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Complicated Spiritual Grief

"Why me?"

Olivia Snow/Unsplash
Source: Olivia Snow/Unsplash

Grieving the death of a loved one is never easy, but somehow the majority of us manage to cope with our loss and reintegrate back into life. However, there are times when grief does not abate and we feel stuck in our misery. I’ve heard this grief described as being caught in quicksand, feeling stuck and continuing to sink ever deeper with passing time. This type of grief is referred to as complicated grief. Those who are prone to developing complicated grief are those in whom the loss was sudden and unexpected. Untimely deaths, such as a baby or young person dying as well as deaths that are violent and seen as senseless and avoidable often lead to complicated grief.

The loss of a loved one is not the only thing that many lose at this time. For some, whom religion has been an integral part of their lives, they may also lose their faith in God. This is the spiritual crisis that can accompany complicated grief. Because religion is a difficult subject to broach for many, this aspect of grief is often left unexplored. The mourner’s belief is that “God did this to me.” It is not uncommon to find mourners who are angry with God for their loved one’s death and feel that, for some reason, God chose them to be punished. People who have spent their lives being faithful doing all the right things,counted on God to see them through times of stress and sorrow. When this does not happen, mourners often feel bewildered and betrayed by God. In trying to make meaning from what has happened, the mourner often assumes that it was somehow their failure with God that led to their loved one’s death.

In Techniques of Grief Therapy (2016), Burke and Neimeyer [1] present their research findings on complicated spiritual grief and have developed an inventory that can be used with mourners called the Inventory of Complicated Grief. They found two primary themes that characterize those in spiritual distress from a loss: “Insecurity with God” and “Disruption in Religious Practice.” Items associated with the former include anger with God as well as “feeling confused and unprotected by God.” Disruption in religious practice measures the impact of their loss on their sense of connection with their spiritual community and religious practices. Items reflect their discomfort being in a place of worship and interacting with those around them as well as their struggle to understand how a good God allows bad things to happen and particularly to the faithful.

Many of the things people say to mourners also can contribute to their spiritual distress. For example:

  • God wanted him more than you
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Heaven needed another angel
  • God will never give you more than you can handle.

The belief seems to be that if one is told that it was something God wanted, it should somehow make it acceptable and relieve their grief. In reality, it only serves to deepen their anger and rejection of God.

Harold Kushner’s classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People addresses this crisis of faith with the following:

“God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God's part.” [2]

With all forms of complicated grief, mourners are truly experiencing unabated and inconsolable pain. With complicated spiritual grief, the suffering is compounded by the loss not only of their loved one but of their connection with God. Complicated grief does not usually resolve on its own. While speaking with clergy and supportive family and friends may be helpful, seeing a therapist is recommended. A therapist can help the mourner adapt to the loss and changes in their lives. Cognitive restructuring to address their negative beliefs about themselves and others is an important part of the therapy. Learning how to take care of themselves both physically and emotionally is essential as is stress management and relaxation. What we as outsiders can do to help is to be patient and supportive of the bereaved as they go through this intense process.


1) Burke, Laurie A. and Neimeyer, Robert A.(2016). Inventory of Complicated Spiritual Grief (ICSG). In Neimeyer, Robert A.( Ed.) Techniques of Grief Therapy: Assessment and Intervention (76-80). New York: Routledge.

2) Kusher, Harold S. (1983). When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York, New York: Avon Books.