By Neil Earle
It was back in 1969 that a therapist named Elizabeth Kubler-Ross charted a pattern that often overtakes people suffering from extreme pain and loss. This could includes those of us caught in the throes of the death of a loved one, an unexpected and/or painful divorce, or even an embarrassing job loss as well as the ordinary shocks and setbacks along life’s way.
Death of a spouse has always been listed near the top of the stress scale with two years the usual period allotted for recovery from this major life trauma to work itself out. Some counselors claim that divorce can mean as long as 2-5 years in recovery because there are the necessary interactions with the former partner to be experienced as well as the stigma still attaching to divorce in large parts of our culture.
The Book of Proverbs advises us to consider the path of our feet, where we are going, where we have been (4:26). It’s important to know what could be ahead – “a wise man foresees the evil,” it says in Proverbs 22:3. And Jesus said we would have tribulation (trouble) in this world (John 16:33). Here’s where an awareness of the seven stages can be helpful. Wise counselors know these are not infallible of Fate-determined. There may be no neat stage of progression from one stage to the next – we humans are more complicated than that. In reality there is much looping back or even experiencing of two stages simultaneously. Yet all of us closely involved with people – which is what church is all about – should know something about these seven stages of shock and grief.
Denial – “This is not really happening.” Think of Jonah, down in the hold of the ship (in the pre-natal shock position – perhaps?) trying to escape God’s will in the middle of a raging storm (Jonah 1). Escape God by sailing west? What could he, a prophet of God, have been thinking? But he was probably in shock and psychic numbing from a totally unexpected turn of events in his life. Denial, shock, this natural defense mechanism may not be all bad. It “buys us time,” helps get us through the first waves of the crisis. But… indulged in too long it begins to screen out reality after a while (Proverbs 18:19).
Anger – “Why me? It’s not fair?” Remember Cain’s attitude? Anger often renders the afflicted person quite difficult to help. In facing defeat, there are often emotional tides of misplaced rage and envy to work through. Envy of others is common. “Why are they still working and I am not?” Anger must subside somewhat before we are even ready to listen to counsel. Or act on it. Innumerable texts talk about avoiding anger. It can become like a drug. And it throws up a barrier between us and reality.
Bargaining – “God, I’ll do this if you will…” or “Take my life and not my son’s.” Remember Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39)? Here was a form of bargaining at least, though Jesus soon mastered it. He tells us he can help us through this (John 14:1-4).
Depression – “What’s the use? Why bother with anything?” This is not clinical, organically-based depression but a sustained period of sad reflection and self-examination. We may all face a bout of this at least once in our lives and it is very common after a job loss. Finally grasping the true magnitude of the loss can be overwhelming at first (Ruth 1:11-13). The person often wants to be left alone…but this is not wise.
Notice how Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law wanted to be alone, “Go back my daughters, go back.” She babbled on about not being able to get married again to provide future husbands for Ruth and Orpah. But that was not the issue. Naomi may have been a bit “out of it” as we say. Depression will do that to us for a while. But things worked out much better than she ever imagined (Ruth 4). “A trouble shared is a trouble halved,” wise people say. In 2 Corinthians 1 the apostle Paul opened himself up about his own “sentence of death.” If you’re just back from the doctor with a dire prognosis perhaps you can relate to the string of stresses he outlines here and in 2 Corinthians 11. Paul is not venting uncontrollably. This is speaking truthfully rather than bottling hurts and anguish up inside where the emotions and negativity can fester away.
Upward Turn – “It doesn’t hurt as much.” There is recognition at a deep-psycho-spiritual level that something has changed, widened and broadened inside. In 1968 Senator Robert Kennedy, running for President, had to break the news to a black audience in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King had been killed. Bobby spoke eloquently form the back of a flatbed truck some words he had learned from the Greek poet Aeschylus (525-456 BC) that helped him cope with his brother’s death five years earlier: “And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awe-full grace of God.”
There is wisdom out there to help us in our setbacks and defeats. The apostle Paul said he learned from both Greeks and barbarians (Romans 1:14). Paul himself learned to tap those God-given inner resources that act like antibodies to grief (Romans 5:1-5). So can you and I. This is where prayer matters so much.
Reconstruction – “By God’s grace, I can face this.” Realism returns. Notice Jesus’ take-charge attitude after wrestling in prayer at Gethsemane (Matthew 25:46). The afflicted person takes the first hesitant steps back towards full – and perhaps fuller-immersion in life. This is a healthy sign. “I might not have my old job but I can coach Little League.” “I may be waiting for my next assignment but I can volunteer at the library.”
A New Equilibrium – “What does God want me to do now?” We begin to see that life is an S shaped curve. We become more useful to others and thus more eager to fulfill God’s will in our lives (Matthew 26:42). And that, after all, is why we are here. “Be of good cheers,” said Jesus, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).