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.
When Grief Kills Your Faith: Some Practical Advice
(Some days I play the role of advice mallard. So, hang with me as I dish.)
I want to give you permission to pursue your doubts about your faith.
In some faith communities and religious families, the doubters are ostracized. Doubting isn’t just seen as questioning; it’s viewed as something that’s underpinned by rebellion, by sin. The prevailing idea is that, “You’re doubting the faith, so you can leave the faith; and by leaving the faith, you are leaving our family.”
To stave off being ostracized by family and friends, many doubters keep their questions about God to themselves. And, to a degree, it’s okay, except when that doubt is part of your grief.
Doubt and grief are directly correlated. 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.
Goodness is sucked away in grief; and many of us base our faith off the presumed goodness of God. When that goodness is sucked into the darkness of grief, the foundation of God’s goodness begins to shake; our faith trembles and sometimes it shatters.
The dilemma that results is this: we need our family and friends during grief … to share our grief with, to remember and to receive acceptance; yet, we’re afraid we will be ostracized by our family and friends if we express our doubt. Do we: 1. Pursue our grief induced doubts at the expense of our community and at the expense of experiencing the grief within the community; or, 2. Do we pursue our community at the expense of our personal faith searching?
We do both. You need both. You need to accept your doubts and find acceptance in community. And it might be nearly impossibility.
If you are experiencing doubt in a faith community during your grief, tell someone you trust something like this:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me right now. I know your faith is strong and I respect you for your faith, but my faith has taken a hit since ____’s death. Instead of forcing my faith, I’m processing my doubt. _____’s death is changing me.”
If they can listen, you need to talk it through with them. It’s healthy to express your grief within the community of grievers; and if your grief includes doubt, sharing will only help diminish your pain and clarify your outlook.
On the other hand, I want to give you permission to pursue the faith you’ve never had.
Grief can also enliven a newfound belief in God. All of a sudden your darkness sees a light and now – in your community of “unbelievers” – you’re the religious nut.
And you need to say the same thing to your community:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me. I know we aren’t very religious and I respect you and how you live life. But, I’m pursing faith since _____‘s death. I don’t want to convert you, but I want you to know I’m changing.”
The grief that can produce doubt can also enliven faith. And both are okay. And both need to be done in our communities.
Accept your grief. Accept your enlivened faith. And, to the best you can, do so in your community.
Playing Taps and Doubting God
Today’s guest post comes from Jennifer Lee.
I was a freshman in high school, standing with my head bowed behind the cemetery shed, where the maintenance guys stored the lawnmower. It was noon on a late-winter day, and I waited for my cue, a military gun salute.
I leaned against the weather-beaten wooden planks – hard and cold like my waning faith – while holding a silver trumpet. The family huddled against the wind on velvet-covered folding chairs, under a blue tarp, while the preacher read from a pocket-sized book of last rites.
The uniformed veterans lifted their guns, clicked and fired. Clicked and fired. Clicked and fired.
And I — the lone bugler — stepped from the behind the shed. I lifted the trumpet to my lips to play “Taps” in honor of the middle-aged man in the steel box.
The notes rang out, mingling with pained and muffled cries. And I felt hollow on the inside.
Fourteen years old, and already I didn’t believe there was life beyond the grave. Not for me, or the man in the coffin, or for the hundreds of other sons and daughters already buried here in my hometown cemetery in Iowa — with names like Anderson and Benson and Larson. These were the people I saw in the pews of my church on Sunday mornings. Hear me now: I wanted to believe that there was something More in the great beyond. But it all seemed so … fairy-tale-ish. So foolish.
“Taps,” a song that means “lights out,” was the melodic and literal end of all things. That’s how I saw it anyhow.
Death always exposed my doubt. And from a young age, it came around frequently, like a specter haunting our little Iowa town, robbing me of my favorite people.
When townfolk died, Mom would walk us down the block to the old Sliefert funeral chapel, where our old friends were laid out in velvet-lined boxes. I peered over the edges of their caskets, and when I thought no one was looking, I would reach a hand in to feel the waxy coldness of death. I had once heard that a dead body could actually make a jerking motion, or that its eyes might suddenly fly open, so I’d watch like a tiny hawk, waiting for some macabre spectacle to unfold before me.
