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Grief: The Hardest Thing

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div, M.S.A.

Number 51


Part of being a "seelsorger" certainly has its joys. But it also has its disappointments. Indeed, to be in ministry is to be exposed to tears, heartache, and sometimes seemingly unstoppable tears.
 
Perhaps the hardest part of ministry is the grief and tears of a caring, Christian pastor. Leaving a parish to begin a new pastorate or to retire may incite deep grief…regardless of whether one did so willingly or under duress.
 
Rejection, betrayal, dashed hopes and expectations, thinking of what could have and should have been, the frustration of seeing people destroy what took so long to build—and not being able to stop it are just a few of the grief-evoking events which, in addition to the loss of key members, leaders and confidants, take a heavy toll on a minister’s grieving heart.
 
Grief Is A "Funny" Thing
 
One thing about grief that I’ve learned is that grief is a "funny" thing. During grief, you can never predict how you—or others—will respond. Sometimes grief will manifest itself as anger or greater irritability. Sometimes grief makes us edgy; other times it causes us to withdraw.
 
Grief also has a way of showing up unexpectedly. Just when we think we’re over it, we may find ourselves suddenly in tears or angry as grief brings out memories. It’s the unexpected things that make grief so difficult. No one can predict how they’ll respond in grief. It can’t be controlled; it has no pre-set duration. Sometimes it will hit you harder than you’ve ever imagined. Yes, "grief is a funny thing."
 
What To Expect
 
Certainly most ministry professionals are aware of Kuebler-Ross’ "Five Stages of Grief." We’re probably all familiar with the stages: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. And we know that they don’t necessarily always occur in that order…or by themselves. Other "expected" grief dynamics are that we will grieve on the anniversaries of various key dates and on those special holidays which meant so much.
 
But sometimes we may not be aware of other things about grief. For example, the ninth month after the loss is often the beginning of the most intense grief. Why nine months is a significant time of grief is unknown. Perhaps it mirrors the nine months of conception and indicates the "birth" of the recognition that loss has brought us to the threshold of a new way of life.
 
Grief's Foci
 
Present grief tends to remind us of past hurts. The loss of something of great value, the loss of a family member friend, or the loss of a confidant will often reflect back to other significant losses. The result is that the present grief is compounded by the grief of previous losses. This may or may not be a conscious process. Nevertheless, the experience of compounded grief is very real and not to be underestimated.
 
Closely related to this is that our grief focuses on our greatest psychological needs. Since our earliest days of infancy, we have developed individual needs. Some of these needs were met by our family or other significant others. Others were unmet.
 
Grief often focuses on the loss of fulfillment of those critical individual needs. Such needs may include our most important needs of security, belonging, safety, attention, unconditional love and acceptance, etc. When these needs are unfulfilled, they attack the root of our emotional well-being. Grief is a painful recognition that our source of fulfillment is lost.
 
Grief causes searching behaviors. During grief we vigilantly search for that person or thing we have lost. So many of the things we see, hear or experience will painfully remind us again of the emptiness of our loss.
 
During grief, we also tend to generalize the sights and sounds of our environment and apply them to our personal pain. The words of familiar songs suddenly become painfully personal. Hymns, Scripture readings, and other literatures somehow seem to be directed specifically at us and our situation, inciting fear, anger, loneliness, tears, or other grief responses. Indeed, reading various self-help materials in grief can help us recover from grief and find a "new" friend—books.
 
Expect The Unexpected
 
Counseling others with their difficulties may bring unexpected pain for ministry professionals. During intense grief, some pastors will develop a "radar" to see the hurt in others. The experience of one’s own pain often sensitizes our awareness of other’s pain. You may find yourself saying, "I can just see it in their eyes!"
 
Listening and supporting others in their hurt often opens the wounds of our personal hurt and gives painful, personal reminders of our loss and the issues which accompanied our loss. Their hurt reminds us of our hurt. At times it can be heart-wrenching and an emotionally draining experience.
 
Another unexpected effect of grief is that it opens the door to unwarranted guilt. No matter how strong one’s Christian faith is, no matter how much one clings to the freedom of which Paul spoke in Galatians 5:1 and elsewhere, pastors—no less than others—may experience deep guilt. Such guilt may be far beyond the "normal" level of guilt. When such overwhelming and unshakable guilt occurs, pastors and ministry professionals ought to be prepared to get professional Christian counseling without delay.
 
Professional counseling will not only provide the appropriate atmosphere for support, but may help to identify other causes for the deep sense of guilt including depression or other forms of mental illness. Individuals experiencing deep guilt should also undergo a complete physical examination. Be sure to insist on a complete blood profile as part of this examination to examine possible endocrine or other chemical imbalances.
 
Though there may be many other types of unexpected things about grief, a final thing to expect in grief is that the second year is probably the hardest. During this time one realizes that re-adjustments need to be made. Individuals will struggle against the loneliness, the anger, the rejection, feelings of failure, the sense of alienation and guilt to try to re-build, re-orient, and re-establish their families, their ministries, and their lives.
 
