Grief and Spirituality
I consider myself a very spiritual person although I don’t really subscribe to any traditional religious faith systems. I believe in the interconnectedness of life, in love and kindness, and in the beauty of life. I believe that life is eternal, that after death we simply leave our physical bodies behind and reemerge with the light that is all of life.
Over the years since my fiancé and my daughter (and later my second daughter) died, I have explored and moved through several different religious and spiritual philosophies – Lutheranism, Presbyterian, and Pantheism until I finally found the more open Oneness based philosophy I have settled into now.
I have struggled to reconcile my grief with each of these.
Some of the most commonly spoken platitudes one hears after the death of a loved one typically come from religious or spiritual arenas. Platitudes such as:
“He/She is in a better place now.”
“God needed a new angel.”
“Life is eternal, they are still with you in spirit.”
“They are in heaven now.”
“There is a reason for everything.”
“God has a plan for you.”
“There is a gift in everything, you just have to look for it.”
These are basic beliefs of many religious and spiritual belief systems. I personally don’t believe all of them, but I do believe that life is eternal, that we can find meaning in any experience, and that we find a gift in nearly any experience (usually with time and distance).
However, not once in my 13 years of living with grief have any of these statements helped me to heal or to live without the one I loved.
The truth or non-truth of these statements isn’t the point. They simply aren’t useful. In fact, saying these things to someone who is grieving is more likely to hurt them than help them.
They may bring a relief of discomfort to the one saying them, but to the person grieving their child, partner, sibling, friend, family member they generally aren’t the least bit comforting.
And that’s been my struggle. Reconciling the spiritual beliefs I have with the intensity of the grief that I feel.
I have doubted myself and judged myself and wrestled with this the seeming contradictory relationship between my beliefs and my intense grief.
If I truly believed in the eternal nature of life, shouldn’t this belief comfort me following the death of my fiancé, my children, and other loved ones?
If I truly believed that I have made meaning out of these experiences of loss and found a way to use them to support others, why does the absence of my family continue to ache so deeply?
If one truly believes that God has a plan, that their loved one is in heaven and in a better place, why doesn’t this comfort or relieve that terrible grief over their loss?
After all, that’s the purpose and intent behind these common platitudes – to bring comfort or reassurance to those left behind to grieve.
Unfortunately, it’s also the cause of many judgments and criticism that the grieving often receive for not moving on or letting go fast enough, for not reaching the acceptance soon enough . . . if one truly had enough faith or believed strongly enough or was spiritually evolved enough then they wouldn’t grieve so deeply or for so long.
And that judgment, criticism and lack of understanding, from themselves and others, is the cause of so very much additional and unnecessary pain for those who grieve.
I have wrestled with this seeming contradiction between spirituality and grief for many years. I have been told by myself and others that I am not spiritually evolved enough because I still grieve my family. I’ve been criticized for continuing to struggle with the holidays and with Mother’s Day after so many years. I’ve been shamed for not having enough faith (because if I did I wouldn’t still be grieving).
What I have finally come to realized over the past year is that spirituality – whether that is Christian, Islam, Pagan, New Age, Science, or whatever other specific philosophy one follows – is more than big enough to encompass grief AND faith.
I can believe in the eternality of life AND still profoundly grieve the physical presence of those I love so deeply.
I can believe that their lives and their deaths have given me great gifts AND long with all my might for them to still be here with me.
I can find meaning in the loss of them AND still grieve their absence and miss having them in my life.
One can believe that their loved ones are in heaven with God as part of God’s plan AND still grieve for and miss them deeply.
One can believe that their baby miscarried because of a chromosomal defect AND still grieve the loss of that child.
Spirituality is not either/or. Spirituality is both/and. Spirituality has the capacity to hold both the larger Truth (such as eternal life) and the human truth (such as grief). We, as spiritual beings, have the capacity to hold and experience both truths.
To believe that in order to be spiritual, one cannot experience the humanness of life is to buy into a very limited view of spirituality. As both spiritual beings and as human beings we are capable of holding and experiencing much more than we give ourselves credit for.
We don’t have to choose between being spiritual and grieving those we love.
We can do both.