Dispatches from the Wilderness of Grief
Scottsdale, Arizona. Dec. 5, 2016
Dr. Wolfelt is a grief counselor and one of North America’s premier authors and educators in the area of grief and loss. He champions an approach called “companioning” mourners, in contrast to the “treating” model that has been common. Wolfelt founded and directs the Center for Loss and Life Transition and he presents numerous educational workshops each year for hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, funeral homes, community groups, and a variety of other organizations as well as trainings for bereavement caregivers like the one I am attending.
The training is not only excellent in terms of its content, but also with regard to the personal interaction that takes place during the sessions. Many skilled and compassionate people from all over North America have gathered and part of what happens is that we learn each other’s stories of loss and vocation.
Here’s a woman who unexpectedly lost her husband to a series of unanticipated infections a few years ago. They were deeply in love and the wound was deep. She found she couldn’t just go back to her former way of life without him. So she retired from her work as a special education teacher and is taking personal sabbatical time to travel, study, and explore the possibilities of working in a place where she can serve others who are grieving.
Here’s a man whose wife died of breast cancer. They too had been inseparable. Providentially, he was downsized out of his job and was able to care for her during her last months at home. Now he volunteers at a cancer center, providing support to others who are on similar journeys.
And then there is the story of a Roman Catholic woman who moved to a southern state when she got married so they could live near her in-laws. The first thing that extended family let her know when she got settled was that they understood she wasn’t really a Christian and that they were going to make her their project. In time, she became pregnant but lost the baby at full-term. In the midst of her grief, she received a card from the family church. Its message? “Maybe this is what will finally bring you to Jesus.”
This is akin to another who shared that when their baby died, the pastor visited them at the hospital and informed them that this had happened because the father worked for a brewery.
On a ledge in our conference room is a shelf where people have brought pictures and mementos of their loved ones who have died to honor them and keep them in mind as they take the training. There’s a picture of a little girl there with her dad. She described him as one of the kindest men she had ever known. Then in the next breath, she said, “And he was also an alcoholic who became abusive when he drank.” What a complicated mixture of memories and feelings she had to face and work through.
Another woman had a younger sister who had been ill from the time she was a little child. This woman had always been her sister’s caregiver, had always looked out for her, had always been there when she needed support or assistance. But a time came when she wasn’t available. An unexpected death in the family prompted a crisis in the younger sister’s life right at the same time the woman in our group had another family emergency. Unable to handle this death, her kid sister died by taking her own life. This woman had always been there to help her. But she wasn’t there that time. Now she’s dealing with the grief and regret of that. At the same time, she had always found her identity in caring for her sister — now who was she? She no longer knew who she herself was or who she might be in days to come.
Dr. Wolfelt talked today about the “ripple effects” of grief. Grief is not just about being sad that a loved one has died and is gone. Yes, we miss that person and mourn the loss of his/her presence, but we also grieve other losses that are organically connected to the relationship we had with that person.
- We grieve the loss of our self-identity. Part of our own self-understanding was grounded in the relationship that has now been changed forever by death. The important people in our lives are like mirrors who reflect who we are back to us. But now one of those mirrors has been removed. Who am I now? we ask.
- We grieve the loss of security. “I never knew how much grief felt like fear,” C.S. Lewis wrote. The people in our lives are anchors that give us a sense of stability and security. When one or more of them are removed from our lives, we can easily lose our bearings and begin to question whether anything is safe or solid.
- We grieve the loss of meaning. When we lose someone who has made a significant contribution to our lives, other things may seem rather unimportant when he/she is gone. The technical term for this is “anhedonia,” the inability to experience pleasure in things we’ve usually found enjoyable or meaningful. We also may lose meaning in the sense that the order we previously thought present in the universe has been shattered. We may find ourselves losing faith in things or people or beliefs or practices in which we previously put great stock. Loss can provoke a true existential crisis.
Usually we think of grief as it is related to death and bereavement, but grief is not confined to what we feel when we lose a loved one. We all face losses in many areas of life. And these same “ripple effects” — loss of self-identity, security, and meaning — flow over us with those losses too.
My own most significant loss was the loss of my vocation as a parish pastor before I found a new path through hospice chaplaincy. When all of that happened some twelve years ago, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had always been a pastor, now I wasn’t. It affected our family as well. My wife had always been a pastor’s wife, my kids PK’s. Our community, our networks were shattered — in other words the fundamental context in which we had lived our life for a quarter century was no more. Who was I? Who were we?
And I was scared. I had devoted myself to the church and in turn the church had always provided for me and my family. Now I was gone from the church through circumstances I didn’t choose. I had no idea what I was going to do. And there wasn’t a lot of time to figure out how I was going continue to do my part in taking care of a family of six plus a grandchild. I had fallen off the tightrope and there was no net in sight. Frightening.
As for the loss of meaning, this was the critical juncture that put me squarely in no-man’s land, in the post-evangelical wilderness. All the questions that had nagged me for years about evangelical doctrine, pastoral ministry, and church practice rose to the surface like a thousand barracudas and began eating away at my flesh. It hurt, it made me angry, and I felt badly let down by a world that had defined “God” and “faith” and “the meaning of life” for me through the first part of my adult life. Now the one thing I knew was that I could not go back to the way I had previously practiced my faith. But what next?
Who am I? Can I trust anything to keep me safe? Where do I go?
What I’m learning through this conference so far is that what we grieve, we must mourn.
Grieving is the complex inner response to loss.
Mourning is made up of the outward expressions by which we acknowledge our grief and work through it until it becomes more and more integrated into our lives.
We never stop grieving, but our losses can become part of our lives in such a way that we can carry them with us and move forward into a new normal. We can forge a renewed identity, find more peace in the midst of life’s uncertainties, and discover a broader and deeper sense of meaning than we ever thought possible.
In many ways, I thank God through Jesus that I am on that path.
As the poet said, however, “miles to go before I sleep.”