Death both repelled and attracted me – the same way I felt when watching horror movies the week before Halloween.
On summer days, my little brother and I would visit the cemetery after the diggers finished making a gaping hole in the earth — before the mourners showed up. Curiosity drew us, and we’d lay on our stomachs giggling nervously as we looked into six-feet-deep holes – dirty holes that swallowed up bodies and precious parts of my faith.
As I grew older, the funeral home director started asking if I’d play “Taps” at the ceremonies of war heroes. The school principal always let me go. He thought it was a “good community service.” But sometimes, I wished he wouldn’t. Sometimes, I’d rather have done algebra, instead of graveside service.
In the cemetery, there was no escaping my own inevitable death. Or my own suffocating doubt.
I played the song — time after time — and it felt like these were the last bitter notes on the end of life.
Casket closed. Book closed.
But right there in the pain of doubt — at the edge of opened graves – I took important first steps in my discovery of life and death and faith in God. I realized that doubt can actually be a gift. No kidding, a GIFT.
It would be years and years later, but I began to ask questions that, ultimately, led to a few important answers.
Here’s the deal: I was a modern-day Thomas. I doubted the very existence of God for much of my life — despite the fact that I grew up among believers, many of whom I led home with a silver trumpet. If there really was a God, I was sure my doubts would doom me.
So I found sweet relief, I tell you, when I found these words in the study notes of my Bible: “Silent doubts rarely find answers.”
That meant it was OK to ask, to doubt, to fumble around for a few answers. It meant that my doubts were not a curse, but a step toward a God who invites us to get close enough to touch a Savior’s scars. He doesn’t turn His back on modern-day Thomases, but invites us closer.
And doubt? Well, it isn’t meant to be a place of permanent residence. Not for me, anyway. For me, it was the place from which I could grow, stepping out from behind the weather-worn shack to play a different song.
About the author: Jennifer is a former news reporter who is passionate about sharing the Good News through story.
She blogs about grace and God’s glory at www.JenniferDukesLee.com. She is a contributing
editor at www.TheHighCalling.org.
You can find her on Facebook here. Soon, her words will make their way into her debut nonfiction Christian book (Tyndale Momentum).
I had just dropped off the funeral home’s outgoing mail at the nearby post office, got back into my little truck and was about ready to pull onto First Ave. when a police car came blazing through town with his lights flashing and sirens squealing, probably topping 50 mph in a 25 zone. As I saw him pass me I thought to myself, “I wonder what’s going on?”
It didn’t take me long to find out.
He was heading about five miles west of our modest town of Parkesburg to Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania,to the site of the Amish School Shootings. I, along with the rest of the world, watched the TV in disgust that night as we learned the details of how the killer had lined 10 Amish girls along the wall and shot them execution style, killing five and wounding the rest before eventually killing himself.
This all happened six years ago yesterday.
Some of the survivors testify that the killer, Roberts, seconds before he opened fire mumbled that he was going to give up and was even about ready to walk out the door. Yet, for some reason, he stuck to his intentions and, seconds before he pulled the trigger, stated to the Amish children, “I’m angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with Him.”
Unknown to most of us, one of Robert’s children, a daughter, had died at birth, an event he believed God could have stopped, yet didn’t. Roberts, like most of us as we face death, had probably run to God like a frightened child, and after years of searching, instead of finding a warm, strong embrace, concluded that God was an absentee father.
On Monday, October 2, 2006 at 10:45 a.m., Roberts “got even” with God in his attempt to confront the looming question that lead, for Roberts, to bitterness, hatred and eventual tragedy.
I’m not suggesting that Roberts was sane; nor am I suggesting that you must be insane to become absolutely hateful and embittered at God.
I’ve often said that it’s easier to become an atheist than to believe in an evil God … Robert took the harder route and became just like his Father.
But all this would have, could have been forestalled had Roberts done something that is both very Christian and very unChristian all at once. Roberts may have found peace had he found the ability to forgive.
The forgiveness he needed to offer was the same forgiveness I imagine many of us (who both believe in God’s omnipotence and have lived through inordinate, unexplained pain) need to offer. A forgiveness that can’t be prompted by any amount of lessons in theodicy. A forgiveness that is precipitated with Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The cry that kicked off Holy Saturday. And the cry that — like Jesus’ cry — had no response. The cry that leads to the crossroads of destruction or forgiveness. But not any forgiveness. This is the cry that eventually asks us to forgive God.
