Last week, my research and work with the bereaved was featured on NPR's Morning Edition with Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
I received many calls and emails- thousands- after the story. Most were families who'd been affected by the death of a child or other beloved one. Some shared their stories of compassionate care, particularly from spiritual leaders, while others shared moral, emotional, and ethical transgressions by those charged with the most sacred of all: caring for the suffering.
I also received about two dozen emails from spiritual leaders. Some of the emails surprised and moved me. You see, back in 1994, I tried many times to connect with spiritual leaders after Chey's death. I was then, what I now call, a 'recovering atheist', having been raised in a cult-like religious group as a child. I sought G*d after she died. I couldn't imagine - tolerate - the idea that I would never experience her presence again.
Time and time again, I was met with responses that rated from rabid insolence to apathetic detachment. Someone always had a holy verse to throw my direction about plan-making and landscaping and accepting and past sins and faith.
"Just give it to G*d"
"Just trust in the Lord"
"There's a reason for everything"
"Don't mourn, you'll see her again"
"What did you do in your past to deserve this?"
"If you had enough faith, you wouldn't hurt so much"
"G*d will turn all things for the good"
"Look how G*d can use you now"
"He needed another angel to tend His garden"
Now, this resonates with what Reverend William Sloane Coffin said in his eulogy for his son, Alex: Many spiritual leaders "know their Bibles better than the human condition." He goes on:
That's why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything...people who sign letters simply, "Your brokenhearted sister." In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends — not many, and none of you, thank God — were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn't face...
I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here were I not upheld.
Why do we use spirituality to clobber people on the head when they are most weak, fragile, and vulnerable? Can it not be the same as an other unhealthy distraction? Certainly, most agree that we should not use alcohol, drugs, sex, food, exercise, work, or hedonism to distract ourselves from human pain and suffering. We become hungry ghosts, striving to heal that which cannot be healed and fill that which cannot be filled.
However, nor should we use spirituality as an excuse to deny our very humanity.
I believe an authentically spiritual life is one that invites us to move between the light and darkness, to go deeply into the great mystery, to brave human suffering- our own and others. Spiritual leaders, more than most, should know this deep within their very being. Spiritual leaders are not psychiatrists, they disavow application of the medical model in caring for the existential, that cannot be cured with modern medicine. The best way to be spiritual, I believe, is to be deeply human in the face of suffering. To leave your holy book outside, unless asked, and enter as a human being sharing in the brokenness of the world.
I sat with a young family many years ago. Their beautiful little boy drowned in the pool. They were in the hospital, disconnecting him from life support. The mother held him as he died, the father sat, his head in his knees, sobbing. I was quiet, sitting close, my eyes wet with tears. Moments later, a pastor came into the room from a church they'd started attending. He had his Bible in hand, his finger between pages like Wyatt Earp's finger on a trigger. I saw it as he came in, and I quickly rose. I asked to speak with him outside. I said, "Thank you so much for coming here to bear witness to this family's suffering. I know you didn't ask my advice, but I've been doing this a very long time... and with great humility and love I would ask that you leave your Bible outside the room, and go in and sit with this family and just be with them..." He looked a little confused, became agitated, and said he was there to bring God's presence in the room. He walked around me and went into the room. The parents listened, they sobbed, as he read verses of "comfort". Less than two months later, they left the church as they became increasingly angry about "God's will" in their lives, vowing never to return to church.
I sat with another young family many years ago. Their little boy died suddenly from pneumonia. I was introduced to them by their pastor who, upon learning of the baby's death, called me for guidance. He said something to this effect: "I need help. A young family in my church (I remember hearing the tears in his voice)- their baby just died. I'm going to the hospital to be with them. I'm afraid. There are no answers in times like this. Just more questions." He asked if we could meet and if I could help educate him on how to be with the family. We met for three hours. He conducted a beautiful, respectful eulogy for precious Aaron and even now that moment in time can bring me to tears. His parents remained a part of the church for many years until they moved out of town. And I know they've not fogotten- nor will they ever forget - Pastor Dave's humility, tenderness, and open-hearted humanity.
