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Grief Perspectives
Scholar's Corner
Resource Review
Your Professional Library

Making Sense of God in Grief

by William G. Hoy
Belief in God is one of the most interesting constructs in the clinical practice of bereavement counseling. About 90% of Americans believe in God, though only about 2/3 of those are “absolutely certain” of the existence of such a divine force in the universe (Pew Research Center, 2015). Canadians have been thought to be somewhat less religious overall; a 2012 poll indicated about 2/3 of Canadians believed in a god (Boswell, 2012). Opinion polls can provide estimates of overall population trends but they are notoriously difficult to interpret; even with advances in technology, different polling methodologies can produce results that vary widely.

What counseling professionals and volunteers are most interested in discovering, however, is the belief system of the individual with whom I am now working and thorough spiritual assessment is essential in bereavement work. Death-related losses raise a host of spiritual issues, even for the 20% to 30% of the population who identify themselves without any religious affiliation as they seek to make meaning of the loss and, in many cases, better understand the relationship of divine forces to their loss. This month and next, GriefPerspectives will examine the role these motifs may have in bereavement work.
In assessing the role of spirituality in an individual’s loss narrative, it seems important to consider the bereaved person’s perspective on suffering, relationship with God, and connection to a faith community. Here are some of my favorite questions; they can provide a foundation for assessment or they can lead to a lengthy discussion.
  • What are you making of this right now? Is that something you would like to talk through with me?
  • Would you mind telling me a bit about your faith or belief system and how you think that relates to your perspective on loss?
  • To you, does God seem close at hand, far off, or somewhere in between?
  • Do you have a faith community to which you feel connected? In what ways do you see that community as a helpful or deficient support system for you? Are there ways you want that connection to be different?
  • What have been the hardest parts of this experience to make sense to you?
When supporting dying individuals and their families, I like to inquire about perspectives on suffering, unfinished tasks, and notable fears or anxieties; next month’s issue will examine these ideas more closely.
Boswell, R. (2012). Religion not important to most Canadians, although majority believe in God: Poll. Retrieved from
Hoy, W.G. (2016). Bereavement groups and the role of social support: Integrating theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Kiefer, H.M. (2004). Divine subjects: Canadians believe, Britons skeptical. Retrieved from

The Author: For more than three decades, William G. Hoy has been counseling with the bereaved, supporting the dying and their families, and teaching colleagues how to provide effective care. After a career in congregation, hospice, and educational resource practice, he now holds a full-time teaching appointment as Clinical Professor of Medical Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas where he has taught since 2012. His most recent book is Bereavement Groups and the Role of Social Support: Bridging Theory, Research, and Practice (Routledge, 2016).

Resource Review

One must be extraordinarily cautious when making “laundry lists” of beliefs and practices within a religious or cultural community in which one is an outsider. Roman Catholic caregiving professionals, for example, regularly describe the diversity of beliefs held by parishioners whether devout, nominal, or somewhere in between. Even though the Church provides significant structure for belief and practice, these are not always followed. I have often referred to this phenomenon as the “great gulf” that exists between pulpit and pew.
Nevertheless, caregivers often want a place to start in asking good questions. The cultural scenarios I wrote several years ago for Selected Independent Funeral Homes provide just such a “starting point” when talking with families from religious or cultural traditions that are different from the care provider’s.
Click here to see their comprehensive list of Cultural and Religious Customs.
Your Professional Library
Matlins, S. (Ed.). (2016) The Jewish book of grief and healing: A spiritual companion for mourning. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights.
Under the capable editorship of Stuart Matlins (author of Perfect Stranger's Guides) comes another fine resource for professionals and volunteers who care for the dying and bereaved. The Jewish Book of Grief and Healing: A Spiritual Companion for Mourning is a wonderful read, chock full of inspirational and thoughtful chapters that provide direction for mourners, regardless of their faith orientation. My dear friend at Temple Beth El in California's Orange County, Cantor Shula Kalir Merton, told me of the book early this month when I spoke at the temple. Then, a few days after my return home, the book arrived as a gift from my friend; I have not hardly been able to put it down.
Considering that I am not Jewish, I began reading it as a quest for understanding.” What I soon found, however, is that the chapters (nearly all just one to three pages) provide such inspirational thoughtfulness that I was drawn in. Since most bereaved individuals cannot concentrate on a single topic and read lengthy book chapters, I believe these short passages will be this book's greatest contribution to grieving people. I highly recommend this little volume containing the reflections of 40 rabbis and other spiritual leaders.
Research that Matters
Wortmann, J. H., & Park, C. L. (2008). Religion and spirituality in adjustment following bereavement: An integrative review. Death Studies, 32(8), 703-736. doi:10.1080/07481180802289507
At the time this article was published in 2008, the authors noted that the notion of the helpfulness of spirituality in bereavement had been assumed but not always verified in research. They undertook an analysis of 73 empirical articles examining religion/spirituality in the context of bereavement. The authors describe the multidimensional nature of religion/spirituality and then utilize that framework to analyze the findings in the studies. What they found was that overall, the results are generally positive between religion and adjustment to bereavement but that there are widely varied ways of measuring religious constructs.

These kinds of studies provide direction for assessment and interaction with bereaved individuals but they rarely provide much help with specific interventions. Members of the Association for Death Education & Counseling can read all articles in Death Studies as a free member benefit at
GriefPerspectives is published monthly by Grief Connect, Inc. Copyright ©2017. All rights reserved, including publication or distribution in any form, electronic or printed. For reprint permissions or suggestions for content, please email us at
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