A post for those with a faith perspective, Christian or otherwise, who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
From what I’ve seen amongst the people I’ve met through the Living with Loss project, and my own personal experience, people with a religious background who suffer a bereavement – particularly one that is traumatic or ‘out of order’ such as the death of a child – respond in two main ways as far as far as their faith goes:
For some, their faith has been strengthened and/or they find it is helping them through the difficulties of their bereavement. This might not happen right away, but eventually their faith provides them the encouragement, comfort and hope they need to adjust to their new life circumstances. This could include those who newly find a faith following a bereavement, and encompasses the hope of another life after this, that exists in some form in many religions.
For others, the ‘fork in the road’ leads them down a different path, away from the faith they used to have. Perhaps they are angry or disappointed with ‘God’. They don’t understand why He let their loved one die… They might feel as though prayer did not change the outcome, so why pray? Or they might wonder if there is anyone even listening to their prayers. They simply may not have words to prayer. They might be surprised by the overwhelming emotions of their grief and take this as an additional sign that ‘God isn’t working for them anymore’.
If they were regular participants in services, it’s possible they’ll stop. Often you hear sad conversations in churches where people lament how ‘so and so’ has stopped attending ‘since…’
Not continuing religious practices and/or attendance at this time is a personal choice. However, by no longer taking part in services, the bereaved might find themselves even more isolated, just when they need the support of others.
These same people might also feel guilty about how they’ve ‘dropped God’. It is rather sad that the faith that sustained them in the past isn’t sustaining them now and can instead be a source of condemnation.
A loss of relationship with God can become another loss in our lives.
If you find that your grief is pulling you away from the faith that used to comfort you, and you want to regain it, here are some thoughts. (The following is geared to Christians, as that’s my own experience.)
(This is the first part of a series of posts, as I don’t want each article to get too long. Please subscribe to the blog to be sure to get the next sections.)
Making adjustments in our changed circumstances
The twists and turns of my own faith journey throughout life, and encounters with people of many different cultures and denominations, have led me to a place where I am not dogmatic or particular about elements of Christian practice. Wear a hat, don’t wear a hat? Stand up or sit for the hymns? Sing songs or sit in silence? Personally I don’t think it matters very much – but if it matters to you, then please do follow your conscience.
Within the parameters of your own beliefs and convictions, consider this:
If you’ve always cooked for two and now you’re cooking for one, it can take a while to adjust the quantities. Sometimes the challenge isn’t so much regarding the amounts, but feeling motivated to prepare food when we are the only person eating it. It can also be hard to sit down for a meal alone.
So what can we do? Initially, we might need to find some easy alternatives, like a takeaway or eating out – not the healthiest, but better than nothing. Then eventually (hopefully!) we start cooking again. We do adjust the quantities, by trial and error. We might find that watching TV or reading a book while we eat helps breaks the silence. And so on.
This is just one very simple example of how we need to adjust to our changed circumstances in practical ways.
It also applies spiritually.
We need to adjust to our needs at this present time.
It could mean, that if we don’t feel like attending a full church service, we could still go to the early Communion or Mass.
For some people, it could mean visiting a different church, or taking part ‘virtually’ in a service such as the Radio 4 Sunday Morning worship.
For others, it could be making our personal practices the centre of our spiritual life at this time, rather than traditional communal worship.
The God who hears
Continuing on the theme of adjustments: This can also apply to our prayer life. In my personal view, God can handle whatever we send his way – anger, rage, sorrow, or simply speechlessness. The most heartfelt prayers can be the shortest and they don’t always have to follow a prescribed format. “Help, I’m sinking!” are the words of Peter as he attempted to walk on water like he’d seen Jesus do. Short and spoken in natural language.
On the other hand, sometimes the prayers of other people can help us pray our own. Written prayers, poetry or scripture can express our heartfelt pleas better than we are able to. You can find beautiful written prayers in many of the devotional volumes that are on the market. My personal favourites include the books of Celtic Daily Prayer by the Northumbria Community (available as printed books or as an app).
An example from Celtic Daily Prayer:
O God our protector;
By whose mercy the worlds turns safely into darkness
And returns again to light;
We give into Your hands our unfinished tasks,
Our unsolved problems,
And our unfulfilled hopes;
For You alone are our sure defence.
Then there is the meditative type of prayer, such as the chants of Taize, where there is less conscious wordiness.
This includes the Jesus prayer. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Prayer)
In The Way of a Pilgrim (a 19th-century Russian work), the pilgrim advises,
“as you draw your breath in, say, or imagine yourself saying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ and as you breathe again, ‘have mercy on me.'”
The same method can be used with any small phrase of scripture or lines of poetry. You are bringing a stillness to your mind and body, which can be so helpful during the turmoil of your grief.
The point here is that we can seek God in the way that matches our faith at this time. Heartfelt, desperate prayer; structured, formal prayer or quiet meditative prayer on your own terms can each be just as valuable.
Life following bereavement is full of adjustments that we might not have expected we need to make. It includes our spiritual path. I hope this post has been a help if you’re at a point in your journey where you’re reaching out for faith.
(To be continued! There is so much to be written here but I want to keep this post to a manageable length. Topics for future posts include: Faith and unanswered questions, relief from condemnation, the responses of those in our community of faith, getting help and support, and recommended resources. Your suggestions are most welcome!)