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Like Valerie Harper, We're All Terminal

Like Valerie Harper, We're All Terminal


Mar 22 2013
The search for a truer expression of Christian grief.

Celebrities usually make the cover of People magazine for doing something silly or scandalous, but actress Valerie Harper's front-page story last week was much more serious. She announced she'd been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

Harper, best known as the wisecracking New Yorker Rhoda Morganstern on the 1970's sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, went on to launch her goodbye media tour. On The Doctors, the 73-year-old explained why she elected to go public with her grim diagnosis: "Instead of waiting until after I'm dead to tell people the news, I thought this would be better for my fans to get a head's up." She explained that she wanted to use some of her remaining time on earth—possibly as little as three to six months—to encourage people to be less fearful of death.

Harper is winning praise for her courage. She hasn't spoken of any faith beyond the faith she has in the love of her family and fans. We would do well to pray for Ms. Harper and her family and to heed her unflinching message that each one of us is living with the same diagnosis she's been given. We're terminal, too.

We in the church talk a lot about eternal life, but don't always do a very good job helping one face death. We've all seen it happen. A woman from our church found out during her pregnancy that her baby had serious heart defects and little chance of survival. He died just minutes after birth. During her pregnancy, our fellow church members prayed fervently for a miracle. After her baby died, they brought casseroles. None of us, including the pastoral team, knew how to process the heartbreaking loss. I'm afraid too many of the wrong kinds of words, cheerful, over-spiritualized words, were said by some. Then, after the window of public mourning closed after a couple of weeks, no one said much of anything at all.

Sixth-generation funeral director and Christian blogger Caleb Wilde noted that sometimes our fear of death masquerading as vibrant faith short-circuits the way we believers process death:

Religious people tend to downplay tragedy with clichés like "It's God's will", "God meant it for good"(and)"We don't always understand God's mysterious plans." And in the same way, we use the powerful antidote of the afterlife to downplay our grief and pain during times of death: "At least you know he's in a better place", "You can be happy to know she's in the arms of Jesus." All this speaks to repression, delusion and the tendency to skip the first four stages of Kubler-Ross' grief model and go right to a faux form of "acceptance"… It's a "get out of pain for free" card that all too many play to the detriment of their personal growth... I distain this attempt to skip the labor of grief, the growth of grief and the personal evaluation that inevitably comes with death.

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Like Valerie Harper, We're All Terminal