Understanding grief: A pastor's primer

What a pastor needs to know in helping someone through serious grief

Martin W. Feldbush, D.Min., is associate director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, General Conference, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Ten days after 9/11. The Family Assistance Center at Pier 94, Manhattan, New York. Thousands were walking along the great wall of photographs, looking for their missing loved ones. Among the anxious searchers was the Rivera family.

Alternating between shock and sobbing, denial and disbelief, the family walked and walked, looked and looked, hoping for a miracle. Mr. Rivera had worked in the broadcast transmission facility atop one of the towers. The family knew that doom was staring them in the face, yet they would not end their search.

In those horrible days, I was serving as a Red Cross volunteer chaplain. When I encountered the Riveras, they were carrying a large sign with Mr. Rivera's picture on it. They welcomed pastoral care and spoke of their loved one in hopeful terms though every now and then they would slide into the past tense. Remarks such as "We loved him so much" and "We'll see him in heaven" conveyed a connection with reality, even as they continued to search the streets of a city frozen in pain and death.

The Riveras were a living demonstration of the mosaic of grief's reactions.

Grief is the human response to loss. It is the total rejoinder of the soul to the process of irreparable negative change. 1 From this perspective all changes, even positive ones, produce some type of loss, resulting in a grief reaction. Thus: Change = Loss = Grief.

However one defines grief, the therapeutic goals that it calls for are to help us accept the reality of the loss and experience its pain, to adjust to our environment without the lost object, and to reconstruct life and reinvest in living again.

While we grieve over the loss of many things people, pets, jobs, houses, etc. we will focus here on grief after the death of a person.

Windows on grieving

Grief can be viewed through various windows, each providing a different perspective. R. Scott Sullender identifies two.2

Grief as separation anxiety. From birth to death, life is a series of separation events. There is a push-pull effect as we are forced into the unknown of change, yet pulled back into the safety of the known from which we come. There is also a sense of losing a part of self when our identity is closely bound to our connection with the deceased.

A part of this dynamic is what Colin Murray Parkes calls the concept of deprivation3 or the loss of roles (and their practical benefit) that the deceased person played in our life as spouse, confidant, handyman, financial supporter, etc. We grieve over the loss of the person, but we also experience loneliness from the loss of the constructive presence of those roles in our life.

Grief as relational detachment. This second window of relating to grief connects the loss of a loved one and the need to withdraw the energy we had invested in that relationship. Grief is the result of both the loss and the need to detach from an existing relationship. Attachment brings vulnerability to loss and pain, and the level of pain is dependent upon the strength of the attachment before the loss took place.

A biblical view of this would say that Christ's invitation to love is an invitation to pain, but the joy of loving is always greater than the risk of pain. Whichever window we use, the reality is that grief brings deep pain; so deep that we experience certain reactions, and so we try to shield our eyes from its glare.

Grief and the tasks it calls for

We respond to grief with a variety of reactions, including tears and sorrow, somatic stress responses, anger and guilt, deep discouragement and depression. Our experience can be so painful that we often try to protect ourselves by various means, including denial, repression, regression, and idealization, which may include a selective memory of the deceased.

The process of grief has sometimes been described as a series of unalter able stages that happen to us and that we passively endure. This view is changing today, and grief is seen more as an assortment of fluid tasks that we work on over time. We are not passive but active participants in the journey that has been thrust upon us. A prominent proponent of this tasks concept is J. William Worden.4 He out lines four tasks of grieving:

  • To accept the reality of the loss.
  • To work through the pain of grief.
  • To adjust to an environment without the deceased.
  •  To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.

The last point suggests moving from the consciousness of a face-to-face relationship to finding an accept able place for the deceased in one's memory. The deceased is not forgot ten, but new attachments are made.

During these tasks the grieving per son experiences various reactions that can provide a need for pastoral care. Parkes5 writes about several of these:

  • Shock and numbness.
  • Searching and yearning: an intense preoccupation with the per son of the deceased.
  • Disorganization: a time of deepening sadness while the structures of life seem to be coming apart.
  • Reorganization: a time of coming out of the pit of sadness and realizing that, while the loved one is gone, life can be worth living again.

