Grief Support, Faith Unbelief, Therapy and Depression
Deborah M. Jackson, MDiv
Before addressing such an important question I do believe it's important to ground in how grief is generally defined. Simply put grief is considered "deep sorrow especially resulting from someone's death."
Although grief is more often associated with sorrow/anguish from a death, a multitude of experiences cause grief such as divorce/relationship ending, the loss of a pet, job, dreams, time, physical health, etc.
Grief in Psychology
I've learned on my own grief journey and training how un-evolved helping professionals and spiritual leaders are on grief. While therapeutic professionals may take initiative in their professional development and growth, much of the psychology world builds their understanding of grief on the old stages of grief theory. In fact, the stages of grief were developed by a woman named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. Can you believe this? The current model most often used to assess, intervene, treat and support an individual, family or group journeying grief bases their approach on a model from 1969. As part of medical teams in hospital chaplaincy this reality is something that takes the wind out of me. This matters because as communities, our tolerances/intolerances, misperceptions and/or discomforts may be based on limiting viewpoints.
As an evolving clinician in therapeutics I see this disconnect frequently. In one large organization, I conducted research to assess how many clinically trained therapists (i.e. Licensed Professional Counselors and or Licensed Clinical Social Workers, PsychoTherapists, Therapy-Practicing Psychologists) had any focus on grief-training and out of 50 counseling options in across a multi-state geographical area one clinician came up in the system as having grief specialization or training. One clinician indicated an untrained but interest in spirituality and faith.
When evaluating spiritual leadership, my concern is the other end of the spectrum. While I do not know or profess to know the views of all churches or places of worship, as an endorsed and commissioned minister within the Christian faith tend to see a diminishing of grief. I call this jesifying and over-spiritualizing. The scripture I find often taken out of context is 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-14 “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope." While the scripture is 100% true, in my theological and personal expertise I see the scripture as 1. being taken out of context. 2. over-spiritualizing the experiences and pain associated with the suffering and anguish of grief.
As Christians we do not necessarily grieve as others do who do not believe in eternal life and the promise to meet up with our loved ones again. The continued reference is in 1 Thessalonians to verse 17, “We who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." Simply put what the scripture does not say is we do not grieve. The scripture does not say we don't suffer or anguish in our grief journey. The scripture does not say grief is not a life-long adjusting and readjusting to life without your person. In fact, we see Jesus weep. While there are references all throughout scripture on spiritual practices and timetables for how nations and people navigated through death losses in the Old and New Testament (i.e. Moses, Joshua, Jacob, Paul, etc.) We see Jesus grieve over the death of his friend Lazarus. We see his disciples grieve over Jesus' death. The Bible is silent on dictating how one should grieve, how long one should experience the pain of loss and many other areas of grief. In contrast, the Word of God is filled with guidance, comfort and assurances on navigating grief, loss, suffering, anguish etc.) David wrote of his own to help us in the Book of Psalms.
In short, over-spiritualizing grief while intended as a source of encouragement and assurance in my experience as a spiritual leader and practitioner often leads to unresolved grief. Unresolved grief delays the soul's ability to move forward. In essence, I believe the more effective lens is to create space for grief to breathe - forever. By creating space for grief in both spiritual and therapeutic places we cultivate a deeper journey with Christ and ourselves. Through a collaborative process we enter into what I believe as the greatest opportunity toward human flourishing and a changed perspective on life.
I subscribe to a different evidence-based theological view by J. I. Packer. He asserts a counterclaim to grief for Christians stating: "Bereavement shakes unbelievers and believers alike at the foundations of their being, and believers no less than others regularly find that the trauma of living through grief is profound and prolonged. The idea, sometimes voiced, that because Christians know death to be for believ- ers the gate of glory, they will therefore not grieve at times of bereave- ment is inhuman nonsense."
In my next article I will engage in a question I'm frequently asked, "Is this depression or grief?