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Grief support ministries in an age of trauma

For two thousand years, the church has done a relatively good job of comforting bereaved people. Through ritual leadership, pastoral care, laments and psalms, sacred music, support groups, congregational support, memorials and assurances of life eternal, the local church has been a helpful resource for people dealing with significant losses and death. Indeed, whether formalized or not, most congregations provide grief support services.

In recent decades, however, we have become more aware of the incidence and effects of trauma in people’s lives. We now see that many of life’s most significant losses come upon us embedded in trauma. A loss or death is traumatic when it is unusually violent, gruesome, unexpected or overwhelming. It is the murdered child, mass shooting, fiery automobile crash, suicide, battlefield explosion or natural disaster. Trauma comes in many forms and intensities, and not all trauma events involve death or even a loss. But in this article, I want to focus on traumatic bereavement: grief arising from a significant loss that is embedded in traumatic events. This is the type of trauma that most often presents itself at a pastor’s door. It does seem that traumatic grief is more common in our congregations these days. How do we adapt our traditional grief support ministries to better minister to people and families experiencing traumatic grief?

Trauma versus grief

The literature now distinguishes between trauma and grief, between “ordinary” grief and traumatic grief. Indeed, grief and trauma are distinct but overlapping concepts. Trauma is a blow, whereas a loss is a wound. Trauma is about a threat and the resulting anxiety, whereas grief is about a loss and the resulting tears and sorrow. Trauma intensifies grief and complicates bereavement. Traumatic grief is associated with a higher risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, substance abuse and prolonged grief. Further, a traumatic death, such as the death of a child, places unusual stress upon marital relationships and family unity, increasing the risk of divorce, spousal abuse and infidelity. Spiritually, too, an unexplained, unexpected and violent death shakes the foundations of even the strongest faith. Some believers will weather such storms and even grow a stronger faith, while many others will drift out of the church, unable to reconcile the evil of trauma with a loving, all-powerful God. What has been true of bereavement in general is especially true in the case of traumatic losses. Traumatic loss or death can be a crisis in the sense of a turning point in one’s physical, mental, relational and spiritual life. What we do as a church to provide grief support is important — perhaps more important than ever.

The church and most pastors are fairly well equipped to respond to ordinary bereavement. We know what to do. But when people exhibit a mixture of grief and trauma symptoms, it is difficult for the nonprofessional to sort out the difference between trauma and grief. Applying grief methodologies to a traumatized person may not always be helpful. People who have just escaped or been released from severe or prolonged trauma are sometimes unable to process their grief. Telling their grief story while they are still in a state of trauma can trigger flashbacks and retraumatization. Ministers, chaplains and lay caregivers need to become more educated about the dynamics of trauma and be skilled at doing a brief trauma assessment to determine the best way to provide healing and supportive services. A mental health professional or trauma-focused program could be a valuable resource in making these assessments. And if the traumatic loss is experienced by a child or by a person with a known history of mental illness, or if it occurred when an adult was a child, making a referral to a mental health professional is an absolute necessity.

Most traumatic losses have several embedded losses. The death of a loved one, colleague or friend is the obvious loss, but there may also be other short- and long-term losses, including the loss of health, family, job, body part, marriage or career. A person’s long-term health and wellness depends on identifying all of the losses and appropriately adapting to the associated changes. Generally speaking, however, there is a sequence to recovery and healing work. People first need to focus on getting physically well, stabilizing their lives and reducing their trauma-related anxiety before they can fully enter into the grief process. It is difficult to grieve fully when you are feeling threatened. Severe or chronic anxiety contaminates or blocks grieving. If people try to move into their sorrow without first addressing their fears, the process is short-circuited and unfinished. Many cases of unresolved or chronic grief originate in trauma that has never been dealt with.

Even when losses are traumatic and when congregants need the services of a mental health professional, the faith community still has an important role to play. We can continue to provide support, ritual services, a safe place to vent and spiritual guidance. But in an era when losses are more often traumatic, we need to augment our traditional ways of helping by developing some special tools.

Anxiety reduction

A certain amount of anxiety comes with any major life transition, but traumatic losses often trigger intense and sometimes crippling anxiety. If faith leaders are going to be helpful in this new era, either in a primary or a supplemental role, we need to recover our rich heritage of spiritual practices that aim at or have the side effect of helping participants manage anxiety. Contemplative prayer, centering prayer, Christian meditation and guided imagination offer some obvious spiritual benefits: the ability to experience more fully the presence of God in our lives and to listen carefully and deeply to the “still small voice.” These spiritual practices also have another benefit: if practiced daily, they help congregants stay grounded, reduce their anxiety and calm their worried minds. Further, it has been my experience that when sacred music or appropriate Scripture readings are blended with meditative practices, the power to calm the troubled soul is heightened. If we are to be helpful to our people in an age of trauma, we need to enrich our traditional grief support approaches with a focus on meditative prayer practices. And we need to do this not just as a component of recovery work, but also as a preventive measure. Teaching people spiritual practices is like an insurance policy; it builds up their skills and spiritual resiliency in ways that will prepare them to weather the crises of life that befall them.

