Readers take stand on comments about religion and grief

Last week, I answered D.C.’s question about why Western religion appears not to focus on grief, death and loss. Worse, I said, in Western civilization, religion often is conscripted to aid and abet the denial of death, grief and loss.

By 9:30 that same morning, I was wading deep in reader mail, my reactions to which ran the gamut — touched, inspired, gaping irony.

For those of you who asked for additional resources, I recommend Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Denial of Death” as the definitive primer on this subject. Becker saw the denial of death as a primary culprit in so much individual and social malaise, including a chief ingredient is the proclivity for violence. The Ernest Becker Foundation (faculty.washington.edu/nelgee/) is an endless resource.

I mentioned a religious colloquialism oft recited by grieving people and, unfortunately, too often recited at grieving people: “God will never give me more than I can handle …” Turns out my criticism of this religious bon mot gored a few oxen out there. Let me try again:

Acute grief states aren’t “handled”; they are paralyzing. Devastating. Grieving people often feel crazy and can act crazy. They sleep all the time, or don’t sleep at all. They forget things, such as the car keys or closing doors or bathing. They put salt and pepper shakers in the refrigerator. They are known to have suicidal and homicidal ideation. They can and do sometimes lose reality contact altogether for a while.

If God will never give me more than I can handle, and it’s pretty clear that I’m not handling it, then what conclusion is left to me but that on top of unbearable grief I am now reminded that my faith is lacking. I am spiritually inept. Competent religious people “handle” their grief, it turns out.

When religious people say, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” they unwittingly add a layer of failure and self-recrimination to the burden of someone who is doing well to remember to wear pants.

A clergywoman wrote to say she believed this maxim to be a confusion of the scriptural idea that “God will not tempt us more than we are able to withstand without providing a way out. … The point is that temptation has a way out; grief has no way out. … Grief is often unbearable, yet survivable.” — C.S., Henderson

Unbearable, yet survivable — great quote, C.S.! Exactly the darkness to which acutely grieving people must surrender if they are to “see the light,” to move on into health, wholeness and new life.

Conversely, a churchman wrote to scold me and warn me: “You have the mistaken impression that God cares whether you fall apart or not. You are apparently not familiar with the Sovereignty of God. To not place death in the providence of God is to sin against God. My impression is that if you believed in the scripture or sin, you would not have made a foolish statement like ‘God will have to handle it’ and I am sure there will come a time when you will regret having said it.” — R.H., Pahrump

Let me not mince words, R.H.: Your letter is a virtual paradigm of the point I was making in last week’s column. Exactly the kind of religion from which, as an advocate for grieving people, I would want my grieving patients to be protected.

You think it foolish for me to say God will have to handle me not handling devastating grief? Think through it again, R.H., and you will see it is precisely a confession of my limits and God’s sovereignty. Just my own tongue-in-cheek version of two Hebrew scriptures: “Why have you forsaken me?” and “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Words I deeply respect when coming out of the mouths of folks crucified by grief.

The denial of death, grief and loss in Western culture is fueled by ego inflation (the wish for immortality), the idolizing of science and left-brained rationalism, and, not the least withstanding, material affluence.

“But is the denial of death really all that harmful?” asked T.N. of Bozeman, Mont.

I thought immediately of a subplot in the 1987 movie “Moonstruck.” Rose discovers her husband, Cosmo, in an affair with a younger woman. She complains to a girlfriend, “Why do so many middle-aged men do this?” Then she answers her own question: “You know why? Because they are afraid they are going to die.”

Rose waits up for her philandering husband to come home. “Hello, Cos,” she calls to him as he mounts the stairs. “I just want you to know that no matter what you do or where you go, you’re gonna die like everyone else.”

“Thanks, Rose,” is his puzzled reply.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@reviewjournal. com.

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