Heads or Tails: The Duo Role of Spirituality in Coping with Grief

Rev. Dr. Terri Daniel

When we are dealing with grief, there are two aspects to spiritual/religious coping. One aspect can lead to healing and resilience while the other aspect can lead to chronic and prolonged grief.

To highlight what I mean, I have examples below. I am aware that these examples are anecdotal and reflective rather than a qualitative case study analysis, but it is my belief that this information is significant for its ability to call into question certain aspects of grief work that could be further explored empirically in a research.

Case Examples

Like I shared on “The Hospice Chaplaincy Show” . I pursued chaplaincy after the death of my son who died at a young age. That’s when I saw a need to start helping other people with grief.

In December 2010, as the facilitator of an online support group for bereaved parents, I found myself in the midst of a heated discussion that exemplified how certain beliefs and assumptions can inhibit the healthy processing of grief. I had posted a message suggesting that it was possible to re-frame suffering by considering a more universal, less personal perspective on human experience. My post triggered a barrage of angry responses from parents who were still experiencing acute grief, disbelief, and anger even though their children had died years earlier, and many of the comments revealed how assumptions and beliefs influenced the well-being of the grievers. Some of their statements included:

I’m sorry, but I refuse to believe that my precious son was meant to die. Children are not supposed to die before their parents

I just want my daughter back… Wouldn’t you give anything to have your son back with you? What could be more important than that?

I pray and beg God every day to bring my daughter back [this group member had the user name “God Did Me Wrong”].

I will NEVER accept that my son died. All I want is to have him back here with me.

I spend all my time wondering what I did wrong and how I can correct it so I can see my child again in Heaven.

As I proceeded into deeper dialog with the group members, I noticed that the ones least able to accept their losses were those who embraced images of God that not only provided limited tools for coping with loss, but kept them in a childlike state that corresponds with Fowler’s Mythic/Literal stage in faith development.

My experience with this discussion group also highlighted the importance of having great sensitivity when discussing growth after stress or trauma. It pointed to the value of not leading a bereaved person to the expectation of growth, but rather offering an open and inquisitive frame that allows the bereaved person to be exactly where they are in the process of healing (Werdel & Wicks, 2012).

The intention of the group posting was to be questioning and open. However, as the comments suggest, not everyone who is mourning desires to explore a new frame. Some desire to recapture a truth that is no longer able to be claimed, and respect for this experience must be understood.

I have heard similar musings from bereaved parents whose grief is not as raw as the parents described above but is chronically troubling because of the theological challenges the grievers have been forced to face.

Here is another case example of Sam (not his real name), who identifies himself as a “religious man,” and was 39 when his five-year-old son died in a vehicle collision… with Sam at the wheel. Sam survived, and so did the drunk driver in the car that hit them.

Sam was brought up to believe that God watches over us and makes moral judgments about our actions that result in either punishment or reward. Throughout childhood and adulthood, Sam attended church and bible study, and believed that because he worked hard at trying to “please God,” he would be spared undue suffering in return for his devotion. He did not question this belief until the death of his son prompted him to wonder why, as a devout believer, would God inflict such suffering upon him. Sam concluded that he had “failed God” because of what he perceived as an unforgivable sin he’d committed at age 20. His girlfriend had become pregnant, and although she wanted to marry him and keep the child, Sam convinced her to have an abortion, and borrowed the money to pay for it.

Sam believed deeply that his son had been taken from him in exchange for the life of the unborn baby. He was so paralyzed by guilt and grief that he went to his son’s grave every day for three years to pray that the boy would somehow be returned to him, begging God to provide this miraculous intervention in exchange for his repentance. But at the same time, Sam also believed that nothing could end his suffering, because relief from his pain would be “cheating God’s judgment.”

Often, during his sojourns to the grave, Sam demanded that Satan come down to earth and show himself so that Sam could fight him face-to-face and vanquish the evil that created sin in the world and took his son. At one point, Sam reported railing at the devil this way for 40 days straight, while also screaming at God for not granting his only wish… that his son live a safe and healthy life.

Sam’s confusion, pain, and guilt, exacerbated by his struggle with the concept of God versus Satan, is an example of prolonged grief for which there can be no comfort, but only deeper pain. This leads to endless yearning and repetitive searching for the lost loved one, wanting nothing but to have that person back.

Current research in coping with grief shows that ending pain is accomplished by relocating the deceased in a new way. Sam’s story—and the comments from the discussion group—provide an example of how certain spiritual/religious beliefs can result in an inability to experience healthy recovery and restoration.

You can also listen to Rev. Dr. Terri Daniel’s interview on “The Hospice Chaplaincy Show” here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/one-on-one-with-rev-dr-terri-daniel/id1497646343?i=1000466514735

Rev. Dr. Terri Daniel is an End-of-Life Advisor, Interfaith Chaplain who is Certified in Death, Dying and Bereavement. Dr. Daniel is also a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist. You can read more about her work and what she is up to at; https://www.danieldirect.net/

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