Orthodox America

  Grief Counseling – Part III


(Part I)  (Part II)

       The purpose of this concluding section on the Orthodox pastor's role in counseling the bereaved, is to discuss the normal grief reactions of the newly bereaved, and ways in which a priest can be of help in normal or uncomplicated mourning. We will use the classic description of the "Four Tasks of Mourning" as given in J. William Worden's book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Heath Practitioner, (Springer Publishing Company, 1982)- a text in frequent use by hospice programs around the country.


     IN OUR PRODUCT-ORIENTED' culture of "quick fixes” and denial of death, the process of mourning no longer has a place or even, some would say, legitimacy. How often the newly bereaved have heard a well-meaning friend say: "John, your wife has been dead for two weeks already. You can't grieve forever!" This attitude is more common than most of us realize.

      How long, then, does grieving take? The best and most sensitive answer is: it takes as long as it takes. A woman who has lost her husband of 56 years may never completely finish the tasks of grieving. A young man or woman who has lost a parent, may find that every Christmas or Pascha is a time when grief is suddenly again fresh and painful

      Some experts in the field suggest that the bereaved must go through at least one whole year-one complete cycle of the changing seasons, with all of the usual holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries connected with the person who has died--before grieving can even begin to be resolved. On the other hand, the extraordinary and neurotic grieving of Queen Victoria, which lasted morbidly for more than forty years after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, should not be construed as normal or "uncomplicated" grieving.

      What is clear in any case is that grieving not only does NOT end with the funeral and burial, but in fact, may not even have really begun for the closest relatives. For this reason, chaplains in hospice programs routinely keep in touch with the bereaved (every few weeks, and at holidays and birthdays, etc.) for up to a year, and longer if necessary. Since this approach has been found effective in encouraging people to process their grief, the Orthodox pastor should also take note.

      For example: if a priest knows that a widow or widower has very little or no family support, he can invite him or her to come to his family home for dinner on their Nameday, Wedding Anniversary, or any other occasion that would normally have been shared with the one who died. In the process of that evening, the pastor should not avoid mentioning the name of the deceased but, on the contrary, encourage the person who is grieving to share their memories----both the good and the bad--with him. Being a kind and loving listener is one of the priest's most important functions at this particular time. 

      God willing, the priest was already present at the deathbed to give the Last Sacraments and read the Canon for the Departure of the Soul. He will already have spoken words of sympathy and comfort to the family. Over the next days and weeks he will have served the funeral and burial, as well as the appointed pannikhidi (on the third, ninth, and fortieth days, and the first anniversary for the repose of the soul. And on each of those occasions he will have again spoken consolingly to the family.

      But what, exactly, are those family members and friends going through in the depths of their hearts? And how can the priest be of help during this time, in addition to his prayers and murmured words of sympathy? 

O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who hast trampled down death, and overthrown the devil and given life to Thy world: Do Thou Thyself, O Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant (N.), in a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing are fled away. Pardon every sin committed by him in word, deed, or thought, in that Thou art a good God, the Lover of mankind...

(Priest's prayer from the Office for the Dead)

        First, the pastor must be aware that there are four essential "tasks" of grieving that must be accomplished or "processed" by the bereaved. The priest cannot accomplish these for the grieving, but he can talk to the bereaved, explaining this process, so that they will understand first, that their feelings are quite normal and they are not "going crazy," and second, that they MUST experience these things, however painful in order to ultimately resolve their grief and be able to resume a full and productive life. The "tasks" of grieving are as follows:


1. To Accept the Reality of the Loss: When death is sudden and unexpected, this can be an understandable problem; but even when there has been a long terminal illness an air of unreality and numbness usually descends on the family. Attending the funeral, seeing the body in the coffin, giving the "Last Kiss"--these are all ways in which the Church helps the newly-bereaved to accept the reality of this loss.

      However, during this initial period the priest needs to be attentive to sentiments like "We weren't close," or "It's a blessing that he died," etc.--these are signs of denial, indications that the meaning of the loss is not being accepted. Until the death is quite real, one cannot go on to the second task, which is:


2. To Experience the Pain of Grief: This can be literal physical pain as well as emotional, and is quite the opposite of denial and numbness. It can manifest itself as sleeplessness, loss of appetite, fatigue, helplessness, shock, and excessive use of alcohol, tranquilizers, etc. There may be a whole range of seemingly contradictory feelings: sadness and relief, anger and a sense of emancipation, anxiety and self-reproach, to name just a few.