Spiritual crisis

Trauma has a way of triggering a spiritual crisis in one form or another and in varying degrees. One aspect of this crisis is an examination or re-examination of our basic theological assumptions: our embedded theology, the theology we live by, the theology we adhere to without much critical thinking. Trauma, defined as an event that is out of the ordinary, is an event that can shatter (or at least shake) our trust in life’s goodness. Traumas can prompt people to ask a host of “why” questions: Why did this happen? Why did my loved one have to suffer? Why did God allow this horror? Why did God not protect him or her? Why was I spared? Why was that person so cruel? Why me? Why now? These questions are common enough in everyone’s faith journey and as old as Job, but for traumatized people, these questions are very personal and profound and are often interwoven with their ability to heal or not. To be truly helpful, Christian caregivers need to accept these questions, walk with people in their search for meaning and be wise guides to the rich resources of faith on this theme.

This search for meaning in traumatic loss events sometimes leads people to make significant changes in their lives. Loss, death or even near-death experiences have a way of prompting us to do some values clarification: Am I living a life consistent with my true values? Am I living the life I was meant to live? Sometimes these issues are situation specific: Now that I am without my spouse, my child, a whole body or a job, what is the purpose of my life? Sometimes they are God specific: Was I living how God wanted me to live? Is this loss or trauma a spiritual wake-up call? Such self-examination prompts some people to renew or deepen their faith; others will change jobs, families or even churches. In short, traumatic loss, as disturbing as it can be, can also be transformative for some people.

Forgiveness work

When death or significant losses happen, we humans are quick to identify someone or something to blame: the offender, cancer, the other driver, a big corporation or maybe even God. If that loss is traumatic (i.e., unexpected, gruesome or violent), our anger can intensify into hate or a desire for revenge. The world is filled with countless examples of revenge fueling tribal, racial and ethnic warfare. This cycle of trauma-revenge-trauma occurs because the vengeful response often exceeds the original trauma. Traumatized people do not exact an eye for an eye. More often, they overreact, thus creating more trauma. That is the nature of trauma and revenge.

Civilized nations channel anger and vengeful impulses into their legal system. Victims are entitled to justice. The legal system and the press work overtime to identify those who should be held accountable. People want to sue somebody. And then, in the courts, their pain is given a dollar figure. They get justice — or is it revenge? But do the victims get healing? It is a myth that justice or even exacted revenge will bring closure to people’s sorrow. More often than not, revenge does not help, because something needs to be healed on the inside. Without that inner healing, people live lives of crippling bitterness, lingering resentment and chronic depression, even after getting justice in the courts.

Our Lord has much to say about forgiveness. It is an interesting and complex subject, one that is receiving more attention these days in religious and popular literature. We ministers have preached on forgiveness often enough. We all know we “should” forgive. Our shortcoming is that we have often failed to teach our people how to forgive: the steps, the process, the pitfalls and the resources available to us. I think forgiveness work has been the missing element in our grief support ministries, and the growing incidence of people experiencing traumatic grief highlights this deficit.

I acknowledge that forgiveness is complicated. It involves some elements of self-forgiveness as well as forgiving the offender, whoever or whatever that is. I acknowledge that timing is everything. Forgiveness cannot be rushed, but neither can it be delayed forever. It is a process and also a choice. There comes a time when, to be truly healed, one must let go of anger, however justified it might be. I also acknowledge that forgiveness work is hard work. It is not usually easy, and it is often interwoven with the intense emotions of grief work. And for some people or in some circumstances, I cannot imagine how forgiveness is possible without a vital relationship with the living Christ. My plea is simply that the church start to include forgiveness work as an important component of its grief support ministries. Traumatized people need it.

We live in challenging times. It seems that trauma and traumatic grief are more prevalent now than in previous eras. If our grief support ministries are to continue to meet the needs of our people and of the larger communities we seek to serve, we need to enrich and update our programs. May the God of all comfort walk with you in this important ministry.

SCOTT SULLENDER is a retired Presbyterian minister, professor and psychologist. His most recent book is “Trauma and Grief: Resources and Strategies for Ministry.” He lives in San Francisco.