But as we cuddled one afternoon, Mommy said that Daddy had died at work. Life and Death. A paradox at any point in life. Our heads know that death brings new life; our hearts are pierced with grief. The reaction to death depends on many factors, including our age. Preschoolers have difficulty understanding reversibility: “Grandpa went to heaven” may be thought of as similar to, “Grandpa went to Florida.” A preschooler says, “I wish she was never born.” and then blames himself when the baby dies of SIDS.
During the school years, children think in literal terms. I remember hearing in Mass that if my faith was the size of a mustard seed then I would be able to move mountains! I was overjoyed because my prayers would bring Daddy back to life just like Lazarus! I prayed for two years and then realized that I had forgotten to ask God to bring him back to life AND to our home. I pictured Daddy wandering around lost in a foreign country. Adolescents are capable of abstract thought and understand the permanence of death; they may need to work through their feelings about deaths that have occurred earlier in their lives.
Grieving can be compared to the layers of an onion. We may feel that we have resolved our grief only to find another layer of the onion when the scent of a familiar after shave brings a stab of pain. Allow individuals to express grief in their own ways, support one another through prayer. In the words of the Psalmist: “May your love comfort me in accord with your promise to your servant. Show me compassion that I may live...” (Psalm 119:76-77)
5 stages of grief
Examples based on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ 1969 book, On Death and Dying.
1 Denial: This can’t be happening to me. Are you sure the lab tests weren’t mixed up?
2 Anger: How could you let this happen, God? I’ve always been faithful to you.
3 Bargaining: All I want is to see my children grown. Do this God, and then I’ll die in joy.
4 Depression: I’ll never see another autumn, never make snow angels with my children again.
5 Acceptance: My journey is over; I don’t feel any strong emotions. I feel peaceful and for me, death has no sting.
“Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55
Recent research has shown that the stages of denial, anger, and depression cycle in a not-so-orderly progression. The bargaining stage is usually momentary. The acceptance stage is often more difficult for loved ones left behind.