Faith Deconstruction & Grief

There are two things I need for you to know about me before I get into things; 1) I wouldn’t change my evangelical Christian upbringing for anything; and 2) I hate the term faith deconstruction.

I grew up in an Evangelical Christian household. My parents moved to Thailand to work as missionaries before I was born, which for me meant that I was brought up in a family where our spiritual beliefs were so important to us, that my parents felt called to move to the other side of the planet from their friends and family in order to share these beliefs with people that might not know.Evangelical Christianity shaped the whys of my life; why we lived inThailand, why my parents moved us around and worked different jobs, why we could or couldn’t do different things, why we were friends with who we were, why we didn’t see our grandparents regularly, and why we had finances to afford things. The whys came back to the message of God’s love for us, that God wanted us to share with others. This was what I knew and I didn’t question it, so much of my life hinged on it being true. This eventually became my internalized belief system, my motivation, my purpose, my moral compass, my support, comfort, community, and foundation. So when I couldn’t ignore the questions and doubts nagging me any longer and began watching the foundations of my life unravel, it was painful because Christianity meant so much to me and my life.

 

 

That brings me to my second disclaimer, I don’t like the term religious deconstruction. The dictionary states that ‘deconstruction’ is “the act of breaking something down into its separate parts in order to understand its meaning, especially when this is different from how it was previously understood”. This is a great definition and very accurate to what it looked like conceptually to unpack, rethink and examine my faith. So while it’s a helpful term to identify others experiencing a similar phenomenon, when it becomes a descriptor that doesn’t acknowledge nuance it can easily lead to misunderstanding of someone’s actual experience of deconstructing their faith. My experience with deconstructing my faith was like grieving a significant loss.

The Stages of Grief

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s overwhelming and painful. It’s individual and communal. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first introduced the world to the five stages of grief to help people make sense of the complex feelings, behavioral changes and physical symptoms experienced with grief. This has now moved to seven stages to be more inclusive of and accurate to people’s experiences. Although expressed in stages it is important to remember that this model isn’t prescriptive or linear, it’s not a to do list to check off in order to get back to feeling okay. When you experience a significant loss, you are forever changed. Grief is the process of feeling, experiencing, and expressing what you need to in order to come to terms with that change. When you are grieving you may only go through some of these stages. You may experience them out of order or return to a stage. There is no “should” with grief. What the 7-stage grief model does though is help put language to and create validation for overwhelming feelings, changes and instability that you may be grappling with after loss.

Stage 1: Shock and Denial

Shock and denial acts as the brain’s defense mechanism that helps us cope with a difficult loss. Denial gives us time to understand what has happened and slowly adjust to the new present. This stage may be accompanied by feelings of depression, hopelessness, confusion, loneliness, and anger. It can be so tempting in this phase to isolate yourself and it is important to find ways to be compassionate and care for ourselves.

Stage 2: Pain and Guilt

The realization of a loss can leave an emptiness in one’s life, causing pain, regret and longing for things to be different. Some people feel guilty about their feelings and actions, plaguing themselves with thoughts about what could have been done differently whether it is realistic or not. Feelings that may accompany the pain and guilt stage of grief are blame, sadness, guilt and regret. In this stage people often ruminate on past mistakes, exacerbating feelings of guilt and emotional pain from the negative self-talk.

Stage 3: Anger and Bargaining

After loss there are multiple things that one can feel angry about; anger at being abandoned, angry they are feeling the pain they are, angry their life has changed, angry that navigating grief is so hard, and angry that the world is suddenly different, empty, unsafe or lonely. Anger can be a complex emotion and is a normal reaction to grief, but people can easily get stuck in anger if they don’t understand how to deal with the feelings. The bargaining involves trying to regain a sense of control after feelings of helplessness and displaced anger. The feelings that may accompany this stage include frustration, resentment, rage, anxiety, and fear.

Stage 4: Depression and Sorrow

Depression in this stage can develop from internalized or repressed anger. When time has passed and the implications of a significant loss become clear it can often lead to feelings of loneliness, sadness, emptiness, self-pity and anhedonia (inability to feel joy from anything). This stage can also show up as reduced concentration, inability to sleep, and sleeping too much, physical symptoms like headaches and body aches, or digestive issues.

Stage 5: The Upward Turn

In this stage people begin to adjust to their life post-loss. This stage may be accompanied by feelings of hopefulness, moments of happiness, feelings of well-being and calm. The focus begins to shift to the awareness that they have a future to live, and although the loss is still felt the symptoms of grief are easier to manage.

Stage 6: Reconstruction and Working Through

In this stage people feel less overwhelmed by the emotions and symptoms of the significant loss and have more energy and a new desire to begin moving forward and finding meaning and growth after loss. This stage may be accompanied by feeling energized, hopeful, more at peace.

 

 Stage 7: Acceptance and Hope 

This is the stage when the grieving person accepts the reality of the loss and all the ways they have been impacted and changed. You learn ways to care for yourself and cope with the hard things and learn how to set new expectations for yourself as you begin to move ahead. This stage may be accompanied by feelings of relief, optimism, reflection, acceptance and hope.

Grief and Faith Deconstruction

I grieved the loss of my faith and beliefs. I thought I could just silence the nagging questions by believing harder. I was angry that I believed things for so long that hurt me and others. I pleaded with God to show me why I could trust it all despite the discrepancies. I felt guilty that I couldn’t make myself believe it. I was depressed that I no longer believed in the purpose I had given so much of myself and life to. I was scared to lose connection with so many people I loved. I was confused, overwhelmed, angry, ashamed, afraid, unsteady, resentful, lonely and on and on. 

