WW35 June 7, 2017: Where Does Religion Fit Into Support Offered by Care Team Members?​

Wednesday Wisdom Series: Where Does Religion Fit into Support Offered by Care Team Members?
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Here is your bi-monthly Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance
Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D. and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation. 

Where Does Religion Fit Into Support Offered by
Care Team Members?

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“So don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that
you don’t understand.”
                                                                                   – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

The question of religion’s place comes up frequently when discussing the roles and
responsibilities of Care Team members. While we recognize that churches and
other religious organizations train people to function as lay ministers and in other
peer support roles, we also have many examples of where a religious-based
approach, regardless of the classification of the responder, has become the basis
for a second assault.
Religion and spirituality are natural components of the grief and mourning process.
However, nothing is more personal or fraught with potential for offending or
angering a grieving family member than for a responder to invoke their ideas about
spirituality into the initial response. Here are two of the many examples from our
research that illustrate this critical point—not only on the part of a company
responder but also from a religious leader.
A well-intentioned responder, a company Care Team member who was also trained
in a specific religious support program, went to the home of a woman whose son had
died in an aviation accident. The survivor at first felt comfortable talking about her
experience surrounding the crash as well as her son, but began to feel uncomfortable
when she noticed that the responder was making copious notes. The mother
finally stopped sharing and asked what the responder was writing. The responder
looked up from the paper and answered, “I am writing notes about what to pray for.”
The mother told the responder that her note taking was unhelpful and
ended the session.
In her interview about who was helpful and who was not, the survivor explained that
this form of “help” was, in fact, harmful. She was left feeling that she had
unwittingly, and thus unwillingly, confided in a stranger who now possessed highly
confidential information about her. She had additional concerns about who might
now learn of her most private feelings in coping with the loss of her son—including
perhaps the airline’s legal defense team.
A second mother whose son also died in an air disaster shared another example
of harm caused by someone intending to help. Early in the response, the airline’s
Care Team helper asked if the family had a religious preference. The woman
answered that they were of the Catholic faith. Within a few hours, a local priest
came to her home and introduced himself as having been sent by the airline. Since
the family had their own local priest, they were surprised that yet another stranger
was now entering their home during the worst time in their lives.
As if this failure to follow the most basic HSR™ principles of taking our cues from
those we support and always offering options and choices wasn’t enough, the
priest’s presence became even more unwelcome when he began to speak to the
mother about how the accident and the death of her son had been God’s will. At
that point, he was ordered to leave-along with the Care Team who had been sent
to support the family.
Conversely, there have been numerous examples where company responders
have provided transportation and lodging for religious leaders that families have
asked to be involved
in funerals, memorial services, and other grief rituals.
Another example of appropriate support shared by survivors is Care Team
members helping locate local spiritual assistance during the response phase of a
tragedy – again, at the family’s request. The key being that survivors express a
desire for such assistance and the subject of faith, religion and spirituality remains
between family members, friends, and those of the same religious beliefs-not
between them and the Care Team.  

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In short, those in leadership positions need to ensure training emphasizes that
taking cues, offering options and choices to meet needs, and never imposing or
even introducing our own beliefs is never more important than in relation to
religious support. Working with the American Red Cross in the United States, and
with other such agencies as appropriate elsewhere, allows access to clergy from
various religions. And equally important, company responders should receive
a clear understanding from leadership that regardless of any training they may
have in addition to Care Team, the subject of religion or spirituality is best left
among family, friends, and whomever else they choose to share it with.
While we recognize that many skills taught in lay ministry programs may be like
those taught in Care Team training, such as listening, validating, and offering
support to the survivors, company responders must position their assistance as
neutral and bearing no agenda other than that of carrying out the company’s
family assistance plan. Another positive aspect of this approach is that if there
is a problem with the support offered by the religious professional, there is no
potential for it to be interpreted or misunderstood as corporate “spin,” such as in
the case of the company-assigned priest who attributed the cause of the
crash to God.
There’s no question that many find religious support to be helpful, and that Care
Team members can play a role in facilitating it. But where this is the case, it is
always at the survivor’s request.

© 2017 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.
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