Grief and loss are part of life – for all of us. Yes, you too. However, the way they are experienced can vary from person to person and that experience is influenced by many factors, including but not limited to culture, faith, religious belief, personal experiences and circumstances surrounding the loss. Death, though very significant, is not the only kind of loss and thus, not the only source of grief. People lose jobs, income, relationships, community, ability, normalcy, and hope too. There are children who have lost the routine of their school day- no more recess or story time with their friends. High school seniors cannot attend prom or commencement. Small business owners are unable to open shop. Someone has experienced a theft. Congregations can no longer meet for fellowship. There’s no more working out at the gym. People are unable to be present with their loved ones at the end of life. And rituals - the ceremonies we participate in as we celebrate milestones like birthdays or anniversaries as well as those that bring us healing during our grieving process, like funerals - have been postponed.
Everyone is grieving; yet, the way we deal with grief is broken. Instead of encouraging people to name their grief, they are encouraged to ignore it. Rather than sitting in the discomfort of their grief, people are told to push it aside. We treat grief like an illness and those who have it as if they should self-quarantine until they are no longer sad or angry or anxious and can highlight for us how this loss has made them a better person. Quite frankly, I'm an ordained clergywoman and I am still not so sure that every loss will make or has made me better. On the contrary, I believe that there are some wounds that are neither healed by tears nor time. We learn how to live with the wound- like we learn how to live with an amputation. Additionally, I believe that anger is a perfectly acceptable emotion for one to feel when grieving. In fact, anger is an appropriate emotion, unlike what many of us have been taught. I love the church and I have found that the church is a place where I have been encouraged not to feel anger or sadness, instead I have been encouraged to turn those emotions over to Jesus so that I might walk in victory. Yet, expressing emotion is modeled by Jesus. In John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” reminds us that the one whom God sent to remind us of God’s love for us, expresses sadness or sorrow through the shedding of tears. Whether you subscribe to the belief that Jesus wept because others were sad, because he was sad, both or something else altogether, he wept.
Yet, because we have not learned how to name emotions and are uncomfortable feeling our own emotions, we, therefore, encourage others not to feel. Some of what I have heard over the years, in the name of comforting the bereaved, is quite painful. These clichés and platitudes are neither helpful nor life-giving. Platitudes, even when rooted in good intention, can come across as dismissive and downright cruel. A dear friend who has been pastoring for over 20 years enrolled in his first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education not just because it is a great opportunity for anyone providing pastoral or spiritual care, but because he no longer wanted to hurl well-intentioned, yet unhelpful platitudes at those who were grieving. When his father died, roughly a year earlier, it brought him deep pain. During this time, the niceties he heard ranged from “God doesn’t make mistakes” to “God will not give us more than we can bear.” He found the comments empty, lacking compassion. When he realized that he had said the same to others, he knew it was time to find a better way to come alongside those who are grieving.
Grief – the combination of feelings, thoughts and behaviors - is a natural response to loss. It is very personal and yet universal. Grief, by its very nature, is irregular and sometimes difficult to interpret and the implications are not only emotional and spiritual, but they can be physical, economic, social, and existential. Emotional responses can range from sadness to irritation to anger to relief. Physically we might find ourselves fatigued or restless. Some experience and express grief through their behavior, for example, one might withdraw from family and community. And it can hit you at any time - sometimes the most unexpected time. About 6 months ago, I was asked to eulogize my cousins' father. Their mother was my biological cousin, and she died when I was thirteen years old. I hadn't had a significant cry or felt any deep sadness in years, when thinking about her. So, it was not that I hadn’t thought about her, I had. However, when thinking about her, it just didn’t elicit that kind of emotion. However, when I walked into that funeral home, the wind was knocked out of me. I felt like the thirteen-year-old all over again. I couldn’t breathe. I didn't try to push it away; I allowed myself the moment of sadness and I did not attempt to control my tears. And I have found that to be one of the keys to dealing with grief. It is critical to understand that there is nothing wrong with grief; just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. Know that what you are feeling is common. So, feel what you feel and know that you are not alone. We are all grieving. You are not alone.
