In Death or Depression: Defeat Need Not Be Final
By Neil Earle
It was back in 1969 that a therapist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross charted a pattern (now well-known) that often overtakes people suffering from extreme pain and loss. This could include those of us caught in the crushing throes of the death of a loved one (especially now), 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. Two years are usually allotted for recovery from this major life trauma to work itself out. Some never get over it and in a counter-intuitive way – I encouraged one new widow – that can be taken as a measure of stalwart devotion. 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 and the hollowed-out feeling of failure somewhere along life’s way.
The Book of Proverbs is the Practical Wisdom part of the Bible. It advises us more than once to ponder where we are going on life’s journey, to “consider the path of our feet,” analyze where we have been (4:26) and project a better future. “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 a review of Kübler-Ross’ seven stages can be helpful. Wise counselors know these are not infallible stages or 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” as our emotions send us into a topsy-turvy spell or we may experience two stages simultaneously. Yet all of us closely involved with people – which, on one level, is what church is all about – should know something about these seven stages of shock and grief.
- Denial – We think: “I don’t believe this: 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: God’s command to teach his country’s mortal enemy. Of course, this initial denial as a 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) and that is never good for the long-term.
- Anger – “Why me? This is not fair?” Remember Cain’s attitude? The anger reaction often becomes a problem in itself. It can render the afflicted person quite difficult to reach, let along help. In facing defeat, there are often emotional tides of misplaced rage and envy to work through which are like barricades that prevent a good diagnosis to occur as Scott Peck notes in his classic, The Road Less Traveled.
Envy often enters to suck us further down the dark funnel of negativity. “Why is Joe still working and I am not?” “How comes Susan gets all the breaks?” Anger must subside somewhat before we are even ready to listen to counsel. It is like an invisible shield where even wise counsel bounces off. Wicked King Ahab, husband of Jezebel, had twisted himself around so much with anger that Elijah the Prophet was see as his enemy. Innumerable scriptures and counselors warn us about feeding 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 the sorely tested human Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39)? Here was a form of bargaining at first, though Jesus soon mastered it. That is one way he was equipped to be our God-Helper and Wise Counselor. He now offers help to guide us through every crisis (John 14:1-4).
- Depression – This is often the result of emotional exhaustion, letting our negativity take right over. “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.
The Book of Ruth is very rich in pointing us to a hopeful future. Naomi had lost a husband and two sons in quick succession. Disease was apparently rife according to the Hebrew names given her sons (Ruth 1:5 = “weakness” and “pining”). Notice how Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law wanted to be alone, “Go back my daughters, go back” she told her daughters-in-law. She babbled on about not being able to get married again in order to provide future husbands for Ruth and Orpah. 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 and Ruth was there to help bear Naomi’s grief. Read the end of the book to see how “all things worked together for good” (Romans 8:28).
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 to his firm friends about his troubles rather than bottling hurts and anguish up inside where the emotions and negativity can fester away. Paul, too, eventually won his battle.
- Then, an Upward Turn – “It doesn’t hurt as much.” Time is a great healer and after a while our inbuilt recuperative powers begin to rally. There comes a dawning recognition at a deep-psycho-spiritual level that something has changed, that these experiences seem to have miraculously broadened and deepened us 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 from 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.”
Yes, truly, 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 may you and I. This is where earnest heartfelt prayer matters so much.
- Reconstruction Slowly Begins – “By God’s grace, I can face this.” Realism returns. Notice Jesus’ take-charge attitude after wrestling with his weakness and fears 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 be able to play baseball but I can coach Little League.” “I may be still waiting for my next assignment but I can volunteer at the library.” This is how life works for most of us, so much so that it can be charted.
- A New Equilibrium Arrives – We have moved on to a new level. “What does God want me to do now?” We begin to see that life is an S shaped curve not a straight-angle upward trajectory. One purpose in our defeats is to help us 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). And with God on our side that confident declaration can be ours.