Painful Grief Elizabeth Kuebler Ross’s work on death and dying in which she describes the five stages of grief are almost a household word among ministry professionals. Ironically, however, little has been disseminated to ministry professionals regarding the stages of grief experienced by pastors during major transitions. Five Stages Of Grief Predictably, there are stages of grief for pastors to work through painful ministry transitions. The work of Ralph Hischowitz and J.S. Typhurt have indicated that the experience of loss in transition in organizations follows a four stage process. Further consideration causes one to add a fifth stage to their paradigm. These stages may give insight into what one can expect during major congregational crises and change processes—planned or unplanned, controlled or out-of-control. Loss: After the pretending that it’s not painful, the preferred and familiar ways of getting strokes and attention vanishes. Dependency needs which have been taken for granted, go unmet. The more psychologically important the lost object, the greeter the grieve. The sense of helplessness, inability to master oneself and environment get threatened. Anticipate it and prepare to develop ways to work through the loss.
Impact: When the news and recognition of the loss is received. Daze and shock are typical reactions; they can be very intense is the change is undesired and unexpected. Emergency responses typical of “flight-fright-flight” (“They can’t do that to me, Help!” “They’re doing it to me!” “I’ve got to get out of here!”) dominate ones thinking causing a wide variety of stress responses such as disorientation, erratic behavior, freezing, impaired perception, acute confusion, etc. The duration may depend on many factors…the perceived intensity of the event, the relative psychological importance of the loss, the personality of the griever, the effectiveness of coping mechanism, etc. This can be measured by the Holmes-Rahe Stress scale. Originally published by T.H. Holmes and R.H. Rahe, in their article entitled, “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale,’ Journal of Psychosomatic Research 11:2113-218 (1967), most pastors may have seen this scale in evangelism literature. Suggestion: Anytime the total score reaches 100, seek professional assistance. Consult it weekly. The impact phase can almost imperceptibly cause any number of other chain-reaction consequential effects on family, personal attitudes, work associates, sleeping patterns, etc., all of which have ratings on this Holmes-Rahe Stress scale indicating significant impact on individuals in loss. Recoil-Turmoil: After experiencing the impact of the loss, individuals will go through an intense, pervasive, and all-encompassing effort to search or regain what has been lost. Recognizing the painful implications of the change or loss, and detaching from the familiar, the individual will do everything—and anything possible—to either recover or make up for the loss.
Coping mechanisms are tested, stressed, and depending on the intensity and personal impact of the loss—they may fail. Erratic and obsessive seeking behavior may appear as do various crisis-oriented emotions such as rage, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, uncontrollable weeping (openly or concealed). Seeking for alternate sources of relief (e.g. addictive and obsessive behaviors) may emerge. Often these emotions may be hidden behind facades of over-control and detachment.
Over time, normal mental patterns may resume, but regaining the sense of vitality and confidence may be difficult due to the effects of diagnosed or undiagnosed depression. Adjustment: This stage marks the beginning point when the person begins to recover from the negative effects of the change. By this stage, most of the “detachment tasks” relating to “letting go” of lost expectations, friendships, etc., have been completed…or at least have begun a sense of resolution and acceptance.
The challenge of this stage is to begin exploring new relationships, examine solutions for the problems in the new environment, and testing solutions. As the “Fright-fight-flight” response diminishes, a sense of hopefulness and a feeling that ‘not all is lost’ begins to emerge.
Time and energy are spend in seeking and learning new ways, acquiring new knowledge, skills and routines.
Reconstruction: Begins when the person gains a sense that “it is time to move on.” Much of the grief has been dealt with by this time, though some significant trauma may remain. What has been lost has been tentatively replaced and is subject to testing and worthiness of attachment. There is a desire—and an accompanying emergence of energy levels—to resume optimum functioning. Often this reconstruction comes about by planning and achieving small victories to restore the confidence in larger issues. Only until this sequence has been completed can people begin reaching optimal performance levels. Thomas F. Fischer
For Further information see Levinson, Harry. Psychological Man. Cambridge, MS. Levinson Institute, Inc., 1976.