Author’s Note: I’m writing this post with the intention of providing information about the human experience of the loss of a loved one. Please consult with a mental health professional, if the loss of someone very close to you has caused you problems in your relationships, work, relying on alcohol or drugs or health problems. Also, consider contacting a professional if your child is experiencing fearfulness, social withdrawal, has somatic complaints, is engaging in bullying or vandalism or has difficulties in adhering to medical regimes, school problems and relationship difficulties within the family or peer group in response to the experience of death or a life-threatening illness.
The Governing Body in its October broadcasting program included an interview with an elderly woman recalling the death of her husband. She seemed somewhat emotionally distanced from what certainly was one of the greatest losses in her life. Her personal experience of grieving can evoke a discussion about what is a “normal” way of coping with the loss of a loved one. Another important issue that is worth talking about is whether belonging to the cult disrupts the grieving process.
Let’s consider the second question first.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Grieving Process
I think that grieving Jehovah’s Witnesses are not offered in the congregation an outlet to feel and process their loss fully. The teaching of the resurrection keeps believers in hope of meeting their loved ones again.
“Jehovah’s Word gives the sure hope of the resurrection, of being raised to life once again. This is no mere dream, and no force in the universe can prevent Jehovah from making this hope a reality.”
~ Watchtower, May 15, 2007
Religious persons around the world cherish their many and varied ideas about the afterlife. With Jehovah’s Witnesses, the difference is that their belief system does not lend itself to scrutiny without the danger of having a doubting individual removed from their congregation, and punished with shunning and losing all or most of their support system. The basic teachings of resurrection and everlasting life cannot undergo a critical analysis, and the emotions attached to any lack of confidence in them will not be resolved. Individuals who put on hold the critical thinking and raw feeling will find it much harder to then fully move through stages of the grieving process.
People who have had little freedom to honestly explore their beliefs while in the cult will quite likely find themselves, at times, overwhelmed with the volume of unobserved and not realised emotions when they leave it. Some ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses decide to identify their own religious affiliations. Those who arrive at the point of atheism or agnosticism might need to adjust to the intellectual and emotional consequences of their whole worldview changing, including reconciling an idea that beliefs shaping the grieving process they have gone through in the past no longer seem valid.
The advice given by the Governing Body on how to support a grieving individual boils down to being a good friend by listening, spending time, being tactful and considerate; all this being an innate capacity of a human heart. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have anything new or different to offer to someone who has lost a loved one, nothing that the “world” (people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses) cannot give to their grieving friends and family. But, why is it that Jehovah’s Witnesses need to be reminded to act humanly towards their fellow believers who have lost a loved one?
My guess is that some of the humanity of the congregation members gets corroded by their adherence to the polices of shunning and prohibition on blood transfusion in life threatening situations (see this website), learning to be passive by “leaving matters in Jehovah’s hands” when faced with the reality of child sexual abuse in the congregation, or developing a judgmental attitude towards anybody (and I mean anybody), be it a family member or a close friend, who is not adhering to the dogma fully (see the Shunning category for more information).
This destructive influence touches anybody who associates with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Compassion is a quality of a human heart; people who have not experienced this indoctrination sessions sponsored by the Governing Body are not prohibited [or stunted] by those policies from loving others in abundance. Jehovah’s Witnesses are trained, instead, to regulate the flow of fellow feeling according to the Governing Body’s instructions, to carefully create little parcels of care and compassion and share it scantily with a restricted number of people.
I think that Jehovah’s Witnesses need instructions on how to behave normally towards a bereaved individual because, in order to follow commands provided weekly in the congregation, they have to disconnect from their own instinct and knowledge about leading a normal life. Once a Jehovah’s Witness can build relationships based on honesty, commitment and unconditional love, their friends will not need to be told how to act like human beings. Indeed, such friends will follow the most natural instinct of empathy in response to the pain of bereavement. For that to happen though, an active Jehovah’s Witness would most likely have to leave the group, based on the principles of an abusive relationship, and build healthy relationships.
The Governing Body, through its policies, crafts up an environment where Jehovah’s Witnesses lose some of their humanity and become like robots responding remotely to commands: “Now you smile”. “Now you care and this is how you will show that you care”. “Now you stop talking to this person because they are not one of your group”. This level of control is possible only if the internal focus of control, or freedom to self-determine, is at least partially or fully disabled.
