Chapter 12: The Clergyman’s Role in Grief Counseling by Earl A. Grollman

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 12: The Clergyman’s Role in Grief Counseling by Earl A. Grollman

There is no time when the minister is more sorely needed than during the crisis of grief. He is usually the first one to be called. He officiates at the funeral. He visits the family after the service. In Erich Lindemann’s words, the clergyman may be instrumental in emancipating the survivors from their bondage to the deceased, assisting them in their readjustment to the environment in which the loved one is missing, and aiding them in the formation of new relationships.

The pastor is most effective when he acts as a pastor, not as an amateur psychiatrist. He should not forsake his own traditional resources and spiritual functions. His is a fellowship with a past, a present, and a future tied together by rites, theology, and a religious ethic. He has his own unique framework of viewing and handling guilt, forgiveness, conflict, suffering, and hostility. The practice of psychotherapy as the only real ministry to their congregation has led the Suffragan Bishop of Washington, Paul Moore, Jr., to write: "Too many priests forget their priestliness when they learn some of the basic skills of counseling -- or perhaps they have not been trained properly in the use of priestly techniques and therefore are not confident in their exercise. These clergy become ‘clinical therapists’ who happen to have the prefix ‘Reverend’ in front of their name."

The clergyman may be of unique assistance to the bereaved. He represents a concerned religious community. His truest function is revealed in terms of years and decades, as he watches children grow, marries them, and teaches their children in turn, and as he stands beside loved ones around the deathbed of a patriarch whom he has come to admire and respect. In addition to crises of faith, people turn to him because of marital questions, parent-child problems, and a variety of inter- or intra-personal needs. He is minister, pastor, counselor to individuals and families in joy and adversity.

When a death occurs the pastor ascertains the emotional state of the bereaved not through cross-questioning but rather through empathy and understanding. The spirit of caring and compassion must communicate itself to the bereaved. Very often the most effective counseling comes after the funeral service. Before the ceremony itself, there may be incredulous disbelief and the needed expenditure of time for the physical arrangements of the burial.

The funeral offers an opportunity to comfort the mourners. It is the rite of separation. The "bad dream" is real. The presence of the corpse actualizes the experience. The process of denial is gradually transformed to the acceptance of reality.

When the funeral is over, the religious leader has the task of reconciling the bereaved to his loss. In the process, he should pay particular attention to possible grief reactions which could lead to personal disintegration and mental illness. When the grief work is not done, the person may suffer morbid grief characterized by delayed and distorted reactions. He may show great fortitude at the funeral but later develop symptoms of somatic disease or agitated depression. This may include the actual denial of the death, with schizophrenic tendencies, or psychosomatic disease such as hypochondriasis, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, or asthma. Obsessive-compulsive behavior may manifest itself where the bereaved appeases his guilt through extreme cleanliness, or an unwillingness to terminate the effects of the funeral service -- e.g., "Tell me the eulogy again." There may be self-punitive behavior detrimental to his social and economic existence.

It must be noted that the line of demarcation between normal psychological aspects of bereavement" and "distorted mourning reactions" is thin indeed, just as is the hiatus between "normality" and "neurosis." Each symptom must be viewed not as a single and decisive entity but in the framework of the total composition and of the schematic formulations.

The family way still feel guilty and very much to blame even after a terminal illness. The guilt may take the form of self-recrimination, depression, and hostility. A tendency is to look for a scapegoat -- e.g., the minister, physician, or funeral director. Inwardly the indictor may accuse himself, but he turns anger outward in the attempt to cope with his own guilt.

In this area, the clergyman can be extremely effective. The helplessness that assails the grief-stricken often leads them to envisage the role of the religious leader in a symbolic aspect as the representative of God. As such, the clergyman can assuage intense feelings of guilt by offering a meaningful concept of forgiveness as well as help them transform the errors of the past into a loving memorial by more noble living in the future.

The importance of ritual is dramatically portrayed in the French film, Forbidden Games. A girl’s parents died in an air raid. She received comfort by constantly playing a game of "funeral" and providing every dead creature with an elaborate interment of flowers and ornate casket. "Playing" at burying things helped her to relive, digest, and ultimately master the shock of her parents’ death. The child had succeeded in doing something for the dead and bringing relief to herself.

Ceremonials play an important part in helping people of all ages face death and face away from it. Religious rituals are community rituals. They are performed only by those who share a religious sameness and by no one outside it. The traditions create a sense of solidarity, of belongingness, the feeling that one is a member of the group with all the comfort, gratification, pride, and even pain that such a sense brings. For the ceremony is the same for all. It is definite and prescribed. Here he can be made to understand in clear-cut, unmistakable terms what is desired of him. Perhaps by carrying out the religious ceremonials, he will feel that he has regained the love he has lost, that he comes to peace with his own conscience which could personify for him the highest internal ideals. Even rituals which might seem irksome and pointless to others may be heartily welcome. They could be the sought-for punishment, the neutralizer, the deprivation that could balance off the imagined indulgence at the bottom of the guilt.

