CS 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 one thousand different ways. Today I might end it with “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 your 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 it is consistent with plenty of other studies with similar results (this review of fifteen studies found that ninety-four percent experienced some positive effects of religious/spiritual beliefs on bereavement, but did say the research needed to be more diverse and rigorous). What seems especially interesting to me is why this correlation is so consistent, something we’re left speculating about after reading many of these studies, and wondering 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 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. But with the huge number of people who have strong faith and express deep confusion or anger at God’s plan, and frustration with those friends and family who minimize the pain of loss by suggesting God’s plan should make the pain of loss more tolerable, this alone 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. Though the belief that a loved one is in a better place, where 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 is something that impacts our day to day grief, and our day to day life. 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 podcasts 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 that she 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 deliberate 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”. (amazing anecdote: engraved in Kristen’s husband’s wedding ring it reads ‘Nanna would approve’. I love that soooo much!). She 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.