(In case you missed Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Existential Crisis )
Common Catalysts of Existential Crisis
The loss of a loved one is often one of the most personal and difficult events an individual has to face. Losing that loved one traumatically, however, such as by murder, suicide, or accident, can compound the tragedy. Often referred to as complicated bereavement, it comes with additional symptoms and considerations, which can involve acute stress or even post-traumatic stress disorder. The sudden, traumatic end of the relationship often leaves survivors struggling to make meaning from the crisis event. If the survivor fails to find meaning or reconcile the death, this can lead to depression and despair, somatic complaints, and even premature death. Psychospiritual intervention on the part of the therapist can help clients experiencing traumatic bereavement eventually develop meaning from the crisis and, in this way, foster post-traumatic growth and transformation.
Death of a loved one causes the survivor to have to adjust and develop a new paradigm for a future that suddenly doesn’t include the loved one. “In the wake of stressful events, the individual is confronted with powerful forces of change, and the life, as it was, becomes difficult to maintain” (Bray, 2010).
Considered in a spiritual framework, “Traumatic events disrupt three metaphysical assumptions relevant to theological discourse: (a) that humans are worthy, (b) that the world is benevolent, and (c) that events in life have meaning” (Stroebe, et al, 2008, p. 328).
Gockel refers to these challenging events as “‘boundary situations’ that take us to the limits of our ability to understand and cope…” (Gockel, 2009). Certainly the loss of the physical person is difficult to cope with. But there is also a disruption of underlying assumptions about the world and the relationship that can give rise to much of the phenomenon of grief. But of most interest to this discussion are the frequent changes or disruption in spiritual or religious beliefs. Strada-Russo remarks:
“After the death of a loved one, often individuals attempt to find meaning for the death of the loved one, as well as a general meaning for their existence. As a result, bereaved individuals may experience increased conflicts in faith beliefs, an over-reliance on spirituality, experiences of hopelessness and anger at one’s higher power, and a desire to redefine ones relationship with the deceased.” (Strada-Russo, 2006, p. 30)
Bereavement is a significant stressor, and the stress of unresolved grief can certainly create physical illness. In fact, people who experience loss under traumatic circumstances like suicide, homicide, natural disaster, or accident are among individuals who exhibit intense distress shortly after the death of their loved one. Psychospiritual crisis intervention for the traumatically bereaved should be a matter of course, in order to prevent long-term psychological imbalance.
Of course, some of the bereavement crisis has to do with the social expectations surrounding death, or the fabric of the world as the bereaved perceives it. For instance, many people (two-thirds of his bereaved clients, according to one practitioner) report having some contact with the deceased in spirit form after the death, and yet this is not something that is discussed openly in most social circles of mainstream American culture. The bereaved can consequently be left feeling like s/he is “going crazy,” unless s/he can make some sense of this phenomenon and have it validated by others. In addition, with the death of a loved one, there is a hole, a kind of energy vacuum, which needs to be filled with something. To do so, it is likely that a new balance needs to be established. “It is suggested that at the fundamental levels of the psyche, individuals are challenged to rebalance themselves in order to relieve intense psychic and physical pain by the integration of this new knowledge and the incorporation of new behaviors, beliefs, and goals” (Bray, 2010).
From the shamanic perspective, the true cause of illness is a loss of balance. The existential crisis or energetic imbalance created by traumatic bereavement could cause illness in the survivor. Both psychotherapy and shamanic healing can help to restore balance in the client’s life after trauma.
Bereavement “can be an opportunity for spiritual and existential transformation, if the bereaved accepts and understands the process.” Psychospiritual intervention often leads people to much more than spiritual recovery: often it leads them to “a deeper and more satisfying understanding of place and purpose in the world” (Bray, 2010). From a strengths-based perspective, the ability to create meaning from an otherwise tragic event is certainly a skill to foster.
Next time: post-traumatic stress and depression as catalysts of existential crisis.
(Excerpt from “A Transpersonal Approach to Existential Crisis: Shamanic Methods in Therapeutic Practice” (graduate paper)
© 2016 – Cindy L. McGinley. All rights reserved. )
Bray, Peter. (2010, April). A broader framework for exploring the influence of spiritual experience in the wake of stressful life events: Examining connections between post-traumatic growth and psycho-spiritual transformation. Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, 13(3), 293-308.
Gockel, Annamarie. (2009). Spirituality and the process of healing: A narrative study. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19:217-230, DOI 10/1080/10508610903143248.
Strada-Russo, Elisabetta Alessandra, PhD. (2006). Spirituality as a protective factor in complicated bereavement (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (AAT 3221032)
Stroebe, M.S., R. Hansson, H. Schut, & W. Stroebe, 2008. Handbook of bereavement research and practice: Advances in theory and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Part Three: Common Catalysts of Existential Crisis (cont’d): Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression