(A post for those interested in Christian or faith-based perspectives. This series is particularly for those who have struggled with their faith since their bereavement. )
Acute, profound grief can make a real mess of our lives. We’re desperately sad one moment, red-hot angry the next. Our disappointment with how things have turned out can be accompanied by frustration. We wonder why other people seem to have escaped such a tragedy. We are confused and perhaps overwhelmed by unanswered questions. This is all part of the rollercoaster of grief.
This mess frequently extends to our relationships with people around us. We are disappointed at those who don’t rally to our side. Perhaps we are angry at their treatment of our loved one. We are confused… This is all part of the rollercoaster as well.
When we’re a person who has religious faith or spiritual beliefs, our rollercoaster might have another layer. We might be sad and disappointed at the apparent lack of answers to our prayers. We might be angry if we believe that God could have taken care of our loved one, healed them, brought them to recovery, but he didn’t. If we are part of a very positive-thinking type of faith community, we might feel guilty at the depth of our anguish. We may also find that dearly held beliefs have been challenged. I wrote in a previous post about how common it is for those who are struggling with acute or prolonged grief to find themselves having a crisis of faith.
Of course, we may also find as we grieve that our faith sustains and comforts us – if so, that’s great.
But for those who are struggling, this crisis of faith can be a very unwelcome addition to their grief journey.
My spiritual ‘stroke’
Is such a crisis necessarily a bad thing, a sign of ‘lack of faith’ or lack of spirituality? Perhaps for some people the outcome is not positive. We can all probably think of those who stopped attending our place of worship following a tragedy in their lives.
But in my view, the questioning that accompanies our crisis is not in itself a problem but rather an opportunity. It is perhaps only as we take the time to go deeper in thought and reflection that we’ll discover our true faith.
This was my own experience. Catherine’s death shattered me completely in every way. Spiritually, it was rather like having a stroke. It was as though I had lost all power of movement or reason, and needed to relearn life from the beginning again.
I simply couldn’t continue attending our lively church – although the people were really lovely, it was just too lively. I didn’t know what to think or believe, but I was desperate to find peace. I started attending quiet little Anglican churches. I preferred those that were not close to my home, as I wept profusely when I went up to take the Lord’s supper – Communion. I would stand in the line awaiting my turn and cry. I would think of Catherine who would sometimes go to the Sunday morning communion service at the Mental Health Unit of the hospital where she spent months on end. It was an indication, I think, of how she was reaching out for God’s healing. (I only discovered this after her death.) Sadly it was not a healing that she received.
Standing there in that queue of strangers, with the tears flowing, I would think about my children, but mostly I reflected on what I believed now at this moment. To be frank, I was struggling to believe anything. I was drowning in my sorrow and thrashing about trying desperately to find something to hold onto.
And there it was. Jesus on the cross. As I took the communion wafer/bread, I found I could believe that Jesus had been crucified. Just that one fact. At that moment, that was all I could manage as far as belief. But it was enough for the time being. This was enough to sustain me as I started to get on my feet again.
Our perspectives often change when tragedy has visited our lives. To develop our new perspectives takes time and thought. Here’s something on the subject by Alan Wolfelt from his book “Companioning the bereaved”:
Without doubt, the grief journey requires contemplation and turning inward. … It requires going to the wilderness. Quietness and emptiness invite the heart to observe signs of sacredness, to regain purpose, to rediscover love, to renew life! … Experience has taught me that it is the mysterious, spiritual dimension of grief that allows us to go on living until we, too, die.
For many people, exploring psycho-spiritual questions like “Where is God in all of this?” can be a long and arduous part of the journey. Yet ultimately, exploring these assumptions about life and death can make these assumptions richer and more life-affirming. Every loss in life calls out for a new search for meaning, including a natural struggle with spiritual concerns, often transforming the mourner’s vision of her God and her faith life.
It takes time
Taking the time to reflect is spiritually productive. My own slowing down and reflecting or meditating since Catherine’s death has helped me on my journey. This process is not finished of course; it’s ongoing. In the words of Richard Rohr, the Franciscan author:
We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace.”
If we can accept that our spiritual struggles are just as much a ‘normal’ part of our grief journey as any other emotional or psychological turmoil, perhaps we will feel more at ease to allow ourselves spiritual space to explore what we need to explore. So often the mantra in grief support is ‘be kind to yourself’. Only if we can avoid beating ourselves up about our doubts, questions or struggles will we discover a new and deeper experience of faith, one that is genuine and gives our life meaning.
It is only when we allow ourselves spiritual space and avoid beating ourselves up about our questions, doubts or struggles that we discover a new and deeper experience of faith, one that is genuine and gives our life meaning.