Certainly, the one-to-one relationship between person and pastor is necessary and beneficial. However, this is not the only approach. Grief work in groups is also therapeutic in assisting the bereaved to overcome their separateness and abandon the prison of their aloneness. Just as there is a Golden Age Club for the aged, an Alcoholics Anonymous for the inebriate, why not a place for those who have suffered the grief and dislocation of death? Especially do they need to share with like-minded people their feelings, troubles, and hopes.

A pilot program is being pioneered in Boston as a result of the efforts of Dr. Gerald Caplan, Director of Harvard Community Mental Health Program. He has enlisted an ecumenical bereavement team where clergymen of all faiths meet to discuss their own varied experiences with grief and death.

A widow-to-widow program has been established. Women whose husbands have died within the past year meet periodically to participate in discussions of their personal losses. To assess the accomplishment, one must first remember how they appeared at the first meetings. Their faces were drawn. Most were nervous and shy. Some just sat and stared and were totally uncommunicative. As one of the leaders, I observed an amazing metamorphosis. They became animated. They discovered that one touch of sorrow had made them all kin. They were able to participate with others who were also suffering the emotional trauma of bereavement. They belonged to the largest fraternity in the world -- the company of those who had known suffering and death. This great universal sense of sorrow helps to unite all human hearts and dissolve all other feelings into those of common sympathy and understanding. Problems may be singular to each person but there are others present who have faced similar troubles and together they seek to work them out. Each gives of her own understanding, compassion, and supportive concern.

I have met with widows of varying faiths and even participated with women of particular denomination, for example, at Catholic Retreat Houses. I am convinced that each church and synagogue could well form an organization to assist widows and widowers in reconstructing their lives and their homes. Together with interested members of his congregation, the clergyman could be of inestimable value in personal as well as group counseling during their difficult period of loss and aloneness. The bereaved should be claimed for the useful citizens that they are and their talents utilized as part of the larger fellowship of their respective faith and house of worship.

The religious leader’s primary objective is to aid in the emergence of a new self which has assimilated the grief experience and grown because of and through it. With the aid and encouragement of a pastor who is kind, sympathetic, and understanding, the bereaved may be helped to accept death through a more profound and meaningful religious approach to life. By the clergyman’s evaluation of the experience, by catharsis, confession, remembrance, and release, the members are guided to new purposes. Their introspection may bring new value judgments of life and love and meaning. Even the synagogue or church will no longer be an impersonal entity, since the members have extended their hands in warmth and affection. But most important is the comfort they will gain from a new and abiding concept of God: "Even though we cry in the bereavement of our hearts when our beloved are taken from this earth, may it be as a child cries who knows his father is near and who clings unafraid to a trusted hand. In this spirit, O Thou who art the Master of our destiny, do we commit all that is precious to us into Thy keeping."(The Union Prayerbook, newly revised, Part I,p.367.)

Thus, the clergyman has an important part to play in grief counseling. As he helps others, he is himself helped in his dialogical exchange. The I-Thou relationship is, according to Martin Buber, "a religious experience" beyond the most knowledgeable theology and psychology. In the parable of the Chassidic Rabbi, Moshe Leib of Sasov: "How to love man is something I learned from a peasant. I was at an inn where peasants were drinking. For a long time all were silent until one person, moved by the wine, asked a man sitting beside him, ‘Tell me, do you love me or don’t you?’ The other replied, ‘I love you very much.’ The intoxicated peasant spoke again, ‘You say that you love me but you do not know what I need: if you really loved me, you would know.’ The other had not a word to say to this and the peasant who put the question fell silent again. But I understand the peasant; for to know the needs of men and to help them bear the burden of their sorrow, that is the true love of man."


For additional reading

Allport, Gordon W. The Individual and His Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1960.

English, O. Spurgeon, and Pearson, Gerald H. Emotional Problems of Living. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.

Feifel, Herman, ed. The Meaning of Death, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

Freud, Sigmund. Mourning and Melancholia. Collected Papers, Vol. IV. London: Hogarth Press, 1925.

Fulton, Robert ed. Death and Identity. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965.

Gorer, Geoffrey. Death, Grief, and Mourning. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965.

Jackson, Edgar N. For the Living. New York: Channel Press, 1964. Johnson, Paul E. Psychology of Pastoral Care. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953.

Liebman, Joshua L. Peace of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, paperback, 1965.

Lindemann, Erich. "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief." American Journal of Psychiatry. No. 101, 1944, pp. 141-48.

Lino, Louis and Schwartz, Leo W. Psychiatry and Religious Experience. New York: Random House, 1958.

Osborne, E. When You Lose a Loved One. New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1958.

Ostow, Mortimer, and Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. The Need to Believe. New York: International Universities Press, paperback 1969.