Faith and Grief: Challenges and Questions

In his wonderful book Healing  the Bereaved Child, Allan D. Wolfelt writes (I paraphrase slightly):

There are spiritual dimensions to every life crisis, particularly death. If we allow it, death penetrates the defensive shield of (assumed) invulnerability that most North American’s wear.

I too believe that how we respond to the death of someone we love has spiritual dimensions whether or not we consider ourselves religious. Some deaths shake us to our core – the loss of a child, a mom, a dad, a spouse, a fiancé, a dear friend, a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.

I have known individuals where the loss of a loved one drove them deeper into their faith, where they found solace and support for their grieving. I have also known others who have turned away from their religion in anger, or have begun a totally new quest for spiritual meaning to make sense of their loss.

The spiritual/religious responses to death are as varied as individuals are. Perhaps what I’m saying is that it is very natural to have any one of these faith challenges in response to the death of a loved one.

Pete Shrock, National Programs Director for Comfort Zone Camp, shared with me the story of an individual, who after a loss went on a quest for meaning in different religions to, in the end, return to his original faith with a deeper appreciation. I read recently of a woman who, without leaving her religious roots, still found comfort in the Buddhist three principal characteristics of human existence: impermanence, egolessness and suffering/disappointment. Basically, the belief is life is ever changing and we are always in transition between the three. Life is not all about “me,” and suffering and disappointment are the other side of happiness, and a part of living.

An atheist I know admits readily there’s a spiritual side of his life that’s nurtured in his love of family, the natural rhythms of life, and poetry. I recently read in a book the stories of a Jewish man and a Christian man who claim to be atheists, but still attend worship because they “belong to that tribe,” and they find meaning in those communities.

Each of these examples are very different, and very natural responses. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tilich called it “coming to ground.” In times of grief and challenge we all seek grounding while life seems spin out of control.

To be frank, in my opinion, some religious thoughts are a hindrance to healthy mourning when they imply there is something wrong with you, or that you are lacking in faith if you feel sad, angry and confused.

Such thoughts cut us off from the healing path of mourning with all of its feelings and challenges. Sadly the result of not mourning can be long periods of depression, physical ailments and self-destructive behavior rather than growth and healing. There are mysteries to both life and death, and understanding and fulfillment change with every new experience and learning. To quote Allan Wolfelt again: “Do our belief systems help or hinder the healing process? Are they crippling or creative?”

One of the many things I have learned in working with grieving children and teens is that they need adult examples on how to grieve and mourn. Bereavement camps such as Comfort Zone Camp provide opportunities for children to see healthy, compassionate, fully functioning adults share their personal stories of loss. What wonderful models for them. It’s not unusual for parents to write the camp to say how the experience transformed their child and the positive impact on him or her the parent. It’s truly a “spiritual” experience.

I welcome your thoughts and experiences in meeting the faith questions and challenges in your own life. We have much to learn from each other on this spiritual journey.

In conclusion, to quote John Burney:

Faith like mourning is a journey and not a destination.

As we nurture the spiritual within us, in whatever path we take, we move towards wellness.

Photo Credit.


  1. Paige Mitchell said on August 9, 2010 at 11:25 pm ... #

    My faith in God has gotton stronger, for we are all children of God, he is the one who wept first when I lost my husband, I believe this to be true.

  2. BJ Clemens said on August 11, 2010 at 8:59 am ... #

    When I was 21 and my teenage brother died in a car accident, I turned away from my faith in anger. More than 40 years later, when my husband suddenly died, I returned to my long-lost faith.

    I wish grief counselors had been around back in 1967 when my brother died. I feel very grateful to have a grief counselor now.

