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7.08.2009

A Pastoral Letter about Loss and Grief

For Freedom Friends Church and anyone who needs it.

I will bring you by a way you do not know, I will make the darkness light before you, and I will make the rough places smooth. I have made up my mind, I will never forsake you. Isaiah 42:16

I have decided to write a general and public letter because so many in our community are going through, or have someone they care about going through, some pretty rough places. We have lots of loss and death and sickness is our wider community at the moment. I want to remind us of some truths that we know, but occasionally lose track of, and outline some healthy responses to loss and grief so that we can help ourselves and each other.
Loss is terribly real. It is terribly consistent. It is never far from us. It is never fun, and often is excruciatingly painful, This is just the truth. It is ironic that the “luckier” we are by human standards, the more loss we will experience. If you are so fortunate as to live into old age, you will watch all your predecessors die, and many of those younger than you as well. The more friends, mentors, and family members you have, the more funerals you will attend. You will also experience other kinds of losses. Jobs, relationships, and situations will be transitory. If you live long enough you will lose your strength, physical beauty, sharpness, and independence. This is the path of a blessed life. I know that this sounds grim, but we have to start the path to redemption from somewhere in realityland. The difference between people who live life abundantly and with intermittent joy, and those who feel picked on and defeated is how they have learned to perceive, interpret and cope with loss. It is not an optional discipline.
The Apostle Paul said that “We do not grieve like those who have no hope past the grave.” He recognized that people of faith have access to a way of living, that while not making us in any way immune to loss, nevertheless makes us able to walk through it with some level or grace and serenity. This way of living helps us with all kinds of loss. I want to remind you of that way.
The first thing we can do is work on changing how we think about loss. You are not being “picked on” even when you are in a season of multiple losses. God is not angry with you, is not punishing you, has not abandoned you. I do not even think that God is ‘testing’ you, except in the sense that all loss offers the chance of growth and change, and that loss is part of the greater lesson of life. Loss is part of the package and people of faith accept the package as good. The serenity prayer says this: “Living on day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.” Not all the moments are enjoyable, but they are all part of the path. And in the worst of times, we can find evidence of goodness and God. People pull together, comfort each other, and we see God evidenced in community. Acceptance of loss as a normal part of a healthy and blessed life is the first major task in recovery. It is also a recurring task. We accept in waves. Anger and resistance in the face of loss is not sin, but for health it must eventually give way to acceptance.
“Not my will, but yours.” This requires trust. And for some of us that the very core of the problem. We know we are supposed to trust God, but trusting other authority figures in our life has never gone very well, and so we are very cautious about trusting God. God is not like your parents, or your ex-boss or ex-spouse, or teachers, or the government or whomever it is you have very good reason to keep at arm’s length. If trusting God is a core issue for you, then moving that up to an active project will make dealing with loss possible. Without that trust, you will have the same losses, but you will have shut the door on your best resource, the immediate comfort of the Spirit.
Honoring your loss and the feelings you have about it is another major task. Denial of your pain is no healthier than wallowing in it. When someone we love dies, we feel pain, often deep searing and lasting pain. If they died in a way that seems unjust, or early, we also feel anger. The pain is hard wired into us as part of the reality of love – it is one of the ways that we know love is real. Anger is hardwired into us as a response to injustice. Injustice is supposed to move us to action, and anger is what gets us moving.
There is no timetable or formula for grief. Everyone copes in their own way. But there are some important tools that everyone needs to have. Because everyone is unique, we cannot really know what to do for someone when they are suffering. We have some customs; we offer food, we offer company, we have rites and rituals that feel correct. But when we are dealing with loss the most effective tool we can have is the awareness and courage to ask for what we need. The awareness part is not easy for some of us. But the way you do it is to start doing the best you can to take care of yourself, and then notice where the gaps are. What is not getting done? What is it that you just cannot cope with right now? Then you ask yourself if perhaps it just doesn’t need to get done, but if it does, you need to ask for help. This is why community is absolutely essential for everyone. We access it and enjoy it at different levels, but we all will need it eventually. Most of us are lucky enough to have multiple communities (church, work, family) and the ability to build a community around us that meets our needs (doctors, therapists, mentors). If you have only one community and it is small, you do need to be sensitive to not burn them out, but you do this by asking with the clear assurance that saying “yes”, “no”, or “I can get to that at a later time”, are all acceptable answers.
