The Missing Link: Spirituality and Grief
By Kate J. Meyer, MDiv., LPC
If you are reading this, you already know just how complicated this thing called grief is. You also know that there are many realities that serve to increase the complexity, such as limited bereavement leave from work, disenfranchised grief, and grief that results from a traumatic event, just to name a few. Thankfully, there is an increasingly louder voice fighting for grief to be more recognized and validated for the true impact it has. Within that positive trend, I am happy to note that more also continues to be learned and shared as to how people can treat their grief from a holistic perspective.
With one persistent, notable exception: the spiritual self.
Despite its growing recognition as a valid and needed avenue of treatment, holistic approaches have yet to make significant progress as it relates to addressing spirituality, and, especially in grief, this is a gargantuan missing link. The truth of the matter is that if we are to expect complete healing, we need to be able to do work within all areas of life, including the spiritual self. Whether or not you are religious, there is a spiritual component of your being from which you connect with the earth, with yourself, with others, and, depending on beliefs, with a divine being.
The spiritual self is also the place in which we find our meaning and purpose, which, as you well know, is a primary piece of life that requires rebuilding in grief. If a person’s spirituality is also tied to religion, then an added layer of work often needs to be addressed.
The relationship a griever has with spirituality and grief tends to go one of two ways. Psychotherapist John Welwood brought attention to the first when he named the concept of a spiritual bypass, in which people use their spirituality to hide from or avoid their psychological needs. In other words, one’s spiritual or religious beliefs make it permissible to focus primarily, if not entirely, on spiritual needs or beliefs, to the detriment of psychological needs. If spirituality is the Missing Link in grief treatment, this approach swings the pendulum too far in the spiritual direction.
The other track, then, swings the pendulum completely to the other side. Here one focuses solely on the psychological occurrences and needs, and avoids the spiritual component. As already noted, however, the work of grief necessarily includes an awareness of one’s own spiritual, and religious when applicable, beliefs because it is often in grief that such beliefs undergo examination at minimum and, for some, significant change.
It is helpful when engaging in grief work to determine on which track you fall. Try to determine why you fall where you do, and consider if, perhaps, differently approaching spirituality and grief is the Missing Link to forward movement.
As with other areas of grief work, exploring the spiritual side of grief is a time when the concept of either/or must be avoided, and both/and embraced. Grief must be approached from both the angles of psychology and faith. Grievers must engage the work both with others and alone. Pain must be both felt and released. More deeply, grievers wanting to fill the gap left by this Missing Link are encouraged to give themselves permission to explore both certainty and doubt, comfort and abandonment, and commitment to faith and a break from faith. Allowing for the both/and instead of forcing oneself to choose is one way grievers can extend themselves grace, and remove additional guilt some in the religious world might project onto them.
It is okay, I would go so far as to say it is necessary, to engage questions as they arise. After all, your world has been rocked and when that happens, the foundation on which your world is built needs to be investigated and cracks filled. Give yourself the gift of space and time to do so. Find safe people with shared beliefs who will allow you the room to ask the big questions, express doubt, and wonder about existence. Seek out leaders within your faith tradition who will engage you not in teaching, but in discussion based in compassion. You do not need to settle for less.
Spirituality is oftentimes the Missing Link that prevents grievers from moving forward as fully as possible. It can be messy when religion is thrown into the mix due to beliefs that dictate if/how a person incorporates psychology, how a person engages emotions, and/or if a person is even ‘allowed’ to engage their grief rather than simply rejoicing in what comes next, according to that faith tradition, for the person who died.
The truth that grievers know, though, is that hard doesn’t mean impossible. And messy? What about grief isn’t messy? It’s a terrible time in life to try to navigate questions of grief. Unfortunately, grief doesn’t care about timing, and it is a season in life when such exploration is common. Do what you can to fight against your impulse to avoid the important work. Take breaks. And seek out a community who will help you face it openly, honestly, and with grace.
By Kate J. Meyer Kate J. Meyer, MDiv., LPC. Kate is an ordained minister and licensed professional counselor working with bereaved clients in a hospice setting. She is the author of Faith Doesn’t Erase Grief, a book for Christian grievers to finally learn the truth of the both/and for healing, and the fiction novel The Red Couch.
From What's Your Grief? What's Your Grief? is on a mission is to promote grief education, exploration, and expression in both practical and creative ways. They achieve this mission by providing resources related to understanding and coping with grief and loss; guidance on how to help a grieving friend or family member; online courses about grief and supporting someone who’s grieving; resources, education, and training for grief counselors, grief volunteers, and other professionals working in fields related to grief and loss; a podcast about grief; and a supportive community.
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