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A Bad Death

The other night I was called to a death scene. I have death calls about once or twice a week. Some are a real honor. I mean that. The family may be in grief, but there is still a celebration of life and an eternal perspective that gives them hope and comfort in their times of hurt. I think of that as a good death. But not every death is a good death. And in the case of the call the other night, many of the family members were in denial and screaming. In fact, one family member tried to do CPR on the deceased long after the medical team “called” it. There was no hope in their worldview. It was all loss.

So, what is a good death? Well, that isn’t a good question. Every death is a loss. Loss of relationship. Loss of life. Loss of future together. But I have seen some calls go better than others. Some characteristics of what some call a “good death” are:

  • Foreknowledge that death was coming

  • A life well lived

  • Hope

  • Acceptance and acknowledgement

  • Family relationships intact

  • Family lovingly by the side and the dying know it

  • Pain free, or at least pain mitigated

  • Faith

  • A good theology of death

So, what is a good or bad theology of death? The stress of an unexpected death tends to show what we really believe instead of what we give lip service to. A bad death and the stress that comes with it tend to bring out what we really believe about life and death. Some things I see with a bad death are:

  • No hope for themselves or the deceased

  • Crisis of faith where their faith does not address the reality around them

  • Denial that this event is really happening

  • Bitter anger and/or blame towards anyone, including themselves, the deceased, and even God.

  • No room in their worldview for the unexpected death

  • A sense of that death cannot touch them; God should change the situation (entitlement)

How does one’s faith affect one’s view when there is the stress of a bad death? Storm Swain writes the following in her book “Trauma and Transformation at Ground Zero: A Pastoral Perspective.”

“If one has a worldview that is inclusive of disastrous events, one is less likely to be traumatized by them. Religiously, a person’s worldview that sees disaster as part of the karmic cycle or the reality of life in a ‘sinful and broken world’ may be able to mitigate trauma in a way that a worldview that says, ‘God will protect me from all harm’ may not.”

Those who believe that death cannot, or should not, touch them will have a harder time when the stress of a bad death comes. In contrast those who have room in their worldview, and theology for the bad things in life, will tend to be able to handle the stresses of a bad death better when it comes.

Unfortunately a crisis chaplain cannot change a person’s worldview/theology in the few hours we have with them. This can be tough for the chaplain who is called to join in and “grieve with those who grieve” when their grief is without hope.

What can a chaplain do?

  1. Bring a presence of calm and care for the grieved where we can and are allowed. The ministry of presence can be very powerful for those who are looking for a theological lifeline in times of stress and crisis.

  2. As possible, answer questions with the intent of empowering families who have had the wind taken out of their sails. Sometimes we are even given the opportunity to share about the hope that is in us. Sometimes it will be more confusing for a family to hear our theology of death.

  3. Help family members understand the process of the death call.

  4. Try to connect the family with their faith group. Their faith leader will have a lot more influence than you.

  5. If you get a chance to pray with the family and friends, include the hope you have and bits of good theology of death with the intent to bring comfort and hope without being preachy.

By planting seeds of good theology and hope, we can help prevent people getting stuck in their grief. We give them options for their grief when their worldview gives them no answers.

Chaplain Chris Wade


South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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