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The God Squad: About grief

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

My column on how long grief should last generated a flood of heartfelt responses so let me take a few weeks to take a deeper dive into what I believe about grief.

As a believer, this is the most important thing I know: I know that the only spiritual antidote to grief is hope and the only effective source of hope is heaven and the only reason to believe in heaven is God. I know that this belief is of no use to the non-believers and so I wanted to continue our grief talk with the most famous discovery of secular social scientists about grief. What they prove is that whether we believe in Heaven or the worms all of us mourn in basically the same way. The person who discovered this was a Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. In her famous book, "On Death and Dying," she identified The Five Stages of Grief. Here are her stages and my interpretations:

1. DENIAL

Denial is spiritual anesthesia. It is our soul’s way of numbing us to the shock of death.

We refuse to accept the devastating fact of death so that we are not devastated. For some, denial comes with a desire to consult psychics. They sell vulnerable mourners on the idea that they can talk to dead people. However, mourning requires that we accept the truth of human finitude. Death is forever and this is why we must decide to talk mainly to living people and move through the stage of denial.

2. ANGER

Somehow, we were taught to believe what no scripture has ever taught us: that anything short of that long, healthy, happy life is a betrayal by God. Death is the greatest test of faith for a believer. The last words I say at a Jewish funeral are “God has given and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” We cannot know if we truly have faith until we can say those words and believe them. Another object of anger is our loved one. Our loved one has left us alone and we are angry at our abandonment. We needed them and loved them and they have left us. In some cases, they left us because of bad choices and in other cases just bad luck or illness but no matter what the cause, anger is a natural response to grief.

3. BARGAINING

 

Bargaining takes two forms. Before death, bargaining takes the form of spiritual bribery. We offer to do anything if God will let them live. After death, bargaining takes the form of guilt (my preferred name for this stage of grief). We need to know, and we can never know, if we could have done something to avoid the death of our loved one. We can become fixated on scenarios that some action on our part could have prevented this death. The frightening fact is that this may be true. The words, “if only” can freeze us.

4. DEPRESSION

When the truth that death is forever sinks into us and that all our denials and anger and bargaining cannot change this fact two possible reactions can occur: we can give up or we can move on. Depression is giving up. Acceptance is moving on. The level of depression is directly related to the level of love we had for the dead one. The more the love the more the depression. Depression is not the same thing as sadness. It is more severe. It comes with traits we all know: loss of appetites, loss of joyousness, loss of sleep, impairment at work or school, distancing from family and friends. Churchill called depression, “The Black Dog.” My image of my depression following the death of Father Tom Hartman was that I was like a cork driven under water by a wave. I knew I could not breathe, but I also knew another thing that kept me alive and hopeful. I believed in my own natural spiritual buoyancy, and I believed in the love of God. So, I would say to myself, “I cannot breathe today but perhaps I will be able to breathe tomorrow. Then one day I surfaced, and I could breathe again.

ACCEPTANCE

There is no end to memory but there is an end to mourning. That end can be less than a year or more than a lifetime. The signs that it has come are often subtle and hidden but they are real. Acceptance has come when we can smile again; and tell a joke again; and be in love and make love again; and dance again; and love an animal again; and serve others beyond yourself again. Acceptance does not mean that things are OK again. It just means that we can live with the way things are now and forever more.

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at godsquadquestion@aol.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)

©2022 The God Squad. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

(c) 2022 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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