Transitional times are hard: change is hard. We are moved off our familiar maps and onto new terrain that feels unfamiliar and is often unmapped.
Change, even good and desired change, entails loss: to step into the new, we have to say good-bye to the old. That’s a loss. And the appropriate response to loss is grief: sorrow, sadness, mourning; perhaps anger, often depression.
You may be familiar with the famous “five stages of grief” popularized by Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross. While her template has been criticized by some, it still offers a meaningful way to understand grief as a process we go through, rather than a set of emotions that merely overwhelm and deplete us.
The first stage is denial: this isn’t happening! Next come anger: this can’t be, shouldn’t be, happening! Then bargaining: how could we make a deal so this won’t happen, to undo or reverse it? Next comes depression: I feel crushed by what has happened, overwhelmed by sorrow, sadness, heaviness. Depression can be a form of anger in slow motion. Finally, hopefully, comes acceptance: since this has happened, how will I respond?
Grief is both individual and communal or corporate: I grieve and we grieve. And we grieve in very different ways. In the community that is our family, our church or spiritual fellowship, our workplace or neighborhood, sometimes even our nation, there are a variety of pathways through the grieving process. Whatever the loss is, it strikes us, affects us, in different ways and to different degrees. This can make the grief process even more confusing: one of us seems to come unglued in the face of loss; another seems perfectly OK with it, still others appear to withdraw or become bitter … and my own response doesn’t easily match up with any of what I see others going through around me. Am I insensitive? Not really in touch with myself or the reality of this loss? Tis can be further exacerbated when we put our own grief process onto others: why aren’t you feeling and responding in the same ways that I am?
Jesus said, on the evening before his death, “It is for your good that I am going away. If I don’t go, the Comforter (the Holy Spirit), will not come; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death, his departure: what a tremendous loss! And yet: “It is for your good …” Something deeply painful and deeply necessary needs to happen in the lives of these followers of Jesus: he needs to go so that the Comforter can come.
Comfort is, etymologically, a strong word: its root is the Latin fortis, strong/strength. To comfort someone means to come alongside to put strength into them, to help them grow through the process of grieving. Not get through it; grow in and by it.
We cannot live wisely or fully or well without experiencing change, and change, especially at first, feels like loss (and sometimes only loss). So the question is not how can we avoid grief, but how are we invited to grow through our various experiences of grief.
I want to unpack this further by looking at the situation our church is facing: our pastor (me) of the past twenty-plus years is stepping out of that position and role at the end of September. Further, he and his wife are planning to relocate, out of the area. Big changes, significant loss. It’s in some ways easier for them: they are moving from a known and good situation into another (fairly well) known and good situation. On the other hand, those here are moving from the known into the unknown.
The good news for all of us is that no one is dying or sick, there is no crisis (other than the crisis generated by retirement and relocation); the situation is nothing like an infection that desperately needs to be lanced. No one is making me walk the plank, and we have nothing but love and gratitude and great joy in all of you.
And we need to grieve. Our losses are real. Let me offer some thoughts about how we might view our grieving process as also a growing process.
First, offer one another lots of room to feel whatever we’re feeling, and to give voice to it. Make room for the reality that we will feel different thigs at different times; we won’t all be in the same place at the same time.
Secondly, remember that you are responsible for your feelings and what you do with them, but you are not responsible for what others are feeling, nor to make them “feel better.” If you are angry, you must acknowledge that, but not sin because of it: “be angry but sin not.” Anger can turn into sin when our anger drives us to gossip, to bitterness, to harsh criticism and so on. And sometimes anger can turn us towards sin like withdrawal, indifference, apathy. Until we can recognize and give appropriate expression to what we’re feeling, we will never get past what we’re feeling: we will be controlled by our emotions, instead of being led by the Spirit. We can grow as active, attentive, good listeners and sounding-boards for one another without going into “fixer” mode. We move from problem-solving, which is so often about me imposing my solution onto someone else’s problem, to person-serving mode: how might the Spirit want to work through me, primarily by my attentive listening and open-ended questioning, to help my brother or sister better discern what the Spirit is saying to them, doing in them and inviting them into?
Thirdly, it takes time. It is a process. The landscape, both my interior landscape and the exterior landscape of my circumstances, will look different in three months, six months, a year and beyond. It’s a process but without a set timetable. Our main task is not to “move on” or “get over it,” but to learn how the Spirit is inviting us, individually and as a community, to grow through it.
Finally and most importantly, the Comforter has come. God the Holy Spirit indwells you, to put strength into you, to allow the forge of grief to further fashion you as a faithful, fruitful follower of Jesus. Yes, we need consolation, we need to be wept with, and we also need to be encouraged, strengthened, and supported in addressing ourselves well to our changed reality. That reality has changed, that’s why we are grieving, but the important question becomes “Now what?” Now that this loss has happened, now that I am in the midst of my sadness and mourning, what follows? What good does God intend for me, for us, through this time that is simultaneously full of severity and full of mercy?
So grief invites us to deepen our intimacy with Jesus by the Spirit. We are not denying or “spiritualizing” our experiences of loss and grief, but we are also not allowing ourselves to be defined and constrained by our loss. We so readily attach ourselves to that which is not Christ alone and Christ himself: attached to things, people, routines, “the way it should be.” Of course things and people and routines can be good gifts from our generous God; however, part of the purpose of loss and grief is to detach us from “needing” these good things, thereby enabling us to better and more fully enjoy and appreciate them. We really do find our identity and security elsewhere than in Christ, and change helps us relinquish those false sources of identity and security, and to find ourselves more deeply rooted and grounded in God’s unchanging, unfailing, unending love for us in Christ by the Spirit.