Dealing with death: Religion no 'cure-all' but 'tends to help'

Does a loving creator really make his will known through the violent deaths of teenagers? Religious perspectives vary, but there's one thing leaders from different denominations do agree on — faith helps us cope with trauma.

Faith takes many forms, but one universal is its ability to offer comfort, community and context

Jordan and Evan Caldwell 'were bright lights to all that knew them,' their family said after their deaths at Canada Olympic Park in February 2016. (Submitted by the Caldwell family)

There's little doubt among Evan and Jordan Caldwell's friends that the twins — killed one year ago on a Calgary bobsled track — are enjoying the afterlife.

"They're probably stoked up there," says Dan Spalding, who was among the group of eight high school students on the late-night joyride gone wrong.

"They're probably just having the best time of their lives. That's what I imagine."

The other teens expressed similar sentiments in a group interview with CBC News.

They said they're devastated by the loss of their friends. They described their decision to trespass onto the icy track as a mistake. They expressed regret.

But they also expressed a faith they'll be reunited with Jordan and Evan in heaven, and a belief this was — in some sense — all part of a divine plan.

"I think God meant for that to happen," said David Carr.

"And I know it's very hard for some people to wrap their heads around, but I think God does want to do something through this."

Watch the 6 survivors tell the story of that night's accident and share their reflections on everything that has happened since

6 years ago
Duration 3:58
As twin brothers lay dead along the bobsled track at Canada Olympic Park and other friends with serious injuries shivered on the ice, Mark Lyons lifted his voice in a song of worship. That strong Christian faith helped sustain the six survivors through the awful night, and is now spurring them to share their intimate memories on the anniversary of the tragedy.

But does a loving creator really make his will known through the violent deaths of teenagers? And do we actually ascend to heaven once we die, to be reunited with lost loved ones?

There are, of course, no definitive answers to these questions. Many simply don't believe in an afterlife. And religious perspectives vary. 

But there's one thing leaders from different denominations do agree on: Faith helps us cope with trauma.

'You do death well'

John Pentland, lead minister at Calgary's Hillhurst United Church, has counselled members of his congregation through difficult times, including some unthinkable tragedies, and he's seen how being part of a religious community helps guide people through grief.

"We all get hurt by life and we need one another to support and affirm us," he said.

"The value of religion — whether it's Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Sikh or Hindu — is that there's a community that comes together that should share some of that burden."

Pentland recalls a relatively new member of the congregation remarking: "One of the things I get about religion is you do death well."

John Pentland is the lead minister at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary's Kensington community, a position he has held since 2005. (CBC)

That said, the United Church minister has a different take on the deaths of Jordan and Evan Caldwell than the twins' friends, who come from an evangelical Christian background.

One positive the teens say they see in the tragedy is an opportunity to proselytize.

"If they hadn't died ... the news, in general, probably wouldn't be all over it, and the word wouldn't get out to as many people," said Spalding. "So I feel like God's got a plan, and he does what is necessary to grow his kingdom."

Pentland said he respects the teenager's point of view, but he has "real trouble" with that explanation.

​"God doesn't have a finger in all of our lives in a way that's manipulative or causing suffering or illness or death," he said.

"I think God's word gets out in how we respond to trauma, how we care for each other, how we support each other."

Islam a complete way of life

Fayaz Tilly is a Calgary imam who also works with the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Alberta Health Services.

He said Islam equips followers to deal with tragedy, particularly with its view of the afterlife.

"Our faith obligates us to keep our eyes on the prize and the prize is the afterlife. In order to be rewarded in the afterlife, we are obligated to worship God and part of worshiping God is being in the servitude of his creation," said Tilly. 

Imam Fayaz Tilly says Islam has many tools to deal with tragedy including a goal of the afterlife. (Fayaz Tilly/Facebook)

"One hundred and ten years from now, the majority of the people who are alive today won't be alive. The afterlife is a life of permanency. That doesn't mean that we don't enjoy the world that we are living in and we don't try to leave the world in a better place than how we received it in," he said.

'Sacred obligation' to commune

In the Jewish faith, supporting others through grief goes beyond being a good friend and neighbour.

It's a "sacred obligation," said Rabbi Mark Glickman with Calgary's Temple B'nai Tikvah.

"The Jewish community has a way of turning out in support of people when things like this happen, and it's beautiful to see," he said.

"It's touching to see the way a community can galvanize."

That support helps equip the grieving to deal with their loss, Glickman said, but that doesn't mean it's a perfect way or the only way to confront death.

"It's entirely possible that somebody who has religious faith is still ill-equipped to deal with these things, and somebody who does not have religious faith, because of their own resources, is very well equipped," he said.

"But what I will say is that religious life tends to help."

Rabbi Mark Glickman is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Tikvah in southwest Calgary. (CBC)

Glickman's understanding of religion doesn't turn on certainty. He speaks in "ifs" and "coulds" when it comes to the meaning of life and is broad-minded in his conception of immortality.

He doesn't buy the traditional Jewish view that there will be a physical resurrection of the dead when the Messiah comes, but he does believe in an afterlife.

"It is silly to say that we cease existing when we die," he said.

"We make an impact on the world, positive or negative — and usually some combination of both — and that impact we make has a way of outliving us. My grandmother died when I was 12 years old. Her hugs still get me through a lot."

'Faith isn't a talisman'

For Leighton Lee, rector of Cathedral Church of the Redeemer and dean of the Anglican Diocese of Calgary, there's no question that religion offers relief in times of suffering.

"I've had numbers of people say to me that they don't know how they would have gotten through a situation had they not had their faith and their church," he said.

"And I do wonder how people who don't have a faith community manage."

But Lee says religion cannot be — nor should it be — a shield that deflects all grief and sorrow and pain.

"Faith isn't a talisman and it's not a cure-all," he said. "We're still human and we're still going through these very desperate human situations."

Rev. Leighton Lee is rector of Cathedral Church of the Redeemer in downtown Calgary and the 14th dean of the Anglican Diocese of Calgary. (CBC)

Religion's role in death is not about "escapism," in Lee's view, but rather a means to confront it head-on, in all its mystery.

He favours using the word "death" rather than phrases like "passed on" or "passed away" or "gone to a better place."

"That kind of euphemistic language prevents a person, I think, from healing or at least healing as quickly," he said.

"Naming it for what it is, and looking at it full in the face, as much as is possible, not trying to avoid it, that's huge. It sounds so grim but the people who can do that and are honest about that, I find that they are able to move on in such a way that's much healthier, because they haven't tried to avoid what's happened. They've been able to admit it."

Building bonds with the dead

Bob Glasgow, who served as the non-denominational chaplain at Rockyview Hospital for 27 years and continues to work in private practice today, said there are three nearly universal types of needs people have when dealing with the death of a loved one.

Regardless of a person's religious faith, or lack thereof, he said there is almost always a yearning for relatedness and belonging, meaning and purpose, and forgiveness and reconciliation.

"I think the people that really struggle with finding their way through loss are people that develop such strong resentment ... or pretty intense guilt," he said.

Views have shifted over time, but Glasgow said there is evidence that belief in an afterlife — whether that means literal pearly gates or more abstract concepts of immortality — is beneficial for the bereaved.

"In early days in grief, people used to say, 'You've got to forget, you've got to move on,'" he said.

"But we know the people that do better in grieving are those that build a continuing bond with their deceased loved one. And, for a lot of people, the belief that their loved one's spirit lives on helps them build that continuing bond."


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

With files from Colleen Underwood