      The priest who should remain in regular (but not constant) contact, beginning a few weeks after the funeral, can help the bereaved to identify these feelings. He should be on the "look-out" for well meaning friends and relatives who try to distract the bereaved from their pain by "keeping them busy." This is VERY counter-productive. What the grief stricken need to do is grieve so that they can get through this hard time--not be distracted from it. When necessary- a priest can explain this both to the bereaved and to their "distracters."

      It is a spiritual as well as a psychological truth that the only way to get through pain is to "go through" pain, not try to avoid it. In this context, the liturgical and devotional life of the Church can be very helpful and consoling. The person who is grieving should be encouraged not to go out and socialize when he is hurting, but to come to church. There, during the serene rhythms of the Church's worship of God, he can best confront and experience the pain of his loss. There, before the icons and the Sacraments, he can pour out his lonely tears where they belong; before Almighty God and His All-Pure Mother. And the sight of such tears will not go unnoticed or uncomforted by heaven. The liturgical life of the Church is the "safest" and most comforting place to experience suffering of any kind--but perhaps especially the suffering one endures at the loss of a loved one. And this is also the place where true healing is most likely to take place

      Additionally, the priest should be sure that the bereavcd is aware of the Church's teaching concerning what can and should be done in behalf of the newly-departed: having them commemorated at the Divine liturgy daily for 40 days after their release (since most parishes today do not hold daily services, the priest could suggest a monastery or cathedral to be contacted), and regularly thereafter; reading the Psalter for the departed; giving alms in their memory, Being able to do something for the benefit of the departed is a great consolation for the bereaved and can relieve the feeling of helplessness which often accompanies the grief process.


3. To Adjust to an Environment in Which the Deceased is Missing: "Adjusting to a new environment means different things to different people, depending on what the relationship was with the deceased and the various roles the deceased played. For many widows it takes a considerable period of time to realize what it is like to live without their husbands. This realization often begins to emerge around three months after the loss and involves coming to terms with living alone, raising children alone, facing an empty house, and managing finances alone....The survivor usually is not aware of all the roles played by the deceased until after the loss occurs." (Worden)


4. To Withdraw Emotional Energy and Reinvest It:. At this stage, grieving is beginning to come to some resolution, however long it may have taken to get to this point. The bereaved are beginning to withdraw emotionally from the person who has died and reinvest in someone or something else. This is a stage where the priest can be very helpful because the bereaved often feel unnecessarily guilty, or believe that they are in some way "betraying" the memory of the dead person. This is often the most difficult grieving task to accomplish, and the gentle encouragement, reassurance, and "permission" of the priest can be critical at this time.

      One of the "permissions" a priest can give at this point is to gently direct a person to greater participation in the liturgical and social life of the parish. This can include all sorts of activities--teaching church school, helping with the services, becoming active in men's and women's groups, etc. The priest can, at this point, also encourage this individual to participate in some meaningful volunteer work in the community. Whatever form it takes, it will channel newly-found energy into healthy, caring areas of life that affirm the value of one's life and the spiritual uses of service to others.

      This has been but a brief and by no means exhaustive overview of the subject of pastoral counseling for the bereaved. Although only two excellent and scholarly texts have been cited in this series, the literature on the subject is growing and priests should avail themselves of it from their local bookstore or library. In addition, many hospitals and hospice programs provide workshops and seminars for both clergy and laymen who wish to have some training m this vastly neglected area.

      As a priest and pastor, I firmly believe that it is time the Church took back from the secular professionals this particular area of "expertise." Unless actual mental disease is involved, there is no reason why any of our grieving spiritual children should need to ,-seek out the services of a psychologist--as many of them do--to deal with their bereavement. We do not have to be trained psychologists to provide helpful pastoral counseling in this area, but we do need to learn, study, and expand our own awareness and experience, so that we can more adequately be "fathers" to our flocks, and not just in name·

Fr. Alexey Young

(Part I)  (Part II)