Understanding and Surviving Grief

Since hurting people often call pastors and pastoral counselors to walk down the path of grief with them, it is important to understand what grief is and how to best minister to those who come for help.

by David P. Mann

Pastors and pastoral counselors are often the first to be called upon by people dealing with loss and the grief that accompanies it. Counseling hurting people can be a rich opportunity for ministry. Yet, I’ve discovered that some pastors helping people deal with loss find it difficult. Sometimes fear of not knowing what to do or say keeps pastors away when they are most needed. At other times, feeling the need to say something helpful can have even the most compassionate pastor saying unhelpful things.

Since hurting people often call pastors and pastoral counselors to walk down the path of grief with them, it is important to understand what grief is and how to best minister to those who come for help.

Grief Defined

Grief, according to Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute, is “the conflicting feeling caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern or behavior.” He adds, “The human condition doesn’t like change; it rejects change. It wants stasis so it can go back to what it knows.”1

J. William Worden defines grief as “the experience of one who has lost a loved one to death,” but readily notes grief can be applied to other losses. Grief has also been defined as “the feelings of sorrow, anger, guilt, and confusion that arise when one experiences a loss. It is the affect that accompanies bereavement.”2

No two losses are the same nor does a person experience them in the same way. Pastors and pastoral counselors need to be aware of losses other than death, so they do not overlook or minimize such losses. This could lead to what Doka refers to as disenfranchised grief.3 Disenfranchised grief describes the losses people experience but those around them do not recognize as legitimate losses. People can readily overlook losses such as a miscarriage or infertility. One in six couples experience infertility, and yet the loss of one’s dreams of having a biological child may go unnoticed as a loss.

Manifestations of Normal Grief

J. William Worden, in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, notes that normal grief responses fall under four general categories: feelings, physical sensations, cognitions, and behaviors. Persons dealing with loss need to know that it’s normal to feel abnormal in regard to their grief responses.

I often say, “It would be abnormal to feel normal right now.” This helps assure people, especially those who have not previously experienced grief reaction, that they are not losing their minds.

Feelings. Sadness is probably the most common emotion in the grieving experience. It does not need to include crying, but it often does. Some individuals have a fear of sadness, especially its intensity. They feel, if they allow themselves to really embrace the feeling, they may totally lose it.

Bill Heavey, in his article for Field & Stream titled “Good Grief,” stated the following of himself: “Ten years ago I’d have been embarrassed by my tears. I’d have felt like a wimp. But among the many things the years change are your ideas about manhood. I’ve come to accept my impulse to tears as just another act of fate, not much different from tornadoes, tomatoes, and ingrown toenails. Like these things, tears themselves decide when to visit. They aren’t particularly worried about whether the timing is convenient. Every man totes around his own invisible boatload of heartbreak — that steady accretion of loss (the deaths of parents and friends), regret (failed relationships, things done and left undone), and self-assessment (those long nights when you try to square who you are with who you hoped you’d be). This ship of grief that we usually keep under such tight wraps never stops loading cargo. Every so often it slips its moorings and goes where it pleases, reminding you that sometimes you’re more cabin boy than captain.”4

I have often said that grief is a companion with poor social skills; it acts up in the most public places. If we do not allow ourselves to feel sadness (with or without tears), we can set ourselves up for problems later. A colleague noted in her community counseling work that many of the clients she sees have unresolved grief issues complicating the problems for which they are coming to counseling.

Other common emotions identified by Worden include anger, guilt and self-reproach, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning and pining, emancipation, relief, and numbness.

Physical sensations. Grieving individuals may experience hollowness in the stomach, tightness in the chest and throat, a sense of depersonalization, breathlessness, and a general sense of weakness in the muscles. We are body people. To think grieving a loss will not affect our bodies is an oversight. Individuals who are grieving may wonder Why am I so tired all the time? Some try to swallow their grief only to find they feel a tightness or lump. Tears seem to have some stress-relieving quality about their chemistry that serves to say that our bodies must be allowed permission to grieve.

Cognitions. During grief people will often experience disbelief and confusion. Some become preoccupied with the loss to the point of distraction from focusing on anything else. For others, there is a sense of presence if they have lost someone to death. Although they know the person is gone, they sense he is still present. A cognitive experience that is unsettling to people is transient hallucinations. An example of this is when an individual is positive he saw the deceased in a crowd or heard his voice.

Behaviors.Sleep disturbances, such as early morning awakenings, are normal during grief. Absent-minded behaviors are common as one’s mind is preoccupied. This can be dangerous (as in driving) or benign (as in putting the ice cream in the cupboard and the cereal in the freezer).

Social withdrawal is common and usually short lived. Those who are grieving need to, for a time, give themselves permission not to attend things they might normally attend.