Back to the emails from the NPR story... I'd kinda given up on talking to spiritual leaders about big suffering unless I was asked. But since the NPR story, I'm being asked. Many times over and over again.
Here is an example of one chaplain's beautiful and humble email:
You and your work are quoted several times. In one case, you are quoted as saying:"religious leaders are really bad at comforting people in grief. In a survey of more than 550 families,asking whom they found the most helpful during those first terrible days(of grief): first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, psychologists, funeral directors or spiritual leaders. And of all those, the spiritual leaders cam in last." As a former pastor, as well as current chaplain, sadly, I must agree with you. I cannot believe some of the unhelpful things pastors have said to patients, and families, in our hospital.Does your research reveal reasons why spiritual leaders score so poorly. If you could point me to any of your research in these areas, I would certainly appreciate it and would be most happy to share with my Palliative team. Faith and spirituality is a significant aspect of Palliative care, and our team always want to be learning and growing in this area. Thank you for your time. David Grieger
But also, I train on a mindfulness-based bereavement care model:
The article and model can be found here.
...The main reasons seem to emerge from the qualitative data. In general summary, the lack of responsiveness (ie "no one showed up for us" or "they were only available to us for a week or two, then we were expected to trust God's will and move on") and perceived insensitivity/platitudes for the loss (ie "God has a plan" or "Trust God" or "God is testing your faith" or "It's time to move on" or even "If you were a true believer, you wouldn't feel such grief"). I hope this makes sense. Again, I truly thank you - your email reflects the general tone of many I've received and I'm moved by the open-heartedness of so many chaplains, pastors, and spiritual leaders.
What you describe below makes sense, and sadly, I have heard it from hospital patients and families about their clergy. Just two brief examples. I had been visiting a lady for two days as her father was dying. When I arrived the next morning, I went to the room; he had died just a few minutes earlier. The woman's head was on her dad's chest; she was sobbing. Standing on the OTHER SIDE of the bed (which I thought was significant) was a pastor from her church. He looked over at her and said: " now just remember, God does not give us more than we can handle." I wanted to go over and choke him I was so mad! In a few moments she lifted her head, turned toward him and replied:"I think I might believe that, but right now those words are just not helpful." I could not believe she could utter such a profoundly human statement in the midst of her grief! I will remember them forever. In a second situation, a woman's mother had died just a few minutes earlier. A well-intentioned religious friend mumbled: "I am just so sorry God had to take your mom." To which the daughter replied: "I don't look at it that way. I believe God is in heaven, waiting to welcome mom into eternal life." Religious people, and often clergy of ALL faith backgrounds, need to remember that we are given two ears and one mouth for a reason. In my experience, religious folk feel a great need to say something or to do something in the presence of grief, or else they feel they are not being helpful or faithful. I remind folks that in most situations, God calls them NOT to do or say, but to BE, to be a caring presence,first. That is a lesson that Job's friends learned, then promptly forgot and launched back into their unhelpful talking modes. Thank you again for your responses. I will look forward to reading your blogs and articles.
Chaplain Grieger's spirituality makes sense to my broken heart. It doesn't offend the wounded parts of me, and he opens my heart toward spirituality by holding space for suffering much the way that Reverend William Sloane Coffin's words do as he says again of Alex's death, "The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break..."
In the realms of such humble spiritual leaders, I find hope that we are beginning to better understand what human beings need in their darkest hour. Another human being.
I don't have the answers for those big spiritual questions, for the great mysteries of life and death. What I do know and feel is that G*d, in the way that I understand G*d, is truly nearest those who are brokenhearted.
Let us, please, have our broken hearts, for it is in the bottomless ocean of grief, in the darkest corners of the abyss, face-to-face with our frightened, broken self where we are able to most deeply and truly come to know our G*d.