When my father’s brain tumor was pronounced inoperable, and we knew that his death was approaching, most of the people in our family reacted predictably. Some were angry; others were in denial; many wept. There was one big exception: me. My emotional response shocked my brothers and sisters, and even surprised me. It was joy.

I consider myself a logical thinker, and I think most people would agree that I’m fairly geeky. When I respond to a situation emotionally, I usually manage to suppress it! I try to think of how I should respond, and adjust my behavior accordingly. But I wasn’t able to change my feelings on this one.

Responding to a terminal diagnosis with joy seems inappropriate, but I couldn’t stop thinking that way. Sure, I had periods of grieving, and wept along with others in my family. But in my mind there was always an undercurrent of excitement about the new life that my dad was about to start.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

–1 Corinthians 15:54-55 (NLT)

I’ll never forget the thrill of leaving home at the age of 17 to go to college. Sure, I had great parents, and I loved my family, but I could hardly wait to venture out on my own in a whole new world where anything might happen. My high school experience had been unsatisfactory in several ways, and I was excited to have a fresh start. And I was right – I had four wonderful  years of college.

For me, Dad’s transition to the next world – which I believe to be eternal life in the presence of Jesus – was something like what I felt about going to college. But it was so much more! This was a thrill beyond measure. I have to admit – I was envious of him. He was too sick, and I was too nervous, to ever talk to him about it. But he talked to my mom, and she told us what he said. He was scared at first, but then he got to the point where he was eagerly anticipating the next phase of his life.

My dad’s attitude had a profound effect on my mom. It took a while, but eventually she got to the same place, emotionally. What a difference that has made in her life! Her grieving process was healthy and complete. She is doing well.

Recently a friend has learned that she has stage 4 cancer. At this point it’s not yet clear whether it is operable. She is still in the middle of her journey. She may be healed, or she may not. But she has no fear of death. She is responding logically and peacefully. But her family is full of anger and grief. They are not handling the situation well. And some of them are upset with her because she is not sharing their negative reactions. It’s causing a strain within the family.

I find it interesting that so many Christians, who should believe in eternal life, have such a negative response to death, especially when it has been placed in their personal futures. The anticipation is very difficult.

But if we believe that we are immortal – that when Jesus said “He who believes in me shall never die” He was speaking the truth – then I can’t understand a response that is mostly denial, anger, or debilitating grief. We can’t always decide how we’re going to feel, but we can focus on the truth instead of indulging our weakness. And that’s how I’m praying for my friend’s family.

2 Comments

  1. Indulging our weakness? I respectfully disagree, Dave, and I think that’s a harsh perspective. The expression of grief is not a display of weakness; it is usually a healthy release of an emotional burden.

    In my view, grief is not a negative reaction to death, and it doesn’t indicate a rejection of truth. In fact, I believe it is an appropriate expression of the truth of what the person is feeling. Knowing that a deceased loved one is with Jesus doesn’t make the loss any less potent.

    If Sue dies before me, then I fully expect to to be emotionally debilitated – and with no apologies to you or anyone else who can’t understand the pain I will feel at losing her. I hope I am surrounded by people who do understand the way I feel, and who can sympathize with me. If I die before Sue, then I pray that her emotional health will return through the compassion and comfort of people who love and care for her. The last thing either one of us will need is someone telling us he doesn’t understand why we don’t feel joy.

    Your article touched a nerve!

  2. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for reading and responding. Sorry if I made you mad!

    You’re right, it would be easy to construe my argument as “either-or.” It wasn’t what I intended to do. What I was trying to present was an alternative to grieving, if possible. Not to replace it, but to supplement it.

    The reaction I perceived to my positive response to my father’s diagnosis was “you shouldn’t feel that way.” I guess I went too far in trying to justify my own response.

    I certainly don’t want to deny anyone the chance to grieve. Grief is an process that we all go through when we lose someone that we love, and we shouldn’t try to suppress it. Indeed, as I stated above, I went through considerable grief at the loss of my dad.

    This is a “both-and” argument. Along with the grief, what I’m trying to say, is an opportunity to look forward. Those of us who believe in eternal life with God can choose (at some point) to focus on that.

    I’m sorry for the “indulging” comment. Most grief is not in that category, and I shouldn’t have characterized it as such. I hope you’ll forgive me.

    –Dave

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