Complicated Grief

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 their religion and the God of their religion.

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, per the theology of many religious communities, 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.

A Death I Don’t Understand

A friend of mine disappeared. I mean, left with only the clothes on his back. Borrowed clothes, at that. He left his phone. His wallet. Everything. And he just went away.

Several days passed. Then weeks. Months. Nothing. No word. A friend of ours traveled on foot, looking for him. Others pressed the police. The media. Anyone. To pay attention.

We’d have to wait for the snow to melt. Then he might be found. That’s what they were told.

The snow melted. Heavy rain fell. The city flooded.

A week later someone found him. Sixty miles or so away. His body had traveled all that way. In the river.

Too many details muddy my mind. I don’t want to think about the way they found him. How I was told he looked. That his own father couldn’t identify him.

His death. Announced on the six o’clock news. His Facebook account. Posts deleted until the day before he vanished. Went missing. Even his last two posts deleted. His cries out to us. Cries that most of us didn’t even hear. See. Know.

I’ll die and no one will care.  He’d said. No one will come to my funeral.

His ashes spread. A few friends gathered for a quiet memorial. Invitation only.

I couldn’t go.

I tried to honor him by listening to a few songs he liked. By reading his poems. Looking through our messages about religion and art and literature.
But I didn’t get to say good-bye. Haven’t been able to mourn.

Somewhere. Maybe in my heart. Or soul. I don’t really believe he’s gone. I know he is. But I am having a hard time accepting it.

I see a tall guy with black hair. Smoking outside a coffee shop. Walking down the sidewalk with a hood up. I think it might be him until I remember. No. It isn’t him. He’s gone. Dead. Found floating.

I get sick to my stomach.

Wish that I could go back to thinking that he left. Started over. Got himself over to Japan. Reached his dream. With headphones on his ears and new poetry streaming from his mouth.

And. And I wish he knew. I wish he knew that he was loved.

That he knew how broken my heart is.

And how I can’t cry. As much as I want to. I can’t.

And I don’t understand it.

A friend of mine disappeared. He died. And I don’t know how to grieve.

I can’t figure out how to mourn a death I can’t realize.

A death I don’t understand.


Today’s guest post was written by Susie Finkbeiner.  Susie is a novelist and short story writer from West Michigan. Her first novel “Paint Chips” released in 2013 and she is currently working on her second novel and a collection of short stories. When Susie isn’t writing, she is busy as the fiction editor for Burnside Writers Collective as well as Unbound Magazine. Susie is a wife, mother of three, and avid reader. She enjoys time with her family, coffee dates with good friends, and quiet moments to read and write.

Go to Top