Should spirituality be discussed when counselling a grieving client? This question becomes more pertinent if the loss is the death of a loved one. When exploring the meaning of a serious loss with clients, discussing spiritual beliefs can be helpful. At most it can be reassuring, and at least, it can put the loss into context.

Grief

Grief is the sad, unhappy feelings we have when we lose something precious. Grief is a normal reaction to an ‘abnormal’ situation.’ While the cause of our grief may not be part of our usual experience, it is likely to be a normal part of life.

Unhappy and unexpected events occur all the time. Serious events such as the death of a loved one, a severe disability, or losing a job can take one by surprise. The more serious the loss, the more intense the grief. 

Grief can be worse if the event is unexpected. The intensity of a loss is very individual. What matters seriously to one person may be quite different for someone else. It is therefore not wise to assume that you can understand exactly what someone else is feeling, although if you are empathic, you will get a sense of it.

There are common factors in the grief experience, as otherwise we could not talk about it or have an idea what it might be like for others. Factors that affect how a person experiences and deals with grief include personality type, coping skills, life experience, where you are in life right now (such. whether you are dealing with other stressors apart from the loss itself), your state of health, and the type of relationship you had with the person or the loss.

Common causes of grief include:

  • Death or divorce
  • Loss of job or finances
  • Loss of home by fire or flood
  • Breakdown of a close relationship
  • Loss of treasured object with personal meaning
  • Loss of limb or ability through accident or aging

Bereavement

Bereavement is the most severe kind of loss we can experience. Bereavement refers to the death of a loved one. The grief experienced will be proportionate to the degree of closeness and affection we had for the person. The death of a child or a parent especially bring enormous grief. In some cases, the grief is so difficult to overcome, it becomes ‘complex grief.’ This is more serious and needs extra help to prevent it from becoming entrenched and hard to shift.

Spirituality

A person’s spiritual beliefs influences how they respond to and deal with bereavement and its associated grief. When someone comes to counselling because of the death of a loved one, they usually first want to unload many pent-up feelings. They may or may not have already talked to friends and family who are involved.

Often, a grieving person wants to talk to someone not involved. That way they don’t have to hold back or put on a front. Initially in a session, they may want to ‘unburden’ supressed emotions and thoughts. There will be talk about the death, how it happened, and how to cope with the practicalities and the powerful ever-present feelings.

At some point, the client might want to ‘make sense’ of it all. Why did it happen just then? Guilt for something not done, or not done well enough, is common. Talking through these issues helps to bring calm and meaning. It might around that time that I would ask about their understanding of spiritual matters.

Do they have religious or spiritual beliefs or practices? How do they understand the loss in context of those beliefs? And importantly, what do they think is the status of the loved one now? Most people have found this discussion beneficial. It helps to bring a kind of wholeness and understanding to events.

For some people, life exists between birth and death, and that is it. They might then talk about what the life of that person meant to them and how precious their memories of the loved one is to them. The person is gone, but the memories remain.

For other people, there is life of some form beyond the grave. It might be definite –  a soul in heaven, with happiness for ever, God and angels.

Many people – in fact I would say most that I have spoken to – have told me they did not have any kind of spiritual beliefs or practices, but that now, they believe the deceased is ‘still there’ in some form. Often, they have had a ‘spiritual experience’ of the person.

It could be a felt presence, a ‘vision’ of the person, ‘hearing’ the deceased speak to them, or often a series of signs that meant something to them both, but would not have meaning for others. They might hear a piece of music with special meaning at an opportune time. Or see a book in a shop or a street sign with a significant word. Why, they would wonder, would those particular signs appear just now?

Touching into spirituality is touching into the heart of things. It can bring comfort and meaning when we most need it. For many people, believing that their loved one still exists in some way brings them deep comfort and consolation.