Spiritual Dilemmas

for the Bereaved

by The Rev'd Richard B. Gilbert, D.Min., BCC



My minister spoke glowing words at Dad's service, but there were problems with Dad and I am not sure I can talk to her about this.

I believed and I prayed, and still God took my baby away. I don't want to believe that, but people keep saying that I should feel "blessed" because Jesus chose to take my baby to heaven to be in his heavenly choir.

My rabbi sat Shiva with me, but as soon as the "job" was done, he disappeared.

I rejoice that Mom is with Dad in heaven. I really believe the wonderful promises of God, but why did she have to suffer so long with cancer, and then Alzheimer's? There is so much injustice in the world. Why was so much dumped on Mom, and on all of us?

I might risk believing in God again, some day, but prayer, it doesn't mean anything. In fact, the few times I go to church, I want to shout aloud when the prayer petitions are announced, "Don't waste your time. God can't or won't do anything about your problems."

The above statements are not fiction. They are comments shared with me and others (though many feel forced to keep them to themselves) by the bereaved. These men, women and children continue to struggle with the issues of life and death, and have often felt everything from frustration to strong resistance in trying to translate the "Whys" of their sorrow into a meaningful pathway to peace. It is a long and personal journey for the bereaved.

In this article we will explore several essential issues that bring together grief and spirituality, all wrapped up in an embrace of meaningful pastoral core.

These issues are not just an opportunity taken to explore basic truths about grief. They are an invitation and a plea to religious leaders and congregations to both acknowledge and take advantage of the opportunities placed before them by those who grieve. It is offered not only because of the constant songs of sorrow that I hear as a presenter, author, and chaplain, but because we continue to neglect the damage wrought upon the bereaved by those engaged in a sacred responsibility and privilege of walking with them in their sorrow. A recent report by the Gallup Institute documented the sad truth that fewer and fewer dying and bereaved would seek out the assistance of a minister (the term is used generically to serve all religious groups); in fact, ministers ranked above only doctors and nurses. The religious community has failed to acknowledge its rightful place in the grief journey, in the search for peace and comfort that accompanies the dying, and the frequently twisted and complex issues that manage to fall under the umbrella of life's ethical challenges.

At the same time that we feel squarely the brutal assault of these harsh findings, one also can cite some encouraging frontiers in bereavement work that are occurring precisely because of the commitment of faithful individuals, clusters of people, congregations, and religious communities. Hope for Bereaved, Syracuse, New York, has a national as well as regional presence that began because their diocese recognized their need. While they now "fly" on their own, they have grown in their outreach. The National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved offers an ecumenical thrust into the religious community, educating and petitioning on behalf of those who mourn, while at the same time bringing direct care to those in need. Several religious publishing houses have worked very hard to bring more literature and videos into the bereavement world. Jewish Lights Publishing Company is bringing them to the Jewish community and many others through their ecumenical endeavors; much that can benefit all of us from their rich traditions and rituals. The World Pastoral Care Center is offering advanced skills training for clergy. New trends in health care that are affirming the place for spirituality in the delivery of health care are speaking the language of spirituality as they explore issues of life and death, patient rights, bereavement after care, and the many ethical challenges that appear daily in the world of medicine.

This essay will at least introduce the following themes. All of them warrant additional study in other articles and research.

  1. Grief is a profoundly spiritual experience, however experienced and expressed by that person.

  2. None of us are experts in grief because this loss is always different from previous losses.

  3. Grief is a powerful filter that can redefine and maybe spoil faith as we know it.

  4. Spirituality and religion, which are different, are also powerful filters influencing how we grieve.

  5. Many clergy (and lay ministers) really want to serve the bereaved entrusted to them. Some are simply shut out by the bereaved.

  6. Few clergy have sufficient training in bereavement care.

  7. Many clergy are wounded healers and often find it easier to avoid their own loss issues and bring those compromises into how they do or do not do pastoral care.