Complicated and uncomplicated grieving

Grief that follows the somewhat predictable course of the grieving tasks (although there is often progression and digression) is said to be uncomplicated grief. By contrast, there are forms of grieving that are called complicated grief6 such as:

Chronic grieving: when a person is stuck in some task and it seems the grieving will never end.

Delayed: when grief is not initiated in the usual way, but a secondary loss may belatedly trigger the process.

Exaggerated: when a normal reaction escalates into a more serious condition.

Masked: when a reaction occurs that does not seem to be connected with the loss, but really is such as sleep disturbance, etc.

Complicated grieving is often cause for seeking help from a professional counselor. It is important that pastors understand the process of uncomplicated grieving, and know enough about complicated grief so that referrals can be made when necessary.

Signs of progress

Indications that the bereaved per son is successfully handling the tasks of grieving include:

  • The adjustment to one's environment without the deceased.
  • Remembering with diminished pain.
  • The fading of idealization and selective memory.
  • A subsiding of anger and bitterness.
  • The reconstruction of life and a reinvestment of emotional capital in living.
  • The formation of new relational attachments.
  • A renewed sense of being a whole person.
  • Embracing the future again.

Ten ways pastors can help in uncomplicated grieving

Psalm 23 reminds us that the way out of the valley of despair is through it. But the psalmist also tells us that we don't walk the valley alone. As pastors we don't do the healing in grief; but the Holy Spirit does! Our work, however, is to help create an environment where the Spirit does His work. The helping pastor has much to offer in his or her ministry that is helpful in facilitating the process of uncomplicated grieving. Here are ten ways:

1. Actualize the loss through active listening, helping the bereaved per son to tell his or her story and express the full range of reactions.

2. Use words that help, not hurt. Phrases such as "His time was up," "I know how you feel," "You can marry again," or "It was God's will" don't help. Use instead simple words that encourage and convey a true willingness to listen deeply.

3. Maximize the benefit of religious ritual. Funeral and memorial services and other rituals provide a multisensory way for the bereaved to articulate their story, express their emotions, and lay hold of spiritual support.

4. Provide practical assistance with the tasks of daily life in order to help restore some of the tangible support lost through deprivation.

5. Allow time to grieve and don't abandon the bereaved. Grief takes time don't rush it! And don't abandon the grieving person during that process.

6. Interpret normal reactions, but anticipate difficult times. Many grieving persons feel as if they're going mad or crazy and that no one else has felt the way they do. Help them know that their experience is normal and they are not alone. Be there during the hard times the death anniversary, holidays, and other times when the absence of the deceased is keenly felt.

7. Honor the memory of the deceased. Help create a memorial or find some way to honor the life of the deceased.

8. Provide spiritual ministries. Prayer, use of Scripture, pastoral counsel, and other pastoral means can convey perspectives that provide meaning in the midst of crisis.

9. Help the bereaved examine their picture of God and confirm or help them develop a theodicy that will provide support in the midst of crisis.

10. Cherish and share the blessed hope. Christians grieve, but as Paul said, they grieve differently from those who have no hope in Christ, no faith in the resurrection and eternal life! Often pastors feel their impact is limited and referral is best. However, many mental health professionals today affirm that competent pastoral care and counseling is the "treatment" of choice for many who need support and meaning in the midst of this kind of ultimate crisis,

1 Helping Children Cope With Loss (Dallas: Grief Resource Foundation, 1990).

2 R. Scott Sullender, Giief and Growth: Pastoral Resources foi Emotional and Spiritunl Growth (Now Jersey: I'aulist Press, 1985), 26ff.

3 Colin Murray Parkes, Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 9.

4 J. William Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, second ed. (London: Routledge Publications, 1991), lOff.

5 Parkes, Chapters 3-7.

6 Worden, 21ff.



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Martin W. Feldbush, D.Min., is associate director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, General Conference, Silver Spring, Maryland.

July 2003

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