Yesterday I had to make the decision to euthanize my elderly cat, her health is deteriorating and she is becoming harder to look after both health wise and behaviour wise. It is always hard to say goodbye to a member of the fur-family that has been with you so long. It is also pregnancy and infant loss awareness week, a week where I remember my loved and hard won embryos who failed to implant. It has turned my mind to all the different griefs and losses that I have experienced. From the personal sense of loss that I still carry from my infertility, to all the grief that my work with people has opened my eyes to. The grieving process that occurs when you say goodbye to a long-lived pet seems simple in the face of the complex grief of these things that are harder to express. The non-finite losses, the ambiguous and disenfranchised losses are not well understood by the church, society and mission agencies.
In Feb 1820 Sydney Smith (Anglican minister) provided the following advice to his friend Lady Georgiana Morpeth:
Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely – they are always worse for dignified concealment.
Almost 200 years have passed since Rev. Sydney gave that advice, yet it still seems that we default to dignified concealment more often than not. I detect some discomfort in openly engaging with the wider issues of grief and loss.
Let’s talk more about loss, let’s try to understand better.
It is even difficult to find agreed upon definitions of the different types of loss. Some writers use Non-finite loss where others use ambiguous loss, this is used to describe situations where there is a continuing and ever present sense of loss, it requires frequent re-adjustment of expectations, it is like living in a state of constant grief. This is the type of loss experienced by people dealing with infertility, chronic illness, adopted children dealing with the absence of birth parents, or carers dealing with the illness or disability of their relative. This can be related to disenfranchised loss which is when society or people don’t allow or encourage grieving for the particular loss that has occurred. There is also a type of disenfranchised loss that is common for those who belong to an oppressed or otherwise threatened group. Society doesn’t tend to recognise and support these more complex types of grief well. There is a lack of rituals and ceremonies, for mourning the losses. These are the losses that for so many of us lie under a layer of dignified concealment.
For those carrying the scars and awareness of loss the church can seem like a different planet. This gap was made most real to me when I was counselling, I would get off the phones at 12am and struggle into church the next morning where nothing that happened or was said seemed to relate to the pain that I was seeing in the world. The church is in danger of falling into what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “full solar spirituality”. (affiliatelink to Learning to Walk in the Dark). This focuses on “absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith” and is characterised by “striving to be positive in attitude”. In this type of church everything is greeted with a sunny smile and a worship song. Even in churches who may not be reflecting a “full solar spirituality” I am noticing an increasing obsession with wholeness, often expressed through the statement ‘Jesus came to make us whole’. There is a striving after healing and wholeness that comes close to idolisation, and mirrors wider western capitalist societies current obsession with and creation of the wellbeing industry. We need to make space for connecting with our loss; we need laments to sing, and safe environments in which to share, and connect with the losses of others. Jesus came not to make us whole, but to show us how to be fully and wonderfully human. He came to show us how to be human even in the lows of grieving over a city who refused to acknowledge him (Luke 19:41) and the highs of celebrating the resurrection of a good friend (John 11:44). There is power in Jesus brokenness that makes me wonder and meditate on what power there is also in our experience of loss. We are made in the image of God so our own experience of loss can give us insights into what grieves God.
Whenever I stop to explore the scars that the losses have left on me, I see that in some undefinable way they are what make me who I am today. They show me the path that my life has taken, the ways that I have grown. I am fascinated by the way that when Jesus was resurrected he still had his scars. He knew his scars and was comfortable to display his scars. I’m not quite there yet in understanding what that means, but the resurrected Jesus was not made whole – he was still scarred and that is significant to me. There is something in there for those of us who carry the scars of loss.
Jesus stands before you in all the loses that you have experienced and says examine my hands, see I have scars too.
What grieves your heart? Does it give you clues as to what grieves God’s heart?
What losses are you hiding with dignified concealment that you wish there was room for sharing in your church or organisation?