“Forgiving God” smacks against the core of what so many of us believe about God: namely, that He is good and that He’s love. Believing that God needs forgiveness — as though He’s done something wrong — is so far away from our conception about God that we simply don’t talk about it. We won’t acknowledge that even Jesus struggled with God’s goodness … we won’t acknowledge Jesus’ struggle, nor will we acknowledge our own struggle.
And whether God actually needs the forgiveness isn’t what I’m talking about here. Whether or not God needs it is a moot point. The fact is, many of us need to extend it.
As many books have rightly said about the Amish School Shootings: This whole story is about forgiveness. And by that they mean the forgiveness of the Amish people towards Roberts. But, this story would have never begun had Roberts been Christ-like as well.
And so, as a practical exercise, I’ll ask you: and by “you”, I’m speaking to a few. I’m not speaking to the many who have lived decent lives, unencumbered by evil, unhindered by the fog of intense pain. I’m speaking to the downcast, the trampled few who only have one explanation for their current situation … and the explanation is both as harrowing as it is unbelievable … that God has forsaken them. I’m speaking to you … the forsaken.
Have you forgiven God?
 We didn’t bury any of the Amish children, but the guy who bought the funeral home off of my maternal grandfather prepared two of the children.
Quoted from the book Amish Grace; page 25.
“As If There Is No God”
On April 8th, 1966, TIME Magazine published one of the most controversial magazine covers ever. The TIME cover asked the question, “Is God Dead?”
In the article, TIME pinpointed Dr. William Hamilton as a co-leader in the Death of God Movement. You might think that Dr. Hamilton was an atheist, hell bent on undermining theism, but he was actually a tenured professor of church history at a seminary in New York. He was a regular church goer, self-avowed Christ follower and — once the article was released by TIME — found himself the subject of death threats, ostracism and at the center of much hate.
Dr. Hamilton died this past February 28, 2012 at the age of 87.
While I can’t comment specifically on Dr. Hamilton’s version of the “Death of God”, I can comment on some other versions of the Death of God in Church History, specifically Bonhoeffer’s. And, I imagine, that Hamilton probably shared a similar sentiment with Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the well-known Christian martyr of Nazi Germany during WWII. He’s also the beloved author of two widely praised books called, “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.” And yet he’s been heralded as an innovator of immanence, as developed in his other books, specifically his “Letters and Papers from Prison”.
Pastor Bonhoeffer writes “that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if there is no God).
The “Death of God” for Bonhoeffer isn’t akin to atheism as one might immediately assume.
It’s a God immanent, not a god transcendent.
It’s a death to the god of the gaps.
It’s a death to the “opiate of the masses”.
It’s a death to the “deus ex machina“.
It’s the rejecting of the god above us who can miraculously solve all our fears by offering a hope of heaven.
Voltaire stated, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.” It’s the rejection of the god we invent as a crutch to take us out of this world of pain, sorrow and sin.
Bonhoeffer believed in God.
His was a God that is taking action through us, not one who is taking all our action and goodness out of this world.
It is the broken God of the cross imbued by the world’s sin, not the God of glory, imbued by power and holiness, riding in on a white horse for our rescue.
It’s a God who has been stripped of power, stripped of influence and subjected to the pains of the world.
The God who suffers with us.
The God who feels our pain.
It’s a rejection of a god of all certainty for the One who doubts … who pleads, “Why have you forsaken me?”.
It’s Jesus on the cross.
In forsaking the God above, we have the freedom to love below. Bonhoeffer’s idea was this: In killing our invented god, we become useful to the world.
It’s slippery, I know. But the idea is that our man made (often transcendent) god takes all of our love and good deeds out of this world. If we are to be any use in this world, that transcendent god must die, according to Bonhoeffer. And he must be replaced by Jesus … the dying God who so loved the world. When we realize the God is immanent in the world, we invest our lives in our neighbor and not necessarily in heaven. It’s that whole “in as much as you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me” idea that’s harder to live out when we see heaven as a trump card for all our problems.
What part of your god must die?