Supporting Article

Family Therapy of Grief in Earthquakes

Grief is inevitable in life. The recent earthquake in Wenchuan has brought much loss and suffering to many families. How to respond with proper family therapy is a critical issue after such a disaster. Compared with the Western world, Chinese traditional culture contains models of psychotherapy for grief which are formed from the values of Chinese culture.

The national response to the earthquake demonstrates this unique contribution to the therapy of grief. However, I would like to look at the religious approach of therapy which provides an integrated caring, because in considering this earthquake, the traditional Chinese therapy model seems to fall short.

Collaborating Therapy

During the extensive period of feudal society, the governors developed a hierarchy to maintain the stability of the state. The order of this hierarchy was: family, state and the world. Looking at it, the family is the basic unit of the society; however, the family’s fate is directly related to the state, even to the world. Therefore, accepting a weak family is not only a traditional virtue in Chinese culture but also the basis for the solution of grief and loss within the Chinese context. This type of family grief therapy is one of collaboration instead of individual effort. By using a collaborative effort, the family’s grief is resolved within a social shelter, and the community reaches stability in a new modality. Hence, grief is not an individual issue, but an issue of the entire community.

Look at the picture below:

Immediately after the earthquake’s occurrence, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the disaster area. Facing broken families, orphans and mass grief, he represented the nation’s promise to care for the sufferers. The state’s shouldering of the responsibility to care for the victims puts it in a position of a “bigger family” and provides effective relief for every individual family at a critical moment. This action on the part of the government confirms the traditional collaborating therapy which is designed to maintain a stable society. Although political action is not equal to family therapy, it indeed provides strong psychological support and healing of grief as the grief of individual families finally becomes the grief of the entire nation. In response, almost every Chinese family member exhibits a desire to share in the suffering.

Religious Therapy

It is notable that there was a meaningful phenomenon after the earthquake. When the earthquake took place, the students in Sichuan University rushed out of their classrooms and gathered on the playground, full of panic, without speaking. Then, a voice broke the silence: “Let’s pray!” This was a feeble voice, but it sounded like a command at that moment. Without question, almost all the people began to pray until another voice was heard after quite a while: “To whom do we address our prayer?” This was indeed a good question; were they just borrowing a term from Christianity or were they beginning to think about God?

In fact, during the relief efforts, many people, including the media, frequently mentioned words such as “prayer” and “heaven” even though most families in the area affected are nonbelievers. Facing a crisis, prayer seems to become the only pillar of strength to people even though they might not know to whom their prayer is addressed.

However, from the point of view of religious therapy, we have to recognize the effect of restoration through “prayer”whoever it is addressed to. The question becomes: Why do people choose religious means to deal with trauma? One answer is that from the realm of ideology, collaborating therapy does not seem to be enough to ease the family’s grief and loss. In other words, people need comfort from abovewhether this be a conscious or unconscious need.

Another popular term used after this earthquake was “heaven,” which is always used for lost relatives: “They are in the heaven, in a better place.” One impressive scene was that of a TV reporter who could not help but tear up when he was reciting the poem, “The road towards heaven.” This poem imagines the dialogue between a dead child and his living mother.

Mom, I’m afraid

the road towards heaven is too dark

the road is crowded

I couldn’t find your hands

This poem shows a muddled concept of “heaven.” On the one hand, people know that it is a good word and that “heaven” should be a good place for the lost. On the other hand, they are nescient about the basic knowledge of “heaven”—is the road towards heaven too dark? If so, where is the individual going? From this poem, we can tell that an erroneous religious concept will mislead people’s imaginations which will then re-traumatize the grieving family leaving deeper sorrow.

We also heard some Christian voices deriding non-Christians who used Christian terms because they did not know the real meaning of the terms. Nevertheless, here, “prayer” or “heaven” or other such terms are no longer the privilege only of Christians. A “sub-gospel” does not like to see unbelievers misuse specific religious words; nevertheless, that is not an issue for religious therapy. Only if we encourage sufferers to “pray” during family therapy, are we able to find the opportunity to let “prayer” become true and introduce true, willing hope and comfort to broken families.

Look at another picture:

Since this picture was downloaded from the internet, we do not know if this family is a Christian family or not; nevertheless, it seems that the cross is their hope, and the cross is the best therapy for all family members. The cross on the tent is like Moses’ bronze snake that healed the Israelites when they were in the desert. The title of this picture is: “The Tent, the Cross and Salvation.” Whether or not this is a Christian family, we can see that religious therapy is playing an important role in the family’s therapy of grief following the earthquake. To a certain degree, religious therapy is not an issue of healing skill but an issue of relationship and meaning. If we can build a relationship with non-Christian grieving families, then we can provide them with a new trustworthy relationship, not based on human beings, but based on a merciful God.

Church Response

The Chinese church is changing; it is coming out from behind closed doors and entering society. In holistic relief, Chinese churches (using data from house churches) were involved with huge human, financial and psychological resources. For example, one house church in Beijing donated about $30,000, sent out two relief teams (one was a counseling team led by a psychology professor) and collected countless clothes and materials. This church is merely representative of Beijing house churches; it is estimated that the total amount of money donated by these churches has been about $300,000. They are providing holistic help to the needy while at the same time providing a good witness to society.

Look at the photo below.

This shows church responses that are from overseas, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the official church and the house church. One of the effective contributions is from the Sichuan house church which is in the front row. In this picture, the young brothers and sisters went to the disaster area, put up the green (hope) tents and took good care of the children who lost relatives, their school or their family by bringing new hope and true love to their trembling hearts. When you see the smiles on the children’s faces, you cannot imagine that they just experienced a nightmare.

This is the good example of religious involvement, of integrated family therapy, that not only deals with grief and loss, but also arouses a new hope which leads to a new relationship.


In Chinese, the word “crisis” is described as the combination of danger and opportunity. The earthquake in Wenchuan has brought a crisis to many Chinese families. As Christians, help for the helpless families comes not only from material supplies and physical healing but also from spiritual restoration. This integrated therapy will bring a new relationship, true hope and lasting love.

When people in an atheistic country spontaneously choose religious therapy, the challenge to Christians becomes how to lead those grieving families into true belief and bring the true love to them. Of course, to have them acknowledge the ultimate care from above is beyond the role of family therapy.

Image credit: Earthquake relief by Lukas Bergstrom, on Flickr

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Grace Lau

Grace Lau's area of service is family counseling.View Full Bio