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If You’re Dealing with Complicated Grief, Seek First Your Therapist, Not Your Pastor

Ernest Becker proposes that depressed individuals (specifically those depressed from death) suffer both doubt in their faith and doubt their value within their worldview.  In other words, grieving people often doubt God and they doubt His purpose for them.

Kenneth Doka suggests that “one of the most significant tasks in grief is to reconstruct faith or philosophical systems, now challenged by the loss” (Loss of the Assumptive World; 49).  All forms of grief, normal, complicated and especially traumatic grief produce doubts about one’s faith.

If you’re dealing with grief, your entire worldview is probably being challenged.  It’s only natural that we attempt to seek council in such times; but, it might not be your best choice to seek your church and pastor’s help. 

As many of you know, I’ve battled depression this past year; and while grief and depression are different, there’s many similarities.  As I’ve adjusted to life with depression, there’s a number of things that I’ve learned and this is one of them: Most churches and pastors (and religious friends) aren’t equipped to recognize and address the depressed.  We should not expect them to be equipped.  But we do.  They haven’t been trained to understand the psychosomatic nature of depression; nor have they a background in tasks of mourning or grief work models; the different types of grief and how each one should be approached.

And it’s okay to recognize the limitations in our religious community.

Today’s church speaks the language of affirmation, the language of light (cataphatic theology as opposed apophatic theology) to such a degree that doubt and darkness can sometimes be viewed as sin.

Depression, for some religious communities, is sometimes seen as a curse of God.

And grief is something that God might not feel, so neither should we (at least for an extended period of time).

And while some churches can be understanding of grief, and the doubt and depression that comes with it, few are prepared to understand how said grief, doubt and depression affects you.

We can become more course, more rigid and more … unacceptable.  And, honestly, it’s possible that we do indeed become unacceptable for many churches, as our darkness and our doubt takes us out of the comfort realm for many within the church.

Indeed, many pastors recognize the limits of their training and can recommend professionals to help with your grief, etc., but some don’t recognize their limits.  They can provide first or second level assessment (i.e., “you need some professional guidance”), but the deeper levels of assessment and counsel should be left to those grief specialists.

Unless your church or pastor has a professional background in understanding depression and/or grief, I think we do both our pastors, our religious friends and ourselves a great service by seeing someone who is professionally trained.

“You Working on Memorial Day?”

I’ve been finding myself at local hospital morgues nearly every day for the past month and today was no different.  I parked my car behind the hospital in the little parking space that they have set aside for us funeral directors … a space where the dead are out of view from the living.  I backed up to the ramp, put my car in park, pulled out my stretcher, punched the passcode into the security lock and parked my stretcher in front of the morgue door.  From there, I took the long walk from the back of the hospital, through the halls and to the front, where I happened to pass the security guard.  Usually he’s in his office, but today I must have caught him returning from fulfilling one of his many duties.

“You’ll be seeing me in a moment”, I said as I pass him along the hall.  He’s responsible for opening the morgue and – if he’s feeling up for it — helping me with the transfer.

He’s about 35 years old.  Nice.  Professional guy.   Takes his job seriously.

He stops the conversation that he’s having with a pretty nurse, turns around and starts walking with me to the lab that holds the paper work I have to fill out to officially release the body from the care of the hospital.

“I’ll let the lab staff know that I’m aware you’re here so they don’t have to page me.”

He lets them know, and starts his walk back to the morgue while I fill out the necessary paper work for the release.

I walk back and he’s at the morgue door waiting for me.

“Do you want some gloves, sir?” he asks.

I’m 30 years old, but I look more like 25ish. He’s probably 35.  “Why would he call me ‘sir’?” I think to myself.  This honorific was so natural for him too  Pondering it a little more I suspect I know why, so I probe.

“You have the weekend off?”  I ask.

“Yup.” He replies.

“You working Memorial Day?”

“Nope.  Sittin at home, by myself, remembering.”

Feeling pretty confident that I’ve figured out why the whole “sir” thing was so natural for him, I ask my next question based on an assumption:  “Are most of your co-workers ex-military?”

“Yes, sir.”  He says.  “Our boss is ex-army and hires us veterans.”

I reply: “Going from military to security is probably an easy transition for you guys.”

“Not for me.  I was trained to take lives not save ‘em.”

At this point, the conversation moves from small talk to real talk.  He’s starting to get personal and I can tell he wants me to know who and what he is.

