There has been another death in my family, not my immediate family but close enough. If this kind of event has ever crept into your own family’s existence – and it most likely has – you know exactly what I mean. When death does visit our families occasionally, those deaths can arrive in a variety of ways. Here in the United States, it most likely occurs by one of three main reasons. Heart disease (23.1%) and cancers (21.7%) are the top two causes of death, with unintentional injuries (5.9%) being the third reason.1
These three methods of departure from life account for over half of all deaths each year. Although many people would argue that Covid-related deaths should be the highest on the list, I don’t think the medical corporations or global governments would publically allow those statistics into the mix; they would consider them only part of a conspiracy theory or label it all as disinformation. I doubt that government leaders will ever admit they may be at blame for that.
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The longer you live the more you learn of the many other causes of fatality. Looking back over my own fourscore years on this planet, I find it amazing the wide variety of circumstances within which the Grim Reaper2 must complete his job. Although one of every two deaths would fall into the top three categories listed above, that also means that 50% would fall into many other groups containing hundreds of different reasons, some quite unusual.
We could go on and argue about whether those who pass away go to heaven, hell, or some place else, or if they turn into angels or whatever, but that is not my focus in this article. I’ve written about those ideas, already.3 This article is not about the deceased so much, but casual thoughts concerning the survivors of those dead family members, those who must now adjust to life without someone they loved.
Anyway, to get back on track, when a death happens within the family, the first effect is usually chaotic shock. Even if there was an expectation of a short time left until the person passed, there is still shock when it happens. That shock slowly dissipates as one sorts through the mechanics of pulling things back into a state of normalcy. Very fortunate is the close survivor that has helpful guidance in transversing the mess the Grim Reaper leaves behind for someone else to cleanup.
As I once wrote years ago, I remember going to many wakes4 and funerals even before I was a teenager; the passing of many elderly family members provided the opportunities. And, besides my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, I lost a child to death — and so has one of my daughters — and so has my son. In addition, I have performed many memorial and funeral ceremonies as a Christian minister. So death has quite often touched my life, one way or another, over the years.5
But every one of those deaths was a bit different; the only commonality was that the person suddenly ceased to exist — different causes, but the same results. Some people were old, some young, some succumbed from age-related issues and others by illness or accident. Every person ever on earth has been, or will be, a victim. And usually, these events affect many people beyond just the victim’s close family — those left behind.
Because the true facts are so varied in real situations, I’ve heard many analogies about how to describe deaths in the family. I’ve got one that works for me too, although it may seem a bit bizarre to many. Let me explain; I look upon my life as a train ride. As a child I loved trains, so maybe that was a natural extension in my thought process.
In any case, one train car, or railcar, represents my home and personal life; it contains my close family. There are other cars – before and after mine – which represent other families’ or friends’ homes and lives. Slowly, as time passes and life changes, the train cars get moved around, sometimes even getting transferred to other tracks, because of opportunities, jobs, marriages, etc. Generally these are planned changes with smooth moves, some happy, some sad.
Along with these changes, we make slight adjustments in our relationships and emotions. We adjust and get used to new routines. We settle in and continue to move along. But every once in a while, there is an abrupt derailment when a car jumps the track or is shaken so much that the whole train stops. That is what happens when someone in the family dies. It shakes up our whole world. Those closest to us, in the same railcar, feel more of a jolt than others down the line. There may be sadness and inconvenience in some of the other railcars, but in ours, most everything changes, and there is more damage and more to cleanup.
Now, I know that natural disasters and war can cause more damage than a simple train car derailment, but that would make it a complete train wreck. That is how I look upon what the prophet Job6 experienced. But my emphasis is upon an individual family member’s death, not a wide-spread disaster.
What happens when we die?
No matter what we believe happens after death, we may sometimes wonder what does it feel like for the unfortunate person dying? Although there is no proven way to investigate what people physically experience during the dying process, we can learn certain things from medical observations.
As dying progresses, the heart beats less strongly, blood pressure falls, and the skin cools down. There could be some periods of restlessness and confusion, and a gradual deepening of unconsciousness. Although we don’t know if music or voices can be understood, we do know the unconscious brain responds to nearby noises.7
So for the victim, when death finally comes, their physical body slows down and then just stops working. After that last breath, the heart stops, the brain stops, and other vital organs, including your kidneys and liver, just stop. Everything else quickly powers down as there is no longer anything capable of carrying on the process that we call living.8 One Harvard ethicist describes death as universal, but sometimes murky.9 I can understand that thought, for although common, death is still dark and gloomy.
Some people say those with ‘near death experiences’ do give us more details about what happens at death. But let’s remember, the term ‘near death’ actually means death wasn’t quite reached. Besides, just how much faith can you put into what a person remembers when their body and mind were so impaired, that they may have been dying? From my point-of-view, actual death is reserved as the last event in our existence here — it is the only death we will experience in this lifetime.
So it must be true, the biggest problem is that we know little about death, except through observation, as it is impossible to obtain statements of experiences from the victims who are actually dead. (Further discussion about ‘near death’ can be found in the article “Do we go to Heaven when we die? Do people see Heaven during a Near Death Experience?” listed in References & Notes).10
We all deal with death differently.
Everyone deals with the immediate sorrow of death differently and everyone handles the evolving grieving process differently. The data processing of such situations isn’t an inherited trait with which we are born. Handling the death of someone isn’t hardwired into our genetics, like being born already knowing how to eat or breathe — dealing with death must be learned. Someone once asked me, “Why didn’t God design us with a better ability to handle death?” My answer was, “Because human death was not part of his original plan; we were designed to live forever.”