 1. Grief is a profoundly spiritual experience, however experienced and expressed by that person.

In his book, How We Grieve: Relearning the World, Thomas Attig reminds us that the task (opportunity) placed before people who experience loss is to embrace the world as it now is because of that loss. He writes, "When someone in our world dies, we remain postured in that world as we were before the death, but we can no longer sustain that posture. We are challenged to learn new ways of feeling, behaving, thinking, expecting, and hoping in the aftermath of loss. As we learn these things, we cope" (p. viii). Grief touches us from top to bottom, reshaping and redefining life as it was, as it feels now (realizing those feelings change faster than the weather), and whatever it will become for us far down the road of this grief journey. Loss has embraced us and everything about us, and that is true of our spirituality and our religion.

First, let's address some basic definitions. Spirituality is something all of us have and are, although it may or may not sound particularly reverent or religious. For the bereaved, the languages and dialects may vary but the needs are usually the same. When assaulted by loss we are pressured to find meaning and to search for some inner strength at a time when empty seems to be our neighborhood. As we are tossed to and fro in our sorrow, we struggle to find values that bind us with a world view that transcends all that we are and experience with something that is eternal or beyond ourselves. Simply put, religion moves beyond the "I" of a person's spiritual quest and enables us to find others of similar experience and understanding for mutual care and support. Religion is about rituals, creeds, cultic activities, mission, and mutual respect and support. From my little book, Heart Peace, Healing Help for Grieving Folks comes these words:

I am different, Lord -- I am bereaved. Nothing is the same; everything is different. I feel different. People treat me differently. Loss has been thrust upon me. I may even hold you responsible for that loss. I now must grieve, and I crave a word, a hint of hope and healing.

Help me, Lord, to know that you are ever the same, ever constant in my life. Amen. (p. 17)

In their classic textbook, Death and Spirituality, Doka and Morgan offer a bounty of resources and insight on this subject. This sampling focuses on their thesis point for us,

Spirituality is concerned with the transcendental, inspirational and existential way to live one's life as well as, in a fundamental and profound sense, with the person as a human being. (p. 11) (They also remind us) From the moment that one learns of the death of n loved one, there are specific religious rites which help to order his or her life. (p. 23)

Grief is a rugged ride, and it can be equally rugged in our spiritual world. It is often compromised when our religious leaders and other members of our community -- because of indifference, ignorance, fear, or their own loss issues -- find it easier to stay distant rather than be present. Grief caregiving is not about "saying" and "doing". Because many feel that they do not know what to say or do with the bereaved, they back away. We expect more of our religious leaders and often find less.

Spirituality can be redefined as life itself when we are grieving. "God so loved the world" may offer a modicum of comfort at the time of a death or funeral, but what does that love represent to a mother and father whose child has just been killed by a drunken driver? What do the words of Christmas, pictures of the Holy Child, and God's care for children mean to struggling young parents whose child was stillborn? "The Lord is my shepherd" may not be enough for the single mother whose young child, skipping along the debris laden sidewalk between the projects and the school, is gunned down by a stray bullet shot from a gun held by a ten-year-old meeting the ritual obligations of his or her gang. How might the promises of eternal life spelled out in John's revelation comfort the recently widowed who is terrified that life without the spouse of sixty years will be impossible to bear? Sometimes it feels like the only option is to give up and die, to be rejoined in heaven. This is where people often struggle in their sorrow, and for many reasons, including their own fear or shame, they often suffer in silence.

This struggle is captured well by Rabbi Earl Grollman in his brilliant and pastoral work, When Someone You Love has Alzheimer's,

If you believe in a Higher Power,
like the one some of us call God,
Alzheimer's disease may leave you feeling
betrayed or alienated.

Spiritual beliefs are often challenged during life crises.

God may appear distant and removed,
too far away to be of help. (p. 105)


 2. None of us are experts in grief because this loss is always different from previous losses.

Most bereaved who seek counsel are in search of clarification, "tell me I am not crazy," and a measure of guidance, "will you stay with me awhile?" Grief is demanding, it is overwhelming, and it is hard work. Just as no two people grieve alike, we seldom grieve alike for different losses within our own journey. This journey is different because my relationship with this person is different than those of other losses.

