Grieving With A "Higher Power"

General / General : Litsa Williams

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C.S. Lewis famously wrote:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”

I’ve often thought all grieving humans could (maybe even should) write their own version of that sentence. “No one ever told me that grief...”

I could probably finish that sentence a thousand different ways. Today, it might look like this:

“No one ever told me that grief shatters your compass.”

After a loss, our world is often turned on its head. Assumptions we had about the world are shattered. Things that seemed important now seem empty. Even core values that we deeply connected with seem unsettled. Needless to say, it can be devastating. Righting an upside-down world can be easier said than done. If nothing feels stable anymore, it can leave you feeling like you're cartwheeling through space with nothing to grab hold of.

When we look at the research, we know some people grab hold of their faith. A 2002 study out of the UK suggested that those with strong religious beliefs were able to use their faith in such a way that, on average, their grief symptoms were lower 14 months out from their loss than those without spiritual beliefs. Their conclusion reads:

“People who profess stronger spiritual beliefs seem to resolve their grief more rapidly and completely after the death of a close person than do people with no spiritual beliefs.”

This is consistent with plenty of other studies with similar results. For example, this review found that 94% of people experienced some positive effects of religious/spiritual beliefs on bereavement (but the authors acknowledged that the research needed to be more diverse and rigorous).

What seems especially interesting to me is why this correlation is so consistent and what it means for those without religious faith. One might say that faith provides a belief that one will see their loved one again, so perhaps that eases grief. But it seems unlikely that this is enough to account for the difference, especially when that doesn’t change the depth of absence and loneliness in the present moment. One might also say it is because those with faith are able to more easily make sense of the loss, attributing it to God’s plan. Yet a huge number of people who have strong faith nonetheless express deep confusion or anger at God’s plan, as well as frustration with friends and family who minimize the pain of loss by suggesting God’s plan should make the pain more tolerable. So, this too doesn’t seem sufficient to account from such differences either.

There is one thing, though, that people of faith often cite as comforting in their loss that does seem to have an impact on the pain of grief in the here-and-now: feeling watched over by a loved one.

Although the belief that a loved one is in a better place and that we may see them many years down the road doesn’t seem sufficient in and of itself to change the day-to-day pain of the absence of that person, a regular and ongoing sense of connection appears to help. A report from Harvard Medical School suggests that "believing your loved one helps guide you in this world” is a protective factor that helps those with spiritual faith in their grief. We hear it time and again from grievers.

So what does that mean for those who don’t believe their loved one is in a better place? Does this mean they are left high and dry, with no sense of being guided by a loved one in this world?

What got me thinking about this was an episode of By The Book I was listening to recently. In this podcast, the co-hosts read a self-help book and follow it to the letter for two weeks, then talk about it. One of the hosts, Kristen, was discussing the book You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero. The author of the book says:

"Call it whatever you want–God, Goddess, The Big Guy, The Universe, Source Energy, Higher power… It doesn’t matter… Whatever you choose to call it isn’t important, what is important is that you start to develop an awareness of, and a relationship with, the Source Energy that’s surrounding you and within you."

Without faith in a traditional higher power, but a need to follow the book, Kristen’s husband suggested something interesting. He recommended that Kristen use her Nanna as her higher power, reminding her that she often cites her Nanna’s life lessons and values even though her Nanna is no longer living. This idea really resonated with her. Though she already remembered and talked about her Nanna often, she never consciously and deliberately thought of her lessons and guidance in a day-to-day way in the ways one might think of a higher power.

Talking about her Nanna in a description of a previous episode, Kristen said:

"Growing up, my Nanna stressed the importance of being kind to others, being charitable, and giving thanks. She did this, I’m sure, with the hopes of raising me to be a decent human being. But maybe it was more than that. She was the happiest person I knew, and these were the things she did everyday. Maybe her real motivation was to teach me how to be happy”.

As I listened to Kristen describe why thinking of her Nanna as her higher power was so comforting and helpful to her, what came to mind was that her Nanna is still helping to guide her in this world. Though this didn’t come through a faith that her Nanna was watching over her, she described a comfort in the presence of her Nanna through those life lessons, through that guidance, and through the feeling that her actions in the world were a connection to and direction from her Nanna.

Months after reading the book, she reflected back on how thinking of her Nanna as her higher power really stuck. She said:

“Thinking about my Nanna and living my life in a way that would live up to her values was something I deliberately did during the book and, of course, I always think about my Nonna, I talk about her all the time. She was the best."

As an aside, engraved in Kristen’s husband’s wedding ring is the phrase, ‘Nanna would approve’. I love that soooo much!

