[This is a chapter from The Edge of Life – Dying, Death and Euthanasia, by John R. Ling.  It will be launched at Pwllheli 2002.  It is published by Day One, pp. 274, £8.99. ISBN 1 903087 30 9]

Losses are a function of human life - we are all acquainted with them.  Everyone has already lost yesterday, our childhood has also long gone, and by now, many of life’s opportunities have vanished.  But do not let this sort of introspection make you miserable.  Come on - we still have today, we have put away childish things, and new prospects and horizons are before us.  Those notwithstanding, we must admit that growing old brings with it a unique set of losses.  They may be work-related, such as fading job satisfaction.  They may be due to retirement and therefore include losses of a working role, the social aspects of employment, income, and so forth.  They may also be due to declining health, like sensory losses, mental losses, physical incapacities, losses of independence, and the like.

Loss as bereavement
And decisively, there is the loss associated with death - bereavement.  This experience is common to all men, women and children, Christian and non-Christian.  If you have not experienced it yet, you will.  It can be potentially dangerous to our health - as many as a third of bereaved people develop a depressive illness, albeit, mostly of a temporary nature.  However, bereavement need not be such a feared and damaging experience because there is good evidence that it can also bring about maturity and wisdom.  And, because of its universality, bereavement, like death, can, and should, be anticipated and prepared for.

Expressing and coping with grief
The death of a loved one, even when expected, is a time of emotional turmoil for the bereaved.  The Christian must show self-control (Galatians 5:23), and is not ‘… to grieve like the rest

of men, who have no hope’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  Nevertheless, grief is a Christian emotion.  After all, ‘Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him’ (Acts 8:2), and ‘Jesus wept’ at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus (John 11:35).  Sorrow and mourning at the death of a Christian are real and to be expressed, though they are to be mingled with hope and joy because, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on’ (Revelation 14:13).  Many of us have experienced that warm blend of solid joy and genuine sorrow at a believer’s funeral.

On the other hand, many have felt dejected and despondent when it is an unbeliever who is being buried.  The sorrow and mourning at the death of a non-Christian may also be genuine, but they cannot be mingled with hope and joy.  Family and close friends who continue to reject Christ will cause us to have, ‘… great sorrow and unceasing anguish …’ (Romans 9:2).  Yet, usually, we can never be sure that such rejection has persisted until death - there is that hope of the deathbed conversion.

So, like dying and death, bereavement can be a tough time - Christians and non-Christians alike can go through the emotional mangle.  The bereaved want to cry, look back, and search for what has been lost.  Of all the emotions that accompany bereavement, grief is the chief.  Typically, the bereaved pass through three phases of grieving.  The first phase is the distress that occurs around the actual time of death.  This is often suppressed, and a period of numbness, lasting for hours, or even days, can follow.  Second, there are usually intense feelings of pining for the dead person, often coupled with severe anxiety.  Appetites are lost, daily routines go awry, mental concentration is short, and the person can become irritable and depressed.  Then the third phase of grieving occurs, when disorganization, and misery, and gloom can become established.

The expression of these phases of grief, which are usually jumbled up with additional emotions like shock, disbelief, relief and denial, can be vastly variable.  They do not automatically occur in a strict order, nor are they necessarily passed through

only once.  For example, while it can be quite normal for a widow to weep every day over the loss of her husband, if this continues for more than a year, there may be cause for concern.  On the other hand, some people express little or no emotion, and that can be equally undesirable.

Physical changes can also be apparent.  For example, body weight often fluctuates - during the first four months of bereavement, it is lost, then it returns, then, by perhaps month six, overweight can set in.  Thereafter, good signs usually begin to gather momentum.  There is a slow return to caring for personal appearance, the renewal of social contacts, and, usually within two years, most bereaved people will recognize that they are recovering.