“I’m an ex-marine.  I was on the front lines of the first wave of infantry when we invaded Iraq.”

Out of the blue, without me probing, he say, “Lost some good fuckin friends.”

I lost a great uncle in World War II (who I obviously never knew), I lost a childhood friend in Iraq, but I’ve never served in the Military.  I’ve attended a hundred military funeral services, some at Military Cemeteries and a half dozen at Arlington Cemetery, but I’ve never lost a close friend.  My dad and cousin have blown taps for hundreds of veterans at their interment, but none of those veterans were my immediate family.

I know enough to know that while Memorial Day has significance for our nation, but I can’t say I have a personal connection to Memorial Day like the parents and sisters of my childhood friend, or like the this young man I was a talking to as we pulled the body out of the morgue.

I could have pushed him.  I know how to ask the questions that start the tears, but I refrained.  “He’s shed enough”, I thought.

But I pushed him anyways.  I looked him in the eyes as I draped the cover over the dead body lying on my stretcher, “What are you doing on Monday?”  Tears started to well up in his eyes, so I pulled back any more questions.

He paused.  Gathered himself.  Looked at the ground and shook his head.  Years removed from war, his emotion was still raw, and he struggled to constrain it.

I knew what he was saying.  I’ve heard it said a thousand times.  No words, but enough to say what you’re feeling.

After he gathered himself, and I listened for a couple minutes, it was time for me to go.

He helped me down the ramp to my car.  I reached out my hand, shook his hand and said, “Thank you for your sacrifice.”

“I’d do it again”, he said.

This Memorial Day I’ll be remembering him as he sits in his house and remembers the ever haunting ghosts that will torment his life.  I will remember and memorialize the sacrifice this young man has given as he carries the burdens those who passed before their time.

We should remember that these types of deaths also can take the lives of those left alive.

Scientist Confirms “Old People Smell”

We’ve all smelled it.  And like flatulence in church, nobody says anything.

It’s that odd perfume that comes from Great Grandma Eunice when you reach down to give her a hug.

It’s that odor that wafts through nursing homes.

And now science is here to prove to us what we’ve already known.

Old people have an odd odor that is all their own.

And no, it’s not moth balls; it’s not an old person perfume; it’s not the fact that their skin hasn’t touched bath water in a couple days; nor is it the decade old clothes that have re-worn for consecutive days (I pull that trick in the winter when I don’t sweat).

In fact, notes Johan Lundström, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, the smell of older people is a universal smell that can be identified from Asia to Alaska.

There’s even a word for this smell in Japan: kareishū.

Here’s the explanation for “the smell” from Dr. Lundström:

The root cause of the old person smell is still a mystery, but the study notes that long-term changes to the skin glands may be involved. Lundström suspects it also may be related to an accelerated rate of cell decay. “As cells die at a faster pace, they might give off a different odor that is unique to people with old age,” he says. (from


As a funeral director, I know the small all too well as I frequent nursing homes more often that some of the occupant’s family.  It’s a smell that has always elicited sadness in me.  Sadness for those who sit in waiting, often unvisited by outsiders.

I’ve read before that babies have a certain smell that neurologically encourages attachment in adults.  We can actually love our infants more just by smelling them.

So, what does the “old people smell” encourage?  For me, it’s encouraged a sense of the holy … a sense of both respect and a degree of otherness.  An otherness that’s been created by a recognition of life and death.  An otherness that we can learn from.

Next time you smell the “old people smell”, maybe we should just sit and listen (not necessarily to their words) to the holy that’s apart of the end stage of life.

A Poem about a Mother’s Grief and Loss

This past week we had a funeral for a 23 year old whose alcohol problems caused an untimely death*.  During the funeral — which was one of the more powerful funerals I’ve ever worked — the mother of this young man somehow mustered the strength to read the following poem.  I don’t know who wrote the poem, and neither did the mother; and, honestly, it’s doesn’t even come close to having great poetic structure.

What it does manage to do is capture the honest, grieving soul of a mother who had to bury her child in a way that I’ve never heard enunciated.

Don’t Tell Me

Please don’t tell me you know how I feel,

Unless you have lost your child too.
Please don’t tell me my broken heart will heal,

Because that is just not true.
Please don’t tell me my son is in a better place,
Though it is true, I want him here with me.
Don’t tell me someday I’ll hear his voice, see his face,
Beyond today I cannot see.

