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The Spiritual Work of Honoring our Losses and Grief by Eileen Campbell-Reed

My pastor Rev. April Baker and I recently preached a dialogue sermon. It was part of a series on facing transitions in our congregation. I want to share a question she asked in the sermon and my response.

Pastor April said, “Eileen, you’ve talked about how grief has to be part of what we acknowledge, express, and hold. Can you talk about ways that a community can lament? And how can we love each other in individual grief?

I think it’s important to start by naming the kinds of loss as we experienced over the last three years and even prior to that. It’s important to acknowledge that all of us are carrying grief with us all the time. That is the nature of life. We lose when we love, and we have to think and decide how we’re going to live with those losses.

Often in the beginning – and sometimes for years or decades – those losses can feel and be debilitating. People have lost a loved one or home or a job or marriage or another significant relationship, or the church itself, or some ability of their own body or identity. Those losses are profound. They cannot simply be resolved. “Closure” is not an option with most of these losses.

Ambiguous Loss

Other losses are more hidden. They are harder to see. For example, Families often experience losses in relationships in which a person is present in the family yet cannot participate or engage so they are there but not there.

Some families also experience the converse. There are family members who are no longer present physically. They move away. They become lost metaphorically or literally. They are lost through divorce, or cut-off, or suicide. And in these kinds of losses the person is not there. And yet their presence, their emotional impact on the family, is still very much there and very real.

Psychologist Pauline Boss has a helpful term for these losses: she calls them ambiguous loss. Perhaps you have an example in your own family of an ambiguous loss? And you must find ways to live with that loss even if the world doesn’t see it as a loss or accept that you are grieving.

During the last three years, personally and collectively we experienced uncountable ambiguous losses. We lost the habits and routines, the connections that make up church experience for us. Things we do, like moving through worship, eating together, and other activities of our community of faith, actions we do by body, as if without thinking. Yet during lockdown and months or years of online connections, they were no longer available to us. And these ambiguous losses are just as a real – even if they’re hard to name, and hard to grieve.

Spiritual Work of Grief

Thus, acknowledging our losses (clear and ambiguous ones), and not simply naming them, but also making space for grief, is very valuable spiritual and theological work. We need to ask each other and ourselves: how are we going to integrate this loss into our life? How does God love us through our losses?

So many impulses culturally and in churches push us to simply move on. Or ask people: Aren’t you over that yet? Or, surely, you’re not still grieving that? Or, how long do you think it will take you to get over that? These are not useful questions. In fact, they can be harmful and shut down what people have lost, giving them no sense that our faith community is a space where we talk about the difficulties and challenges of life.

Rather let us find ways in our small groups and in worship and in church gatherings to acknowledge loss and grief. Let’s ask questions like, How are you doing? And then really listen. How is it with your soul? Listen. What and whom are you missing? How are you finding ways to live with that absence, that loss, your grief? Keep listening.

And we need to give attention to our rituals of communion and singing and prayer and fellowship so that they allow us space to think individually and collectively about our losses, both the ambiguous and the concrete ones.

We lost many people since 2020. And we also lost many rituals, habits, and embodied ways of knowing for a long season. Those losses are real, but they are not the end of our story.

Honoring the losses

Our church has a wing of our building that is on its way out. It was damaged structurally by a windstorm last year. So the education wing is currently here but not here. We are about to lose a portion of our holy place. How can we mark the loss when it comes time to bring the building down? How can we enfold that ending with our rituals and worship and prayers and allow an acknowledgment of the stories of what happened in that building? The baby I nursed ... the children I taught ... the songs we sang ... the weavings we made ... that place will be gone.

And we don’t have to rush to what glorious thing will be next when we acknowledge losses. We can simply let them be what they are, honoring of the good that is passing away. When we do that, take time to name and honor the losses, then we are better equipped for telling future stories because we have honored the past, our losses, and our grief.

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