We are ALL grieving. YOU are not alone. And anyone who tries to shame you because of your grief, tell them #bebest and keep it moving.
You are not alone. We are all grieving...even if we haven't named it yet.
I don't know about you, but I can probably do a better job listening. The problem with listening is that it is so easy not to do. As much as I like to believe that I am an excellent, well, adequate listener, I know that this is not always true. And I listen to people for a living. More than just the receiving of words and sounds, listening requires us to give our full attention to something other than ourselves. Listening draws us closer; it invites us into an intimate dance with the speaker.
The fundamental paradox of listening is that it requires that we bring all of us to the moment and keep ourselves out the way, simultaneously. Active listening requires us to pay attention to body language and tone of voice. It necessitates that we not only notice but honor silence. To listen effectively, we need to have a sufficient level of self-awareness. We must know what someone can say that will trigger sadness, anger, or joy within us. We need to be aware of which subjects make us uncomfortable or defensive. Ideally, we do this so that we can admit in what situations listening will be difficult for us.
As a chaplain, listening means that I hear words, notice movement in the body, and discern the emotions behind what is being said. I am trained to listen, and I usually do well. But I know there is always room for growth. Self-reflection after visits helps me identify my growing edges, such as limits to my emotional availability, my innate desire to fix and sometimes control, and other barriers to listening. I recognized a wall in my ability to listen during a not so recent visit. Sherry was visiting her mother, Deborah. Deborah, who was my patient, was near the end of life. As Sherry talked, she shared that her mother had overcome so many obstacles, from addition to abuse, and had finally "gotten herself together." Sherry explained that she and her mother were just becoming reacquainted because "she walked out on us when we was kids when she was on that stuff." But Sherry explained that she had forgiven her mother and was looking forward to them spending time together since we're both "clean now." During the visit, Sherry mentioned her siblings several times and how they haven't spoken in years, and she was disappointed because they were not present. "How could they not be here?" she asked with what I perceived as disgust in her voice.
Instead of allowing Sherry the space to grieve, I tried to explain that her siblings might also be grieving, but in a different way. My desire to defend her siblings' absence was my own need. When she mentioned her disappointment in them because they were not present, I thought about my relationship with my father and how I had not always been present in his life. And while none of my siblings have ever said nor do I believe they feel it, I've always feared that maybe they thought I didn't care during the years I stayed away. I wanted Sherry to know that just because I wasn't, I mean, just because they weren't present doesn't indicate a lack of love for their mother.
If I had been able to acknowledge the barrier within myself, I might have been able to move it out of the way long enough to listen to what she was saying to me. She had spent the majority of her life estranged from her mother and siblings. And just as they begin a new relationship, her mother ends up in the hospital. And her siblings are not only absent from her mother's bedside, but they are also missing from her side. Imagine the hope she felt after reuniting with her mother. Over 40 years apart, but here is their second chance. Reuniting with her mother may have invited the dream of reunification with her siblings. And within the next few hours, her mother will be gone. How could I miss the heaviness of her grief? Once again, she is alone- no mother and no siblings. While she didn't say, "I don't feel like you are listening to me," she would not have been wrong if she had done so. I missed it.
During this visit, it was my defensiveness, but there are other barriers to listening well, like selfishness, control, and fear. Do you know what obstacles hinder your listening? I know how I feel when someone is not listening to me. I feel disregarded- like I don't matter. And who wants to talk when you don't feel valued? But when I know that someone is listening to me, I feel affirmed and appreciated and willing to share.
This coronavirus has us practicing social distance, but we are still making contact with our patients and still reaching out to and hearing from our congregation. We are still having conversations with our lovers, our friends. How well are you listening during those interactions? Sometimes you can read body language because you are on the phone, but are you paying attention to the tone of voice? Are you rushing through the silence? Are you distracted? And yes, I know we are dealing with plenty of distractions.
