Attachment, Grief, and God

momIs there anything more beautiful than the image of a little child in his mother’s arms? There is something so sacred about that closeness, so fundamentally good about that intimacy, and so absolutely necessary about that connection. Psychologists have a theory about this closeness that they speak about in terms of attachments that infants must form from the first moments of life in order to thrive. Close to their mother, children feel loved, safe, and acquire the courage to explore an unknown world. And whenever frightened or hurt, they can race back to their mother’s arms, calm down, and know that everything will be alright. As we all grow and mature, other attachments are formed with friends, siblings, and a spouse that serve similar functions helping us regulate our feelings and face the many challenges of a sometimes dangerous world.

While these attachments are necessary and vital, there is still another attachment even more important that must be considered, the only attachment that can remain in place when all other attachments are lost: our relationship with God. This attachment is expressed when the psalmist cries, “the Lord is my defense; and my God is the rock of my refuge” (Psalm 94:22) as well as “Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). This spiritual relationship, attachment, or closeness to God can sustain and ground us in our relation to others and the world. Without this divine attachment, we find ourselves vulnerable and in an especially precarious situation when we face the great challenge of grief.

Psychological evidence for the importance of a divine attachment can be found in Melissa M. Kelley and Keith T. Chan’s article on “Assessing the Role of Attachment to God, Meaning, and Religious Coping as Mediators in the Grief Experience.” Kelley and Chan note that “People with a secure style of attachment to God may have a faith or worldview that includes belief in a benevolent God Who is consistently available and responsive. With this God as their ultimate secure base, they may weather a significant death with less depression and grief and with more stress-related growth. When belief in this God is part of their orienting system, they may also draw on positive religious coping at greater levels because positive religious coping efforts seem to reflect belief in a supporting, benevolent God.”

In addition to assisting in the coping process, a secure attachment to God has a powerful relationship to meaning or making sense out of life that other attachments lack. The former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel summed this up well in writing, “Hope…is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out” (Disturbing the Peace, p. 181). Faith in God and the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection provides not only the hope that an apparent end is not necessarily an end, but also the sense that in God’s hands there is something greater taking place than my particular loss, something that can even be a part of my salvation, the gain of all gains.

Of course, such a theory of attachment applied to God has its historical critics, notably Karl Marx who critiqued religion as the opium of the masses. However, the use of attachment theory discussed in this post concerns faith not religion. Faith is a way of life whose focus is the transformation of the heart through a childlike reliance on God Who is the source of Love.

Putting divine attachment as the primary attachment in our life gives meaning and purpose to every one of life’s circumstances. In his book, The Hidden Man of the Heart, Archimandrite Zacharias describes how such an attachment works in practical fashion, “Because we all have sinned, we all have a common language, the language of pain. When we come to God, we will inevitably have to suffer in order to be purified. If we speak to God with that pain, if we pour out our heart to God with that pain, then God will listen to us, and the heart will be activated…When we suffer tribulation, pain or illness in our life, we must remember to pour out our heart to God rather than seek human consolation by going from one person to another and talking about it. This might give us some psychological consolation, but we lose all the tension of life, that energy of pain, which is so precious when we direct it towards God.”

When we hurt as children, we turn to our mother. And the more we hurt, the more eagerly we seek her. The same applies in the life of faith. When we hurt as Christians, we turn to God with all our hurt. And when we lose some we loved, someone to whom we were attached and with whom we felt safe, the most natural response and the most healing response, is to go to the safest and holiest place we know, to the God of our heart. And, there we will find an attachment that nothing can break, but even in the face of grief and loss only becomes stronger. And if we strengthen that attachment, we have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, and everything to gain. We can get a glimpse of what a healthy divine attachment looks like, an attachment that can overcome grief in Saint Paul’s words to the Romans, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:35-39). In whatever condition we find ourselves, may we make that attachment to God our own.

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