There are two experiences that absolutely everybody goes through – birth and death. Only a fool would go through life unprepared for what you know is inevitable. Most of us have had people in our lives die suddenly and unexpectedly. Those deaths may have caught us by surprise. But surprise or not, death is coming for us all.
“No one can live forever. All will die. No one can escape the power of the grave.” Psalm 89:48
In one sense, we can be glad that we die because we don’t want to spend eternity on a broken planet. If we’re going to live forever, we don’t want to live in a place where there’s sin, sorrow, suffering, rape, murder, corruption, dishonesty, jealousy, gossip, and pain that make our lives tough. God wants you to one day move on from this fallen place and live with Him forever in heaven. God wants you living in a place where there is a joy and happiness.
First, we need to recognize that people react differently to death. But, there are five stages of grief that are common to everybody. Those stages include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. We need to understand how people go through these stages. These stages were first identified by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross fifty years ago in 1969. However, thousands of years before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, King David talked about the same five stages of grief in the Psalms.
The Five Stages of Grief: How People React to Death
1. DENIAL –“This isn’t happening to me!”
Denial is actually a form of fear. Anything that you are afraid of you tend to deny. When people are afraid of death they deny that they’re dying. David was afraid of dying. As a result you live in denial because you don’t want to admit that you’re afraid.
“I am frightened inside. The terror of death has attacked me.” Psalm 55:4 NCV
2. ANGER – “Why is this happening to me?”
When people realize they’re going to die they get angry. They get angry at God, doctors, their family, and themselves. David says it like this in Psalm 39,
“I was overcome with anger. The more I thought, the more troubled I became; I could not keep from asking: ‘Lord, how long will I live?” Psalm 39:3-4 TEV
This is a typical question of someone who has just found out they’re going to die. The anger stage is the questioning stage of dealing with death. The questions are really unanswerable. Why me? Why now? Why this? What for? They’re not going to get the answers to those questions.
3. BARGAINING – “I promise to … if you’ll let me live.”
In this stage you fill in the blank of what you will do if only God would let you live a little longer. You start trying to make deals with God in order to keep on living. But it doesn’t work because you can’t bargain with God.
“You can never pay God enough to stay alive forever and be safe from death.” Psalm 49:8-9 CEV
4. DEPRESSION – “I just don’t care anymore.”
When people come to this stage in dealing with death, they say “I just don’t care any more! What’s the point? I’m going to die. Why bother? Why make the effort? I give up.” They go through a period of depression.
“I’m at the end of my rope, my life is in ruins. I’m fading away to nothing, passing away.” Psalm 109:22-23 MSG
5. ACCEPTANCE – “I’m ready for whatever happens.”
“I am trusting you, O Lord, saying, ‘You are my God!’ My future is in your hands.” Psalm 31:14-15 NLT
Not everybody goes through the stages in this order. Nor do you go through them once and then you’re done. Instead, you sort of swirl around in all five of these. But the goal is to keep moving and making progress working through them.
The most common problem in dealing with grief is getting stuck in one of these stages. You’ve got to keep moving through the process until you come to complete acceptance. It’s important to understand these stages because you need to help them your family and friends deal fully with each of these stages and then help them move on to the next stage. If you don’t understand these stages you might pull away and detach yourself from people when they are angry, bargaining or depressed. David complained about the distance that people give to those who are dying.
“My loved ones and friends stay away, fearing my disease. Even my own family stands at a distance.” Psalm 38:11 NLT
Fear and anxiety cause distance in relationships. Most people feel awkward around people who are dying. It reminds us of our own mortality. We don’t know what to say so we just stay away. Thankfully, there are seven things that we can learn to do to give our loved ones COMFORT when they need it most.
How to Comfort Someone Who is Dying
C – CONFRONT MY OWN FEARS
Before you can help anybody else you’ve got to deal with your own fears. Exposure to death exposes the hidden fears in us. You’re afraid you’re going to say the wrong thing or make matters worse. As a result you don’t do anything. To put some of those fears to rest, it is almost impossible to mess it up. This is far bigger than you.