In cases where grief is due to the death of a loved one, dreams of the deceased are common. Some people have difficulty dealing with the possessions of the deceased. Treasuring objects is fine for as long as the person chooses. However, two common behaviors can become problematic: avoidance and immersion. Avoidance refers to behaviors such as avoiding certain rooms or places. Such behavior is common early on, but some individuals become so avoidant prone they make rash decisions to sell things such as the home that is filled with memories because it is too difficult to cope with their loss. I advise people to make no major decisions (such as selling their home) for at least a year unless they absolutely need to. This gives time to make a rational decision. (I have known people who avoid short-term pain and are sorry later they sold a house full of memories.)

Immersion refers to becoming engulfed in the loss to the point of not being able to part with or change anything connected to the loss. Other normal grieving behaviors include appetite disturbances, overactivity, sighing, and crying.

Grieving Process

Those who suffer loss often share common experiences. The most commonly noted is the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.5 She observed five stages that people seem to experience universally. Counselors have been applying these stages to the process of those who have suffered losses, whether through death, divorce, or other type.

The first stage is denial and isolation. In this stage, the person cannot believe what is happening to him. Denial is a God-given psychological defense against undue levels of anxiety and stress. It is a means of surviving the crisis. Some not only experience denial; they also need to pull away from others for a time as they deal with shock and disbelief.

According to Kubler-Ross, the first stage gives way to the next: anger. Anger is an emotional response to things we do not like, fear, or cannot resolve. Often the question, “Why me?” arises at this stage. People may go through a moral inventory to see what they may have done to deserve what has occurred.

Bargaining is the third stage. People try to bargain with God to change things. When bargaining fails, people experience the fourth stage, depression. When people recognize death as inevitable and the loss has become overwhelming, depression sets in. Eventually the depression lifts as people work through mourning the losses in their lives or the life of a loved one and come to accept the inevitable.

This final stage can be described as being almost void of feelings as the person comes to accept the loss of someone or something.

Tasks of Mourning

The problem with stage approaches to the grieving process is that grieving is not linear. A grieving person goes back and forth between the stages. Worden prefers to look at the grieving process as a series of tasks. Tasks are not bound to a linear progression, but rather people experience these tasks as they come. Tasks also provide something for the griever to do instead of waiting to pass through a stage. Worden offers these four tasks:6

Task 1: Accepting the reality of the loss. Similar to Kubler-Ross, Worden believes that losses are difficult and denial is strong. He believes we need to help people let go of their grip on denial so they can deal with the loss they have encountered.

Task 2: Experiencing the pain of grief. Counselors encourage people to feel the pain rather than avoid it. This differs for each individual and the timeframe involved is varied. In a society uncomfortable with pain, the message comes to grieve quickly and move on. Grief work takes time.

Task 3: Adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing. This task takes months for people who have lost a spouse. Often the thought of taking on responsibilities their mate had done for years seems insurmountable. But, as they find new ways to cope and learn new skills, they manage the changing role.

Task 4: Withdrawing emotional energy and reinvesting it in another relationship. People often initially resist this task because it seems akin to betrayal. Gradually, as people work through Task 4, they find that a new relationship does not replace the old one; it is simply different. From this perspective, the mourning process cannot be determined by time but rather by successfully completing each of the four tasks.

Another indication of successful mourning is when the griever is able to speak about the loss without the original intensity of emotion. As someone once said, “Grief never goes away; it just explodes less often.”

Making Meaning

Dr. Paul Tournier drew attention to the fact we all seek to find meaning in our losses. He noted that if we do not find meaning, we suffer doubly; first from the loss itself, and second that the loss was meaningless. Neimeyer, Keesee, and Fortner suggest that meaning reconstruction is the central process of grieving.7 In other words, attending to the stages of grief and tasks of mourning is not enough; we must also pay attention to the meaning-making process. The adage that time heals all wounds is not true. Time makes some wounds older and some even more painful if we ascribe unhealthy meaning to the loss.

Pastors and pastoral counselors need to be aware of the meaning-making process. Making sense of an event is a common process as people try to come to grips with what has occurred. Often the phrase, “There must be a reason for this,” indicates the person’s search for meaning. Since many people believe there must be a reason for everything that happens, they will find meaning. The question is, “How healthy is the meaning they have found?” Nichols and Schwartz write, “Life is complicated, so we find ways to explain it. These explanations, the stories we tell ourselves, organize our experience and shape our behavior.”8

In walking the journey of grief with people, pastoral counselors may need to explore some of the meanings ascribed to losses. Some come up with unhealthy meanings, “God is punishing me,” or “God took my daughter from me,” that can precipitate anger at self and God as well as complicate the process. Meanings that are congruent with the love, compassion, and faithfulness of God and that do not seek to make a complicated world boil down to a simplistic answer are healthier and more reality based.

