Dear Rabbi Gellman: My friend’s husband died three years ago. She does not seem to be making any progress in the grief process.

She misses him terribly and sometimes I am concerned that she will die by suicide. She has no family/children/friends (except me and a few long-distance phone friends).

She does not really believe in God anymore, as He did not “save” her husband. How can I help her? I’ve given her books, articles to read, let her cry, given hugs and tried to get her into group counseling.  

Any words of wisdom? Thank you so much if you can answer this email.

From K  

MG: In my experience, the most common cause for a crisis of faith and the most common cause for an affirmation of faith is the same — it is the death of a loved one. The deeper the love, the deeper the crisis.

For some like your friend, death — particularly sudden, traumatic death — is shattering to faith. This is the result of what I call a transactional faith, which is built on the belief that if we do what God wants, God will reward us and those we love with a long, healthy life free of burdens and bumps. I call this “gumball machine faith.” You put in a prayer and God spits out a gumball of blessing. No prayers, no gumballs!

The problem with this type of faith is that it is not faith at all. God’s love for us is not a payoff for our observance of religious rituals. Then when we do experience loss we are driven to the conclusion that God has abandoned us or betrayed us or is not there at all. Transactional faith is what has put your friend into her deep hole of despair.

The other type of faith has an opposite reaction to the death of a loved one. This is existential faith and it is the only real and authentic form of faith I know. This is the faith of the most famous psalm, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In that psalm we are taught that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil because God is with us. Faith does not protect us from evil. Faith guarantees us that we will not be alone when we go through evil times.

This kind of existential faith does not lead to anger, apostasy and betrayal. It leads to serenity and confidence and hope. Love lost will always leave tears in its wake. What this faith does is take away the suffering caused by loss. That suffering is ameliorated by our belief in a God who will protect our souls and the souls of our dearly departed as they continue their spiritual journey in heaven. Belief in life after death is the belief that gives us enough hope to survive death.

Your friend deserves your comfort and care. The first advice I have for you is not to try to convince her of anything. Just appear at her home, hug her, feed her and talk to her about any happy memories she might have left in her tortured soul. Talk about the blessings that are still real in her life. Take walks in nature. If you can, volunteer with her at a soup kitchen for the homeless. When you leave make sure that she knows the suicide hotline telephone number, which is 988. Mostly just sit with her, and if you can sing, then sing.

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