Anyway, Kirsten goes on:

“This book really got me to do things deliberately in this world with her in mind. Rather than just thinking, 'Oh, Nanna’s great' or 'That is a great memory of Nanna,' she is in my life more now because of this book, because I do things and I think, 'Nanna would be proud'.”

Feeling the presence of a loved one, it turns out, can mean a lot of different things in grief. Though for some it may be signs or a feeling of being watched over from another place, for others it is something that is only of this world. It is the connection that comes from living life through the lessons and values they taught and lived. It is remembering that every moment of kindness and gratitude learned from them is the way they continue to provide guidance. It is the comfort in the everyday ways their values and principles and lessons can give a sense of direction and purpose, even when tumbling through the chaotic universe of grief.

If you’ve spent much time around here, you know there are no easy answers in grief. There are no checklists, no one thing that helps everyone. What’s Your Grief, in many ways, is just two grief experts tossing out grief-related ideas, research, observations, tips, tools, stuff we hear about, things about grief that interest us, reflections, and suggestions hoping some things make sense for some people some of the time. Subscribe if you like the sound of that.

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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13 Comments on "Grieving With A "Higher Power""

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  1. gunadeepkumar  April 19, 2019 at 6:40 am Reply

    I was reading through some of your articles on this site
    Thank you for posting this article about Grieving With A “Higher Power”

  2. John  January 17, 2019 at 12:04 am Reply

    Thanks for sharing thi

  3. Sheryll Brimley  December 17, 2018 at 11:25 am Reply

    Lost my 40 yr old son last January. My husband & I are struggling…seems like our belief system has disappeared. Loved the “cartwheeling through space…….” Exactly how I am feeling!

  4. Kirsty  December 13, 2018 at 8:37 pm Reply

    I am so thankful for this post too. Dad passed in January ’18 and what a journey I have been on. His depression (at being ill and not wanting to live in that way any more) meant I had a lot of anticipatory grief and witnessing the demise of my ‘super hero’ was just so bad. I could not mentally comprehend his death and internalised it thinking that I too was going to die. I just could not cut the cord. I didn’t want to live without him. I could not live without him. I have always been a spiritual person but hitherto had only ever conceptualised my God. I had him as an entity in my mind. He was a mental convenience and somewhere my mind sought refuge. After dads death (and the initial emotional and physical free fall) I joined a local support group which spoke of an intimate and very personal connection with a higher power. I came to know (who I call God) on a personal level – I chose for it not to be dad – he is very much with me – but I decided for me it was God and always had been. I found that I yearned for a fullness and a spiritual awakening outside of my head -in the depths of my soul – where grief resides as does our deepest of all feelings. So a new chapter is being written and there is a weight lifted. I talk to dad and enjoy to know he is OK – but he is dad and for me God is God. I too have stumbled around with this frustration of his last days. Wanting that awesome ‘tv show’ goodbye where he told me all that he had meant to tell me and I threw myself over his hospital bed – you know the confessional death?! But alas it was not that – and there was some harder comments. But there again I need to dig deeper. Come away from what I can see and hear – feel the love, feel the lifetime of connections and beyond. Allow them to be as they are. I am toying with the idea of journalling about the “a perfect death: a script” he says this and then I say this…. why not… whatever works right? thanks as always.

    • Dee  January 13, 2019 at 7:58 pm Reply

      Kirsty.. your comment hit the closest to me. Sometimes I think I am not* grieving and then as I struggle in my own thoughts and nothing seems to help.. I think.. this is STILL grief. I lost my father in May. I had NEVER lost anyone close to me before, my first big death and I am struggling a bit. We werent close. A inconsistent relationship, although I loved him so much.. I was at his hospice bed weekly until he passed. Lots of family drama followed and I didnt go to the funeral. I was there with HIM when it mattered.. atleast to me. Not sure if it mattered to him.. no last words.. no I love you’s.. no apologies. I had struggled with a big fear of death.. years ago.. and in my late 20’s I grew SO much spiritually.. that I never thought of it the same way again… if ever. . and when I did.. no fear. It was such a passing thought and I was so present and excited about the beauty of every day life. So many things I need to do and want to do and I prayed everyday and was so grateful. I am struggling now. The eternity of it all. My father will never exist again.. and everything continues to go on. The same will be for me. I will be” history” one day.. someone elses ancestor. That kind of freaks me out. It seems like no answer of what is ” coming” settles me. Maybe that is.. for now. Books like ” the alchemist”, “power of now”.. helped me get to a peaceful place and I am baby stepping, crawling back there. Maybe Ill even come out better. Im aware of our dominant negative thought patterns.. I have definitley linked this pattern of thoughts. It feels like I am dying. Tomorrow. It feels so close although I know that isnt true. Im only to be 33 in March. I just dont see the long journey ahead but I am hopeful I will become better than I was before. I guess this is normal? I listen to this podcast and I enjoy it,as well as this website. Its the only thing that really does seem to help, even for just a bit. I started off replying but this has clearly been a purge for me haha. Any comment/reply back would be great 🙂 Thanks for listening/reading 🙂

