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Faith and Grief: Challenges and Questions

[1]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. [2]