Learn to Cope with the Five Stages of Grief

Posted August 16, 2017 by Amy Wang

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We cannot avoid evil and pain in this world (John 16:33), but we can choose how we respond to it. Below, we look at how to deal with the emotional aspects of grief from a biblical perspective, using the Kubler-Ross psychological model to organize the 5 stages of grief.

Knowing that God really cares when we suffer can make a huge difference. Perhaps we will then run to God for hope, comfort, and help, instead of turning away in anger, unforgiveness, and bitterness (Romans 8:28, 1Peter 5:7). Perhaps we will learn to reach outwardly to others around us, who need us, instead of simply looking inward for answers.

1. Denial - "This can't be happening to me."

The first stage of suffering in the Kubler-Ross psychological model is denial or shock. Suffering can be a shock, especially for those who are expecting God's protection. However, the scriptures say suffering is to be expected in the world (John 16:33) and the righteous are not exempted (Psalm 34:19). Instead of denying our pain, we can set our sights on eternity and cast our cares upon a God who cares for us (1Peter 5:7). Furthermore, those who are godly can expect some persecution (2Timothy 3:12, 1Peter 4:12-16) but their reward in heaven will be great (Matthew 5:11-12).

2. Anger - “Why me?” “It’s not fair!”

The second response to suffering in this model is anger for undeserved suffering. We may blame others or even blame God for our suffering. We may wonder why we were chosen to suffer when others are free from suffering. How is that fair?

Accept God’s Individual Plan for You : Peter vs. John

Some of God's chosen people were miraculously protected, whereas others endured cruel mockings, scourging, prison, torment, and so forth. Yet, they all made it to the Hebrews 11 "Hall of Faith."

When we suffer and those around us do not, we may wonder if there is something wrong with us. However, let us remember that God has a unique plan for every individual. The lack of suffering does not necessarily mean one person is more loved by God than another. When Jesus hinted to Peter of his martyrdom, Peter asked about John’s fate (John 21:19-22). Jesus responded, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22 ESV)

In Hebrews 11, we learn that some of God’s chosen people were miraculously protected, whereas others endured cruel mockings, scourging, prison, torment, and so forth. Yet, they all made it to the Hebrews 11 "Hall of Faith." To God, we are different vessels each with different purposes (2Timothy 2:20) and individual crosses to bear as we follow God (Luke 9:23).

Learn to Count Your Blessings: Leah vs. Rachel

Leah and Rachel, two sisters who married the same man, faced different types of emotional challenges. Whereas Leah was unloved in marriage, Rachel was childless. God saw Leah was unloved and gave her many children (Genesis 29:31). Eventually, Leah learned to focus on her blessings from God, rather than her husband's failure to love her. The progression of her attitude can be seen by the way she names her different children, based on her feelings. When her fourth son is born, she names him Judah in praise of God (Genesis 29:35) (Keller, 42-43). Meanwhile, Rachel was loved by her husband, but for many years remained childless and suffered emotionally for it. However, God loved both of them and built up Israel from them (Ruth 4:11).

The lesson we can learn from Leah is to focus on God’s love, His blessings, and our role in God’s kingdom, rather than to covet what our neighbors have. Human love may fail and disappoint us, but God loves us perfectly. Spouses, children, career, and possessions may provide temporary comfort. However, the current order of things will one day pass away (1Corinthians 7:29-31). Let us therefore focus on our spiritual blessings from God more than our physical comfort. For those who feel unloved like Leah, remember that God loves us just as He loved Leah. Remember also that Jesus, the descendant of Leah, was also rejected by men, and had no beauty that we should desire Him (Isaiah 53:2-3) (Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 45).

Learn to Love God For Better or Worse: Job vs. Job’s Wife

The Bible provides examples of differing responses to suffering. During Job’s trials, Job’s wife tells Job to curse God and die (Job 2:9). However, Job thought that just as they received good from God, they should also accept evil (Job 2:10). Marriage is a good analogy for this. In the same way husbands and wives choose to marry “for better or for worse,” Christians commit to God for better or worse in this life. And God wants to assure Christians that their light and momentary suffering is working for a greater eternal glory.

