Grief, Psychodrama and the Sacraments

In the recent past I read an amazingly insightful book by Tian Dayton entitled Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships. Dayton is a leader in experiential therapy or psychodrama. While her work is not explicitly Christian, it is spiritually-based. It has been extremely helpful to me as it has opened my eyes to much of my own life, especially in the aftermath of my own participation in some psychodramatic experiences based on my own life. [If you are interested in the therapeutic technique of psychodrama read Dayton’s The Drama Within: Psychodrama and Experiential Therapy.]

The power of psychodrama is that it brings body and soul into relation with unresolved trauma or grief. It is not merely cognitive, but somatic and communal. When there is unresolved trauma in our unconscious, we revert back to that trauma when we are triggered by an analogous experience. We then react to the present trigger as if we are again experiencing the original trauma. Consequently, we tend to intensify feelings which may not be appropriate to the situation, or transfer feelings from the past event to the present which is totally confusing because the present does not objectively warrant those feelings. This confuses people in relationship with us, and somestimes we withdraw emotionally in order to protect ourselves from those horrendous past feelings.

Psychodrama provides a way to re-experience the past trauma in a safe environment in order to reconfigure its meaning. Psychodrama confronts the past in a concrete somatic and spiritual experience so that we symbolically but nevertheless authentically relive the past trauma. This confrontation undermines attempts to flee (escape) from the trauma, fight the trauma with intensified feelings or freeze our feelings (a kind of numbing).  While those strategies are helpful in the initial moments of grief as they protect us, if we are stuck in any one of them then the unresolved trauma will negatively affect our sense of peace and relationships with others.

Psychodrama offers an occasion for resolving the trauma. It resolves it by reorganizing a memory.  By entering the past drama through role play, one is able to gain perspective and assign new meaning to the experience.  The drama creates a new narrative–it is a redoing of the past through undoing the past. The new narrative provides a new frame of reference for drawing meaning from the event as we reconstruct the past with new awareness, perspective and insight.

Through one psychodrama last week I was able to re-experience the grief of Sheila’s funeral on May 2, 1980. I had not grieved like that since May 2, 1980. It opened again for me the floodgates of tears which I had unconsciously held in reserve through numbing and withdrawal. Psychodrama, as a therapeutic technique, was a blessing to me. Re-entering the narrative, I was able give it new meaning and see what I had not seen previously due to the overwhelming grief.

As I reflected on the meaning and process of that experience (and it was not my only dramatic reliving), I began to more deeply appreciate the psycho-dramatic nature of the sacraments themselves. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Assembly are dramatic re-creations of divine redemptive events; they are dramatic narratives that provide a frame of reference for meaningful lives within the story of God. They are interpretative events that somatically and spiritually root us in the redemptive story.

This is not only so at an individual level as we individually participate in the sacraments–we each have our own personal experience of God through these dramatic events, but it is also a corporate or communal experience. As we gather around or beside the waters of baptism, we re-experience our own baptism and we participate with the one who is being baptized. Thus, I do not particularly like private or familial baptisms–it robs the community of the psychodramatic experience. As we gather around the table, we experience the reality of community through eating and drinking together. As we assemble before the throne of God, we participate in the reality of “heaven on earth” as we worship with the saints in a way that transcends time and space.

The sacraments are divine invitations into redemptive pyschodramas. They are no mere symbols but actual means of divine encounter whereby we somatically, pyschologically, concretely and spiritually relive the story of God’s redemption. Sacramental experiences are both cathartic (a cleansing) and rehabilitative (reconstruction); they reconstitute the present for us so that we have a renewed narrative for living with meaning in the story of God.

I assemble with the saints to experience again the sacramental drama that provides meaning for my life in the place of futility, hope in the place of despair, and communal support in the place of isolation.

10 Responses to “Grief, Psychodrama and the Sacraments”

  1.   Quiara Says:

    I am not yet as open as I one day hope to be. Therefore, I don’t think I can adequately express here how much this post affected me. It is deeply moving, chastening and encouraging all at once. I realize that it’s a byproduct of being an ego-centric being that I feel that this has spoken directly to me, to my life, but that much aside, I do feel that way.

    One day, maybe, I can be less cryptic. But for now, I’ll leave my thanks and offer my continuing prayers.

    Thank you.

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Your response moves me, Quiara. Thank you. The sacraments reconnect the people of God with each other, with the redemptive events and with God himself. They are spiritual rituals through we can reconstruct the meaning of our lives and thus qualify as pyschodramas themselves.

    We also each have our own experiences which we need to process for the sake of wholeness. God’s gifts are widely distributed, including psychodramatic therapy. I praise him for that blessing in my life and pray for the healing that God promises through tears–for myself and for you as well as others.

