How to properly process loss
The older I get, the more I understand about loss simply because I have experienced it more. If I had written this article when I was 20, I may have had a few valuable things to say, but I wouldn’t have really known what I was writing about.
Generally, when we speak of loss, we think of the physical death of someone we’ve loved. Most of us know the ache of saying goodbye to someone precious. I understand that kind of loss; I’ve lost my father, my mother, my brother and several dear friends. These were deep, life-changing losses for me.
But loss is so much broader than just physical death. It’s one of the topics we discuss with the pastors and church leaders who visit us at Kerith Retreats, and it is one of the topics that elicits the most response. When we ask pastors to articulate some of the losses they’ve experienced in ministry, they say they’ve experienced:
- Loss of trust in a staff member who betrayed or undermined me.
- Loss of reputation due to ministry failure or what some have perceived as ministry failure.
Loss of respect due to gossip that’s circulated in the church or the community.
- Loss of congregants when they left our church and headed to another one.
- Loss of relationship when a trusted confidant moved away.
- Loss of family and friends when we moved to a new church.
- Loss of stamina due to the aging process.
- Loss of passion; I found I didn’t care as much as I once had.
- Loss of hope; I couldn’t see things ever getting any better.
- Loss of dreams; I couldn’t believe things hadn’t turned out the way I had planned or prayed they would.
That’s a lot of loss.
To further complicate matters, it appears few of us are adequately equipped to navigate this lonely, confusing road. Looking back now, I wish there had been a required course in seminary: “Losses in ministry: Everything you wish you didn’t need to know.” At least it would have prepared us for the inevitable.
Many of us, rather than working through our losses, will deny them, minimize them, rationalize them or simply quietly withdraw so we don’t have to deal with them at all. We turn away from our losses instead of turning towards them which, sadly, delays our healing.
Interestingly, we find pastors (ourselves included) are often much better at helping others walk through their losses than actually dealing with their own.
How then do we handle our losses in a way that is both authentic and God-honouring? In his book Recovering from Losses in Life, Norman Wright says, “Grief is our own personal experience. Our loss does not have to be accepted or validated by others for you to experience and express grief.”
He goes on to say that “every loss in life needs the recognition that the connection is broken and life will be different.”
Wright, along with many others who are considered experts in this field, suggest taking the time to sit alone quietly, in a safe place, and begin to write down the losses that you have suffered. One by one. And then grieve those losses, one at a time.
You may wonder, “If I start listing my losses, will I ever stop?” Maybe you’ll be so overwhelmed with emotion that you’ll get stuck. You may try and figure out what value there would be in going over your losses. Isn’t what’s lost, lost? What’s done, done?
I used to wonder the same thing, until I sat down with a pen and paper and began to write.
Something happens when you simply present the list of losses you’ve experienced to One who loves you deeply and promises to heal the broken-hearted.
This quote from Roy Fairchild resonated deeply with me:
“The refusal to mourn is the refusal to say good bye to beloved persons, places, missed opportunities or whatever has been taken away. Many of us, especially in the ministry follow this pattern of refusal. Genuine grief, is the deep sadness and weeping, that expresses the acceptance of our inability to do anything, about our losses. It is a prelude to letting go, to relinquishment. It is the dying, that precedes resurrection.”
This reminded me of what the apostle Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.”
Though Paul is talking about those who have died physically, this is a good principle for us to remember about the many losses we suffer as children of God.
Certainly, we need to grieve those things that have passed away – the death of what we thought our lives or ministries or families would look like – but even in the grieving of those things, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. And through our tears, we remember that the God who loves us and called us is not finished with us yet.
Merrie and Marshall Eizenga are the program directors at our Kerith Retreats Alberta location. For more information on our retreats visit KerithRetreats.ca.