Dont tell me it is time to move on,
Because I cannot.

Dont tell me to face the fact he is gone,
Because denial is something I can’t stop.
Don’t tell me to be thankful for the time I had,

Because I wanted more.
Don’t tell me when I am my old self you will be glad,
I’ll never be as I was before.

What you can tell me is you will be here for me,
That you will listen when I talk of my child.
You can share with me my precious memories,
You can even cry with me for a while.

And please don’t hesitate to say his name,
Because it is something I long to hear everyday.
Friend please realize that I can never be the same,
But if you stand by me,

You may like the new person I become someday.


*I’ve changed some of the details of the funeral I mentioned above in order to protect the family’s privacy.  If you know which funeral I’m referring to, please continue to comfort them and pray for them.

Comfort Cliches as Defense Mechanism

For Ernest Becker, the idea of transference is central to understanding the human condition.  We are fallible and finite, destined to death and our works are destined to destruction.  In order to escape these bleak, nihilistic feelings, humanity much find a person or object to which we can transfer our fear of death.  A parent, so to speak, who can quell our fears by the might of their power.  Once we have this person or object in place, we can find stability in knowing that our life can live on through them.

God, for instance, is an object/person where humanity places their fears, believing that He can enable meaning for life, rendering death meaningless.  So, we ignore the harsh reality of death and dying through our conception of God. God enables our defense mechanism of transference.  Which, I might add, isn’t an evil per se, but — like everything — can have unintended and hurtful consequences.

The other factor, says Becker, in understanding the human condition is repression.  Repression, in the context of death denial, means the attempt to gain power as an immortality project, thus repressing our weakness in mortality.  We can repress our fears, our insecurities, our finitude by finding building our own everlasting kingdom or symbol. And once our kingdom is established, we can live on, albeit, through our legacy of might, thus repressing the mortality reality.


Repression and transference are opposites: one seeks power for oneself (Becker and others call this “Eros”), while the other seeks to embed oneself in another (Becker calls this “Agape”).  But, the two come together in perfect unison when we greet the bereaved family at a viewing and say something that both attempts to repress the reality of death and make it all better through religious verbiage.

The reason comfort clichés can be so offensive is that those who are experiencing grief have had their walls of repression and transference broken.  They are sensitive to the reality of the human condition and the loneliness that comes with it.  And here you come, attempting to minimalize their fears and pain with a cliché that’s meant more so to help you feel good than give real encouragement to the family.

When people use comfort cliches, they are often more concerned with comforting themselves than comforting the bereaved.  

And when you’re throwing clichés around as a defense mechanism, the bereaved will often know … and this, my friends, is what they hear:


I don’t want to hear your story.  I don’t want your pains to become a part of my life.  My life is painful enough.   It doesn’t need to be disturbed by your story.

Man, I can’t imagine your pain.  In fact, I might be able to imagine your pain.  Honestly, I don’t want to imagine your pain.

Your grief is your grief; it’s not mine.  I can’t walk this dark path with you.  Honestly, though, when I think about it, I could walk this path with you, I just don’t want to.  My life is good right now.  I like my view and I don’t like yours.

Here, instead of hearing you out and walking with you, I’m going to make myself feel good.  It’s important that I still see myself as a good person.  I’m not heartless, so let me make you a cake and leave it at your door.

Let me send you a card.

Let give you a Bible verse.

I think I read something about how time heals grief.  Let me tell you that.

Let me tell you how God has plans in this death.

I need to tell you something, give you something so that I can feel good about myself.  I can’t feel guilty, so I’ll half-ass comfort you so that I can feel good while you feel like shit.

“God is love.”

“Time will heal your wounds.”

“You can get through this.”

“You are still young … you can have more children.”

Defense mechanisms.  All. In the Spector of death, we use them too much.

If we want to be good communicators with those experiencing death and dying, we need to recognize both the repression and transference in our own lives and silence them for the sake of the bereaved.  Instead of denying the reality of death, accept it and listen to the grieving who are walking through it.  Instead of trivializing death as something “God has overcome”, be willing to enter the loneliness that comes with grief.  Enter the holy space of holy Saturday, and – at the risk of your faith – accept doubt and silence as real possibilities.

If you can’t do this … if you’re unwilling to do this, if you’re set on denying the reality of death, then do yourself and the bereaved a favor, and just stay away from it and those it’s touching.

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