Faith, grief and adjusting to death

By Andrew J. Weaver
21 Mar 2008

Christian and Hebrew Scriptures say that loss and grief are universal human experiences and psychologists tell us that the process of mourning is often prolonged, painful, and emotionally complex. Ecclesiastes reminds us that grief comes to everyone: “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (3:4).

New Testament Christians are instructed to “Mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). In Christ’s parable of the prodigal, the father grieves over his wayward son (Luke 15:24). We read that Hannah suffered a deep and lasting sorrow as a result of being infertile (1 Samuel 1:15). John’s gospel speaks of Jesus grieving deeply over the death of Lazarus. “Jesus wept,” and those around him saw his tears as an indication that Jesus had lost a close friend. “See, how much he loved him” (11:35-36) they said.

Members of the clergy are often sought for counsel in situations associated with grief and loss. In a survey of over 1,200 American adults, 89 percent said that if they were facing their own death, they would find comfort in “believing in [the] loving presence of God or [a] Higher Power,” and 71 percent said they would be comforted by a visit from a clergyperson.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, clergy officiate at approximately 1.5 million funeral or memorial services annually in the US. This means that every year clergy and other church leaders interact with millions of people who are grieving the loss of a close friend and/or family member.

Besides death, other losses triggering grief include divorce, miscarriage, retirement, sudden job loss, and serious illness (such as Alzheimer’s disease) that results in the loss of a person long before physical death occurs. For every individual who dies or departs mentally, many are left behind to grieve. Millions of sorrowing people seek spiritual guidance from their church in dealing with their loss.

Religious faith can help individuals cope with the death of a loved one. Several studies in diverse populations have shown a positive relationship between religious involvement and a successful response to the loss of a family member or close friend. Faith communities can offer both social support and a cognitive framework to address grief and loss.

In a group of older men who experienced "the death of someone close," membership in a synagogue or church was a good predictor of having much lower levels of depression than those without membership. And, a long-term study of 124 parents who lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) found that participation in religious practices such as worship and prayer was related to greater emotional support from others and an increase in the meaning they found in the death of the child.

Faith appears to offer for these parents an effective means to make sense of the loss that can enhance their well-being, lower their distress, and facilitate their recovery from the loss.

Researchers in Britain studied individuals grieving the death of a family member or very close friend and published their results in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). They found that there is a strong link between positive psychological adjustment to a death and one’s ability to deal with of the loss through one’s faith and religious practices. There is solid scientific evidence that religious faith helps those who are mourning make sense of death and aid in the experience of grieving.

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(c) Andrew J. Weaver is a United Methodist minister and research psychologist living in New York City, USA. He has co-authored 14 books including Counseling Survivors of Traumatic Events (Abingdon, 2003) and Reflections on Grief and the Spiritual Journey (Abingdon, 2005).

Helpful books:

A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis, New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1976).

How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies (Therese A. Rando, New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1991).

Losses in Later Life, A New Way of Walking with God (R. Scott Sullender, New York: Haworth Press, 1999).

Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love (Earl A. Grollman, Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

Surviving Grief...: and Learning to Live Again (Catherine M. Sanders, New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1992).

Keywords: death | faith | grief | psychology
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