Orthodox America

  Grief Counseling - Part I

(Part II) (Part III)

     In addition to his liturgical and teaching responsibilities, the Orthodox priest continually deals with the dying and the bereaved. He will, of course, offer spiritual preparation and the Sacraments to dying parishioners, as well as comfort and consolation to their relatives and friends. He will bury the dead and pray for their souls—not unimportant priestly functions.

     But in the typical parish situation the priest is not usually expected to do anything more than this for the dying and the bereaved. Still, he often suspects that the intense loneliness of grief is more complex than he realized. He may be surprised by some of the things he sees and hears from the bereaved; he may sense that he is only offering unhelpful platitudes; he may even be afraid of the intense emotions expressed by the grieving.

     Some priests notice but do not understand why many of the widowed tend to be at higher risk for illness or even death during the first year or so after the loss of their spouse. And many clergy sense and are troubled by the fact that, during the time of dying, the patient's family may actually be receiving more support--spiritual and emotional--from other trained professionals (nurses, hospice workers, etc.) than from their own priest. This is, in fact, one of the most neglected areas of pastoral care in the Church today.

     The purpose of this study is to offer a brief overview of the dynamics of grief: both (1) "anticipatory'' (the emotions experienced by a family during the terminal illness of their loved one), (2) the actual bereavement itself (the stages of grief experienced by family and friends after the death occurs), as well as some suggested procedures for helping our spiritual children to move through the necessary spiritual and psychological experience of mourning.

      Before discussing in detail the dynamics of grieving we must first distinguish between pastoral counseling and professional therapy. In a church context "counseling" means that a priest listens carefully and openly to the concerns and fears of his parishioner, conveying emotional support, sympathy (as opposed to empathy), and guidance in a spiritual context. [1] “Therapy,” on the other hand, is the professional remedial treatment of complicated mental disease, quite outside the usual training of a priest. [2]

     The experience of grieving is not an emotional or mental illness or disease. It is, rather, an important normal process by which the conflicts and emotional pain of separation and loss are resolved and completed in a way that makes it possible for the bereaved to eventually reinvest his physical and emotional energy in continued life and spiritual growth. In other words, normal grief is not an aberration but a process of healing. Simply put, "grief is the process that allows us to let go of that which was and be ready for that which is to come" (Therese A. Rando, Grief, Dying and Death, 1984).

     Although for the Orthodox Christian the grieving process is done in an atmosphere of profound prayer and the Sacraments, this does not mean that especially in our death­denying society--help and guidance are not needed from the priest.

     In the old grace-giving societies of Russia, Greece, and other Orthodox cultures---now virtually vanished under a pall of soulless materialism-where entire peoples were in general more functional because family life was itself healthy, whole and grace-filled--the process of grieving or mourning took place organically and virtually without complication. The old patriarchal structure of close family units produced generally healthier and more wholesome men and women whose bonds of attachment were more rarely unhealthy and co-dependent than they are today. In addition, the omni-presence of the Church and her spiritual philosophy of life brought the grieving process into direct and constant contact with the holy.

     Such is not the case today in our pluralistic and frankly very sick society. And rare is the practicing Orthodox Christian who, no matter how pious and faithful, will go untouched by the trial of deep grief. Why does grieving occur?

     Human beings, and even many animals (who are also known to grieve), make strong affectional bonds. In humans, however, this goes quite beyond biological drives for food, shelter, reproduction, safety and security. Almost all human attachments even if they are unhealthy ones---partake to some degree of the spiritual dimension. The healthier and more spiritually "normal" the bonds, the less complicated the grieving. But, even when healthy attachments between husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend, are threatened by death, certain specific reactions can be experienced.

      'The greater the potential for loss, the more intense these reactions and the more varied. In such circumstances, all the most powerful forms of attachment behavior become activated--clinging, crying, and perhaps angry coercion...when these actions are successful, the bond is restored, the activities cease and the states of stress and distress are alleviated If the danger is not removed, withdrawal, apathy and despair will then ensue" (J. William Worden, Ph D, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, 1982).

      In this context, the function of the priest is to help his grieving spiritual child to accept that the loss has occurred and that he must now grieve for "the energy that previously went into keeping the relationship with the deceased alive now must be channeled elsewhere, where it can be returned' (Rando).

Fr. Alexey Young

(Part II) (Part III)

[1] It is important to understand the difference between "sympathy'' and "empathy." Whereas sympathy means that the priest helps his spiritual child to recognize and understand what he is experiencing, empathy is a dangerous and unhealthy condition whereby the priest actually experiences, vicariously, the feelings and thoughts of another. This does not help the emotionally and spiritually ruling to understand and grow, but only plunges the priest into the same confused and painful state wherein he loses both his objectivity and, ultimately, his ability to be of significant help. 

[2] For a different and, in this writer's view, too simplistic view of the place of professional therapy, see Dr. Michael Nedelsky's article, "Contemporary Clinical Psychology: An Orthodox Perspective," in Orthodox Life, Nos. 4 and 5, 1985.