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What Are the Stages of Grief?
Grief is a highly subjective phenomenon which is different for each person, and yet to an outside observer, can seem similar across different people. Kubler-Ross (1969) describes five stages of grief people experience during periods of loss, and provides a general outline of what they can expect. These five stages are not to be understood as a definitive rule, but as a guideline for understanding how grief works. Wolterstorff’s (1987) story about the loss of his son demonstrates both the uniqueness and universality of the grieving experience. This paper will explore the story of Lament for a Son with respect to the five stages of grief model in order to demonstrate that a Christian approach to grief is similar to any other person’s approach.
How Does Wolterstorff Find Joy After His Loss?
Wolterstorff (1987) discusses his pain as something that sticks with him but fades with time. Joy is something that he is capable of feeling alongside his pain, and he demonstrates this in his continued faith and hope for the future. The author describes a situation in which his son occupied such a prominent place in his heart that every day immediately following his death was almost unbearable. The complete eradication of the pain is not something that Wolterstorff (1987) describes as wanting. Instead, the continuing pain shows respect to his son and acknowledges his existence and the bond they shared.
According to Kubler-Ross (1969) the five stages of grief cover a range of emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is acceptance that Wolterstorff (1987) seems to be displaying in his most joyful moments within the narrative. However, the author cycles back through the other stages of grief showing his anger, denial, and depression. This is due to the fact that the model is a fluid one, accounting for the fact that people bounce between the different stages and revisit them in no particular order. Therefore, acceptance is not necessarily the end of the negative aspects of grief. The author is able to experience joy and acceptance along with his grief and depression.
The Significance of Death in the Christian Narrative
According to Shelly and Miller (2006), death is a direct result of humanity’s sinful nature. Death did not exist until the fall of man entered into the world (Romans 5:12, New International Version). Jesus, the Savior, died as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind to save them from death. This means that humans will die, as is their fate, but will be resurrected and saved from the second death, which is hell. And so death is still something to be feared as it is a punishment and a sign of humanity’s sinful nature. Though Jesus saved humanity from death, it is still something that affects people negatively (Romans 6:3-5; Revelation 20:6).
The significance of death in Christianity is also summed up well in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, in which Christians are told not to feel hopeless in their grief, for this is a trait of nonbelievers who do not know that the dead will be resurrected someday. It tells Christians that a resurrection will occur and that death is not the end, nor is it the last time loved ones will see each other. But this still does not say that Christians cannot fear death or that they should have no regard for it, there is a comforting aspect to the knowledge of a resurrection. It is something to look forward to, but as Wolterstorff (1987) describes, it is not something that entirely takes away the pain of grief.
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How does the hope of the resurrection play a role in comforting Wolterstorff?
In John 16:22 the resurrection is described as a time in which the dead will come back to life and their eternal fate of heaven or hell decided. Wolterstorff (1987) does not show any real comfort in the notion of the resurrection, despite the charge to Christians in 1 Thessalonians. He has doubts that there will even be a resurrection and wonders why God cannot simply bring his son back to him now. He cannot fathom why he must wait until some unknown time in the future to see his son again. He even specifically questions if it could be true that someday he will hear his son’s voice. This struggle is very real, and the concept of a resurrection is more than hypothetical to the author; it is personal and difficult to grasp.
Rather than the resurrection improving his emotional state, Wolterstorff (1987) shows anger with God and a wavering in his beliefs. The author’s joy is something that is accomplished in spite of his fears about a resurrection. As the author experiences a crisis of faith, he redoubles his efforts to trust God and ultimately appears to be stronger in his belief in it. In this way, the resurrection acts as a backdrop for the author to understand and assess his grief. People of different cultures experience grief differently, and the author’s culture is one in which a resurrection of the dead will someday occur.
It is worth noting that the author’s conversation with God in which he expresses confusion over why he cannot see his son immediately is a kind of bargaining. Kubler-Ross (1969) explains that bargaining is not literally an attempt to convince God that death should not occur or should be reversed, but is a way to process what is happening and explore one’s feelings on the matter and cope with the fact that the other possibilities have not happened. Wolterstorff’s (1987) conversations with God can be seen as him trying to process what has happened and that he will never, in this life, see his son again.
Universal to All People
Christianity teaches that Jesus has conquered death and that all believers have hope for a resurrection. However, this does not mean that Christians are immune to the emotional trauma surrounding death. Lament for a Son demonstrates that a Christian’s grief can follow the five stages model and move along a similar course to a secular person’s experience. Grief is a very personal process that cannot be ignored based on one’s religious beliefs. Though Wolterstorff (1987) does not clearly mention the five stages model, his account lines up thoroughly with it, and all five aspects are present because these stages are universal to all people, even though the grieving process is different for everyone.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. Abington-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.
Shelly, J. A. & Miller, A. B. (2006). Called to Care: A Christian Worldview for Nursing. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Wolterstorff, N. (1987). Lament for a Son. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.