There is a cartoon of a man sitting in his living room holding a nurse call button. He says, "I brought this home from the hospital. It's no better here; I push the button and nobody comes." The cartoon serves to remind us that people seek us out (as clergy) and seek out God (or their spiritual connections) to find their way when many not only do not know "where" they are (emotionally and spiritually), but are beginning to wonder if this is a pathway to nowhere.

Grief taxes all of our resources, including our spiritual connectedness and, if religion is part of our life, our religious connection. That means that ministers need to be present graciously and nonjudgmentally, so that this spiritual hope may be even the dimmest of candles in the long tunnel of darkness and despair that grief becomes for many people.

Grief shatters our foundations and our traditions; roots that become the veins through which flow the gracious love of God. Like the hardened arteries of bad dieting or the many forms of heart disease, the veins of grace become blocked by this lack of clarity and by the continued loneliness of feeling abandoned by God and fellow believers. If, on top of it, our past spiritual resources have been ill-defined, misguided or neglected; then the turmoil will be even more pronounced.

As we listen we must discern, working with the client/parishioner to give meaning to that which appears meaningless. In Gilbert (2002) we speak of "listening, assessing, caring." Those are the operative words of pastoral care. We listen within the open embrace of grace, but also with the insight and skill of our profession and the expressions and experiences of our own story. We work with the client, and, when possible, our colleagues on the team to develop a concurring statement of what this means for that person (assessment), with ministry (caring) emerging through and beyond the process that is our ongoing work of ministry. "Lo, I am with you always." That may be the first promise to "go" when we wrestle with the deep sorrow of our mourning. We must demonstrate a different message, a sound truth.

We also need to gather information to help us understand past beliefs and practices in order to give meaning to what the parishioner is experiencing now. In building on the past and giving meaning to the present, we can experience something of what we call hope, that we might risk (and it is a risk) to move forward in ministry.





in the valley moving toward hope

Diagram 1.

Religion then




in the valley as we move toward hope

Diagram 2.

The above diagrams (Del Zoppo, 1996) provide a worksheet for the professional, and, as an assessment tool, can also be a worksheet for the person in your care. Oftentimes, it is in writing down or drawing our beliefs, hurts, questions, and feelings that we can begin to own them. It is when we begin to own them that we can begin to free them and free ourselves.

Another meaning in this process is that we often tell people that we will see and understand God as we move out of the crisis and see "where we land," which this worksheet records for us. Also, many of us make expectations of our spiritual and religious resources without understanding what those foundations are in our story, or without discerning that some of our foundations, definitions, expectations or rituals may be flawed or fractured. Sometimes it is in believing that we have lost God that we are enabled or forced to question whether we really ever "had" God or have been living with who we thought God was or what WE wanted God to be.

 3. Spirituality and religion, which are different, are also powerful filters influencing how we grieve.

It is intriguing that we can understand filters in our body, filters that we use when cooking, and the many filters in our automobiles; but we seem unable to translate this concept to the process we call grief.

When we find ourselves in the deepest holes or valleys of the grief experience, we experience the raw power and vulnerability of grief. The deeper the pain, the deeper the spillover (filtering) into the rest of our story. Thus, we say that grief filters our whole selves; physically, socially, emotionally, sexually, and, yes, spiritually.

At the same time, another filtering is going on. These are the filters that influence how we do or do not grieve. Some of those filters are gender, ethnic or cultural expectations, the nature of the loss, past experiences with loss, and, yes, spirituality and religion.

