Appreciating Death’s Role in Life

The universal reality of life is death.  Everyone must die; it is a natural phenomenon and a necessary part of the normal life cycle. Yet, even with this understanding, rarely is the western world prepared to accept death, especially the death of a loved one.  The focus of this writing is not on sudden or tragic deaths, but on those which allow time for preparedness, and occur as a consequence of illness and/or aging.

As universal as death is, the way it is viewed differs among cultures and religions.  Death is treated with dignity by some, or it may be feared by others.  Certain cultures respond to death with elaborate rituals, while others see it as simply transitioning from one life to the next.  However, what is usually present, regardless of specific traditions, is grief.  Grief, like death, is a universal experience,and it is also personal.  It is what Stephen Levine describes in his book, Healing into Life and Death, as “the rope burns left behind when what we have held to most dearly is pulled out of reach, beyond our grasp.”

The analogy of “holding on” is most present when caring for someone with a terminal illness.  It is difficult caring for a loved one who is not expected to survive.  It is sometimes hard for the dying to let go, which increases our grief, and invites guilt.  However, when faced with such circumstances, we can look to scripture for comfort.  What did Jesus do as he awaited his own death? At first he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.” (Luke 22:42).  So often we pray for a miracle.  We try to reason with God, making promises, seeking answers, none of which provides peace.  But Jesus continued, “still, not my will but yours be done.”  He handed over his anguish to his father in heaven and found peace and strength to continue his life’s journey to the cross.  We can, too.  In the presence of death, we can turn to our God in prayer, for peace and strength.

Finding peace does not negate grieving.  The rope burns eventually go away, but until then, we grieve.  Where do grieving people go?  Some turn to their religious institutions for solace.  Others are comforted by family.  Some find consolation in silence, and some seek support from professionals to help them normalize their lives.  Pastoral counselors are among members of the helping professions who are prepared to meet clients in their grief, and help them to gain respite from the pain and guilt that they feel.  Graduates of Loyola’s pastoral counseling program are trained to apply traditional therapies with a spiritual approach.  It is our spiritual approach that better prepares us to assist clients who have met death on life’s journey.

Death provides a deadline for what we can accomplish in life.  It is an important deadline since it propels us to live a more vibrant and richer life while we have the opportunity.  Irvin D. Yalom, M.D., stated that if we tune in to our clients’ narratives, we will recognize that they are subtly sharing death concerns.  As therapists, we must be prepared to hear them. As pastoral counselors we are uniquely prepared to address them.  Although we grieve when our loved ones die, we can be mindful of Dr. Yalom’s acknowledgement of death as “the condition that makes it possible to live life in an authentic fashion.”