There are many books and websites discussing the process of grief and the steps that must be taken to work your way through it, so I’m not going to restate those here. I just wanted to offer my personal observations of what sometimes happens as someone slowly accepts the facts of their situation and faces the roadblocks of trying to move forward.
The first step after death is trying to make sense of the topsy-turvy new reality. Everything seems out of kilter11 and as you navigate through the chaos, your routine is broken, and you must now make solitary decisions instead of joint ones. You are unsure of what to do, but you must carry on anyway. Most likely, the loved one who is now gone has caused a seismic shift in the way your family will now have to do things.12
Sometime during all this turmoil, there is usually a service of some kind, either funeral or memorial. I long ago realized that funeral ceremonies and memorial services are not for the deceased, but for the living. For many, it is one step toward bringing closure to losing someone. I’ve been to more than enough of those, but will probably go to many more.
Personally, I would rather share comfort at my time of choosing on a one-to-one basis and not at some large group event. If I could have my choice without upsetting anyone, at the time of those large mingling events I would rather spend that time for reflection out in nature somewhere alone — somewhere I could feel the real presence of God, and talk to him there, and ponder his plan to eliminate death forever.
Some grieving family members worry about what will become of their loved one in the afterlife. That worry, of course, has little to do with the departed and more to do with their own religious beliefs. They are now dead and whatever will be, will be. We should only be worrying about our self, because any future for them is now in God’s hands. For me, I understand that the dead are at rest until a resurrection. Jesus said that and he demonstrated how it works. Until the end of days, just know your loved one is only resting for a while, hence the phrase found upon many grave stones, ‘May You Rest in Peace’.
Joey and Rory Feek were an American country music duo. Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015 and died in 2016.14 This ballad (written well before Joey’s diagnosis) by Sandy Lawrence (playing piano in the video) has Joey singing as a dying wife reassuring her husband that he’ll be okay when she’s gone.15 Selected lyrics are below; see References & Notes for a link to the music video.16
You’ll wonder why the earth still moves
You’ll wonder how you’ll carry on
But you’ll be okay on that first day when I’m gone
You’ll lie down in our big bed
Dread the dark and dread the dawn
But you’ll be alright on that first night when I’m gone
And even though you love me still
You will know where you belong
Just give it time, we’ll both be fine
When I’m gone
Copyright © 2023, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Holland, Kinberly, “What Are the 12 Leading Causes of Death in the United States?” (Healthline, 9 March 2023), https://www.healthline.com/health/leading-causes-of-death
- Grim Reaper: he is death personified as a man (or a skeleton) with a scythe. He lords over death, as well as those dark places deep within our imaginations; he’s a bit scary. This purveyor of death is not a biblical character and the term only became popular during the spread of the Black Death, about 700 years ago. See:
“The Grim Reaper & the Bible”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 18 September 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/the-grim-reaper-the-bible/
- (1) “Our Future After Death — Resurrection on Earth or Life in Heaven?” https://outlawbiblestudent.org/our-future-after-death-resurrection-on-earth-or-life-in-heaven/
(2) “This is All About Hell”, https://outlawbiblestudent.org/this-is-all-about-hell/
(3) “Angels: What are They?” https://outlawbiblestudent.org/angels-what-are-they/
(4) “What is the Soul?” https://outlawbiblestudent.org/what-is-the-soul-is-it-a-spirit-or-something-else/
- wake: a wake is a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral; it is a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died. In modern times, it is usually held at the funeral home, which may also furnish refreshment for the mourners.
- “The Grim Reaper & the Bible” (see above).
- Job: a prophet who lived in the ancient land of Uz (Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq). The Book of Job is a story of God’s justice concerning humanity’s suffering. It involves Job losing his family, health, and assets — everything except his life.
- Mannix, Kathryn, “What does dying feel like? A doctor explains what we know” (BBC Science Focus, 11 October 2012), https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/what-happens-when-we-die
- “What Happens When You Die”, (Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, 27 May 2022), https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/23144-what-happens-when-you-die
- Powell, Alvin, “Death is universal, but sometimes murky”, (The Harvard Gezette, 24 July 2018), https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/07/harvard-ethicist-robert-truog-on-why-brain-death-remains-controversial/
- Hermann, Ray, “Do we go to Heaven when we die? Do people see Heaven during a Near Death Experience?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 4 October 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/do-we-go-to-heaven-when-we-die-do-people-see-heaven-during-a-near-death-experience/
- out of kilter: out of order; in poor health or spirits. ‘Kilter’ is an old English word meaning ‘good health’ or ‘good condition’.
Martin, Gary, “The Phrase Finder” (Phrases Organization, retrieved 8 August 2023), https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/out-of-kilter.html
- Haley, Eleanor, “Family Misunderstanding After a Death”, (What’s Your Grief, 2 October 2015), https://whatsyourgrief.com/family-misunderstanding/
- Williams, Litsa, “When Death Brings Out the Worst: Family Fighting After a Death”, (What’s Your Grief, 18 November 2013), https://whatsyourgrief.com/family-fighting-after-a-death/
- “Joey + Rory”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 December 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joey_%2B_Rory
- “When I’m Gone”, (Song Facts, retrieved 8 August 2023), https://www.songfacts.com/facts/joey-rory/when-im-gone
- “When I’m Gone”, Artists: Joey & Rory Feek; Songwriter: Sandy Lawrence; Album: His & Hers, (© 2012 Sugar Hill Records/Vanguard Records; Welk Music Group; licenses: Warner Chappell, SonyATV, Solar Music Rights, others). Used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of the United States Copyright Act of 1976 — MUSIC VIDEO: https://youtu.be/xcpjSMmWUDw