Can a sense of God be knocked out by injury?

18 June 2008

What happens to a person’s spirituality when — due to a brain injury — they lose a sense of God’s presence, and surety of the faith they had once been so committed to? Rebecca Paveley finds out

Fragile faith? spirituality is often one of the last areas to “come back” to someone after a brain injury

Fragile faith? spirituality is often one of the last areas to “come back” to someone after a brain injury

WHEN MARY was involved in a serious road-traffic accident a few years ago, she was working as a magistrate, and was a committed, active Christian. When she woke up in hospital, after lying unconscious in a coma for three weeks, her sense of the presence of God had all but disappeared.

It was not a crisis of faith brought on by questions about suffering, she says. Instead, it was a physical loss: an area of her brain had been so injured that its capacity for spirituality had been permanently impaired.

She explains: “I did not feel I had a loss of faith; more that I was in a kind of limbo, with a sense of bereavement and little awareness of the presence of God. I regret that some emotional, prayerful, and worshipful part of me was missing. I tried to cope by ‘acting’ as if it were still there.”

She hoped for years it would come back, and, although things have improved, her relationship with God is still different from what it was. She is involved again in church activities, but she finds it hard to concentrate during prayers and services.

Mary is one of an estimated 500,000 people of working age in the UK who are living with disabilities as a result of a head injury. There are many others who fall outside this number, such as the majority of stroke victims for example, which means the true number of people suffering brain injuries is likely to be much higher.

Commonly, people with brain injury suffer damage to the areas of their brain which control emotions and moral behaviour. This is devastating for the victim, and also for their family, who can be confronted with a very different person, even after the victim has recovered in other ways.

The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath, a psychologist and theologian, describes the case of one of her clients, Alison, whose husband has suffered profound brain injury. After discussion of the husband’s latest neuropsychological assessment results, the discussion moves on to a range of questions around the meaning of marriage in the context of a changed personality.


Then Alison asks: “My husband was a committed Christian. He has no interest in church or spiritual things now, and he behaves so badly at times. Will he go to heaven, or has he forfeited his salvation?”

Dr Collicutt McGrath says: “Alison was struggling very hard with her marriage vows. What did the fact her husband was now a different person mean for those vows? What did it mean in terms of his standing in God’s eyes?”

ANNE (not her real name) knows this feeling well. Her husband, a chaplain, was struck with viral meningitis 13 years ago. Life for the family changed irrevocably, and, although she has stayed with her husband, she says: “I still can’t be sure I will last the course and stick with this marriage to the end”.

Talking about a loss of connection with God, particularly for someone who has been active in their faith beforehand, is enormously difficult, says Dr Collicutt McGrath. Like Mary, most sufferers probably continue to act as if it were still there — unless, like Alison’s husband, they have also lost the ability to control their emotional reactions and beha-viour. And while the healthcare profession — and charities such as Headway, which supports people with head injuries — are waking up to the fact that the injury affects emotional life, the spiritual impact of these injuries has not been explored fully.

Headway agrees that more needs to be done in this area. “Brain injuries are indiscriminate — they can affect anyone of any age, sex, race, or faith. But while other aspects of brain injury have been researched, the effect on spirituality has not had so much attention,” says the communications manager of Headway, Luke Griggs.

Headway runs 114 groups across the UK supporting sufferers. High-profile victims include the Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, who crashed at high speed during a race for the programme. He seemed, incredibly, to bounce back, and was on television just months afterwards, but he has recently admitted that he still has a “long way to go” before he is over the accident, and suffers many side effects, including problems managing his emotions.

RECOVERY from a brain injury is often rapid in the first year or two, but then progress slows dramatically. Of those who suffered a minor head injury, only 45 per cent have made a good recovery one year later.

Dr Collicutt McGrath, who worked as a clinical neural psychologist before entering ordained ministry, says that spirituality was one of the last areas to “come back” — if it came back at all.


She says that working with people with brain injuries has raised huge philosophical and theological issues. Those who had retained some self-awareness were thrown into turmoil by their sense of being altered before God, of not being able to connect in the way they had before.

“It raises the question of what constitutes a human person. If part of your brain is gone, then in what sense are you still in the image of God? And if you lose memory, you lose your sense of the spiritual story. And if you lose your moral compass, then it raises questions of free will and determinism. . . what does it mean to be a holy person if you have lost all feeling for other people?

“The typical case is of someone who has had a traumatic incident and suffers a brain injury. Some can still talk eloquently about the loss of their spiritual dimension: they describe it as not so much that they lost their faith, but that they lose their sense of God. Some people lose any ability to feel emotions. People then ask: if my spirituality was just in my brain, what is going on with God? It can be very frightening.”

In her writing on the subject she uses the analogy of the Israelites’ period of exile. “When they returned after this period they wanted things back as they were, only to find it was a pale version of what was before,” she says.

“Spirituality needs not to be restored, but transformed. . . People need to lose the sense of wanting to be restored, but gain the sense of God being in the midst of suffering. It is learning that it is about the grace of God; that our sense of God is not something we ‘have’ in ourselves. It is about: ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us’.

“Sufferers have to remember that if you can’t connect with God, it doesn’t mean he can’t connect with you.”

Dr Collicutt McGrath has formed a group, under the auspices of Churches Together in England, to look at how to meet the spiritual problems of sufferers. They are planning a conference next year, at which the Archbishop of Canterbury has been asked to speak, and will put together a resource pack for families.

PRIESTS and congregations also need training to raise their awareness of the problems suffered by victims. Mike’s story illustrates this: a successful account manager for a big food company, he admits that despite his Roman Catholic faith and weekly church attendance he immersed himself in materialism and business. This all changed when he suffered a stroke 14 months ago, for which he is still undergoing rehabilitation. He has been to church just once since his stroke, and has become cynical about the church environment.


At no stage of his treatment did anyone offer Mike any help with spiritual matters; although a priest did visit him, this was just as a

friend. No one made any reference at all to his spirituality, and how his faith might have been affected by is stroke.

“But if I wasn’t truly religious before, I certainly am now,” says Mike. “I have never blamed God for what happened, and I know that

God is not going to wave his magic wand; I realise now that God works in a different way to that. And I definitely have a much stronger relationship with him now than before my stroke.’

For more information on the Churches Together project, or to offer personal experiences, write to Debbie Hodge, c/o Churches Together in England Healthcare Chaplaincy, 27 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9HH, or send an email to

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