Grieving people are also subject to the meaning-making of others. In an attempt to help people feel better (which, in reality, is an attempt to make themselves feel better), well-meaning people offer their reasons why things have happened as they have. For example, the author of a magazine article about the death of a Christian musician. The author stated, “Heaven must have needed a good tenor,” as a way of making sense of the loss. Please do not ascribe your meaning to someone else’s loss.

Counseling Principles and Procedures

Counseling someone through loss is difficult. Kristi Kanel offers general guidelines for helping people move through the grieving process.9First, help people by actively listening to their stories of loss. Active listening includes interacting with the person in ways that communicate, “I want to hear your story.”

Second, help people identify and express their feelings. Letting people know that feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are, is a way to give permission to express the more difficult emotions of anger, guilt, anxiety, and helplessness.

Third, provide time to grieve. This not only means allowing people to grieve at their own pace; it also involves acknowledging difficult times and events (e.g., death anniversary, holidays, birthday, and wedding anniversary, to name a few).

Fourth, educate grieving people on the grieving process. The book series, Journeying Through Grief by Kenneth C. Haugk, founder and executive director of Stephen’s Ministries, is an excellent resource to give to people who have lost a loved one to death (www.stephenministries.org). I have found the illustrated book, Tear Soup (www.griefwatch.com), to be helpful as it addresses losses of all kinds. Although this would appear to be a children’s book, it works well with all ages.

Finally, allow for individual differences in grieving and provide ongoing support. Support groups in and outside the church are good resources. If people are experiencing grief reactions beyond the scope of ministry of the pastor or pastoral counselor, a consultation with, or referral to, a professional counselor may be advisable.

Parting Thoughts

Experiencing loss and the subsequent grieving process is a part of living in this world. It is only a matter of time until we will come into contact with it.

I teach my counseling students that the most important tool God has in the counseling office is the person of the counselor. The pastoral counselor’s greatest gift to hurting people is being with them. Is understanding the grieving process important? Absolutely. Is learning how to help necessary? Of course. In times of loss people wonder where God is since it can often be hard to feel His presence. In such times God is very present through members of His body, the church. He is present in every difficult situation, and He is often seen in the eyes, tears, and presence of those around the grieving.

I encourage pastors to grieve their losses rather than feel they need to be strong for others. Indeed, grieving their losses helps them to be healthy as well as to serve as examples to their congregations about what to do with loss. Someone said, “If it’s a mist in the pulpit, it’s a fog in the pew.” So if pastors swallow their grief rather than experience it, they could inadvertently convey to their congregations that they should do the same.

Understanding grief and the grieving process is one of the best ways to not only survive it, but also help others do the same.


1. Lynne Shallcross, “Rewriting the ‘rules’ of grief.” In Counseling Today. Alexandria, Virginia: American Counseling Association. (September, 2009). p.28 Link

2. J. William Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 4th Ed. (New York: Springer, 2008).

3. Kenneth J. Doka, ed., Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges, and Strategies for Practice. (Champaign, Illinois: Research Press, 2002).

4. Bill Heavey. “Good Grief,” in Field & Stream, June 2008, vol. 113, no. 2, p.108

5. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: MacMillan, 1969).

6. J. William Worden.

7. Robert A. Neimeyer, ed. Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2001).

8. Nichols, Michael P., and Richard C. Schwartz, Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2006). (p.337).

9. Kristi A. Kanel, Guide to Crisis Intervention,2nd ed.(Belmont, California: Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2003).

Determinants of Grief

Kristi Kanel, in A Guide to Crisis Intervention, notes how a person’s response to loss is affected by several factors regarding the nature of the loss. In the case of death, who the person was in terms of the relationship to the survivor impacts the level of grief. We do not grieve the same for everyone.

A friend asked me if he was normal about a death in his family since he did not feel a great sense of loss. As we talked, it became apparent he did not hold the kind of relationship with the family member that would bring on a stronger grief reaction. Did he grieve the loss? Yes, but different from the grief reaction had he been close to the person.

Nature of the attachment affects the grief reaction. In other words, not only who the person was but how much the person brought to the relationship in terms of strength, security, or even ambivalence.

The mode of death will impact one’s grief reactions. Death that is anticipated (an extended illness) is easier to cope with than an accidental death, suicide, or murder.

Prior grief experiences and mental health in general will also influence how one reacts to loss. Persons with adequate coping skills and good mental health generally will fare better than others.

Additionally, a person’s religious beliefs will affect the grieving process. If, for example, a person believes his loved one went to heaven, it will make the reaction far more positive than if he believes he has not.

DAVID P. MANN, Ashland, Ohio


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