  3.   Jim Holway Says:

    Thank you again for guiding us (me) through this process. Your transparency is so refreshing and inspiring! I look forward to reading up on psychodrama. I especially appreciate the emphasis on the sacraments as a way of participating with God in the process of redemption.

    Peace and grace,

  4.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    My wife and I went through something similar about seven years ago, called life quest.
    It was a weeklong also, unfortunately not run by anyone that I could even say he was in any manner shape or form a Christian.
    Also corporate nature 15 to 20 people, going through a workshop together.
    I personally didn’t get much out of it, but my wife and a lot of her family thought that it was wonderful.
    I just have an extremely difficult time with people that are not Christians. For me they have no ethical or moral compass to guide a person through the maze of personality dysfunctionalism.
    I’ve read Carl Young and his essays on progressive analytical psychology. Abraham Maslow, gestalt therapy, and then everything to be quite interesting and gave me some insights into my personality. All of that was before I was maybe 27 years old party much quit when I was 30 reading psychology..
    yes we are shaped by our past we are shaped by our parents we are shaped by our world.
    I personally don’t understand or see how anyone.
    Can’t possibly take off the glasses that they have acquired through life with reality being refracted by this objective lens of self and hope to have an objective understanding of the process and dynamics of anything but a dysfunctional self,
    being raised by dysfunctional people surrounded by dysfunctional people.
    Hence the only objective truth that is possible for an individual to incorporate into their self for an effective point of view is the truth the word of God and the corporate structure of a like-minded peer structure, the mind of God as being through the word and other like-minded Saints gathered together for the building up of itself in love and

    blessings rich in California.

  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    I would suggest that God’s grace (his healing work in our lives) is also available through what older theologians would call “common grace.” That is, just like medicine itself, God gifts his creation with healing in ways that all his creatures can access and experience. So, psychodrama or pyschotherapy does not have to be specificially Christian to be healing. It can be simply “spiritual”–connected to the Creator’s work in his creation–to be healing. As believers in the God of creation, we are open to God’s work through his creation as well as through his historical redemptive acts in Israel and Jesus. An openness to that divine healing work through creation and providence is part of our faith in the creator God who sovereignly and redemptively rules his world.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Jim, I appreciate your ministry, my friend. You are an inspiration to me!

  7.   richard constant Says:

    john mark i agree
    although …
    there are shortcuts to heath and life abundently

    thats all i am implaying.

    i am at peperdine using there comp.

    i missed everything so far

    boy am i a peice of work or what

    blessings rich

  8.   richard constant Says:

    john mark
    the day of judgement nay not be all we believe it to be it could be a great day for all that love the lord.
    the true casting out of our old self
    a healing by god.
    so we may all dwell in true love together
    that is what we all disire .. right?

    just thinking on this today.

    what a beautiful evening

    716 pm

    about 75 degrees very peaceful

    joy and blessings rich

  9.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    These are some of the incidents in my life that my readings are brought to life the dysfunctionalism of myself.
    From Carl Young,

    transference and participation in a transference between two people on an instinctual emotional level.

    When my oldest son was seven years old and he’s now 34.

    My ex-wife and I had had an argument and I was leaving the house in the words were said to the effect that just get out and never come back.
    My young son heard.
    As you as I was walking out of the gate he was crying, and saying daddy please don’t leave and please don’t leave.
    I turned around and looked at him and saw the tears in his eyes and the pain that he was going through I looked at him and said I have to.

    This was no answer but it was the same answer I got when I was seven years old and my dad was in the military and leaving for Germany..
    I was in trauma at seven years old, my son is in trauma at seven years old and on and emotionally instinctual level I fell into the same pit of despair that he was in and could give him no reassuring answer.
    I walked out the gate thought about what I had read.
    a participation in a transference of emotional trauma and how it is passed on.
    I got half way across the street.
    A light came on I thanked God went back to my son,
    and said don’t worry son I will always be here for you, I’ll see you tomorrow.

    Yes you’re right John Mark I didn’t mean to come off as being so tight.
    There are so many issues that we are products of the society have.
    To say nothing of the unresolved grief that you’re going through.

    Blessings my brother Richar N. Californiad

  10.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    in fixing ourselves we are able to minister to our loved ones. We are able to minister the love of God is shed abroad in our heart to the assembly.
    and on an instinctual level we will be able to convey the harmony of love shared by the Trinity. For the building up of the assembly in love.

    You have helped me in so many ways, by your kindness and understanding and patience.
    I’m sure you have not much of an idea.

    John Mark your guna work it out, a light will come come on, and down the road we will go! Joyous happy and free.
    Rich in California

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