Out of the Depths: Coping with the Chaos of Grief

June 21st, 2018

The same year I received my license to practice psychology, I lost my firstborn daughter unexpectedly in a tragic end to what had been an uncomplicated pregnancy. My twenty-nine-year-old world was shattered by the experience of losing my baby. I knew that I lived in a world in which God allowed babies to die. Somehow, though, that world was different from the one in which God allowed my baby to die. My understanding of myself and the world was challenged. I didn’t know how to inhabit this strange new world.

Life is fraught with loss. Eventually the day comes—and for most of us it comes not once but repeatedly—when death or loss or tragedy sweeps in and destroys our world in a way that cannot be ignored. We are left in chaos, trying to find some solid ground on which to stand, trying to pick up the shattered pieces of our lives and put them back together in some way that makes it possible to live again. The world may no longer seem like the relatively safe or predictable place it was before. Our task, then, as caregivers is to walk alongside grieving families or individuals, gently pointing toward a new sense of order in the midst of the disorder of grief. But how?

How have people experienced significant and prolonged trauma without having their spirit and faith crushed? Israeli American medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky developed a theory of health, a field he called salutogenesis, or the origins of health. He was interested in how people cope and even thrive following major stresses or traumatic events. Much of his work was done with Holocaust survivors who, while physically depleted, appeared to be emotionally healthy, a fact that he found astonishing. From his interviews with the survivors, he developed a theory about coping with stress that he called having a “sense of coherence.”

"Out of the Depths: Your Companion Through Grief" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here: https://bit.ly/2HyxeB6

Antonovsky suggested that there are three important aspects to coping with a traumatic experience, or what he called maintaining a sense of coherence: comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness. Comprehensibility refers to the extent to which a person has an understanding of the reasons a trauma or loss occurred and can therefore maintain a sense of the world as generally predictable. An example would be knowing the cause of death for your beloved. Though such knowledge does not help make the death more acceptable, it is likely to help make it more understandable. Manageability describes the extent to which a person has confidence in his or her skills, ability, resources, and support systems to deal with a trauma or loss. For example, this might refer to the sense that even though your heart is broken and life will never be the same, you believe it is possible to go on living, to cope and recover. Meaningfulness refers to the belief that life remains worthwhile and that you can and will experience joy and purpose. Often, survivors have a deep desire to see meaning come from the trauma or loss itself.

As we walk with parishioners through the chaos of grief, we are uniquely positioned to encourage the grieving to think through these three things—comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness—especially in light of our faith. Is the death of the one they have lost comprehensible to them? Do they understand what happened, or can they get closure from information or action? If not, is there some way they can get answers or someone who can help them better understand what happened? Faith can be integral in establishing a sense of the manageability of a loss and a sense of meaningfulness in the days and months that immediate follow. Even when we may momentarily lose confidence in our ability to cope, we may find strength in the assurance that all things are possible with God (Matt 19:26), or that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength (Phil 4:13). As followers of Christ, we believe in the power of God to redeem death and to transform suffering. This foundation can help those who grieve not only find meaning in the midst of dark days but also become participants in the creation of meaning from sharing our personal story within community.

Initially, Emma’s death was so monumental that it overshadowed every part of my life. In fact, it shattered my very identity. Everything I knew, or thought I knew, and everything I experienced had to be reevaluated in light of her death. My grief was huge, an amorphous, central, and defining entity. Over time my grief has become integrated into my experience of myself, the world, and myself in the world. It no longer overshadows everything about my life or being. My grief for my daughter never leaves me; it is a part of me. But it is not all of me. To use Gestalt language of perception, grief is no longer the figure, but the ground—a part of a whole. When we develop a solid sense of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness, our losses do not go away, but our experience of grief—and the world—changes, and a sense of order emerges from the chaos. Life can be restored.

Adapted from Your Companion through Grief, from the forthcoming pastoral care series from Abingdon Press, Out of the Depths.

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