Spirituality and religion come with many definitions and personal nuances that are individually formed and shaped. They also can be well defined, but then compromised by the "packaging" of those providing the care. When the minister says, "You should be over this (grief) by now," that is not only ill timed and manipulative, it is also abusive. Spirituality is meant to be nurturing, enabling, and facilitating; not controlling. Guilt is common in grief, emerging from within as we try to give meaning to the events going on in our lives. Shame is not the same as guilt, emerging from external pressures (an abusive parent or spouse, peer pressure, demands of the workplace, and, yes, spirituality and religion). "Jesus died and rose again for your uncle. He is in heaven. Don't you believe that?" The bereaved now face a dilemma. "How do I say, 'Yes, I believe,' but I miss him so very much? I still don't want him to be dead." The inappropriate statements of another again become abusive, and the end result is not grace, but shame.

Because grief is a filter, we must ever be mindful of the fact that everything we observe as griever is manipulated by the profound sense of loss and the topsy turvy whirlwind of grief. Even when we do things "right" we are subject to be misinterpreted by the filters of another. It behooves us to be more informed (skilled) and to listen more attentively. We must be particularly cautious lest we become an abusive filter rather than a pathway of peace and grace.

 4. Many clergy (and lay ministers) really want to serve the bereaved entrusted to them. Some are simply shut out by the bereaved.

The bereaved do not know what they are doing or where they are going. As we have already established, there are no road maps. Additionally, the bereaved are often hunting for "safe places" to release their pain, or at least to hide. There aren't too many rest stops on the highway of grief. So we build walls, demanding that people stay away at the very time that we are begging them to come closer. It is very natural for the bereaved, but it makes it very difficult for us.

It was my fortune to receive excellent seminary training, though we were only beginning to consider the importance of pastoral care and pastoral care training. We worked so hard on the "head stuff" that the matters of the heart at times felt neglected, as were the insights that were needed to be with the bereaved. In my first parish, a small community that was assaulted by twelve divorces and four suicides in my five years there, I surely made some big mistakes. It also was easy to ignore my own pain, sense of failure, and personal ambitions (which are the tragic fires of most young ministers). With all of this, I still cared, I still made the effort to be present, and I continued to find new and innovative ways to bring a measure of God's "I love you" to the wounded who frequently questioned if there would ever be any love again.

Parishioners built walls. I often took it personally, but I acquired additional insights and also paid more attention to my own loss experiences (in the midst of this time with a very troubled parish we became bereaved parents). Eventually I came to understand my own need for presence and then, and only then, to be truly present to and for another. I cannot prevent others from building walls, (and sometimes those walls are necessary), but I can do something about my own wall building.

 5. Few clergy have sufficient training in bereavement care.

"I can excuse my priest for not understanding what it is like to be a bereaved parent, or for not understanding how I feel. What I cannot excuse is his indifference, his unwillingness to learn." Those were the words shouted at me through the tears of a bereaved mother who attended a conference I was presenting in New Orleans. We may have unrealistic expectations of our ministers, but they are still our expectations.

In our training and teaching we see the spiritual longing experienced by most ministers. It can force us (and it is a gift) to face up to our blindness to the many issues that we call life; things like addiction, domestic violence, the struggles of ethical decision making in health care, child abuse, and, yes, grief. The three courses offered to me on eschatology brought some theological clarity, but offered me little insight into the role of the shepherd engaged in graveside conversation. The work of a pastor is to be a shepherd, a generalist. It is the tough work of being able to offer something of God, with pastoral empathy, to the whole array of stories, hurts, and problems, and, yes, even sins that walk into our presence.

A major emphasis in our programs is pastoral care of the bereaved. Many other professionals often chuckle at the effort, not because the work isn't important, but because they so often see the indifference of the clergy who do not come to these programs. We want the clergy to attend. We value their learning, but especially value what they can bring to the table as we consider a team approach to quality care and support. We often allow ourselves to be too busy with office work, the nuances of a sermon, preparing the Sunday bulletin, unnecessary meetings, and miscellaneous chores. Is it any wonder that we cannot find the time to acquire the skills that we need? We are independent practitioners supervised by parishioners to whom we really have little practical accountability (until someone perceives a problem). Many denominations do not even require continuing education, and few congregations provide the funds. Yet we expect our clergy to continue to grow and acquire new skills.

