When Faith Grief Masquerades as "Losing the Spirit"

As a former hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor, I’m well-acquainted with the downcast, bewildered look in the faces of those who have lost a loved one. Their brows are often constantly knit, their eyes dull, and the corners of their mouths pointed toward their chins. They are at sea and adrift, and they often describe themselves as feeling disoriented or “crazy.” This is grief.

Grievers might look as though they have lost a certain light -- “the Spirit” -- but they have not. They’re inside a natural process that leaves physical insignia on the body. Over time, many grievers put their experience to remarkable use and become more dimensional and more empathic human beings. The lowered eyes and furrowed brows yield to steady eye contact and brows knit with compassion. A greater capacity for joy as well as sorrow deepens and intensifies their souls.

Those who are grieving lost faith -- and the ancillary losses that so often accompany grief loss in many religious cultures -- may bear similar physical signs and express similar feelings to those grieving a loss through death. I fear that too often the visible signs of their grief are interpreted as a darkening of their spirits when, in reality, they too are undergoing a natural process that will eventually yield an expanded soul.

Unfortunately, misguided attempts to deny, cover up, gloss over, and shame the losses of faith grievers, compound and complicate faith grief. These factors make it more likely a faith griever will go underground and scramble around unaided. They also make it less likely a griever will reach a renewal of soul within a reasonable amount of time -- or at all.

Much of the despair seen on faith grievers’ faces is the rejection and lack of empathy from their fellow community members. To remain inside their church community, and most want desperately to stay inside, they must hide. If their evolving feelings leak out, fear rises that someone will notice and start the snowball of typical in-tribe reactions:

  1. You must be reading anti-religous literature.

  2. That’s not what the ecclesiastical leader says, therefore you are disobedient.

  3. You’re on the road to apostasy.

And then, too often, additional losses are heaped upon the griever’s heart -- callings or responsibilities withdrawn, standing in the community taken away, not allowed to participate in certain ordinances or ceremonies.

Ironically, it is this very rejection that persuades many faith grievers that their church cannot be true or at least not the right place for them. If they know their questions come from an honest, seeking heart, but they must conceal them to remain in good standing, how true can such a church be?

Once faith grievers have been pushed to the margin or over the edge – and I believe very few would leave if they were embraced rather than rejected – another natural grief factor comes into play. Though they want to stay connected somehow, just as those grieving literal death want a continuing connection with their beloved, faith grievers instead find themselves ostracized, shunned, and shamed.

The solution is really quite simple: Embrace all -- spouse, family member, fellow congregational member --in their honest feelings and pursuits, whatever they might be. Embracing doesn’t require agreement, but it does require truer, deeper, higher love.

Here are some suggestions for loved ones and church leaders of fellow congregants who are showing signs of faith-loss grief:

  • Welcome questions and doubts as precursors to a more mature faith.

  • Don’t let your own discomfort over a person’s expressions of doubt cause you to short-circuit his or her process. You might be tempted to bear witness, express your disapproval, control the faith griever’s information channels, or shame the faith griever into getting “back on track.” None of these approaches is helpful.

  • Agree with things the faith griever says that you believe are true, even if they are uncomfortable for you to acknowledge.

  • Don’t be afraid to validate the griever in his or her feelings. Validation does not equal agreement.

  • Give the faith griever time. Those grieving the death of a loved one often take several years to feel oriented again. Faith grief might take even longer to resolve because it is a moving target as more questions arise and more information is learned. Physical death is a point on the horizon that recedes with time. Faith loss is not a discrete event and thus cannot be pinned down in time so easily.

  • Be quiet.

  • Listen, listen, listen.

Sue Bergin, Clinical Chaplain, has 10 years of experience as a personal coach and hospice chaplain. She coaches adults around issues such as faith transitions, making difficult decisions, perfectionism, caregiver burnout and self-care, relationship clarity, physical illness (serious & chronic), end-of-life decisions and adaptation to unmarried life.

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