I was surprised how greatly grief impacted my faith after my father died. Once strong, vibrant, it felt shattered under the scrutiny of loss and pain. — Jonathan
I’d always drawn comfort and hope from my faith, but when my wife was killed in an auto accident, things shifted. I felt abandoned by God. — Andrew
When my wonderful, compassionate daughter, the mother of two, was diagnosed with cancer and then died less than six months later, my struggle with faith began. I still feel angry with God. — Theresa
The death of a loved one can create havoc with one’s religious faith. True, some people find that their faith remains intact after loss. Others, like Jonathan, Andrew and Theresa, find themselves struggling with their faith and beliefs. Here are recommendations priests and other spiritual leaders can offer to help the bereaved manage grief when it collides with faith.
Review your view of God
Theologian Lewis Smedes tells about a painful loss that occurred early in his career as a professor of theology. His wife, Doris, gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who died a few hours later. “God’s face has never looked the same to me since,” he said. Prior to the death of his son, Smedes says he was raised to believe in a “sovereign (God) absolutely in control of absolutely everything. Every good thing, every bad thing, every triumph, every tragedy. Everything was under God’s silent, strange and secretive control.” After his baby died, Smedes said: “I knew that my portrait of God would have to be repainted. On the day that our baby boy died, I knew that I could never again believe that God had arranged for our tiny child to die before he had hardly begun to live.” Smedes “repainted” his portrait of God as one who comforts rather than one who controls everything.
Don’t blame God
After his father died by suicide, Albert Y. Hus processed his grief and then wrote a book titled Grieving a Suicide. In it he cautions blaming God and reminds grievers: “Because we live in a fallen world, we should expect pain and suffering. Good and evil are at war, and we are sometimes casualties of the crossfire. We shouldn’t assume that God instigates our sufferings. More likely they are simply the result of living in an imperfect world. Things are not the way God intended them to be.”
Consider that God grieves with you
Rather than assuming God is distant or even absent, consider that God may be grieving right alongside you. Rev. Peter Gomes, author and minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Chapel, has noted: “God is with us at the most terrible moment of our time. He is not in front to lead, nor behind to push, not above to protect, but ‘Beside us to guide us.’”
This was the experience of Dr. Smedes and his wife: “Doris and I cried a lot, and we knew in our tears that God was with us, paying attention to us, shedding ten thousand tears for every one of ours. Neither of us had a moment’s inclination to give up on God, to quit believing in God or to quit trusting God. In fact, God never seemed more real to either of us. Never closer, never more important.”
Give yourself permission to question
Upon learning that a loved one has died, questions such as these commonly arise: Why did this happen? How could God permit this to take place? Where was God in all of this? Why did God allow this to fall upon me? Does God even care about me? Questioning does not imply lack of faith. Even Jesus questioned — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). It is OK to wonder why this tragedy took place and why God would permit such a loss. And it is equally OK to conclude, “I don’t know why.”
Talk with someone you trust
It may be your religious leader or it may be a friend whose spiritual maturity you respect. Find that person and talk about what is happening with your faith. Talking externalizes feelings, and when they become more public, resolutions and answers emerge.
In her book Finding Your Way After Your Spouse Dies Marta Felber offers this advice: “The blow you were dealt when your loved one died may have thrown you off the rock of your faith. With help, you can slowly but surely climb back to a secure spot on your rock of faith. Meet with your priest or pastor, or with someone else whom you trust as a spiritual adviser. They have much to offer you. Ask questions, share your doubts and fears. Allow them to hear your grief and feel your pain.”
Identify which spiritual practices nourish you
Some find a simple walk in nature is healing. Some find that joining with others for worship is healing. Some find that being alone in meditation and/or prayer is healing. Identify what spiritual resources work for you and utilize them. After her son was killed, one mother was understandably shaken and devastated: As soon as I learned about my son’s tragic death, many questions swirled around in my mind about God and God’s goodness. What helped me was remembering Mary, the mother of Jesus. She also lost her son and yet continued to embrace her faith. I have tried to follow her example in dealing with the death of my son.”
Understand that anger is not a symptom of unbelief
In his book Living With Loss, Healing With Hope Rabbi Earl Grollman offers this wisdom about anger and faith: “If you believe in God, the death of your loved one may leave you feeling betrayed or outraged.... Your anger is a natural and normal response to extreme anguish. Your anger at God could be your form of prayer. No one can hurt you like those closest to you, those you trust the most. To be furious at God could indicate that God was once a presence in your life and may be again.” Anger is a common aspect of grief. With time most people find the anger diminishes.
Balance the emotional with rational
Upon learning that her son Aaron was murdered at college, Kathleen O’Hara says that initially she “did become angry at God for allowing” her son to fall victim to such violent evil. However, O’Hara began to balance her emotional side with her rational side, realizing the following:
God did not murder Aaron: “It wasn’t God who took my Aaron. It is the evil in the world that kills the innocent not God.”
God does not stop bullets: “God permits us through our free will to hurt each other and God does bring good out of evil. The words of St. Paul came to me over and over again, — ‘All things work for good for those who love God’ (Rom 8:28).”
There are no simple answers to tragic losses: “Why was my son murdered? I don’t know. Why my son? I don’t know, but is my son any more precious that anyone else’s son?” St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “At present I know partially, then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”
Allow loss to deepen, not destroy, your faith
After the unbelievable happened, the death of her husband, Roy, and their 21-month-old daughter, Sarah, killed by an intoxicated driver, Paula D’Arcy says her faith became deeper and more authentic. She explains: “In the aftermath of my loss, I prayed what I think was the first honest prayer of my life, which was, ‘God, if you are really out there and if you are real, then help me; let me find you show me who you are.’ That’s when there was a major shift from a God out there to a God within.” From that prayer on D’Arcy began to put the focus on growing through the pain: “I looked at what strengthened me and what weakened. I realized every choice has a ripple. If I wanted to get to a deeper place within, I had to support that with the decisions I made.”
Adopt a proper spiritual perspective
Look at your loss and everything which comes with it — sorrow, sadness, anger, frustration, despair — as an experience which, rather than testing your faith, is tempering it. The word “temper” comes from the manufacturing world where steel or glass is heated at high temperatures in order to make them hard and strong.
Spiritual powers remain dormant in a personality until tempered by life’s fires. Adopt the spiritual perspective that the turmoil you currently experience is one that can transform your life and faith into something stronger and more vibrant than ever.
This may be what the Rev. Phillips Brooks had in mind when he advised: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.”
Whenever you find your grip on faith weakening, remind yourself of this wisdom from Dr. Gomes: “God is to be found where God is most needed — in trouble, sorrow, sickness, adversity and even death itself.”
Rev. Victor Parachin, a minister, journalist and teacher of meditation, writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.