Symbols of faith and hope while reminders of loss and despair

Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gilbert, BCC, CPBC

In this time of world turbulence we have become acutely aware of symbols. Patriotic symbols abound for some, while others, unhappy with life events, move away from such gestures because they are not proud. We seem more aware of the routines and rituals that matter and cling to them as we deal with war, the economic and employment pressures in our own country, and the new intensity of feelings as Americans and as a world power.

For the bereaved we are equally aware of symbols, including symbols that at once can both invite/comfort and discourage/frustrate. Religious symbols have entered the world of the bereaved in new ways. Symbols are experienced in locations (buildings, worship spaces, etc.), rituals (liturgies, prayers, ritual customs, sacred objects, books) and religious leaders. Presumably they were involved in our lives when our loved one was dying and at the time of the funeral. Hopefully they will sustain us in this long pilgrimage through our sorrow.

We turn to our religious leaders, communities and traditions for guidance, solace and a sense of community. Rightly or wrongly we expect them to know that we are bereaved, to acknowledge that we are grieving and to be equipped to walk with us compassionately and therapeutically. If we believe in a God of compassion and comfort then, surely, this God ought to be demonstrated in the places, customs and people professing to believe as we do and live the tenets and promises of God.

When we are bereaved everything is tested and often twisted. Things seem familiar, yet different. Rituals seem routine, and thus dependable, yet easily lose their meaning. We go to familiar places that are both unfamiliar (we are different now!) and also with a renewed sense of sadness and discomfort because, for a time, we are reminded that we are in the place and with the people who were involved with the funeral. We are where we were ritually reminded that our loved one died and where we did that person's eternal "send off." The words were about comfort and hope, but all we seem to feel is a renewed sense of pain. Someone important and special has died.

1. At least, for a time, grief distorts our view and viewpoint

When we are grieving things look different, taste different, feel different, smell different. Our filters are ripe for every kind of "allergen" that grief throws at us, and our eyes are blurred with these frequent (but very normal) irritations.

For some of us the words of our faith, the rituals of our tradition, the caring words and glances by those in our congregation just may not fit. We go to worship and hear no good news, might find the prayers to be hollow or pointless (after all, we prayed for our loved one to get well and it seemed that the prayer went unanswered), the minister goes on with new messages while it feels like no one has heard my message, my sorrow, my tears. For others of us, it is just too much commotion, too much attention, sounds when I crave a silence from my tears. It seems best to stay away. Maybe, for you, it is a fear of losing control, of embarrassing God, other worshippers or yourself, so you just stay home. Shut down. Cut off.

None of the above is wrong. Sometimes we do need to shut down or to build a few walls to protect what little sanity may be afforded us. At the same time we might be open to the possibility that, in the midst of all that we present for reasons to stay away, there might be something in the midst of the "holy rubble" that will feed us and often some comfort and hope.

Everything looks different right now. That may weigh you down like one more burden, but you will work through it. Allow for the possibility that some ritual, some word, some greeting, some familiar space or place might be ok for you. Maybe not today. Tomorrow will do. Allow for the possibility of that tomorrow for you.

2. Traditions may seem empty, but we need them.

The hymns or songs may seem too joyful or upbeat. The words don't connect. We go through the motions. As one person said at the close of the liturgy last week here at the hospital where I serve, "Did I remember to commune today?" It was in her fear of forgetting that we could engage in discussion and caring around remembering. For a moment in time she embraced with meaning what she first embraced by rote, and the gifts of that sacrament (for her) were really what was embracing her and holding on to her.

In this instant society, or what John Drane refers to as "The McDonaldization of the church" (Smyth & Helwys Publishing) we are experiencing a moving away from the familiar to what entertains and delights, and then is easily discarded. We are not sure what "works" for us any more and so we easily find ourselves clinging to what has been discarded. Religious leaders must especially be tuned in to the role of ritual in providing comfort to the bereaved. It is important to understand that the function of ritual is to give meaning to what has occurred, and ritual, in its religious expression, is to offer clarity, confirmation and comfort around God, God's promises and where we find ourselves in all of that.

