Regardless of one’s identification or affiliation with an organized religion, spiritual doubts and questions may arise when a loved one dies. Suffering a major loss usually causes us to confront and re-think our basic beliefs about God, religion, death and the afterlife. Some may turn to God as a source of strength and consolation at the time of a loved one’s death and find their faith has deepened. Others may question the religious teachings they’ve practiced all their lives and find the very foundations of their beliefs shaken to the core. Even those who had no religious upbringing at all may still feel abandoned by God or angry with God for letting their loved one get sick and die. Not all people respond to loss in the same way, and not everyone shares the same cultural, religious or spiritual beliefs about death and the afterlife.

Death forces us to confront the spiritual questions we may have been avoiding or haven’t taken time to address, the questions that get at the very heart and meaning of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?

Whether a strong religious faith will be a help or a hindrance in your recovery from grief depends on what you believe and how your beliefs are practiced. Like any other tool, religion can be used in healthy, appropriate ways, or it can be abused in unhealthy, inappropriate ways.

Religion can influence your fundamental view of life: you can see life as temporary and death as permanent, or you can see it the other way around – death is temporary and life is permanent. Death may interrupt a life that was very special, but it cannot cancel it. Religion can provide the motivation required for grief recovery: it says you’re not alone – somebody has done it before. Grief’s path isn’t a dead-end street; it’s a well-marked trail. Religion can be a great antidote for the loneliness that accompanies every major loss, and it can be a source of strength and group support.

What religion cannot do is give us immunity from loss or give us back our lost loved ones – nor can it provide us with a shortcut through grief. In his wonderful book Life After Loss, pastoral counselor Bob Deits identifies some religious beliefs that can be harmful:

  • Death is God’s will and should not be questioned.
  • The person was so special that God called him or her to be with Him.
  • There must be a grand plan or purpose (a why) for every death.

These religious beliefs are helpful:

  • This is a mortal, frail, imperfect world, and tragedies occur.
  • There is no satisfactory explanation when loss occurs.
  • The question is not why me, but rather if me, what can I learn from this?
  • Deits encourages moving from why questions to how questions:
  • How can you work through this loss and achieve as full a life as possible?
  • How can you use this experience to help someone else?
  • How do you find meaning in life without this person?
  • How do you start anew?

Suggestions for Coping with Spiritual Reactions

  • Recognize that a new faith can grow from grief, into a deeper, more mature understanding of the divine dimension of life. Sometimes meaning must be lost before it can be found. · Consider talking to a minister, priest or rabbi. Pastoral counseling can comfort you and help you find a pathway to renewed faith.
  • Make space in your schedule for daily meditation or prayer, which can be a source of great strength and consolation.
  • Explore and question the values and beliefs you’ve accepted in the past, and formulate new ones when you need to.
  • Consider grief as an encounter with life’s greatest mysteries: the meaning of life; the promise of rebirth; the depth of love we share with one another.

Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, CS
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  • Marty Tousley, MS, RN, CS is a hospice bereavement counselor helping people find their way through grief following the death of a family member. As a volunteer with the Pet Grief Support Service in Phoenix, AZ, she also works with bereaved animal lovers, both individually and in groups, and consults with veterinary clinics to foster greater understanding of pet loss among staff members, thereby building better helping relationships with grieving clients. A frequent contributor to healthcare journals, newsletters and magazines for the lay public, she has written several articles and book chapters in the professional nursing and medical literature, and has authored three books addressing various aspects of loss and grief ("Finding Your Way Through Grief: A Guide for the First Year", "Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping" and, with Katherine Heuerman, "The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet"). For more information about Marty and her writings, you are cordially invited to visit her website at The site offers comfort, support and information to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether human or animal. Marty can be reached via e-mail at