Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Facing Death with Hope: Hard deaths #1

Facing Death with Hope: Hard deaths #1

RUMC October 14, 2012


We all know death is hard.  Death is always hard.  It is hard to lose a loved one.  It is hard to imagine going on without them.  It is hard to put our lives back together.  I don't mean to minimize that at all.

I think, however, that there are some deaths that are innately harder on mourners because they are more complicated.

Again, I do not mean to minimize any death.  Any death, under any circumstances is difficult.  Although it seems like at the age of 95, grandma's death should not be a surprise; it still is.  Even though a 60 or 70-year-old man dropping dead of a heart attack is not terribly unusual, it still shocks us.  I am considering those deaths to be "natural" deaths.

We expect those kinds of deaths. Other deaths, however, are more unexpected.  The death of a child for instance, a stillbirth or miscarriage, an accident or a suicide are unanticipated in our minds, and therefore harder for us to accept. Because they fall outside of our normal expectations, we simply aren't quite sure what to do with all the complicating factors and emotions.

So what do we do with those unusual deaths?  I want to address three groups of deaths. I will only get to two types today, but that's OK because I will focus on suicide next week. 



The first type of unusual death I want to address is stillbirths and miscarriages.   Stillbirths and miscarriages are basically the same thing, with stillbirths happening after the 20th week of pregnancy and miscarriages happening before.

Stillbirths and miscarriages are not as unusual as most of us think.  In the US, 1 in 7 pregnancies end in miscarriage.  One out of 115 ends in stillbirth.  That is really pretty common. 

The problem is that this is not the way we expect our pregnancies to end.  We are preparing for the joy of a new child and it hardly crosses the parent's mind that death may intrude in this happy time.

Some complicating issues include  

·        Heavy, heavy, guilt, because mothers often blame themselves, even though a miscarriage or a stillbirth is usually neither predictable nor preventable. 

·        And silence.  Most of the time women or couples are completely unprepared for the experience.  Sometimes there is no service because hospitals dispose of the remains.  The couple goes home with empty arms, and often very little support.  When they get home they discover that many people are uncomfortable talking about what happened.  They often feel abandoned.

There are a few things we can do.    

·        The first thing we can do it memorialize their loss.  There is nothing wrong with having a funeral or memorial service after a miscarriage or stillbirth.  Encourage it. 

·        If there isn't a public ritual, you can help by sending a flower or card.  You might make a special point to remember the anniversary of the death.

·        Basically, you can help by treating them like anyone else who has experienced a death.  Take food.  Offer to watch other children.  Sit quietly with them.  Just don't ignore or avoid them.



Second, abortion is another kind of infant loss, but it is quite distinct from miscarriages and stillbirths. 

Today I am not addressing right and wrong, legal or illegal, funded or not funded aspect of abortion.  The politicians have made such a mess of that, but I guess that is what they do best.

Today I want to think about abortion for a moment from the very personal experience of the mother and father.  I remember a woman in my first church who was just sick all of her adult life.  She went through doctor after doctor, suffered from depression, anxiety, and abused prescription drugs.  She was not young.  She was perhaps 60 years old.  I finally convinced her to try therapy, because I knew whatever was going on inside was more than I could help with.  After some months, she seemed a little better.  Upon visiting her, I learned that the therapist had indeed uncovered something that apparently had been eating her up all of her adult life, and making her sick in 20 different ways.  When she was young, she had sought out an abortion.  Right or wrong, the emotional and spiritual fallout from that difficult decision changes lives.  Now, not everyone who makes the decision to have an abortion experiences the kind of post-traumatic stress that she experienced.  It always, however, leaves a scar.  It always leaves a hole.  A hole which is just aggravated by guilt and shame.

There are really two issues here.  One is the unrealized loss.  People don't think of abortion as a death.  It is.

Second , no matter what a person's view of abortion might be, there is a certain amount of  guilt and shame that comes with getting an abortion.  For some people it comes from inside.  For others it comes from the ongoing discussion or debate in the culture.  Either way, guilt and shame and abortion trauma are real.  And they are hard.

I don't know that there is a lot most of us can do about this loss, in part because it is so private we often don't even know about it. What I do want you to know is that post abortion trauma is real.  It is very hard.


The third type of hard death is accidental and premature deaths.  Vehicle accidents, falls, drowning, poisoning, and fires are the 5 leading causes of accidental death.  Just about any death of a child or teenager falls in this category.  Anyone whom we perceive dies prematurely might provide a complication to our grief.  Albert Howard or Sam Gerloff  are recent examples of this kind of loss in our community. 

Complications include.

·        Shock.  Even though we are surprised when Grandma dies, we are shocked when someone dies accidently or prematurely.  This shock can numb us or it can intensify the pain but it is real.

·        Second is blame.  For some reason we feel like we have to blame someone.  We have to blame someone.  We feel guilty blaming the person who died.  Even if it is true.  So we blame someone… we blame anyone.  We blame the guy in the other car, we blame the manufacturer of the ladder; we blame the babysitter with whom we left the child, we blame the mother even though she probably did the best she could, we blame ourselves.  If there is no human to blame we try to blame God.