It helps to remember that although troubles may come, they cannot separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:35-39). Just as God does not stop loving us, let us not stop loving God in the face of trouble. Because Job remained faithful in affliction, trusting in God for his future redemption, God in return rewarded Job and more than compensated him for his losses. Job trusted that his redeemer lived and though his skin might be destroyed, he believed he would one day see God (Job 19:25-26). For Christians, being with God and fellow Christians forever in the afterlife will be well worth our current, momentary suffering.

3. Bargaining

The next stage in the 5 stages of grief is bargaining. By bargaining with God, people hope to lessen the severity of their suffering. There are several examples of bargaining in the Bible, which reveal a spectrum of God's responses based on circumstance. (1) When King Hezekiah was told to set his house in order because he would die, he prayed that God would remember his righteousness and wept. In mercy, God then extended his life for 15 years (2Kings 20:1-6). (2) Abraham bargained with God to prevent the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, provided there were enough righteous men living there. Although the judgment was unavoidable, because there were too few righteous men there, God still sent angels to warn Lot so he and his two daughters could escape from Sodom and Gomorrah. (3) Finally, Jesus Himself asked the Father to take away the cup of His suffering, if the Father were willing (Luke 22:42-44). However, Jesus said, “not my will, but thine, be done” and accepted suffering since it was indeed God’s will and God's way of bringing the hope of salvation to mankind. In conclusion, we can definitely ask God for mercy and relief, but sometimes He may want us to surrender to God's will for a greater good.

4. Depression

In the midst of our own suffering, we may easily fall into despair and believe God doesn’t love us. Nevertheless, let us remember that even Jesus was allowed to suffer, and Jesus was and is undoubtedly loved by God. Romans 8:35-39 tells us that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, even suffering. When Mary wept for her brother Lazarus who had died, Jesus wept, too (John 11:33-35). Alternatively, we may fall into despair, thinking that God is punishing us. However, not all suffering is for punishment, and even if it is for punishment, God disciplines those whom He loves, so they will be spared at the final judgment.

To deal with depression, besides understanding God's love, sometimes we need to eat, sleep, and exercise to recover. Note in the story of Elijah in 1Kings 19:1-10 where a depressed prophet, Elijah is helped by food, rest, and exercise. Thomas Aquinas also talks of a good sleep, a bath, and even some wine, as natural antidotes to depression (Kreeft's lectures on Thomas Aquinas).

5. Acceptance

In the final stage of suffering, some come to accept their suffering. Indeed, we might even want to count suffering a privilege, to bring us closer to Jesus (Philippians 1:29, 2 Corinthians 4:8-10) and an opportunity to turn evil into good. As God comforts us, we can provide comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). As suffering hollows out a big space in us, we can let God fill it, and experience God’s presence.

Being Proactive

God helps those who help others.

I've found that if we want to continue challenging God that He isn't doing "enough" for us, then that challenge ultimately returns back to us through Isaiah 58:6-9. There, God indicates He prefers justice and mercy to actual physical fasting (See also Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23). He'd prefer for us to participate in loosening the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and feeding the hungry. When we do that, then God may answer our cries for help and reveal His presence to us.

Is it fair for us to demand God’s love and help when we show no love to others? If we want God’s help, sometimes the correct attitude may be to try to help others first. If God does not hear our prayers (see Isaiah 58:2-3), is it because we are not ourselves paying attention to the needs of others, and seeking to weaken the cords of injustice by helping the oppressed, poor, and hungry? There is a common saying that says, “God helps those who help themselves.” However, I believe in reality that “God helps those who help others.” God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness, the Bible tells us that all the essentials that we need will be provided to us (Matthew 6:33).


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