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Helping People Cope with Crises
by Rev. Frank Schaefer

Pastoral care-givers are faced with the difficult task of helping people cope with their crises.  The following article intends to offer a model of crisis dynamics and some useful tips for pastoral care givers.

As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, what to make of physical pain, personal worldly defeat--something bearable, supportable --something as we say, sufferable.

Lucien Richard*

Nobody is immune from crises. In fact, a crisis is bound to occur in everybody's life sooner or later. Of course, crises vary in their nature, severity, and their impact on a person's physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Crises constitute a special form of suffering; the suffering brought on by a crisis is a heightened and shocking experience due to its suddenness and unpredictability. Therefore, the pain and loss experienced in a crisis is usually very acute and pronounced.

The emotional stages a person encounters as s/he recovers from a crisis are based on  Kuebler-Ross's four stages of the terminally ill (denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance) and have been adapted for pastoral care givers by Nyswonger.

The underlying assumption in this model is that a person can not only work through a crisis, but will hopefully emerge with new ways of coping as well as an increased spiritual maturity.

It is important for the care-giver to make an assessment as to the stage the care-recipient is dealing with.  Based on this assessment, the care-giver may then respond in such ways as outlined below:

The Crisis Encounter --Initial Shock
Typical question:  "Is this really happening to me?"

Denial  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Panic
-numbness                                               -feeling out of control
-built-in protection                                 -suicide
-magical expectations                             -psychoses

Pastoral Response:

  • Try to manage the situation: a much as you can, look after the safety of the care-recipient (don't let them drive under shock, etc.)
  • Connect him/her with family, significant others
  • Use familiar spiritual rituals such as prayer, sacraments,  etc.
  • Support by reflective listening; let them talk about what is threatening them.

Dealing with Emotions

Typical question: "Why is this happening to me?"

Expression . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Repression
-release                                                      -Psychosomatic symptoms

-relief                                                         -prolonged pain

Pastoral Response:

  • Non-judgmental encouragement to express feelings.
  • Validate their feelings, they are real.
  • Assurance that their feelings are normal, it's ok to feel grief, confusion, anger, guilt, etc.

The Drama of Negotiation

Typical question: "If only..."

Bargaining . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Selling Out
-goals: reasons for wanting to live                 -nothing left for me
-desire for control                                       -what's the use?
-window into a person's values                     -it's over.

Pastoral Response

  • As a person in crisis realizes the permanency of the loss and its impact on the future, discourage unrealistic expectations ("miracles")
  • Instead emphasize the hope for little "probable" miracles (e.g. miracles of technology to cope with handicaps, community help, grants/aide; courage to face a career change, life without...)
  • Focus on the person's values.  Affirm the values which lie behind the person's goals.

Stage of Cognition (full mental awareness)

Typical Question: "How can I endure?"

Deep Sadness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Depression or Despair
-recognition of loss                                         -"It is hopeless."
                                                                       -"I am hopeless."

Pastoral Response

  • Consistent depth support: presence, prayer, sacraments.
  • Encourage the rethinking and re-interpreting of goals, purpose, dreams and hopes.

Moving Toward Commitment

Typical questions: "What has my life been worth?"  "What has my suffering meant?"

Acceptance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Resignation
-renewed trust                                                    -withdrawal

Pastoral Response

  • Actively support the search for practical solutions, ways of coping ("what now?"  "how now?").
  • Affirmation of worth, affirmation of God's grace.
  • Encourage the search for and embracing of ultimate meaning and purpose.


*Lucien Richard (JPC, Vol 55, No2, summer 2001, p. 159).