If there is to be growth in bereavement skills and awareness in our clergy, it will require careful planning and hard work coming from many directions. It means that many of us who do bereavement training must continue to fight for our place, and also the place of clergy, on the roster of bereavement caregivers (we should be very alarmed that contemporary literature and practice speaks a great deal about spiritual care, but pastoral care is seldom mentioned). We hear and ask, "Where are the clergy?" Now many of us aggressively seek them out while others choose to pass them by. Clergy must claim their pastoral voice and presence while they still have them. Is this another dimension of the parable of the lost sheep, or maybe it sounds more like the "shepherds" that scatter (like hirelings) when confronted by "wolves" like grief?

 6. Many clergy are wounded healers and often find it easier to avoid their own loss issues, and bring those compromises into how they do or do not do pastoral care.

In one of my early chaplaincy assignments, three young ministers (in their first assignment) sought me out when their first funeral came up. "I never had a loved one die; what do I say and do?" It was an honest and reasonable question. They were trying to do the best job that they could for their parishioners. As one stated, "Tell me how to act at the cemetery; the way things are going for me I will fall into the hole with the casket."

What the three of them had to come to terms with was that they had already experienced losses; lost opportunities, lost relationships, lost dreams. I even reminded them that they had lost the safe surroundings of the seminary's four walls. Then they had learned a valuable lesson. They had a story, a collection of experiences, and, in affirming them, they could become gifts to others. What they had not begun to learn is that gifts unnamed and unclaimed leave us framed by them. These experiences, and the feelings that accompany them, become the dictators of our destiny and frequent corrupters of our ministry.

In the book, Healthy Clergy, Wounded Healers: Their Families and Their Ministries, a study of Episcopal clergy and their spouses, Walmsley & Lummis (1997) remind us, "Clergy need to be emotionally healthy and have a clear sense of what they are called to do and be. At the same time, the vocation they have chosen makes demands of them which have consequences for the systems in which they live and work" (p. 7). They also remind us, quoting Henri Nouwen, of our inability to tend to our spiritual needs (without trying to fit every spiritual discovery into our next sermon), "It is the 'Holy Spirit alone [who] can cause us to transcend our psychological personality to become a natural person -- transparent to others because we are transparent to God"' (p. 15). The results can be disastrous. "As positive behaviors will continue to enhance relationships [including how we relate to parishioners and others who seek our help], so problem behaviors will continue to exercise a negative impact until the behavior is understood for what it does and is addressed."

This means that we must risk looking at the training provided in our seminaries (are they academic institutions or vocational training centers?), how we spiritually nurture our seminarians and continue to do so beyond ordination, and who we select (or call) to be judicatory leaders. Does this leadership in our denominations really commit to maintaining a healthy clergy or just a group of conforming robots in a dog collar who do not rock the boat and force our involvement in matters that we do not want to face?

It is a long way through a very sensitive subject that needs its own essay (and book!), but we must state that our clergy, as bereavement caregivers, are wounded, and the systems intended to sustain them and equip them are often equally wounded. Maybe as we continue to help our clergy, churches and synagogues, and denominations grieve, they will learn, possibly for the first time, how to be present with those who seek them out for comfort.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." (Psalm 23). It is a very lonely and frightening walk through the wilderness we call grief. It is personal, it is longlasting, it is demanding, and it is a mine field of explosive feelings, detours, and disappointments. It is also where Christ is fully present and expects the same of his ministers. Maybe this essay will serve to nudge one more person onward to a "closer walk with God" and an even closer walk with those who grieve.

 References and Further Reading


Attig, T. (1996). How We Grieve: Relearning the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carr, W. (1994). Brief Encounters: Pastoral Ministry through Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals. London: SPCK.

Carr, W. (1997). Handbook of Pastoral Studies. London: SPCK.

Carr, W., et al, ed. (2002). The New Dictionary of Pastoral Studies. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Champin, J., Taylor, 5. (1995). A Thoughtful Word, A Healing Touch: A Guide for Visiting the Sick. Mystic: TwentyThird Publications.

