Grief – Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry

by Melissa M. Kelley [1]

Grief and Loss Weekly Reflection Paper

By David Tillman – October 3, 2013
United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, MN 55112
Class: Pastoral Care in Grief and Loss taught by Dr. Trina Armstrong

Key issues:

  1. Three Dimensions of Grief
    1. Disenfranchised Grief: “not openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly observed” (p. 12). Examples: miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide or death of a gay partner.
    2. Chronic Sorrow: “experience losses that are ongoing” (p. 13). Examples: developmental disabilities, retardation and PTSD.
    3. Grief born of injustice: “it is grief due in whole or in part to injustice…did not need to happen” (p. 15). Examples: global poverty.
  2. Patterns of Grief
    1. Common grief: “marked by an initial increase in distress following a death, this distress abates over time” (16)
    2. Chronic grief: “is marked by high stress following a death, and this distress remains high over time” (16).
    3. Delayed grief: “is marked by low stress after a death, with a rise in distress at some later point” (16).         
  3. Trajectories of grief
    1. Chronic depression: tended to be negative about their marriage and spouses, little comfort about memories, demonstrated high interpersonal dependency on their spouse. Struggled with emotional difficulties before the loss and with making meaning (17-18).
    2. Chronic grief: tended to describe marriages very positively, highly dependent on spouse, spouse needed little caregiving at end, experienced high yearning, emotional pains and searched for meaning (19).
    3. Common grief: tended to have low depression before loss, derived high comfort from memories of spouse, spouses had been seriously ill and did not provide direct care during the illness (19).
    4. Depressed-improved: tended to have the highest depression before the death, low in dependency, took pride in coping ability, spouses were ill before dying and received low support during the illness (20).
    5. Resilient: tended to have low depression before the loss, married forty-four years on average, found comfort in memories, low dependency and good coping, received high support during time of the death, few regrets, low yearning, low emotional pangs (20)   
  4. Dual process of coping (22-26)
    1. Loss orientated stressors: to do with the loss itself
    2. Restoration-oriented stressors: (taking on new roles and responsibilities after the death)
  5. Sigmund Freud: “The person in mourning must withdraw libido (energy) from the object that has been lost in order to redirect it toward another, available object.” Melancholia – “the negative feelings that one has toward the deceased person are internalized and become part of the survivor’s own self esteem.” (34-35).
  6. Standard model for mourning:
    1. “Time limited and ends in a complete resolution of the loss” (36).
    2. “Return to normal…rather than transform a person in some way” (38)
    3. “The end of connection…when a person dies, he or she is dead and gone” (39).
    4. “No focus on meaning…the sense we make of loss…fit loss in worldview” (41).
    5. “An individual, intrapsychic experience…private affair…not relational or social” (41).
    6. “Affective dimension…we expect people to be sad” (42).
    7. “Painful emotions…will not encompass pleasure and humor” (43).
  7. Emerging model for mourning
    1. “Mourning is not something that can be finished…grief becomes a new character in one’s life narrative” (37).
    2. “The significant loss may well change us of even transform us in a fundamental and ongoing way” (38).
    3. “Continuing bonds” with the deceased (40).
    4. “Mourning as a crisis of meaning” (41).
    5. “Not a private event but rather an ‘intersubjective process’” (41).
    6. “People…would experience and express affect [to loss] during grief to considerably greater or lesser degrees” (43).
    7. “Suggest a range of emotions…may be part of the grief process (43).
  8. Erich Lindermann: “five common features – 1) somatic distress, 2) preoccupation with the image of the deceased, 3) guilt, 4) hostile reactions, and 5) loss of patterns of conduct” (45).
  9. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory – “phases of grief…a) numbness, b) yearning and searching, c) disorganization and despair, and d) reorganization” (46).
  10. Kubler-Ross – five stages…1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression and 5) acceptance (46).
  11. Attachment theory and attachment to God
    1. John Bowlby: “security in attachment is grounded, first, in a child’s appraisal of an attachment figure as available and accessible and second, in a child’s appraisal of an attachment figure as responsive to the child’s needs” (56).
    2. “Bowlby defines caregiver responsiveness as ‘willingness to act as comforter and protector’…the term availability is inclusive of both the accessibility and the responsiveness of the caregiver” (56).
  12. Mary Ainsworth: “attachment relationships…1) seeks proximity to the caregiver, 2) turns to the caregiver as a haven of safety at times of distress, 3) uses the caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the environment, 4) experiences anxiety when separation from the caregiver is threatened, and 5) experiences grief when the caregiver is lost” (60).
    1. “[Lee] Kirkpatrick maintains that these same five criteria are satisfied when one considers religious beliefs and behaviors as part of the attachment behavior system (60).
  13. Meaning making after loss
    1. “Meaning is the deep sense we make of things, the way we understand the world, how we articulate the overarching purpose or goal of our lives, the significance we seek in living, the core values by which we order our lives…how we understand God’s activity in the world” (77-78).
  14. The common elements of stories (pps. 78-80)
    1. Plot (what happens), theme (about something), characters, time and timing (unfold in time), continuity (unfolding of characters) and sense/coherence (makes logical sense).
