Death, Dying, and Grief
Death and dying are a bitter part of the reality of life in general, and a particularly common experience for those called to health care. The nature and meaning of death is not simply biological or scientific, but rather involves deep philosophical and religious questions. Once again, medical technology has changed the scope, quality, and experience of death (or at least the dying process). It has even prompted a changing of the very definition of death.Death in the 21st CenturyOne of the incredible benefits of modern science and its application in medical technology has been the ability to extend physiological life. In the 1960s, the development of CPR, ventilators, and the like allowed never before seen intervention in the process of dying, such that a “millennia-old general understanding of what it meant to be dead” (Veatch, Haddad, & English, 2010, pp. 390-391) was transformed. In the field of biomedical ethics, the very definition of what it means to be dead is a controversial topic. In continuing with a fundamental theme running throughout this course, it should be noted that while the pathophysiological and scientifically detectable signs of death are crucial in this debate, they should not be taken to be determinative or comprehensive. This debate still crucially depends on the philosophical background of one’s anthropology (i.e., view of personhood) and in the resulting interpretation of these scientific and physiological signs. The medical definition of death is not a purely or irreducibly scientific question.
Worldview and the Meaning of Death
On a worldview level, the question of the medical definition of death is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the broader significance and ultimate meaning of death. Whether or not there is any meaning to death and what it might be is a question of one’s worldview. Questions regarding whether or not there will be ultimate moral accountability for the way one lived life and whether there is an afterlife are key questions in this regard. The very phenomenon of the loss of (at the very least) physiological and perhaps conscious integrity and activity is a fact of life that calls for explanation.Once again, an accurate understanding of religion and worldview is required. Furthermore, the distinctions among each religion must be appreciated and not collapsed into one another. The way in which both technology and religious background color the experience and meaning of death (both in dying and grieving) must also be appreciated. Whatever rituals or practices a religious or cultural group engages in are informed by a view regarding the nature and meaning of death that fits within an overarching worldview narrative.Death in the Christian WorldviewDeath takes on a particular meaning when seen within the Christian narrative. It is, in fact, not the greatest evil that could befall a human being and is furthermore transformed in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian teaching that “God died” essentially transforms the way in which death is seen and experienced (Sanders, 2007, pp. 6-8). Death is certainly a tragedy and an evil, but it is now a conquered enemy. It is a conquered enemy because in the Christian biblical narrative, death is a perversion of God’s original design plan. And yet, the Christian God constantly redeems that which is broken.
Loss and Grief
Death is a particularly traumatic and difficult experience for both family and caregivers. Understanding the process and stages of grieving is immensely beneficial for caregivers to assess the well-being of patients and families. There are numerous resources that can be of tremendous benefit for both caregivers and family. One of the most influential is the work of American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Perhaps the most influential insight of her work was to notice certain patterns or stages in the human experience of grief, especially after the loss of a loved one in death. She called these the five stages of grief. Briefly, they include the following: (a) denial, (b) anger, (c) bargaining, (d) depression, and (e) acceptance (“Understanding Grief,” 2015).Expectations regarding an afterlife will in large part determine the manner in which patients and families welcome or spurn the prospect of death. Furthermore, the way in which a person experiences the stages of grief will be in the context of their worldview. Christian theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff’s (1987) memoir, Lament for a Son, is a personal reflection of his own personal grief after losing his 25-year-old son in a mountain climbing accident. As he engages with his own grief and experience, it becomes clear that everything is ultimately seen in the light of God’s loving control and the ultimate hope of resurrection.
Sanders, F. (2007). “Chalcedonian categories for the gospel narrative.” In F. Sanders & K. Issler (eds.), Jesus in trinitarian perspective. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.Understanding grief and loss: An overview. (2015, October 26). Retrieved from http:// http://healgrief.org/understanding-grief/Veatch, R. M., Haddad, A., & English, D. (2010). Case studies in biomedical ethics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Verhey, A. (2011). The Christian art of dying: Learning from Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.Wolterstorff, N. (1987). Lament for a son. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.© 2015. Grand Canyon University. All Rights Reserved