Recovering from Grief

grief cycle 5

In pastoral care, while it is important to establish and maintain relationships through visitation under ordinary circumstances, it is crucial to have presence during times of change in the members’ lives. And while it is excusable to be absent from a happy event such as weddings or birthdays, it is critical that the pastor be available in times of sadness or distress.

The top five most stressful life events according to the Holmes and Rahe scale (also called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale “SRRS”) are:

1. Death of a spouse: 100
2. Divorce: 73
3. Marital separation: 65
4. Imprisonment: 63, and
5. Death of a close family member: 63.

Each measures over 60 on a scale of 1-100, 100 being most stressful. Except perhaps for (4) which the average pastor seldom encounters, the other four are quite common among church members’ extended families. Pastors have some seminary training in counseling, but unless they specialize in it, usually do not have a lot of expertise besides the Bible in dealing with such issues. One useful tool is the Grief Cycle proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who breaks down the grief process into five stages (“DABDA”):

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

The model is applicable to various grief situations e.g. crippling disease, job loss etc., not just bereavement.

Stage 1 is denial, a common defense mechanism to protect oneself from the shock of the bad news. “This can’t be happening to me. It’s not true.”

As reality sets in, the denial changes to anger. Sometimes the “patient” is angry with the dying or deceased loved one who “caused” the pain. Sometimes the anger is directed towards family, friends or strangers who triggered the emotional outburst; sometimes even God. “That’s not fair! I don’t deserve this. You left me!”

To cope with the loss, often an individual will bargain with God, or the person he/she is breaking up with, to salvage the situation. Sometimes the negotiation is only internal. “If only I had been a better person. If only I had treated her better.”

With the realization of the inevitable, the bargaining gives way to depression and despair. The person feels hopeless and helpless, and loses interest in usual activities and isolates himself from others, as everything is pointless. “What’s the use?”

With the passage of time and the support of family and friends, the person finally accepts the loss and the fact that life goes on but will not be the same as before. He/she lets go of the past and faces the future positively, adapting new activities, making new friends and regains hope.

Every person is unique and may not go through all the stages, not always in this sequence but often are. The duration of each stage is also different. The best we can do as friends, or brothers and sisters, or pastors is to be aware of what the grieving person is going through, lend a listening ear or shoulder to cry on, and offer words of encouragement or whatever practical help we can.

We can’t “solve” their griefs, but we can pray with them, because God can. The key to recovery is to turn their thoughts away from themselves and self-pity, and to focus on God the source of all strength and comfort. It helps if they can divert their attention to others, because in helping others they help themselves. Always lead him/her back to God, because He cares, and He comforts in ways we can’t.

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