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Stages of Grief & Stations of the Cross

Stages of Grief & Stations of the Cross April 2, 2021

Church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Avranches, Manche, Normandie, France. Fourteen enamel paintings, technique from Limoges, representing the Stations of the Cross (visualize from left to right, top down), September 9, 2008, Tango7174; Creative Commons 4.0 International

Simon Peter could have benefited from reading Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying. It might have helped him grapple with Jesus’ pending death and then the aftermath. Peter appears to have gone through several, possibly all, of Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—before and after Jesus’ “Stations of the Cross.”

Before reflecting further on Simon Peter, it is worth noting that not everyone goes through all five stages, or in some linear progression. There may be situations where someone does not go through any of the five stages. I wonder if one might even go from one stage to another and then back again. One overview of Kübler-Ross’s paradigm and its reception helpfully states:

A Swiss psychiatrist, Kübler-Ross first introduced her five stage grief model in her book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross’ model was based off her work with terminally ill patients and has received much criticism in the years since. Mainly, because people studying her model mistakenly believed this is the specific order in which people grieve and that all people go through all stages. Kübler-Ross now notes that these stages are not linear and some people may not experience any of them. Yet and still, others might only undergo two stages rather than all five, one stage, three stages, etc. It is now more readily known that these five stages of grief are the most commonly observed experienced by the grieving population.

Just like the book does not outline a set order for all people, so Peter’s own “stages of grief” in the case of Jesus’ passion and death are not intended to be prescriptive for the rest of us. Everyone grieves differently. Similar to what I have written in a prior post that every patient who is a person is the exception to the rule of what the prognosis in any given case will be, so too, everyone who loves and grieves the loss of a patient is the exception to the grief cycle rule.

Now back to Peter and the five stages. Peter appears to have gone through different forms of denial, as he grappled with Jesus’ pronouncement and signs of his pending death. First, Peter denied that Jesus would die when Jesus predicted it (See Matthew 16:21-23). Then Peter denied that he would deny Jesus, when Jesus predicted that, too (Matthew 26:31-35). Finally, Peter  denied even knowing Jesus (26:69-75). For us, we may go through various forms of denial—from denying that someone we love will die or that the prognosis or outcome is nothing more than a bad dream. We may even deny that we ever loved them.

Peter did appear to go through a stage of anger at one or two points—from cutting off the high priest’s servant’s ear, when Judas and the soldiers came to arrest Jesus (Matthew 26:51; cf. John 18:10), to going out and weeping bitterly after denying Jesus three times (Matthew 26:75). He was possibly angry with others for harming Jesus, or the circumstances themselves, angry with himself for not having the courage to stay by Jesus’ side, angry with Jesus for not doing everything possible to avoid capture, interrogation, passion, and death, and angry with God for allowing it all to happen. Anger is not always rational and can easily be misplaced or misdirected at various times.

Peter may have also gone through the bargaining stage. He might have thought to himself: If only I had cut off both ears of the high priest’s servant, or his head…If only we had not gone to the Mount of Olives that night, since it was a place that Jesus was often known to go. “If only” statements often torture us as we go through grief concerning the suffering and loss of loved ones.

Depression appears to have set in for Peter. From weeping bitterly after denying Jesus three times at his trial (Matthew 26:75), to apparently leaving his apostolic calling to return to his prior vocation of being a fisherman and then having to face Jesus and his painful threefold question of whether he loved his Lord (John 21:1-3; 17), Peter appears to have thrown in the towel, not just the fishing line. Giving up is something many of us are tempted to do when losing someone we love a lot. We ask ourselves: What’s the point of living?

Lastly, Peter came to a point of acceptance. He accepted Jesus’ horrific and shameful death and even proclaimed it as a vital part of Jesus’ victorious life story and with radical import for our lives (Acts 2:36-41). Peter also came to terms with his denial of Jesus and made clear to others that he had failed the Lord during his passion and resulting death (the great Apostle Peter never doctored the canonical gospel accounts to make himself out to be a hero).

Now we might think that Peter had it easy, since Jesus rose from the dead a few days later. Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty. Peter had no idea that Jesus was going to rise from the dead—no matter what Jesus had predicted. When Peter was going through his overwhelming grief in view of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, he thought Jesus’ life was totally over. Moreover, even upon the news that Jesus rose, Peter’s own deep sense of failure of not remaining true to Jesus at his trial and denying him likely stayed with him for some time. No one has ever denied someone so worthy of our ultimate allegiance. Peter’s sense of failure far outweighs our own.

Just like Peter didn’t know that Jesus would rise again, I don’t know what will happen in my son Christopher’s case involving his traumatic brain injury and long-standing comatose state. Kübler-Ross’s model has a bearing not only on death, but also on various forms of traumatic suffering and loss even when the loved one is still very much alive. Besides I have felt as if I have already died a few times in processing my own grief involving my son and family’s situation.

What I do know for sure is that I/we should not suppress our grief. While denial may be a natural state, it is not natural for us to remain in denial forever. For all the Bible’s emphasis on the supernatural, it never operates in a dishonest manner and tells us to discount grief, plaster a smile on our faces, tell people we are doing well whenever they ask us how we’re doing, or keep our grievances with God to ourselves.

The “Stations of the Cross”—from Jesus’ condemnation to death at his trial to placement in the tomb—which many Christians reflect upon this Good Friday, leads us into honest engagement of suffering and loss. According to Christian tradition, Jesus’ own mother Mary put in place stone markers at her home near Jerusalem to recount her beloved son’s passion, death, and burial. If such stations were good enough for Mary, it should be good enough for the rest of us to retrace Jesus’ steps and stations of the cross today. In fact, honest, heartfelt, and holistic embrace of Jesus’ sojourn in suffering and death resonates with God’s own affirmation and embrace through Jesus of our ongoing human struggle. God knows that dishonesty and ongoing denial in the face of great suffering and loss will only kill us. Suffer and grieve loss well so that we can live again.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author of numerous works, including Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse. You can read more about the author here.
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