    • Sonja  December 17, 2019 at 5:52 pm Reply

      I loved your comment, ” I decided for me it was God and always had been. I found that I yearned for a fullness and a spiritual awakening outside of my head -in the depths of my soul – where grief resides as does our deepest of all feelings. ”

      These words resignated with me so deeply. I am both a fellow griever and a grief counselor and part of my grief journey was seating into my faith. It was the only place I could find solace and comfort. I had/have questions and maybe at times some confusion. My husband and children experienced anger. I have found that all of these are ok. The God I know has big shoulders and a real desire for me to bring my struggle to him and I did and still do. It is so freeing to have permission to share the hardest aspects of my life with God, even my grief. I am always telling my clients that grief is a soulful journey. It is not something that we get to rationalize, although we try. At the end of the day our hearts need to feel it, need to be supported in it and recognize that it is part of the human condition. We are soulful beings. Why would grief be anything less? Thankyou for your words <3

  5. Shelley Rottenberg  November 4, 2018 at 2:59 pm Reply

    Best one I’ve read! I too had a Nana! She was the very best human being I am sure will EVER KNOW! She was a midwife at age 14! Born in 1918! All her years on earth she did what “her Lord” asked of her- she was a strong catholic but she had no illusions of perfection! I converted to Judaism and she was so proud of me! In her 70’s and 80’s she lived next to the Catholic Church that she cleaned daily for no fee- she did it because she said it was the Lords Home! She took care of anyone that was sick or hurt. And she always always did it with joy in her heart! She never complained. She was a rock. I don’t know why though. Once she married at 18, her life was difficult- money was tight. But, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was finding joy in life. Nana was my moms mom. I adored her to the ends of the earth.
    Thank you for reminding me that I can carry on like my Nana did- that finding joy when I feel surrounded by loss and sorrow and deep sadness for my husbands Illness is how I can carry on like Nana always did.

  6. Audrey-May Colwell  October 10, 2018 at 6:56 pm Reply

    I read with interest this article and how having Spiritual beliefs can help with the process of grief…my own observation and experience with grief and spiritual practice is that as, somewhere during the grieving process there is an acceptance of ‘what is’ (the death of a loved one) and a sense of trust that ‘this too shall’ pass (the feelings of loss etc.), along with a belief that the loved one is still accessible when stillness is practiced, there comes along with the grief a sense of Grace which is extremely healing.

  7. Lisa M Sitek  October 10, 2018 at 5:30 pm Reply

    Thank you. This really resonated with me. I lost my mother in June (4 months ago), and I miss her terribly. We were very close. I saw her every day. I’m trying to move forward and be happy because I know that is what she would want. This article helped me to get a new perspective on the ways in which she is still an important part of my life.

  8. Kathleen  October 10, 2018 at 3:17 pm Reply

    Thank you for posting this article. It resonated with me in a way that very very few articles, books, and counselors have since the loss of my husband this past summer. Such a validation of emotions! Thank you!!

  9. Carla  October 10, 2018 at 1:00 pm Reply

    Sarah: I don’t know about any such studies–but I would gently urge you to look at that feeling closely. Would that person feel disappointed and then simply criticize you? Or would they understand your struggles and try to help you in some way? If they would only criticize, without any attempt to help and care for you, I’m guessing that’s what they would have done when alive. It’s common to carry that critical voice in one’s head, but it’s not productive. But if the person did try to help you and truly cared for you–those are the things to remember. Not easy to do, but as I’ve worked on it over time, it gets better. I know from experience that a constant feeling of self-criticism or the memory of someone else’s criticism (which are often tied together!) are very unhelpful and need to be gently put aside. All the best to you.

  10. Julie  October 10, 2018 at 12:55 pm Reply

    Thank you for posting this article. It really made sense to me both personally and professionally. I loved “cartwheeling through space with nothing to grab hold of.” I plan to print two copies, one for me and one to share with the hospice families that I follow-up with for bereavement support. Thank you!

  11. Sarah  October 10, 2018 at 12:39 am Reply

    Are there any studies for the reverse effects? Like feeling like that person would be disappointed in who you are now?


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