  3. tammi rahrle said on August 11, 2010 at 9:03 am ... #

    one year ago, aug.8, 2009, i lost my husband and best friend, father to my 5 children. I have a 27 year old in the throws of alcoholism, very sad and depressed. I have 20 year old on her way to nyc to acting school, a 16 year old entering 11th grade, two 14 year olds entering 9th grade. I am a music teacher and the choir director at our church. My fear is that I am so engulfed in my own grief that i am unable to help my children through theirs. I don’t know how to help them or what to do. I am thrilled about this web site and about the comfort zone camp although they are far away from my home in Otisco, ny just south from Syracuse, ny. Thanks, Tammi

  4. tammi rahrle said on August 11, 2010 at 9:09 am ... #

    One year ago, august 8, 2009, i lost my husband, best friend and father to my children. I have a 27 year old in the throws of alcoholism and depression, a 20 year old on her way to nyc to acting school, a 16 year old entering 11th grade and two 14 year olds entering 9th grade. They have all been struggling either overtly or silently. My fear is that I am so engulfed in my own grief that i am unable to help them through theirs. I don’t know what to do or what to say. I am thrilled there is a web site like this and a camp like camp comfort zone. The camps are far away from where i live in otisco, ny which is south of Syracuse ny. Just wondering if there are any camps closer to my area and of course any suggestions would be appreciate it. thanks, tammi

  5. tammi rahrle said on August 11, 2010 at 9:10 am ... #

    ok i repeated that mess cause i though i lost it. sorry.

  6. D. Clark said on August 11, 2010 at 5:49 pm ... #

    I was delighted to be introduced to this website. Our family has lost a parent a sister and her husband all within 11 months. The children of my sister lost both parents within 4 months. I hope they find comfort, solace and some tools to cope with this loss.


  7. theresa said on August 12, 2010 at 10:32 am ... #

    i’m glad to have found this website, i lost my husband steve in april 2010, very unexpectedly, my life is kinda a fog still, our kids are grown we have a two yr.old grand daughter. i’m in counsuling a few times a month. the kids came a few times. i’m coming up on the four month mark also our wedding anniversary the next day, (would have been 26 yrs )steve passed from a bloodclot that had formed at the stent he had placed 7 mos before. i still can’t believe in my heart that hes gone even though i know in my head its true. it seems like i just get from one day to the next. some our pretty tough at times. will i ever feel normal or settled again ??

  8. John said on April 18, 2011 at 10:41 pm ... #

    my wife was long suffered from Schizophrenia and ended her life one night in Sep 2009. with my unborn daughter. many times when I entered my car tear would burst out like a spring. but it’s God really comforted me. He knows your pain and sadness,he is just besides you. for the pure in heart, there is a place no more sorrow and death. Love is stronger than death.

  9. Rachel said on May 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm ... #

    I found grief really altered my religious beliefs. It was so hard to believe after my father died. I had so many questions: whether or not I would see him in the afterlife (my dad was not religious), how God could let something like this happen, what I would live for, whether I would ever find peace again. There were times my religion brought me comfort on my journey and some times that it cut me deeply. I felt so abandoned by God, to be honest, and unhappy that my prayers for help in dealing with my sorrow were not answered. It was another agony to deal with the death of my faith on top of all that grief. Today, I’m just working to appreciate the meaning in my life on Earth, and most days I succeed. I wish that my journey hadn’t taken this route sometimes, but it is what it is. If this is your case, too, try not to be hard on yourself. A loss of religious faith after a loved one dies can be horrendous to go through, but you can come out on the other side and find a new wholeness.

  10. CB said on December 7, 2012 at 8:53 pm ... #

    my husband of 25 years passed away suddenly this past March.I never got to say goodbye or tell him I love him. I don’t understand WHY God did it this way…without warning, without being able to say goodbye, and not being able to say I love you. I am really mad at God. I want to know why, and He remains silent. He took my love away, how could He? my faith was stronger before my husband died. I want to believe but I feel God really screwed us over when He took my husband. I just want to know why, but God isn’t saying a word.

  11. Kiri said on December 20, 2012 at 4:59 am ... #

    CB I read a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner called When bad things happen to good people. He grappled with this question and came to his own conclusion. Not sure it’s mine, but it was very thought provoking.

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