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Posted by Rev. Jeff Dixon, Senior Equipping Minister at Covenant Community Church on Jan 2, 2009, 20:35

Counselor: I know how you feel. Death can be an awkward subject to talk about. It's not one that any of us look forward to discussing. It's the idea that death will affect someone else's life, but not mine. Not only do we feel uncomfortable talking about death, but we feel as if we'll live forever.

Here's the question, what happens when someone close to you has died?

Question: I don't know about you but from my experience the death of someone I knew was the toughest thing I'd ever dealt with. I mean it's something I'm still dealing with even now.

Counselor: You know, throughout most of history death like birth was accepted as another part of the life process. Everybody in the family was affected by the death. The whole family was even involved in the death process. They built the coffin, dug the grave, and even buried the body themselves. However, in the 20th century, especially in Western Europe and North America, people withdrew from the dying process. More people died alone in hospitals than at home with their families. Doctors and other professionals dealt with the death.

Question: I wasn't aware of that. But knowing that death is a part of life doesn't make it any easier to accept. What are some of the normal reactions people experience when a friend has died?

Counselor: Well a lot has been written about how we react to the death of someone we're close to. There are some factors which can affect how a person may react.

Question: Well such as what?

Counselor: Well, for one the quality of the relationship. In other words, the closer you are to the person who has died, the stronger the anxiety or grief you may experience.

Question: That makes sense. And surely I would hurt more if I'm closer to the person.

Counselor: That's right. Also, the manner of death plays a part. A sudden death such as an accident or even a violent death like a suicide or murder will catch us unprepared to accept the loss. Now suppose a mother has been suffering from cancer a few years and her death would be seen as a welcome visitor. Now that doesn't mean you feel no pain, but that you know that she will no longer feel any pain. So the length of the illness could also affect the grieving process. Let me say it this way. There is what's called an anticipatory grief. This can occur when both the dying person and the mourner know that death is soon to come. They cry together and they have opportunity to share their affection with one another. Grieving can take place before the actual loss. Remember this does not necessarily ease the pain, but there is opportunity to express affection and appreciation. Now in a sudden death where a person is not supposed to die, it becomes most difficult to accept and bear the pain.

Question: A person's emotional state and the help they get from others helps, too, right?

Counselor: That's right, it sure will.

Question: Well are there certain feelings to expect when a close friend or a loved one has died? I mean I know I would cry and really hurt inside, but could you explain some of these feelings?

Counselor: Well, first of all, there are certain stages or periods of grief that people will go through. Now these stages of grief do not follow a schedule, but for the most part they can be somewhat predicted. The stages are not clear-cut or well-defined. The length one person is in a certain stage can be different from another person's time in that same stage.

Question: Counselor, normally what is the first reaction to the loss?

Counselor: For most, the feeling of shock or numbness is felt first. I really believe that God gives us the feeling of shock to initially protect us. Shock helps buffer the reality of the loss. The person may appear distant or dazed or rational and calm. In a few hours or days the shock goes away and the fact of the loss hits home.

Question: I once heard someone say when they heard the news of a death, "I can't believe it." They weren't willing to accept the loss.

Counselor: For some there is a denial or disbelief. I remember when I was a senior in high school, late one night a classmate of mine accidentally shot himself. The next morning I saw my English teacher before school. She had the newspaper with the story of his death and I had not heard anything until then. My first words were "No, I can't believe it. He was at school yesterday, he can't be dead."

 We're hoping it's only a bad dream, but it's true. Later on the person begins to accept the death but then there's a sudden wave of sadness when the reality hits again. This particularly occurs on birthdays, holidays or the anniversary of the death. These feelings should be accepted and expected. You may even experience dreams about the person.

Question: You never really forget about the person, do you?

Counselor: No. You never do. Death cannot erase the memory of the person.

Question: What else?

Counselor: Well, after the shock and denial, then there's a flood of grief. Depression and despair may be felt, confused thinking may occur. There may also be irrational anger.

Question: Anger?

Counselor: Yes, anger at the doctor, hospital, parents, self or even the deceased person or even God. The person may question deep down inside-"Why did God allow this to happen? Why me?" This is a very real feeling of resentment or rage. Along with this anger may be feelings of regret or guilt.

Question: It seems as if a person may also want to get away from everyone and not even talk about it to escape the fact of death.

Counselor: Sure. And some might say "I can handle this," or even "Besides no one has ever experienced it before. No one understands me." They may withdraw and feel rejected by others.

Question: What about the feeling of wishing they had died in the other person's place?

Counselor: Yes. This guilt could cause an incredible emptiness and the feeling of not being willing to risk or trust anyone any more.

Question: This can be also depressing.