But I noticed that this process of grieving was made all the more difficult because of how vastly misunderstood I felt. Articles saying that deconstruction was a trend, a desire to fit in, a scapegoat for selfishness, pride, lust, greed. Told that I just wasn’t listening to the ‘right’ things, or was letting one ‘bad apple’ spoil the whole thing. Feeling accused that I was just regurgitating the ideas of those around me instead of thinking for myself, when for the first time in my life that’s exactly what I was doing. I felt like I was doing something wrong by searching for truth, felt like I had become the enemy of the spaces and people that I had always belonged to. I felt like an outcast from a community I loved so much. This religion that once meant unconditional love, redemption, and freedom became one of judgment, accusation, and confinement. (Admittedly these challenging feelings were not based on experiences I had, but I internalized a narrative about christianity based on my experiences with it, that I was so fearful of what could happen). I didn’t need anyone to say the things to me, I had been on the inside and knew what we would say about those on the outside. Now I was one of those on the outside, and felt crushed under not only the weight of my own grief of losing something so integral to my being, but also with added weight of others misunderstanding and invalidation of my experiences. 

Complex Grief

As I lost my spiritual beliefs to disillusionment, these dynamics made the grief I experienced more complex and confusing to work through than the straightforward grief model suggests.  Losses that aren’t understood by others can often go unacknowledged and invalidated which in turn can make us doubt whether we are entitled to the grief we feel. This doubt and hesitation can hinder us from feeling what we need to feel in order to make sense of the loss, and to find a way to move forward. It’s important to acknowledge, understand, and honor our losses while adapting to a changed life. Getting stuck in what we should feel and do after a loss stops us from paying attention to what we do need to grieve the loss. Misunderstanding and invalidation isolates us from sources of comfort and spaces to honor loss and can intensify emotional and physical reactions. 

Making Meaning…

So for now I’ve gotten to a point where I can accept that my relationship to Christianity won’t be the same again. An important step for me in getting to acceptance  (at least for now) was the stage of reconstruction and working through also sometimes referred to as the meaning-making stage. 

Remembering and making meaning of that which we have lost to death, change, disagreement, abuse and so on is both difficult and worthwhile. What can get misunderstood in this stage is that this doesn’t mean you have to force the loss to mean something it doesn’t. The loss doesn’t have to make us stronger and it doesn’t have to be part of a divine plan, it can mean those things, but doesn’t have to. Reconstruction and meaning comes from how you choose to make sense of loss and change, based on your thoughts, feelings and lived experience. It could be the realization that life is a lot more sad and unfair than we wish; it could be acknowledging your gratefulness about how someone shaped your worldview or the ways we found truth and beauty in spite of someone. It could be a realization that we have value and are deserving of love and respect. It could be that we experience something so that we could provide comfort and guidance through other’s pain. It could be in finding your voice and confidence. It could be that you’re more comfortable with the unknowns, the uncertainty and the complex. Or it could have multiple meanings and be subject to change with time. There isn’t a right answer for where you need to end up on the other side of grief. … 

And that is why for me I am grateful for my evangelical christian upbringing.  Sure there is still lots of sadness, hurt and frustration about it at times, but it is also a part of my story, why I am the person that I am today, and I wouldn’t change that. 

 

Conclusion 

To conclude I want to leave you with some thoughts from Kenneth Doka and David Defoe who specialize in grief and that have helped me process losses.

  1. Grief is a reaction to a loss, not just a reaction to a death
  2. Don’t dismiss how you feel: acknowledging the loss and what it means to you is the first step
  3. The grief that is associated with loss has to be dealt with on the emotional and embodied level. You can’t think your way into better grief
  4. When we don’t take the time to appropriately grieve our pain and our emotional stuff that we put aside, it comes out in other ways.

If you are experiencing grief from a significant loss, whether to do with spirituality or not it is important to find rituals that honor the loss, this helps bring a sense of conclusion that is important in. If it is a loss that doesn’t have a social ritual associated with it, create your own conclusionary rituals. It could be journaling, creating a piece of art, planting flowers, running a race or getting a tattoo. All grief is processed at a very personal, individual level, so remember rituals will be specific to you and how you are feeling.

While grief is processed individually it doesn’t mean you have to go through it alone. Talk to those who care about you. Let them know how you are feeling and how they can support you in grief. Finding community in support groups, whether in person or online, can also help you create connections and process the grief. There’s power in being with people who have an understanding of what you’re going through. You may also find it helpful to process grief with a therapist. “We don’t get over losses, we have to then figure out a way to move beyond them – David Defoe. 

I also experienced so much love and connection through this time. People I thought only would want to be around me if I believed the same things as them showed me so much support and acceptance, validating my experiences and just wanting the best for me, not just because I was a fellow christian but because I was their friend.

Kaylie Short is a licensed professional counselor at Thrive Ahead Co., located in the Bucktown neighborhood. Kaylie serves clients not only in Bucktown, but Chicago, and surrounding suburbs and offers a person-centered and trauma-informed approach to holistic care. Leveraging evidence-based therapeutic modalities, she tailors her methods to address individual needs, drawing upon their innate strengths and resilience. Kaylie is experienced with diverse age groups and cultural backgrounds, making her adept at providing support in various areas. Her specialties include offering support for life transitions, support for ADHD & executive functioning, relationship counseling, communication & conflict resolution, perfectionism & procrastination, therapy for grief & loss, anxiety & depression, navigating personal and religious identity, and trauma-informed therapy. Schedule A Consultation Call Today Here

Resources
1.  
Understand the 7 Stages of Grief to Cope With Pain and Distress – Psychologenie; 7 Stages of Grief: Examples & What to Expect

2.  The Importance Of Mourning Losses (Even When They Seem Small

3.  Doka, K. J. (2002) Introduction. In K. J. Doka (Eds.), Disenfranchised grief: New directions, challenges, and strategies for practice (pp. 5-22). Research Press Publishers.

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