Monday, March 23, 2015

Religion and Spirituality in Grief

[Reviewed and updated July 7, 2024]

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand. ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

A reader writes: I believe in God. I believe my husband is in heaven and I intend to be there with him one day. I couldn't go on if I thought we would never be together again. So I do have some faith. But right now, the whole 'pray and trust in God' thing kind of makes me want to run the other way. I guess you could say that I'm a bit angry with God right now. He has taken away my Love from me.
          I don't want to turn away from Him or anything like that, it's just that right now, if He was in physical form, I just don't think I would have much to say to Him. I don't know if any of that makes sense or not. It isn't like I'm raging against Him or anything extreme. I'm just not able to glory in Him at this time. Someone gave me a little pamphlet yesterday about death of a loved one. I had a look at it but then gave it back and told the person thank you but they should save it for someone who could get some peace from reading it. Right now, I just can't find any comfort in prayer or my beliefs. Again, I do still believe, there just isn't any serenity in my belief. Anyone else go through this?

My response: You ask if anyone else has gone through this, my dear, and I can assure you that the answer is Yes.

Regardless of one’s identification or affiliation with an organized religion, spiritual doubts and questions may arise when a loved one dies. Suffering a major loss usually causes us to confront and re-think our basic beliefs about God, religion, death and the afterlife.

Some may turn to God or their Higher Power as a source of strength and consolation at the time of a loved one’s death and find their faith has deepened. Others may question the religious teachings they’ve practiced all their lives and find the very foundations of their beliefs shaken to the core. Even those who had no religious upbringing at all may still feel abandoned by God or angry with God for letting their loved one get sick and die. Not all people respond to loss in the same way, and not everyone shares the same cultural, religious or spiritual beliefs about death and the afterlife.

Death forces us to confront the spiritual questions we may have been avoiding or haven’t taken time to address ~ the questions that get at the very heart and meaning of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?

Whether a strong religious faith will be a help or a hindrance in your recovery from grief depends on what you believe and how your beliefs are practiced. Like any other tool, religion can be used in healthy, appropriate ways, or it can be abused in unhealthy, inappropriate ways.

Religion can influence your fundamental view of life: You can see life as temporary and death as permanent, or you can see it the other way around — death is temporary and life is permanent. Death may interrupt a life that was very special, but it cannot cancel it. Religion also can provide the motivation required for grief recovery: It says you’re not alone — somebody has done it before. It asserts that grief’s path isn’t a dead-end street; it’s a well-marked trail. Religion can be a great antidote for the loneliness that accompanies every major loss, and it can be a source of strength and group support.

What religion cannot do is give us immunity from loss or give us back our lost loved ones — nor can it provide us with a shortcut through grief. In his wonderful and insightful book Life After Loss: A Practical Guide to Renewing Your Life after Experiencing Major Loss, pastoral counselor Bob Deits identifies some religious beliefs that can be harmful:

· Death is God’s will and should not be questioned.

· The person was so special that God called him or her to be with Him.

· There must be a grand plan or purpose (a why) for every death.

These religious beliefs are helpful:

· This is a mortal, frail, imperfect world, and tragedies occur.

· There is no satisfactory explanation when loss occurs.

· The question is not why me, but rather if me, what can I learn from this?

Deits encourages moving from why questions to how questions:

· How can you work through this loss and achieve as full a life as possible?

· How can you use this experience to help someone else?

· How do you find meaning in life without this person?

· How do you start anew?

Suggestions for Coping with Spiritual Reactions

· Recognize that a new faith can grow from grief, into a deeper, more mature understanding of the divine dimension of life. Sometimes meaning must be lost before it can be found.

· Consider talking to a minister, priest, rabbi or imam. Pastoral counseling can comfort you and help you find a pathway to renewed faith.

· Make space in your schedule for daily meditation or prayer, which can be a source of great strength and consolation.

· Explore and question the values and beliefs you’ve accepted in the past, and formulate new ones when you need to.

· Consider grief as an encounter with life’s greatest mysteries: the meaning of life; the promise of rebirth; the depth of love we share with one another.

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