Let me tell you something. God doesn't need any more angels in heaven.  God never planned that tragic accident to happen.  God doesn't give us a fatal disease to test us.  If anyone tells you something like that, know that they are in a blaming place, and know that this is a very common even normal part of grieving.  Listen quietly and understand that for the time being they are merely protesting because they can't deny it.  They are coping with their shock and grief the best they can in their broken condition.

The same is true when someone says something like "it was his time" as though God determines a fixed number of days in our lives. Again, they are just doing the best they can in their hurt and grief.

You can listen and support them.  That is probably the most important thing.  At times like that, people need to rationalize; they need to explain what happened in a way that makes some sense to them, even if they know that it is not completely true.

Listen to them, but know in your heart that God doesn't work that way.  Our God is a loving and life-loving God.  There is no time when God plans to kill someone before old age.  That is not the way God works.  You may have to go back to Robyn's sermons on the will of God, and remember that God's intentional will is always good.  When accidents happen (and if there were really someone to blame they would not be called accidents-- they would fall into the next category), when accidents happen God's circumstantial will is to seek the best possible outcome in those circumstances.

Accidents and premature death are hard for us to accept.  The two things to remember are that God is still good, and sometimes an accident is just an accident.



Finally let's talk about  murder, violence and war.  The commonality here is that these are deaths intentional, they are at the hands of another person, and leave terrible scars on everyone involved.

There is never anyone who is prepared for the intentional death of a loved one at the hand of another person.  This is hard, no matter what the circumstances and no matter who you are.

I want to point out a couple of complicating factors, however:

·        Shock, just like an accident or illness.  Even if the dangers are known, as in the case of military personnel in a war zone, there is tremendous shock in finding out that a loved one has died at the hands of another person. These deaths are not accidents and they are not natural and that is shocking.

·        The other complicating factor is blame and forgiveness.  We have seen instances when one life is taken.  Then anger and blame virtually consume another life.  On the other hand, we have also seen instances of almost unfathomable forgiveness, as in the case of the Ed Thomas family.  To forgive or not forgive is the struggle of those left behind in these deaths.  Just like the guilt and shame in the case of abortion, anger and unforgiveness can rob the life from those who are left behind.  The only hope for living on after the death of a loved one at the hands of another person is forgiveness. 

That is a lesson taught to me vividly by a friend named Ed Mutum.  Ed's father had been murdered by Sherman White in downtown Davenport.  After being angry and plotting to avenge his father's death.  After spending years trying to drink his memories away.  Ed became a pastor and eventually decided he had to practice the forgiveness he preached, so he went to the prison where Sherman White was serving a life sentence.  He not only embraced Sherman that day, but also testified on Sherman's behalf in front of the parole board and opened up his home to him when Sherman was released on parole.  Ed did everything he could to help Mr. White get on his feet.  I remember the two of them sitting together in church on Sunday.  I remember Ed describing what a turning point forgiveness was in his life.  Letting go of that need to destroy someone else, and letting go of that desire to destroy himself by drink, Ed found peace.

I am not saying that everyone needs to embrace and house those who have hurt them so badly by killing a loved one.  That is much more than most of us could muster.  I am saying that letting go of the anger-, which is forgiveness, is absolutely essential to our own emotional and spiritual health.  Forgiveness is easier said than done, but it is essential.


Next week I want to cover a death that I think is one of the most complicated.  That is suicide.  So tune in next week.


Hard, unusual, or complicated deaths are simply a part of life.   We are never ready for miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions, accidents, premature deaths, murders, violent deaths, or war.  Very few of us escape the pall of these hard deaths.  I have given you some ideas of how we make it through each of these deaths.  But there is something more important than all of that.

It comes from Romans 8:38-39.  It is very simple, and very profound.  This passage starts "I am convinced that neither death, nor life… and it ends will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

 "Neither death, nor lifewill be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."


No matter what kinds of deaths we experience in this life, nothing can separate you from God.

Miscarriages and stillbirths cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

The trauma of abortion cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Neither can accidental death separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Neither murder, nor violent death, nor anything else in all of creation can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

I'll be the first to admit that grief, especially complicated grief can obscure our vision of God.  It can place a gray mist over our world that is almost impossible for us to penetrate and seemingly traps us in our own ugly little world of blame, and anger, and guilt, and shame, and vengefulness, and bitterness, and rage, and unforgiveness.

When, in your grief, you cannot see God, reach out to those around you.  Reach out to family, friends, counselors and your church.  We are after all, the body of Christ.   When you can't see God reach out and let us support you.  Let us prop you up.  Let us carry you.

And when you are ready let us gently and lovingly remind you… that God has not left you… God will never abandon you.  Nothing, nothing, nothing can ever, ever, ever, separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.


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