Clergy (and others who share in congregational work) must bear in mind that the bereaved are already fragile and vulnerable and easily persuaded (abused?) by our efforts to guide and direct them. If ritual is to serve as a source of meaning then the meaning, albeit surrounded by the traditions of that religious community, must come from the bereaved believer. If prayer seems meaningless, be willing to discuss it, but don't insist on prayer as the only avenue that your congregation is willing to explore. Allow the person to explore new meaning, new rituals, new pathways, and allow them, leader and believer, to wrestle together so that the sacredness can emerge and meaning can be found.

3. Not every religious leader and congregation is equipped to respond to the bereaved.

Some simply do not have a clue. Others, often because of their own issues that have not been addressed, tend to rush through "funeral ministry" and get on with the tasks at hand because it is easier and it is safer. This is sad and a contradiction to what God expects of religious leaders and congregations.

It doesn't mean that every congregation must have myriad support groups and personnel. It does mean that all bereaved should feel a measure of welcome and compassion, and that the congregation and leader are able and willing to meet people where they are and connect them to their beliefs and to the resources of congregation and community that might best serve them.

It often takes great courage to re-enter our various "marketplaces" of life after experiencing a loss, and that includes our religious communities (buildings and people). We applaud that courage, but also place before religious leaders and congregations to examine their hearts and their responsibilities to ask, "Are we bearing the right messages and gifts to the bereaved in our midst or who seek us out?"

4. Spirituality is its own pathway, and it winds its way through our grief journey and our grief journey winds its way through our spiritual pathways

Spirituality, however we define it and express it, is crucial for the bereaved because the work of the bereaved is to both reframe or reshape life as it has unfolded (or fallen apart) after a loss and to find even a reason or value in tackling any of those efforts. What does life mean after a loved one has died? What does life have to offer me after a marriage ends? What purpose or value is there after suffering economic or employment hardships in today's world? These are meaning and life questions and they are spiritual questions.

Spirituality is at the heart of who we are, what we do, the values we place on life, death and ourselves, and a hint of strength and purpose to move forward on our journey. It means that we must be free to shout both our exclamations and our expletives, whether they be directed at God, our congregations, the teachings/rituals, ourselves or toward the person that died. It means we need religious leaders and congregants who understand that, as a griever, I must be free (including free of judgment) to say I can't believe in God anymore, my minister doesn't care about me, the church (or other community) has let me down. It means I have a right to lash out to and about the God who at least seems to have forsaken me (Psalm 22). If I do not have that freedom then my spiritual resources whither and complications abound.

Short of physical contact, a bereaved person could never hurt me. He or she can dislike me, yell at me, and rage about the spiritual messages I represent. I learned long ago that it is neither my right nor task to defend God and I have long since given up trying to defend or explain the church (or other religious institutions). If I can stay healthy in that way, and it is healthy, then the bereaved person who seeks me may feel free and safe to wrestle with those deep questions and wounds that have left deep scars. Then we can reclaim our pathway and find the faith that probably seemed far away, but now may be new, refreshing and stronger.

A final thought. As hard as returning to your religious leaders and communities may seem or be, for most of us, the anticipation is worse than the reality. Be proactive. Call your clergyperson and discuss your concerns. If need be, sit in a different place, go to a different service, come late, leave early. You will survive. More than that, there will be healing ... the goal of all who grieve.

(The Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gilbert, FAAGC, CPBC)
Director of Chaplaincy Services, Sherman Health Systems, Elgin, IL
Executive Director, The World Pastoral Care Center
Author / speaker / chaplain / resource specialist

Prepared for WINGS Journal, Nan Zastrow, editor. We commend this journal to you. For information you may email them at

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