Grief And Spiritual Development
 
Grief can throw pastors (no less than others) into an unparalleled, unexpected—and, admittedly—unwanted painful path of spiritual development. Grief reminds us of the importance of a regular, daily, intimate connection with God. In loss, we will struggle with the nature of God and our willingness to acknowledge and follow His plan for us.
 
Since grief focuses on the momentary and temporary, it tends to block out our awareness of the broad scope of God’s plan for our entire life. After the grief has passed, we will come to understand how God used the grief to develop, deepen, shape and strengthen the character of our faith and trust in God.
 
During grief, there may be times when we will experience certain inexplicable happenings, coincidences, insights—this Scott Peck calls moments of "grace"—which give us inexplicable relief, comfort, support or recognition that God really is with us and that what is happening really is part of His plan.
 
The Greatest Difficulty Of Grief
 
Perhaps the greatest difficulty of grief is not having a "blueprint" of grief. Such blue print is not a "planned" way to grieve. Rather, it’s a pattern of grieving that one has learned from previous grief experiences. The first time people experience grief of an overwhelming, unprecedented magnitude in their lives, it totally devastates the one grieving. The more difficult grief we’ve experienced, the more we know what to expect. Thus, we create a personal "blueprint" of our unique pattern of grief.
 
One thing which pastors have difficulty with is the grief related to congregational life. Conflicts, resignations, schism, splits, betrayals, being forced out, et al. all evoke grief for which many pastors may have not yet developed a personal grief "blueprint." Unprepared and largely unsupported in these times of congregational difficulties, the grief struggle may be much more intense.
 
Having no previous experience, nowhere to "hang the hat" of the barrage of emotions, grieving pastors may experience thoughts, actions and lack of control never before imagined or experienced…and totally out of character. All these are indicators that grief has taken its toll; coping mechanisms have failed. Unless appropriately addressed, the failure of coping mechanisms can lead to disastrous consequences.
 
Some Suggestions For Your Grief
 
1) Admit that grief is hard work. It's probably the hardest thing you'll ever do! Whether you’re grieving personal losses or losses relating to ministry, go through the work of grief.

2) Give yourself time to grieve. It’s not a sin to take time for yourself. Give yourself an opportunity to do what helps your grief experience most—take a walk, read a book, visit a friend, do a project or hobby item, ...whatever.

3) Make grief a spiritual experience. Read through the Scriptures with the eye of grief. Consider the depth and diversity of the grief of God’s servants—from Job, who lost everything; to Abraham, who spent three days grieving the death of Isaac; Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Paul and, of course, Jesus.
 
Consider and examine what made them strong in their weakness. Study the Psalms and see David’s pattern for dealing with adversity and loss. In each case, those in grief went through the difficult emotional struggle of grief. But each time they grieved, they came to a recognition that it was God’s strength and plan that upheld them before, during, and after the grief..

4) Don’t pour all your grief on just one person. Even family, best friends and deepest confidants have limits to what they can endure. Sometimes the awareness of your grief may remind them of their grief…and scare them. They want to help…but don’t expect more than what they can give. See a counselor instead.

5) Don’t dwell in the past. It can’t come back and it won’t come back. God never calls us to the past. His call is always to His glorious future plan for us. Let Him take you…even if He has to drag you!

6) Explore and expand your spirituality. The Christian faith is not just a stale, professional, academic exercise. It’s the greatest experience of grace. Experience God’s nearness, His love, His guidance in a fresh way.

7) Re-examine your level of self-differentiation. Especially when grief is professionally related, the experience of grief can be more difficult for those who have totally immersed themselves into their ministry…and invested so little in the rest of their lives. Even in severe conflict, don’t shortchange your emotional needs for self-differentiation.

8) Be your own best friend. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Jesus didn’t die on the cross just for your parishioners; He died for you, too! Enable yourself to be forgiven. Seek out a brother/confessor. Sometimes the sharing of the Eucharist in a private setting with another pastor can bring a special sense of God’s nearness, strength, and forgiveness in those times we need it most.

9) Always be prepared for loss. Tragedy, trauma and change are virtually unpredictable and uncontrollable. The best preparation for loss is the recognition that it can happen at a moment’s notice. Note what things were most helpful when you're grieving. Discover how others cope with their grief. Then consider how these things may be helpful the next time grief comes around.

10) Examine your attachments and boundaries. Make sure they’re healthy and appropriate. There’s nothing more devastating than to go through grief for
something (or someone) to which the attachment was inappropriate, idolatrous, or unhealthy.

11) Trust God to bring healing. Grief is merely a stepping stone for a new life. Be open to this great work of God to bring you to a brighter, stronger future as His servant.

12) Finally, remember that, in Christ, after every death is a resurrection. It's the essence of our Christian Faith. Claim it, preach it, experience it, and live it...with joy!
 

Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:57 PM