The five stages of spiritual grieving
When a disaster hits us, or when we witness destruction hitting the lives of other people, it’s normal to wonder: “Where is God? Why didn’t he prevent this?” It’s one of the five stages of grieving.
Spiritual grieving begins with pain that causes confusion. Faith and trust in God seemingly are contradicted by reality.
For example, we have read Matthew 7:24-25:
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
The natural assumption, then, when a hurricane blows away the house of someone who is actively living a sinful lifestyle and who chooses not to believe in the saving love of Jesus, is: “Ahhh, it’s because he’s a bad person.” And when a nearby house is spared from disaster, and it’s got a statue of Jesus in the yard that was not broken by flying debris, we say, “Ahhh, it’s a miracle. The people who live there are good, and Jesus protected them.”
But when a faith-filled, praying Christian suffers the same disaster as the sinner, we become confused. We doubt our understanding of God’s protective love. And we become depressed, despairing, and discouraged. Where is God??? Why did he allow this to happen?
The same is true for other types of disasters: debilitating or long-lasting illnesses, loss of a job, the death of a loved one, and any important prayer that has remained unanswered.
When we suffer the anguish of living through any kind of destruction, we need hope and healing. We will experience restoration by allowing ourselves to go through the five stages of grieving so that we can reach the final stage — acceptance. (More on this in a minute.)
Faith is tested in crises. When we trust God despite all the evidence that says we should not, the process of the five stages of grieving turn crises into new personal strength. Spiritual growth doesn’t normally occur in easy, comfortable times. It comes most powerfully when we have to force ourselves to choose to trust God.
Despair and hopelessness are based on a lack of trust in God. Doubts about God are based on what we see with our eyes — as if we can trust our eyes to see the whole picture. Faith tells us that there is a much bigger picture than what we could know or understand. Faith tells us that God has been working a plan — his own strategies — to turn sufferings and disasters into a greater good.
To restore hope, to renew our understanding of God’s protective love, to overcome depression and despair and discouragement, we have to journey through a grieving process. If we get stuck in any of the first four stages, we need to ask God to help us figure out why we are stuck and to move us closer to the final stage.
Often we’re moved forward by taking action against the disaster, getting involved in the recovery process in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. For example, in the aftermath of a hurricane, depression can turn into a renewed understanding of God’s love if we help others who were affected by the storm, collecting goods for those who have lost everything, even if we ourselves have lost everything in the same storm.
Sometimes we’re moved forward by going to counseling. Today’s troubles might unconsciously connect our emotions to memories of the distant past. Getting stuck in any one of the first four stages of grieving might be a sign that a wound of long ago is begging to be healed.
Here are the five stages of grieving and how they affect us spiritually:
- Denial: Could this really be happening? Surely I’m watching a movie!
- Bargaining: Ohmygod, this is real! If I pray more than I normally do, maybe I can make the bad things stop.
- Depression: Bargaining didn’t work. I feel so empty, despairing, alone, ignored by God and by those I need to lean on for strength.
- Anger: The Lord or the people who caused this suffering should be punished. I will find some way to strike back, such as lashing out verbally.
- Acceptance: It happened, but God is still God. He is still loving everyone, still ultimately in charge, and still able to make good come from this tragedy. I want to learn from this experience, grow from it, become stronger in faith and in love, and help others by using what I’ve learned.
Jesus ministers to us in two ways: through others and while we’re alone with him in our prayer time. The Father gave him angels who ministered to him when he took up his Cross. The Father has given us angels, too, and his Son, as well. And faith-filled counselors and friends.
“God has visited his people” is the message learned when Jesus restored the widowed mother’s dead son back to life (read Luke 7:11-17). The dead son is anyone you know who has been wounded or abused or has lost much in a disaster such as a fire or hurricane (i.e., something inside has died).
“I tell you, arise!” Jesus says to us after we’ve experienced destruction. To “arise” might mean getting back to normal routines. It sometimes means making a change that says “no more.” It can mean walking away from those who bring us down and seeking others who will help with the recovery process. In a resurrection, there is always something new to gain — a new way of dealing with problems, a new place to live or work, a new parish to join, or a new courage to live a changed life.
It includes a new understanding of the Father’s protective love, a comforting compassion that doesn’t stop all evil but instead leads us from tragedies into triumphs, from suffering into recovery. Jesus says, “Rise up! A new day is dawning!” as the Father gives us a new blessing.
God is, because of his infinite goodness, a redeemer who overcomes what is evil by making good come from it despite all obstacles. Hope is not wishful thinking, it’s the awareness of God’s goodness. As you grow stronger in hope, evangelize this hope to those around you who need to hear Jesus say, “Arise!”
© 2005, revised 2022 by Terry A. Modica