Grief, Part 6

Grief, Part 6

Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19

Understanding and identifying the five stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying,[1] are helpful in working through our shared journey towards death as well as with our grief over the passing of a loved one. Author David Kessler has proposed a sixth stage of grief: meaning. In his 2019 book, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,”[2] he draws from his own journey with grief following the loss of his 21-year-old son. Finding meaning in our grief is one way to help bring closure to the loss by encasing it in something more enduring. It is not that adding meaning resolves our grief, but transforming our grief into something consequential is one way to immortalize the value of what was lost. We can move forward in ways that honor those we loved.

The search for meaning can also manifest as we approach our own death. What has my life meant? Will I be remembered and, if so, what for and in what ways? Will anything of my life endure? Jesus seemed to have some of the same questions on the night before he died. As he shared his last meal with his disciples, he asked that every time they eat and drink that they remember him. It is curious that he seemed to fear being forgotten. He was a person of great humility, and yet he seemingly worried about his earthly legacy. Would everything he worked for on earth be forgotten soon after his last breath? Was Jesus a closet narcissist?

Kubler-Ross talks about the hope that is present with many dying patients right up to the time of death. She writes, “In listening to our terminally ill patients we were always impressed that even the most accepting, the most realistic patients left the possibility open for some cure, for the discovery of a new drug…”[3] Author Orison Swett Marden wrote, “There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow.”[4] Holding onto hope may be one way patients and family members extend their search for meaning. Death appears to be such a conclusive end, and as long as there is a tomorrow, there is hope that purpose and meaning can still manifest. I wonder, however, how many people who did not find meaning in life find it in dying.

I doubt that Jesus was worried about being forgotten for selfish reasons. Rather, Jesus knew we would need to remember him and his life-path for our good, not for his legacy. He realized that our natural tendency would be to revert to our old, self-centered, unneighborly ways. We would need constant reminders of the importance of serving others, particularly the poor, the sick, and those on the margins. We would need to remember we are loved and provided for so we need not horde or believe there is only so much goodness or love to go around. This was Jesus’ legacy and his way to create lasting meaning and purpose for his life. We seek similar meaning from ours.

Perhaps above all else, we fear being forgotten. Sometimes I wonder if those who end their lives with a wave of public and tragic violence don’t do so in order to transform an otherwise meaningless  life into something that will be remembered, if only for the horrible carnage left in its wake. It may be the only way some deranged people believe they will be noticed. Our never-ending search for meaning attempts to bring closure to our grief and to assign a meaningful purpose to our days on earth. It attempts to find expression for the importance we feel internally, even when it has not been acknowledged external to ourselves. From our own perspective, we are the center of the universe.

Finally, we can find meaning in our grief by standing in solidarity with the grieving of others. Everyone grieves. It is something we share regardless of our gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social status. Knowing and acknowledging that my grief and pain unites me with others, honoring their struggle alongside my own, not only gives meaning to my state but gives meaning to theirs, too.

This is the 39th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner. Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life NotesPodcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD, On Death and Dying. Scribner, New York, 1969.

[2] Kessler, David, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Scribner, 2019.

[3] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD, On Death and Dying. Scribner, New York, 1969, p. 134.

[4] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/orison_swett_marden_157900, accessed June 16, 2020.

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