QUESTION: Since losing our young daughter three years ago, many well-meaning friends and acquaintances have told me that prayer is the answer. I've seen comments posted on their Facebook pages like, "Thank you for your prayers; he is better now." In other words, "Pray for me. I need help, and boom, done!" I'd like to respond by saying, "Do you really believe God chose to answer your prayers because you're more special than I am? I prayed long and hard for my daughter to be well, and my prayers were not answered." Such incredulous, over-trusting gullibility infuriates me. How can such people not acknowledge the number of people whose prayers are not answered? And even if they did, how would they explain why God chooses to help one person over another? Maybe you can explain. I need help to defuse my emotions and keep me from lashing out at such people.
-- Still angry at God
ANSWER: Sorting out the true purpose of prayer is important and difficult, and best done when one is not broken and angry. In any case, I hope you might be open to a different understanding of what prayer does and does not do.
Prayer does not change the natural order of things. Prayer cannot kill cancer cells or prevent the horrible bad luck that made my grandpa cross the street to mail a letter just before a drunken driver ran him over and killed him. Magic is the belief that we can change the laws of nature, and true prayer is not about magic.
Prayer is about courage, hope and trust -- the courage to face our burdens without becoming bitter, the hope that we will not be forever submerged in despair, and the trust that even if death takes us or the one we love, that death is not the end of us, but merely a transition point along our soul's journey to God in heaven. That's why we should pray, but understandably that's not always why we do so.
We slip into thinking that God has granted each of us a guarantee that we'll never stumble or fall along life's way. God never gave us such a guarantee and thinking so only produces feelings of anger and betrayal when things do go badly. The problem is not what God does or does not do, but what we expect God to do. God doesn't protect our life, but God does protect our courage, hope and trust in life's eventual and ultimate goodness.
I've said all of this before, but I haven't adequately addressed the problem of what psychiatrists are now calling "complicated grief." A recent newspaper article by Paula Span highlighted research at Columbia University with patients who, even after years of mourning, are unable to let go of their grief enough to resume a normal life.
These people are on the verge of following a traumatic death with their own death because of their blocked grief work. Nine years after losing her husband, one patient said, "I wasn't really doing well. I had terrible pangs of sadness and despondency. I was missing my husband so badly." Even after seeing a therapist, which did help, she suffered from nightmares and couldn't bear to hear arias from their favorite operas. "The pain just didn't go away," she said.
If your symptoms have prevented you from returning, even slowly, to a normal life that allows you to function, laugh and see clearly the goodness that life still has in store, then you should seek out a place where you can receive complicated grief therapy. If you broke your arm, you'd need a cast. Perhaps you need a cast for your soul.
My prayer of consolations after grief is a single verse: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD." (Psalm 130:1). When I recite it, I remember that I'm down now, but that the sun will shine again.