For those of you who haven’t been around somebody dying, death is really quite ordinary. There’s nothing spooky, weird or wicked about it. Contrary to television, there are very few Hallmark moments when people die. Their heart rate and breathing slows down and eventually stops. That’s about all there is to it. One moment they’re here and the next they’re not. The biggest mistake you can make with somebody who is dying is simply not to be there.
O – OFFER MY PHYSICAL PRESENCE
Your physical presence is the greatest gift you can give someone who is dying. When people are dying they struggle with the fear of abandonment and the fear of dying alone. You don’t have to say anything profound or necessarily even be talking to them. Just get in the same room with them. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, just simply be in the room. You can hold their hand or put your hand on their shoulder assuring them of your presence. Also remind them that God is with them. God has said He will never leave them nor forsake them.
“Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid for you are close beside me.” Psalm 23:4 NLT
When God is near you lose your fear.
M – MINISTER WITH PRACTICAL ASSISTANCE
Do whatever they need done by running errands or help in practical ways. When someone is dying they usually don’t feel good. They’re often in pain. David says this in Psalm 38,
“I’m burning with fever and I’m near death. I’m worn out and utterly crushed. My heart is troubled and I groan with pain.”
What do you do when somebody’s in that situation? You do whatever you can do. You offer practical assistance to relieve their pain. It’s the little things that show love. The Bible says,
“Encourage those who are timid, take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14
This important because another one of the biggest fears that people have when dying is the fear of losing control. Control is being taken away from them more and more. One of the ways you can minister to people who are dying is to give them choices. Every time you give them a choice you give control back to them. So even when you say something as simple as, “Would you like your slippers on or off?” You’ve empowered them. Every time you give people a choice you give them a little bit of power back.
F – FORTIFY THEM WITH EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
“Carry each other’s burdens, in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
The law of Christ is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. We should also pray for them and with them. Praying with them gives them emotional support. You can pray whatever they say, just mirror it back to God in a prayer. When the person who is dying says, “This really frustrates me….” You pray, “Lord, Susie’s really frustrated by this.” When you take whatever they say and turn it into a prayer to God you are lifting their burden. When somebody is sick, sometimes they’re too sick to pray. They don’t even have the energy to pray. When you turn their thoughts into a prayer, you are interceding for them.
O – OPEN THEM UP WITH QUESTIONS
When people are dying they’re carrying an enormous emotional load. You can help them open up so they can get off their chest all the heaviness they’re carrying about their impending death. Ask open ended questions, questions that can’t be answered by a simple yes or no. People ask questions all the time that we don’t know the answer to. For example: Why me? Why now? Why this? No one but God knows the answer to those questions. But the truth is, they don’t need the answer to those questions, they need comfort. An explanation doesn’t provide comfort.
What they really need is just to talk it out. When you get asked an unanswerable question by somebody who’s dying, rephrase it and ask it back to them. If they say, “Why am I going through this?”, you don’t know why, so instead of answering that question rephrase it back to them, “What does dying mean to you?” Then wait for them to answer. This way you have gotten them talking. Ultimately, the question is not the question. The question is a symptom of something deeper they need to get out.
R – REMEMBER THE FAMILY HAS NEEDS TOO.
This is where you can really be a friend to other people. If you’ve got a friend who is ill and they’re dying, you can really help the whole family, not just them. Sometimes as a friend you can say things that the family can’t say. Sometimes you can ask questions the family can’t ask. Sometimes you help move relationships toward healing. Remember the family is moving through these same five stages of grief.
T – TURN THEM TO JESUS
When someone is facing death we want to turn them to Christ so they’ll spend eternity in heaven. That is the hope of our faith. Jesus came to take away your fear of death by dying on the cross to pay for all your sins, then being resurrected to show that there is life after death. The Bible says this in Hebrews 2:
“For only as a human being could Jesus die. And only by dying could He break the power of the Devil, who has the power of death. Only in this way could He deliver those who lived all their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.”
God doesn’t want you to be afraid of dying, He wants you to look to the hope of heaven.
We need to help those who are dying to do the same. When someone’s dying we want to encourage them to do what David did.
“Death itself stared me in the face. But in my distress I cried out to the Lord.” Psalm 18:5-6 NLT
Have you ever done that? You can’t offer to other people what you haven’t received yourself. If you haven’t settled the issue of your destiny you are gambling with your eternity. If you were to die tonight are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven?
If you don’t know the answer to that question, it can be settled right now. There is a prayer written below that you can pray in your own heart. You can say it aloud or quietly in your mind and God will hear you.
Dear God, you are God and I’m not. You sent Jesus Christ to be my savior, so I must need to be saved. I need You to forgive the things I’ve done wrong in life. I need you to help me to know the purpose you created me for. I want to begin a relationship with you. So as much as I know how, I ask you to come into my life. I want to learn to trust you. I want to learn to love you. I want to learn to love other people the way you want me to. So I ask you today with humility and honesty to please save me as I put my trust in you. I pray this prayer in Jesus name. Amen
Talk It Over
In this lesson, we’ll offer some solid, proven ideas, based on the fact that, when they’re dying, everyone needs COMFORT.
CONFRONT MY OWN FEARS
Read Genesis 3:10. Why was Adam afraid of God? Dealing with a friend who is dying causes us to confront our own mortality, and that makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know what to say or we fear saying something stupid that could make the situation worse. How can we overcome that fear in order to minister to our dying friend?
Share a time when you felt good about words of comfort spoken to a dying person, or of regret for words of comfort left unspoken. By the way, what do you think Jesus would tell us to do with our regret?
OFFER PHYSICAL PRESENCE
What is the source of David’s comfort in Psalm 23:4?
In this modern age of cell phones, text messages and emails, why is a physical hug more meaningful than comfort given from a safe, electronic distance?
Two of the greatest fears when people are dying are fear of abandonment and fear of dying alone. Even holding the person’s hand or touching their elbow can help. Discuss other ways you can comfort someone feeling these fears.
MINISTER WITH PRACTICAL ASSISTANCE
In Psalm 38:7, 8, how does David describe his affliction?
When people are dying they often fear losing control. That’s why offering a dying person a choice—even in a small thing—brings them comfort. What are some small tasks you can do for a dying person?
FORTIFY THEM WITH EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
Read Galatians 6:2. What are we to do for one another?
One way to give emotional support is to pray for the person. Don’t know what to pray? Pray back what the person says. For example, if they say, “I’m worried,” then pray about their worry. How you would pray for a person who is in pain? What are other practical ways you can show emotional support?
OPEN THEM UP WITH QUESTIONS
What does Proverbs 20:5 encourage us to do with another person?
People who are dying often need to unload their burdens, and a thoughtful question would help draw those burdens out. One way to do that is to mirror a question back to the person. Name a situation that you feel a dying person would be grappling with, such as unfinished business, and share how you would encourage them to talk about it.
REMEMBER THE FAMILY HAS NEEDS TOO
Acts 20:35 encourages us to support those who are feeling weak. Sometimes, as a friend, you can sensitively ask questions of a dying person that the family may not be able to ask, such as, “Do you have any preferences for a memorial service?”
Discuss some practical ways you can minister to the family of the ill person.
TURN THEM TO JESUS
According to Hebrews 2:14-15, what power did Jesus come to break?
Hebrews 2:14-15 speaks of those without Jesus as being “slaves to the fear of dying.” In what way are we “slaves” to that fear? How does knowing Jesus set us free? What does a life without Jesus have to look forward to?
Name at least one practical thing we can do to help someone worried about dying or any other present trouble to have the hope of Jesus.
What did the psalmist David do when death stared him in the face? Read Psalm 18:5.
Based on your discussion in this lesson and your own knowledge of Christ, why can we rely on him in that moment?
PERSONAL APPLICATION AND COMMITMENT:
When the final moment comes for us or for someone we love, we may experience all five stages of grief—but if you are confident in the salvation that comes only from Christ, you can move quickly to acceptance. If you have not yet asked Jesus into your life, why put it off any longer? If you have not settled this issue yet, you are gambling with your destiny. You can’t pass on to others what you don’t possess yourself.