Cox, G., Fundis, R. (1991). Spiritual, Ethical and Pastoral Aspects of Death and Bereavement. Amityville: Bnywood.

Daavidson, J., Doka, K., ed. (1999). Living with Grief At Work, At School at Home. New York: Brunner/Mnzel.

Del Zoppo, P. (1996). Mourning. Staten Island: Albs House.

DeSpelder, Lynne Ann and Albert Lee Strickland. (1998). The Last Dance, Encountering Death and Dying. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing.

Doka, K., Morgan, J. (1993). Death and Spirituality. Amityville: Baywood.

Fortunato, J. (1987). AIDS: The Spiritual Dilemma. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Friedman, D, ed. (2001). Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional & Contemporary Sources. Woodstock: Jewish Lights.

Gilbert, R., ed. (2002). Healthcare & Spirituality: Listening, Assessing, Caring. Amityville: Baywood.

Gilbert, R. (1996). HeartPeace: Healing Help for Grieving Folks St. Meinrnd: Abbey Press.

Grollman, E. (1997). Living When a Loved One has Died. Boston: Beacon.

Grollman, E. (2000). Living with Loss, Healing with Hope: A Jewish Perspective. Boston: Beacon.

Grollman, E., Kosik, K. (1996). When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer's. Boston: Beacon.

Grossoehme, D. (1999). The Pastoral Care of Children. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Pastoral Press.

Guntzelman, J., Guntzelman, L.(1997). Come, Healing God: Prayer During Illness. Winona: Saint Mary's Press.

Guntzelmon, J. (1995). 124 Prayers for Caregivers. Winona: Saint Mary's Press.

Hover, M. (1994). Caring for Yourself When Caring for Others. Mystic: Twenty Third Publications.

Larson, D. (1993). The Helper's Journey: Working with People Facing Grief, Loss and Life Threatening Illness. Champaign: Research Press.

Meyer, C. (1978). Surviving Death; A Practical Guide to Caring for the Dying & Bereaved. (revised and expanded edition). Mystic: Twenty Third Publications.

Miller, J. (1995). A Pilgrimage through Grief: Healing the Soul's Hurt after Loss. St. Meinrad: Abbey Press.

Moe, T. (1997). Pastoral Care In Pregnancy Loss: A Ministry Long Needed. Binghamton: Haworth Pastoral Press.

Morgan, J., ed. (1996). Ethical Issues in the Care of the Dying and Bereaved Aged. Amityville: Baywood.

Morgan, J., ed. (1997). Readings in Thanatology. Amityville: Baywood.

Murray, N.P. (1994). Living Beyond Your Losses: The Healing Tourney through Grief. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing.

Oates, W. (1997). Grief, Transition, and Loss: A Pastor's Practical Guide. Minneapolis: Fortress.

O' Brien, M. (1997). Praying through Grief Healing Prayer: Services for Those Who Mourn. Notre Dome: Ave Maria Press.

Papineau, A. (1997). Breaking Up, Down and Through: Discovering Spiritual and Psychological Opportunities in your Transitions. New York: Paulist.

Silverman, P. (2000). Never Too Young to Know: Death In Children's Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, H.I. (2001). When Your People Are Grieving: Leading In Times of Loss. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City.

Walmsley, R., Lummis, A. (1997). Healthy Clergy, Wounded Healers: Their Families and Their Ministries. New York: Church Publishing.

Wilcock, P. (1997). Spiritual Care of Dying and Bereaved People. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing.

Zurheide, J. (1997). When Faith is Tested: Pastoral Responses to Suffering and Tragic Death. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Dr. Richard B. Gilbert is the Director of Chaplaincy Services at Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Illinois. He also serves as the Executive Director of the World Pastoral Care Center. Dick Gilbert, a Board Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains, is a regular contributor of resources for the Oates Institute Online Learning Center,author, and frequent contributor of professional journal articles.