Counselor: The sad fact is that some people never really do work through the grief process. In fact, there are three things that can happen in any of these stages. First, the person can become fixated, that is they get stuck in a stage. Second, they can regress or move back to an earlier stage, and third, they can progress and move on to the next stage.

Question: Counselor, is there another stage after the depression?

Counselor: There is, and here is the hope. For most people the final stage is one of recovery or acceptance. This does not necessarily mean that they become happy, but that they will begin to deal with the loss.

Question: Well, does the acceptance stage mean that the person gets over the loss?

Counselor: No, it really doesn't. Reality is that you never completely get over the loss of a loved one, but you learn to live with it. Over time the flood of grief begins to subside and the pain eases. However, you may hear a favorite song or experience something you did with the lost person and this may cause an intense grief response.

Question: You know this grief process that you're talking about can be frightening.

Counselor: It is a terrible experience, but a temporary one. What's confusing about it all is the vast amount of feelings or reactions one can experience.

Question: The way I react to a loss may not be the way you react.

Counselor: Sure. You may sense that no one understands you and I may feel a wave of guilt or anger. Others may feel helpless and despair or even feel like they're going crazy. We all may have moments of uncontrollable crying which may lead to some physical reaction.

Question: Such as what?

Counselor: Well, maybe chest pain, sweating or nausea. These would be reactions to our inner feelings of grief. Grief does not necessarily need to be a frightening experience. However, not knowing about or not expecting these feelings may be frightening to you when they do occur.

Question: What are some suggestions you could offer to someone who has lost someone close to them?

Counselor: First of all, remember that there are complicated and powerful emotions following a loss. Expect them to take place, not necessarily in the order I described. Be careful not to compare your grief process with someone else's.

Question: This reminds me that the rest of us need to sympathize and really listen to the person.

Question: Yeah, and not ignore the pain they are experiencing.

Counselor: You're both right. Be patient with the person and even realize that you may feel uncomfortable when they talk about the deceased person. Do listen. The grief process is often a lengthy process and they need your support for months and perhaps even years.

Question: It seems to me that one of the most important things for the person who has lost a loved one needs to do is talk about it to get their feelings out.

Counselor: That's the key. In lots of ways our society does not really encourage sharing feelings with others. Because death is an awkward topic, we want to avoid talking about it. Honest communication is important. If you can, let them know what you need. Anger, guilt, hurt, pain and any other feeling is best dealt with when you talk about it. This may be difficult to do, but must be done in order to avoid serious depression. If grief cannot be expressed, then other indirect emotions or results may cripple your life.

Question: But what are some other suggestions?

Counselor: I would also say, don't rush yourself through the grief process. Remember that it takes time. Sometimes one to two years. And try not to push yourself back to a normal life.

Question: Counselor, earlier you mentioned some physical reactions to grief such as chest pain, sweating and nausea. Could a person also lose his appetite and not even want to sleep or eat?

Counselor: Both of these are common. In addition there may be overeating or loss of energy or tiredness and difficulty concentrating. It's important for the person to get plenty of rest and to eat properly and to exercise. Our emotions do affect our health.

Question: Can medicine from a doctor help a person grieving?

Counselor: In some cases it could, but it should only be used temporarily and cautiously. Medication could delay the grieving process.

Question: And it seems to me that a person who is experiencing loss is really not in a position to make any major decisions.

Counselor: That's right. They should avoid making any immediate decisions since their emotions are so intense and confused. That's another good suggestion.

Question: You know, I can't imagine not being a Christian and trying to deal with all of these emotions.

Counselor: You're right. Being a Christian does not make the pain go away, but we do have the assurance that God does care and He understands. Psalm 18 verse 6 says "In my distress I called upon the Lord and cried to my God for help. He heard my voice out of His temple and my cry for help before Him came into His ears."

Now the shortest verse in the Bible gives us an idea of Jesus' humanity. Jesus has been where you and I have been or where you and I will be or even where you and I are now. John 11:35 simply says "Jesus wept." Jesus understands grief. He understands our hurt because He has experienced the loss of a friend. Read about this in John chapter 11. Notice how Jesus responded with His emotions to the loss of His friend, Lazarus.

Question: Jesus had the same reaction to the death of a friend as you and I have when we lose someone close to us. I've read about this story of Jesus and His friend Lazarus before. But I have different feelings about it now.

Question: Jesus did grieve. He experienced hurt and pain, He was open in expressing His feelings.

Counselor: This story teaches us a good example of experiencing the loss of someone close to us. Grief when expressed and death when accepted will give a greater meaning to our personal growth.

Please remember that this mock discussion is just a starting point and is offered as good advice. For more assistance please seek the help of a professional counselor, minister, or talk to someone with wisdom to help you deal with death and the loss of a loved one.

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