    2. “Each of us creates our own stories” (80).
    3. “Loss can disrupt some of all of the elements of our story, thereby threatening our meaning system, including our sense of self” (81).
    4. How does the reconstruction of meaning after loss happens?
      1. “The reconstruction of meaning after loss may occur by having more plots for one’s character” (84).
      2. “The reconstruction of meaning after loss may occur through bringing new or altered interpretations to the loss event” (84).
      3. “The process of meaning reconstruction after loss cannot be separated from one’s social and interpersonal world” (85). “meaning-making transcends us”
  15. After loss why do some construct meaning and others meaninglessness?
    1. “Everyone has a story, and concepts of God may shape each person’s story in profound ways (87).
    2. “Different God concepts lead to different meanings, and theologically speaking, all meanings are not created equal” (87).
    3. “Mystery is a constant character in the drama of grief and loss” (79). Why did this happen? “There is meaning in the mystery” (89).
  16. Ministerial perspective
    1. “Care for a person’s story, help to expand his/her narrative and shape new meaning by placing it in the Christian story and offer consistent support” (90-92).
  17. Grief, stress and religious coping
    1. Stress – “a relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and as endangering his or her well-being” (Susan Folkman,100). “We are all in complex relationship with our environment.”
    2. “Coping is our effort to manage stress…the process through which individuals try to understand and deal with significant demands in their lives” (102).
    3. “Cope cognitively (downplaying), behaviorally (asking for an extension),; emotion focused (manage the response rather than the stressor itself), problem focused (deal with the stressor itself to deal with or minimize it); stress related growth/posttraumatic growth (grown in positive ways dealing with stress); orientating system (our beliefs. practices, attitudes, goals and values that we bring to the table) – resources (beliefs) and burdens (lack of self-confidence), “May become vulnerable to stress” (103-105).
  18. Religious Coping (108-111)
    1. Religious beliefs: how they speak to our loss
    2. Religious practice: “prayer, hymn singing, worship and ritual”
    3. Religious community: support network
    4. “They reflect a secure relationship with God, a belief that there is a greater meaning to be found, and a sense of spiritual connectedness to others” (112).
    5. “Our particular religious coping efforts reflect our God concept and our sense of meaning” (114).
    6. Ministerial Perspective
      1. 1) Attend to his or hers religious beliefs, 2) attend to his or hers religious practices, 3) sensitively encourage him or her to reconnect with their faith community (116).
  19. Grief in relational perspective
    1. “Virtually everything about us as individuals is shaped and influenced by our relationships” (126).
    2. Wholeness from the brokenness of grief
      1. “Sometimes through our grief we see things about ourselves, others, the world and God that perhaps we would not see in any other way” (130).
      2. “In our brokenness, we are connected to every person who has ever grieved and who will ever grieve” (131).
      3. “A part of wholeness that may emerge from the brokenness of grief is learning that “a new future is always available to us, that numerous possibilities exist in every present circumstance” (132).
      4. “But in everything, God works for good, bringing wholeness out of the brokenness, in love” (132).
    3. Ministerial perspective
      1. “Acknowledge his [or her] painful reality” (134).
      2. “Help people attend to where God is present and active, bringing wholeness of our brokenness, in love” (135).
      3. “Help him [or her] draw on and strengthen his [or her] connection with this community…The Christian community has witnessed to hope in Christ and his resurrection promises for thousands of years” (135).
      4. “God love is the ultimate secure base. God’s love creates ultimate meaning from narrative disruption. God’s love holds us in the brokenness of grief. God’s abundant love brings hope and wholeness from this brokenness” (137).

How has the reading affected your understanding of grief and loss? It was good for me to read about the differences in the standard model for mourning and the emerging model for mourning. I compare this to my childhood family doctor whose view on life is to “buck up” when things don’t look so good at the time. My current doctor, who replaced my childhood doctor, is more from the emerging school, “Let’s get to the bottom of this” and let’s look at many of the resources available. The old, standard way was to deal with loss and grief as a private matter and the new, emerging way is to deal with loss and grief in community. This helps me rewrite some of my scripts on how I interpret loss and grief from the standard model of mourning that I grew up with. 

How will you apply what you have learned in your ministry setting? I will be able to apply what I have learned by being present with the grieving person to walk with them, rather to try and fix or shorten their grieving process. Being in the corporate world for over thirty-five years I became very good at fixing a business relationship problem. This same approach will not work when providing care to those in loss and grief. I see the value of providing pastoral care to those in loss and grieving is, as Kelly says, 1) acknowledging their loss and grief, 2) lovingly listen to their story and help them see that God is present and active in their life, as God has been in the biblical stories and those around them, and 3) helping them find a connection with the church and greater community for love and support, to witness what God is doing today, and be comforted by the promise of hope through Christ.  


[1] Melissa M. Kelley, Grief – Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), () various.