The vast majority of people do readjust, move on, and re-engage with society.  However, for a few, the trauma of bereavement can prove to be too much.  As Alvin Toffler observed (p. 299), long ago in his rather sensationalist book, Future Shock, (Pan Books, 1970), ‘The death of a spouse … is almost universally regarded as the single most impactful change that can befall a person in the normal course of his life.’  Toffler also noted (p. 303), ‘… that death rates among widows and widowers, during the first year after the loss of a spouse, are higher than normal … the shock of widowhood weakens resistance to illness and tends to accelerate ageing.’  A generation on, Toffler’s remarks are still true.

Helping the bereaved
However, such losses can be minimized, if not eventually overcome, and that will happen sooner and better, if the appropriate help is at hand.  Principled compassion is the great need of bereaved people.  For the elderly, especially the confused, careful explanations, perhaps seeing the body, attending the funeral service, and visits to the grave, can help settle the often-repeated questions.  Simple tokens can be profoundly beneficial - a phone call, a written note, or an apple pie can be so effective.  An appropriate touch or hug can sometimes be more helpful than many, or any, words.  The

bereaved should be reassured that their emotional experiences are nothing other than normal.  Accurate and honest answers should be given to questions.  These are the proper ways forward.  The first anniversary of a death can be an especially difficult time.  Some bereaved people need to know that their obligations to the dead loved one have been completed and that they have permission, and the opportunity, to move on with their lives.  Though the typically-observed, initial episodes of intense grief will lessen with time, they may never entirely disappear - events, such as anniversaries and family gatherings, can easily trigger deep and fond memories of the absent loved one.

All this can be a hard time for the Christian, as well as the non-Christian, for none is immune to the effects of bereavement.  Christian faith will be tested and previously-held beliefs may well be questioned.  Of course, prayer, fellowship, worship, and the reading of Scripture are the great comforts for the Christian.  This is undoubtedly a ‘time of need’, so Hebrews 4:16 must be applied, ‘… so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us …’  Pity the poor non-Christians with no such comforts - they need help.

We should be careful not to dismiss the emotions of the bereaved as ‘perfectly understandable’ and thereby miss the real opportunity to help them.  Nor should we adopt, or recommend, the stiff-upper lip approach.  This is stoicism and it is not the Christian way.  Upon hearing of the death of his friend, Lazarus, the Lord Jesus Christ ‘… was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33).  The result was that ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35) - the shortest verse in the Bible, but also one of its most tender.

Children and bereavement
It is not only the elderly who die, nor is it only adults who are bereaved - children also die, and they too are bereaved.  About 3,000 babies and youngsters die each year in the UK.  The death of a child is one of the most painful and heart-rending preludes to bereavement, especially for the parents and siblings.  Parental death also affects something like 40,000 under-19-year-olds each year in the UK.  And, of course, children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and more distant family relatives, also die.  Children should never be excluded from the actualities of death - it can only make bereavement harder for them to bear.  If Mum or Dad is dying, they should be told - they should never be lied to.

The death of a sibling or a parent can be especially difficult for a child to bear.  The child may feel anger and frustration towards the one who has died, and then guilt for even entertaining such emotions.  Children should certainly not be dismissed as ‘resilient’ and therefore ‘best left out’ of these matters.  Children, as young as two or three years old, can have some understanding of death, and between the ages of five and eight their understanding can be well-informed.  Explanations and some forewarning of the imminence and inevitability of the death of a family member can help children prepare for bereavement.  Attending a funeral service can also be advantageous, but they should be protected from excessive public expressions of grief.

Bereavement can be a good time for parents to explain the veracities of life and death, heaven and hell to their children.  Above all, it is a time to be sensitive to their dear offspring.  Similarly, for teenagers, bereavement can precipitate huge personal and spiritual turmoil, but also personal development.  It is here that the Christian parent or close relative can shine in displaying care and compassion.  In God’s providence, these are great pastoral opportunities - we should make the most of them.

This was never intended to be the definitive guide to bereavement.  There are good books to read and, hopefully, there are good people within your own circle to talk to.  The concern here has been to provide some outline of what we might expect to happen during the common course of bereavement.  After all, we are all going to experience it, probably several times within our own life span.  And the best recoveries are seen among those who are best prepared to face it.