Notwithstanding the distractions, as pastoral and spiritual care practitioners, our communities need to know that someone is listening as they try to navigate their way through disruption, discomfort, disease, and death. We are someone. And when we listen, we are saying, “I see you.” And who among us doesn’t want to be seen?
Over the last several months, I have listened to and watched many sermons. Many of those sermons have reminded me of my responsibility, as a Christian, to forgive. They have called me to declare victory; to remember that God is still on the throne; to rise above the hateful rhetoric; and, to place at the forefront my duty toward forgiveness and reconciliation.
With each news report about this administration’s harmful antics, the message is preached that much harder. And I’ve discovered that instead of bringing hope to its listeners, it reinforces what I will call a passive faith ideology. It tells you that whatever the situation, no matter how harmful or toxic, you should remain in it for this is God’s will and God will eventually rescue you. Not only should you remain in the harmful, toxic situation, you shouldn’t question why you are there because that demonstrates a lack of faith. And above all things, you should not make any attempt to remove yourself, because God must be trying to teach you something. You sir, you ma’am must be the bigger person.
This tactic is not a new one. We’ve seen it with the women and men who are told to return to and reconcile with their abusive spouses before the spouse has done any work to address their behavior. You saw it when the families of those killed by self-defined white supremacist, Dylan Roof, rushed to immediate forgiveness. You see it everyday someone is told to remain in a place where someone in authority has violated them, as an example of their Christian witness. This type of reconciliation absolves you of any responsibility to initiate change and teaches you how to keep the peace rather than showing you how to be a peacemaker. After all, we aren't called to keep the peace, which really means maintaining the status quo. We were called to be peacemakers, which requires uprooting injustice and creating an atmosphere where justice equity, mercy and love thrive.
And quite frankly, I am sick of it. So, let’s set the record straight. Calling victims to reconcile for the sake of reaching some political accommodation without addressing critical questions of injustice is not reconciliation at all. Reconciliation calls for an outing (or naming) of the injustice and then works to remove it at its root. Reconciliation requires the permanent laying down of power and privilege in order to restore (or establish) right and just and balanced relationships. Reconciliation calls for us to push back against the oversimplification of the demand for Christian love and forgiveness; a sort of “can’t we all just get along” rhetoric. Curtis Paul DeYoung reminds us, “Reconciliation is not appeasement, assimilation, a passive peace, a unity without cost, or maintaining power with only domestic changes”.
So preachers, don't call me to reconciliation, if you are also calling me to remain comfortable in my oppression. Don't call me to reconciliation, if you refuse to speak about the unjust systems under which we live. Don’t call me to reconciliation without also calling me to resist the empire and its ideologies of domination. Don’t call me to reconciliation if you cannot acknowledge that Jesus came to set the oppressed free. Because if you do, it is clear that you are not calling for reconciliation, you are calling me to maintain the status quo. And it’s rather oxymoronic, isn’t it, to preach to me about a liberating Christ without encouraging me to really be free?
But this is not surprising, in the least. For religion has often been used to support the socio-economic status quo by teaching people how to adapt to the system, rather than empowering them to change it. Religion, at times, can be as oppressive as the systems it claims to be called to correct. So Reverend sir, Reverend ma’am, you can keep your sermons. I’d rather pray with my feet and show my faith in these streets. But when you are ready to talk about uprooting injustice and resistance as a part of reconciliation, let me know. I would love to join you in THAT conversation.
J. Frederika Eaddy
I'm a grief and loss navigation specialist. I love reading, preaching, 90's hip-hop, poetry, pink lipstick, Rizpah and shoes. I believe in Black Girl Magic, that Black people need therapy and that Black Lives Matter. #PhillyJawn $DaChaplain