While grieving, we need to lighten up. We need to slow down and do less. We need to make this OK in our life. We need to be rigorous about our self-care, we need to rest, eat, and take care of ourselves physically. It is a really good time to be super protective about addictions – more meetings – more chats with our sponsor. Developing good self-care skills, and dealing with our addictions when we are not under duress is really smart. It is optional however, and some of us don’t even notice how bad our self-care is until we get to the critical level. You might need a coach. If you know that your historical coping methods are addictive or destructive or harming, you need to move that problem up to the top of your list and engage some help to turn those habits down or off.
When we are grieving we need to connect – as often as is indicated. Introverts may have more of a tendency to crawl under a bush and lick their wounds, and to a certain extent this is natural for them, but there need to be trusted people who can check on you, who you will tolerate and be honest with. Extroverts who are grieving may need to be attended nearly round the clock for a while. Usually extroverts have a social system that can accommodate this.
When you have had a string of losses you will definitely need to up your self-care. It is my experience that losses often do come in clusters or waves. When you feel you are at your limits of receiving bad news, sometimes you need to restrict your access to news for a while. I mean this literally. We are all affected by the pummeling of our so often negative world. When you are hurting, turn the TV off, and stop looking at the headlines. Pick up something old and comforting, a favorite book, or pick up the phone and talk to someone who is consistently encouraging. If you feel like you ‘can’t take it’ any more, you may have to assign someone in your life to be your filter, and just ask not to be informed of any peripheral bad news for a week or so. This is caring filtering, not isolation – it is sometimes needful.
In our community, like all good communities, we share each other’s burdens. But sometimes we need to hold others in the Light very lightly. If you are on the edge, don’t try and hold the prayer list for the meeting. If you are at your edge, you get to therapeutically stop caring about others for a bit. This may sound unchristian to you, but it is not. This is an act of faith in God. You are saying to God, yourself and your community that you trust that God has infinite ways to help others, and that you are taking yourself out of the batting rotation for a bit, trusting that the skipper has other good hitters to put in the game. God will not be mad at you for this, and any human who would shame you for this, needs to be put at a little distance. This extends even to sitting in meeting. Be there if you want to be, if it comforts you. But if you can’t handle anyone else’s pain, you can stay away for a week and ask the pastor, or Ministry and Oversight to meet with you for individual care and worship. Only you can know if you need to be with others or not. But whatever you need to do to care for yourself, is all right with us.
Eventually you need start re-investing. First you can take the energy you would have spent on what is lost and invest it in yourself. But after a while you need to honor that loss by saying that it was so important to you that you need something like unto it in your life. You love again, you work again, you let the pain fade and seek out things that bring you joy. It is not a betrayal to those lost, when you seek out new interests, it honors their place in your life. As we proceed far enough into life, we not only reach out again to another ahead of us, but we reach out to those behind us, and repay our debt of love to new people. This is another round of acceptance.
Christ said that after the intervention of His life, that he would leave and a Comforter would come. This Spirit that we call the Present Christ or Spirit is all around us. We access it when we meet on Sundays, and when we practice our gratitude, petition and listening during the week. It is there whenever two of us have a cup of coffee. It is there on our pillows at night, and in our cereal bowl in the morning. You trust that Goodness and mercy are that near to you at all times, even and especially when you are in pain. Your pain does not mean that you are outside of a state of grace, it means that you are deeply in the center of God’s love.
I do not fully understand, no one does, why God allows the depth and variety and number of losses that we experience in this world. But with half a century in, I do believe that joy can outweigh pain, that peace can be the default setting that you return to, and that hope is not only realistic, that it is functional.
I hope this has been a help to you. We can talk about it some more. Just ask.

Comments:
Indeed. And thank you.
 
thanks Peg. I like all of the article a lot, including your prescriptives for self-care. They feel thought out and experienced.
I think my take on support people was something like... if your friend loses a child or a leg or a marriage of decades, what you don't do is look them in the eye sincerely and say "Call me anytime", because in most cases they won't. I certainly didn't.

In fact you go GET them, and take them home and feed them, and watch stupid TV over ice cream with them, and you invite them to talk or NOT, and then you put them to bed on the couch or in the spare room. repeat as needed.

Thank you for writing this. I already know people I want to send it to
 
Thank you.
 
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