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).

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Date: 02 Nov 2001


I have done work with rescue squads fire, police etc in crisis situations and found debreifings to be of great value, when dealing with a critical incident. The folks I watch are the ones who either identify or recall a prior event. Events from the past tend to resurface and multiply the current condition. The people who have had the greatest difficulty with the terrorist attacks have been those who had survived previous trama or abuse. The violence from the past gets revisited along with the effects of the now. I try to allow people to sort out the former from the present and to affirm their reason for "not handling it well" (Whatever that really means!) Often just talking it through and sorting out the past from the present gives some handles on dealing with crisis.

A W-G rocky coast Me.

Date: 13 Nov 2001


The Jesus forsaken words from the cross and the Psalms of Lament are helpful reminders that expressions of anger are OK with God. I think of the child whose loss has him beating into his mother's legs until he is exhausted. Then he can be picked up and held.


Date: 27 Nov 2001


Most crisis have a short window/time frame. JRB in Ks.

Date: 05 Dec 2001


A time limited crisis is somewhat different from an ongoing complex situation, I think. Injuries that may leave a loved one totally incapacitated for the rest of their life, for example. I've found this type of crisis far more difficult to assist people with. Brain injury that has someone in a coma for a long time, followed by 'not knowing' what faculties will be recovered, complicated by long distance drives to the hospital, strain on family finances and sheer exhaustion, can continue for a year or more.

Add illness, death or accident to other family members and then you have real crisis!

Ongoing crisis often leaves families close to dysfunctional for a long time as they process their losses. A death brings understandable grief - brain damage causes losses that are sometimes harder to bear.

Date: 12 Dec 2001


I would suggest that you also include in this guideline, some answers on a this question, "What am I being punished?" Many believe that God is punishing them somehow, when they suffer. Share with the readers that Jesus took our punishment already, and he did so completely. Thanks

Pastor Doug Koehler

Date: 12 Dec 2001


I would suggest that you also include in this guideline, some answers on a this question, "What am I being punished?" Many believe that God is punishing them somehow, when they suffer. Share with the readers that Jesus took our punishment already, and he did so completely. Therefore, what the Christian is facing is not God's punishment. However, it can be seen as a means to strengthen the Christian, and to move them to focus even more so on the grace and mercy of Christ Jesus. Thanks

Pastor Doug Koehler

Date: 01 Nov 2002


One of the most helpful things that I have come across is Aaron Antonofsky's (spelling?) "Salutogenic Theory".

He suggests that health is increased under stress when people 1.) have some understanding of what has happened to them 2.) recognize the resources that they have to deal with their situation, and 3.) believe that their life and current experiences have some meaning.

I try to ask the questions: What happened? What do you think will help you get through this? Where do you think God is in the midst of this?

By asking, and not telling, I am more likely to help them get in touch with their belief, and if I think that they are way out of touch with reality I can always say, "That is a really interesting answer. Can we talk about this more?"

I rarely want to press someone when they are in the midst of a very stressful situation, but if I can gently help them reframe their situation more realistically I try.

SS in PA

Date: 11/25/2003


Date: 1/3/2005