This negative influence disrupts the grieving process. Persons who grieve need unrestricted access to their own feeling, intellectual inquiry and freedom to choose a course of action in order to allow the stages of grief reaction to unfold. They need not to be prohibited from accessing meditation training if they find that it opens the awareness of physical reactions and emotions evoked by the loss of a loved one. They need freedom to think for themselves and choose a form of therapeutic intervention that best addresses their needs without being discouraged from turning to group-based treatments. They also need to speak openly to friends, family and professionals without self-censoring. Active Jehovah’s Witnesses have this freedom curtailed by dogma, fear, shame and guilt instilled by the cult.
Let’s now return to the question of an unfolding of the grieving process by addressing some empirical [backed by study and research] findings concerning grief reactions.
How People Actually Grieve
The grieving process does not adhere to the cultural expectations of a pattern of showing an extreme distress which then declines with time. Two more patterns have been identified, which are a lot less accepted in our society. A pattern of morbid grief is characterised by a protracted experience of grief, meaning that it lasts for a long time or longer than one would expect. An absent grief occurs when there is little distress initially or later. All three patterns represent how people respond to the experience of death.
The stages of the process of grief also do not always follow a clear-cut pattern, and people will experience different stages at times more than once, in varied order, or some stages might not occur. These stages are
- yearning and searching
- bargaining and acceptance
It might be an obvious caveat but there are no two identical experiences of loss and grief, as each person is unique. In that light, it makes sense not to compare the way people grieve. Each person is finding their own way of coping with the loss.
Also, depression following bereavement is not universal; only about a third of people suffer depression following bereavement. Perhaps the cultural expectation is that a bereaved person will show initial emotional distress, but it has been observed that persons who show little initial emotional distress are not necessarily going to then develop problems later.
Another misconception around the process of grieving involves an expectation that the coping strategy of confrontation is the most effective in dealing with the loss. Again, the evidence shows that the coping strategy of avoidance can be used to deal with the loss as effectively as confrontation. Another thing to keep in mind is that extreme distress following bereavement commonly occurs in those who show protracted grief reactions, which means that some people will experience strong feelings of grieving for a relatively long time.
It has been observed that not everyone needs to work through their loss by immediately talking about it. In the best scenario, a bereaved individual should feel free to choose when and how much to share about their loss. Many people who initially talk about their grief can develop problems later.
And the last point: not everyone will return to normal functioning within a two-year time frame. Also, resolution and acceptance don’t always occur, for example, in the case of a fatal accident.
A Word About Grief and Children
Let’s not forget, too, about the grief reaction experienced by children. Their process is similar to that of adults, but it lasts for a shorter period of time. Parents might feel that perhaps their children have not finished working through their loss, but quite often children have less to work through because they do not ruminate on memories or lost possibilities. One of their coping strategies might be developing an inner representation of a deceased person and continuing to have a relationship with them. Children might develop infections as a result of the stress on the immune system which will subside with time. Children who have to face their own death by a terminal illness react less intensely than adults in a similar situation. Also children with life-threatening illness might show less adjustment difficulties than their parents. Finally, bereavement, especially loss of a parent, leaves children vulnerable to depression in adult life.
If you want to support a bereaved child, consult the following publications and websites:
Krementz, J. (1981). How it Feels When a Parent Dies. New York: Knopf.
Mallon, B. (1988). Helping Children to Manage Loss. Positive Strategies for Renewal and Growth. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Rando, T. (1991). How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam.
Schaefer, D & Lyons, C. (1986). How Do We Tell the Children. New York: Newmarket.
Turner, M. (1995). Good Grief: Exploring Feelings, Loss and Death (Second edition: volume 1 for under elevens; volume 2 for over elevens and adults).
Cruse Bereavement Care: http://www.cruse.org.uk/
Jessica Kingslay’s webpage on bereavement resources: http://www.jkp.com/uk/catalogsearch/result/?q=bereavement+resources
The Child Bereavement Trust: http://www.childbereavementuk.org/
Winston’s Wish: http://www.winstonswish.org.uk/
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