The rescue worker almost whispered as he talked about not being able to see signs of God amid the carnage in the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Nineteen children under age 6 were among 168 people who perished in the terrorist bombing.
The reaction around the table was immediate. Some amid the diverse group of churchgoers gathered shortly after the 1995 bombing could not accept even a perceived challenge to the sovereignty of God.
One minister said he thought the people died for a city and a nation that needed to experience love overcoming evil. A laywoman said that "Satan's worst" was more bombs and more people killed, but that God intervened with quick action by law enforcement. One person said God intervened by making her spouse late for a meeting at the federal building that day.
The rescue worker struggling with his firsthand experience of the horror quietly left the room.
Conflicting views of God
The memories of the conversations came back to me recently when I was listening to both the survivors of the Haiti earthquake and to those who lost loved ones there.
Those who made it out alive, even as companions close to their side were killed, attributed their safety to the grace of God. Those in mourning, however, did not have an image of God intervening to allow some people to live and their loved ones to perish.
The idea that the world is overseen by a just and loving God who cares for each person individually is called into fundamental question in the aftermath of tragedies that claim so many innocents. In Haiti, alone, the earthquake led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people.
Research shows that people cope with tragedy in complex, individual ways. Those religious individuals who are allowed to grieve, to ask questions of and to be angry at God -- as in the biblical example of Job -- tend to have better outcomes eventually in both their lives and their faith, says Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University.
But particularly in public tragedies, social and communal pressure for quick healing and avoidance of the difficult struggle to understand why terrible things happen to good people can add to the burdens of those who mourn.
The need for those who suffer to go through the stages of grief conflicts with the needs of others to come up with an explanation for the mystery of evil and suffering that allows them to feel some control over their own lives.
“There is a need to explain, a need for the world to be predictable,” Koenig says.
The need for control
In the Oscar-winning movie “Precious,” the title character writes in her notebook after a horrific setback just two words, “Why me?”
The human need to feel control over our lives is universal. For the great majority of religious human beings, their sense of well being is related to their belief in a loving God who cares about them.
When the Search Institute surveyed nearly 11,000 Protestants in 1991, 70 percent said that it is mostly or absolutely true that “God is a close personal friend who guides and protects me.”
More recently, 82 percent of respondents to the 2008 Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity said they believe “God loves me and cares about me.” Seven in 10 of those queried in the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey said, “There is definitely a personal God.”
Those who are spared when a tragedy strikes often attribute their survival to God’s grace.
“One way to explain it and not feel guilty is, ‘Thank you, God,’” Koenig says. “The alternative is you feel guilty.”
Those who lose loved ones have a more difficult path.
Grieving people do not need friends and counselors -- whether theological liberals or conservatives, atheists or fundamentalists -- to push their own world views of God.
Telling someone to accept their loss and stop grieving, or either to reject God or to not question or not be angry at God, takes away from the healing process.
What grieving people need, Koenig and other researchers say, is presence and support. “The best thing is to listen attentively, to listen actively,” to allow those suffering to express their pain, including feeling rage at God, he says.
In the roundtable conversation shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, a funeral director said there was little talk of God upstairs at the First Christian Church, where families awaited word of their missing loved ones.
At one point, a chaplain began to help notify a family that a baby had died in the federal building bombing; the baby's two grandparents were missing and presumed dead. It was, the chaplain said offhandedly, one of God's miracles that so many people had survived.
And one of the uncles of the baby, a son of the two people who were missing, almost got violent over that statement. He did not feel God's grace in these three loved ones that were dead, said the funeral director who volunteered as a crisis counselor.
"God," the counselor said, "was not a popular subject where I was working."
In comforting those who mourn, remember whose grief it is anyway.
-- David Briggs
David Briggs, a former national writer for The Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, is consistently honored among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America.