Monday, August 21, 2017

In Grief: When Offers to Help Are Rejected

[Reviewed and updated  March 3, 2024]

There is but one freedom. To put oneself right with death. After that, everything is possible. I cannot force you to believe in God. Believing in God amounts to coming to terms with death. When you have accepted death, the problem of God will be solvedand not the reverse.  ~ Albert Camus

A reader writes: My very wonderful aunt who has done much to nurture me as I was growing up, has suffered a huge loss in her life. Her husband of 49 years died three months ago from complications from heart disease. My husband is a minister, I have read a lot about grieving and the different stages of grieving, I have suffered the loss of my father 9 years ago from a long illness, but I have not been prepared for the devastating grief and crying that my aunt is experiencing. I feel helpless to help her.
My husband and I are trying to reach out to her with phone calls, visits to our home, taking her with us on vacation, but at times she is very angry with us and attacking us. I don’t know how to help her when she is attacking us when we are trying to make contact. She is attending grief support sessions, but we can’t tell if they are almost making it worse. Thanks for any suggestions you can offer.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your uncle and the deep pain your beloved aunt is experiencing at the loss of her husband of 49 years. Your concern for her is admirable, but I must say that her reactions (as you describe them) do not seem at all unusual to me, particularly at this fairly early point in her grief journey. Keep in mind that grief is unique to the person experiencing it, and everyone grieves differently, according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss, and available support.

The fact that your aunt is expressing her emotions (sorrow, pain, anger, etc.) so openly is not necessarily a bad thing. You say that although she is attending grief support sessions—which in itself is an indicator that she is actively engaged in seeking support and in helping herself—she responds at times to your attempts to reach out to her and include her in your activities by becoming very angry with you and "attacking us when we are trying to make contact."

Because your husband is a minister, I imagine that you both have a certain way of viewing and approaching important spiritual matters such as death and grief. I don't know your aunt, but it may be that in the wake of her husband's death, she is experiencing her own spiritual crisis, which may cause her some discomfort in being in your presence right now. Perhaps she just needs some solitude, some time and space by herself, to come to terms with this.

Regardless of one's identification or affiliation with an organized religion, spiritual doubts and questions can and normally do 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. While some may turn to God as a source of strength and consolation 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 Him 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. (Read more on this topic from my article, Religion and Spirituality in Grief.)

You may find it helpful to read what other scholars have to say about this also. Here is just a sampling of some of the writings I've gathered over the years, and posted on the Comfort for Grieving Hearts page of my Grief Healing website:
Meanwhile, where is God? . . . go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence . . . Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there's no God after all,' but ‘So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'  ~ C. S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed
In our circle, we noticed that the temptation can exist for Christians to sugarcoat everything and act like bad things are really good things in disguise. 'Gifts come in all kinds of packages,' someone said to me recently in reference to the painful things we face in life. I don't think I will ever reach a place where I could consider [my son] Seth's death a 'gift' any more than I consider rape or child abductions, terrorist attacks, murder, genocide, or famine 'gifts.' While it is true that the strength or the insight we gain from God to get through these times could be considered as gifts, the event itself is not, and I believe that God grieves just as much as we do. Why can't we just admit that painful things are painful? Why can't we just sit down with people and cry along with them as we admit that what happened is cause for tears? We don't need people to rush in and frantically try to wrap it all up pretty with a bow, like it is something we should savor. In time, we may see goodness that seeped out of badness, but we should leave it to God to show us that, when our eyes are not so full of tears and we can see more clearly.  ~ Elizabeth A. Price, in "Helping the Bereaved: A Few Basic Rules," Bereavement Magazine, September/October 2003. Reprinted with permission from Bereavement Publishing, Inc. (888-604-4673)
Healthy spirituality never dodges the tough bullets of grief. It never diminishes my worth and never dismisses my feelings. My relationship with God leaves me plenty of time and space to wander and to ponder. There is room to be angry, with the encouragement to receive anger's gift rather than be seduced by its rage. I can connect with my guilt, yet welcome forgiveness that restores. My loneliness is embraced through religious community or context, ritual, sacrament and prayer (or whatever fits with your traditions). Grief's anonymity ('Doesn't anyone understand?') is embraced by a God sometimes perceived to be distant and inaccessible, who still knows me by name!  ~ Reverend Richard Gilbert, M.Div. in "Like Connecting with an Old Friend," Bereavement Magazine, January/February 2002. Reprinted with permission from Bereavement Publishing, Inc. (888-604-4673)
Months ago I was angry at what I thought was the sheeplike stupidity of people who believed in a God who cared about them. Enraged by Gretchen's death, I could not understand how people, especially those whose children had died, could believe they were loved by God. Having myself grown up with that image of the fatherly taskmaster, I needed something to blame, something to hate for what had happened; and there He was, still present in my memory, somehow alive under layers of consciousness. Shortly after Gretchen died I saw a woman driving a car with a bumper sticker saying GOD LOVES YOU, and I felt like running her off the road. I saw the same message the other day and shrugged. Now that my anger is subsiding, I see Him and all the other gods as not unlike my own 'pathetic fallacies,' the fantasies of minds and hearts unhinged by grief. I may not believe what others do, but I have experienced the desperate longing to understand, and I know I, too, am one of the sheep. So I don't begrudge anyone a belief that can help them get through the day. ~ Tom Crider, in Give Sorrow Words: A Father's Passage Through Grief
There is a Job-like mystery in human suffering and loss that can’t be comprehended with reason. It can only be lived in faith. Suffering forces our attention toward places we would normally neglect. [It is] the lesson taught by many mystics: that this necessary dimension of faith is spawned by unknowing. Nicholas of Cusa said we have to be educated into our ignorance or else the full presence of the divine will be kept at bay. We have to arrive at that difficult point where we don’t know what is going on or what we can do. That precise point is an opening to true faith. ~ Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life
Religion is not a shield from pain,but a mechanism for dealing with it effectively. Effectively: not hiding from pain, not eliminating it, not denying it, not continuing it -- but working through it and getting past it through very practical methods. ~ Dorian Scott Cole
As for what you can do to better help your aunt, I invite you to read some of the articles I've listed below, and check out some of the resources you'll find listed here as well: Helping Another in Grief: Suggested Resources

I sincerely hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear, and please know that I am holding you and your beloved aunt in my heart and in my prayers. 

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here


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