Posted by: Rebekah | April 22, 2009

Death’s Sting

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about death. Actually, I’m always thinking about death (and life), it’s an occupational hazard of an ICU nurse. What interests me is the way faith impacts one’s reaction to, and acceptance of, death.

So many people say they hope that when their time comes, it will be peaceful and quick. They often look at the news stories and television shows depicting individuals hooked up to various life support devices and think, “I would never want to go through that.” Yet when it comes time to make decisions for a loved one who is no longer capable of deciding for himself, they find they are unable to make the choice that would allow Mom, or Grandpa, a relatively quick and peaceful death.

No, I’m not talking about euthanasia here. I’m talking about the decision made to apply various life-extending technologies and treatments that are often futile at best and actually harmful in that they prolong and render agonizing the dying process at worst. Of course, the reality is, it is easy to talk about the best choice when it is an abstract proposition, and painfully difficult when we are facing the loss of someone we desperately love. And so, rather than face the reality of the situation, we instead choose to cope with our grief by engaging in avoidance, denial, or magical thinking.

I have pounded on the chest of a frail woman, riddled with incurable cancer, wincing as
I felt a rib crack beneath my palms. I’ve assisted in the intubation of a tired old man whose best possible outcome was to return to a dreary life of diminishing capacity in a nursing home for his few remaining years, a life he had no further interest in living, according to his family (there’s a reason we call pneumonia an old person’s best friend).  I did none of these things because I or any of my coworkers wanted to, but because we had no choice. I did them because we live in a culture and society that is ill-prepared to address the end of life in a realistic yet meaningful way.

A century ago, if a person had an untreatable disease (which accounted for most diseases), there was little to do but hold her hand and make her as comfortable as possible. If an elderly person fell ill, it was understood that it may well be his last illness, and if that was the case, it was a bittersweet occasion, with the recognition that he was blessed and fortunate to have lived a full life. When a death occurred, bodies were often prepared by their families and laid in state in the family parlor before burial. Death was understood as the price we pay for living, as natural and inevitable as the turning of the seasons, though perhaps less welcome.

And now? Death has been, if not conquered, at least sanitized, held at bay, and swept under the rug. People don’t die at home, they die in hospitals (well, most of the time, I do need to acknowledge the wonderful work of hospices). Bodies are carted off to funeral homes where they are either rendered completely unrecognizable, in the form of ash, or made up to look as lifelike, or at least as palatable, as possible. The thought of touching a dead person is horrifying to many, as it was to me until the first time I faced it as a nursing student. I remember my preceptor at the time saying to me, “It is our privilege to assist someone into the next life,” and I’ve tried to take that tack ever since.

Modern medicine has wonderfully allowed us to fight and sometimes cheat death, giving life to many who would otherwise have been lost far, far, too soon. At the same time, it has proven a double-edged sword, facing us with ever more difficult decisions regarding how, when, and to whom our treatments and technologies should be applied. Television shows and movies, always catering to the desire for happy endings, often portray unrealistic outcomes to such dilemmas, leading to unrealistic expectations on the part of patients and their families.

What I have often found striking, though, is that the ability to face death in an honest manner seems to be inversely proportional to one’s degree of religious conviction. Faith can be helpful when facing the end of life in that it gives one a framework with which to understand and make sense of death. Many Christians and people of other faiths face death stoically, even, in the case of the elderly, welcoming it. These individuals tend to be somewhat low-key in expressing their faith, however.  As faith becomes more fervid and outwardly expressed, it seems that many become less equipped to handle death. While denial and avoidance are universal coping mechanisms, there seems to be a special place in the hearts of fervent believers for magical thinking. These people, even when understanding that circumstances are truly dire, will often demand that every possible treatment be administered and insist that God is on the verge of restoring their loved one to full health and capacity. Even when a patient has irrevocably lost any meaningful neurological function, the true believers often choose to keep the body alive at all costs, as in the tragic case of Terri Schaivo.

If we preach the resurrected Christ, and ask “O Death, where is thy sting,” why don’t we live like we believe it? Why do we sing hymns about a better life to come while clinging desparately to this one? Why does death still retain the power to terrify?



  1. I like this post a lot. I think the human fear of the unknown is really what leads us to cling onto life when any objective analysis of our situation combined with faith would counsel us to let go. I’m sure I speak for most (if not all) Christians when I say that I’ve had moments of doubt when I wonder if this life is all there is, and I can’t say for certain that such doubts would not grow as I neared the abyss. I hope that I would have faith and take it stoically, but I don’t think any of us can really know until that moment comes.

  2. i agree with tempus. this is a great post. i STILL wonder frequently whether there is any truth to a notion of a re-appearing Christ.

  3. I agree with this post, though my own experience of death (the loss of my mother) and my growing up in a family of ministry which means that I’ve attended dozens of funerals in my life has given me a bit of a differently perspective than many have about death. It is a painful separation, but it is part of the reality of this fallen world. I think we like to pretend, both in our pop theology and in our lives that the totality of the fallenness of the created order has been subsumed and rendered powerless in the face of the gospel.

    While there is some truth to this, death is still with us and it is still a reminder of the grace that is life. I disagree with your assertion that we sing hymns about a better life to come. We used to, but we don’t anymore. We sing about a good life now. And we rouse ourselves to justice causes that have effects in the now. It is a Christianized version of trying cheat death and do an end run around the flaming swords that guard us from the tree of life. We would do better to preach funeral sermons more often than just at funerals, to bring our children along rather than shielding them and to recognize death as the thief that it is.

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