Nearly six months ago my beloved partner died unexpectedly, tragically and traumatically. At the time I was coordinating the response group to Uniting our future. I was immersed in the grief and loss that resulted from the proposed sale of properties.
Among the properties being sold were the buildings of the second congregation I served as minister which resulted in personal grief at the pain being caused to people I loved and ministered with, grief at the loss of a place that held many memories for me.
This grief caused me to wonder and puzzle about my own ministry, about our ministry together and the role of the church in contemporary society. Then abruptly I was immersed in my own loss and very deep sadness.
Six months on I offer some reflection on grief, my own grief and grief in communities of faith, acknowledging each experience of grief is unique, with the hope that sharing my own story will help others.
Death is a significant moment in a life, not the whole life.
This has been an important truth for me to learn as I’ve grieved Michael, particularly because he died by suicide and, for some people, the manner of his death has become the defining narrative of his life.
It is not. It is part of the narrative of his life – a very sad part – but it is not all his life. He was so much more. He was a loving son, partner, father and friend. He was a valued employee, an active member of his parish, a musician and visual artist. He was full of fun, lively and engaging company. He was all these things and so much more and his death and the manner of his death doesn’t change these things.
The same is true of a church that closes or a program that is ended.
The ending is not the only or even defining word about who that congregation, group and program were. The fact of closure, or the way it was closed, does not negate the lives of faith sustained by a worshipping community, the witness borne or the service undertaken.
The goodness is not undone; the lives changed are still changed, the mercy shown lives on.
Nor are the events that lead to an ending or closure all there is to say about the life of a congregation, group or program.
A congregation’s life and story are more than declining numbers, shrinking finances, decreased effectiveness. A congregation’s legacy is the whole of its history, its success and failures, all it undertook, and its life of worship, witness and service.
And most important in remembering a person, a group or a congregation is that the person or the community of faith are beloved children of God.
Truth telling is freeing.
Even when it seems like the harder option, truth telling is ultimately freeing.
I have never regretted telling anyone that Michael died by suicide. It has sometimes been hard as people projected their own emotions and beliefs onto me and onto Michael, but telling the truth has enabled my family to receive the support we need.
It was also important to me to tell the truth because of the shame and stigma that is associated with suicide and which I don’t want a part of.
For communities of faith, truth about an ending is likely to be best.
If you are ending because of falling numbers or declining finances, say so. If you are merging because that seems the best way to be missional, say so. If you are ending a group or program because you no longer have the people to run a program, say so.
That way you can grieve what is lost and face the situation honestly and openly.
Trust the work liturgy and Christian practices can do.
As we grieve losses we can trust the power of liturgy and ritual to hold in safe spaces to lament, to grieve, to say farewell, to express our sympathy. It uses symbol, words, songs and silence to give voice to emotions that we struggle to find words for.
Liturgy sustains us. Through song and symbol, scripture and proclamation we are drawn back into the story of God’s presence, God’s mercy and God’s love.
When I didn’t know what I thought or believed or felt, I was grateful to have practices of faith established in better times to fall back on.
I went to worship on Sundays, even when I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Every time there was a gospel word, an act of care or someone to share my sadness.
Because I committed some prayers to memory, I had words to pray when my grief robbed me of words and faith, and I was enabled to encounter God again.
We all grieve differently and we grieve differently at different times.
Some people cry a lot, some people barely cry at all. Some people need to talk a lot; some people find too much talking unhelpful.
Respecting different ways of grieving has been hard enough in my little household of three, it is much harder in a community of faith where there will be a wide diversity of responses and preferences for grieving. When a community is grieving this is even harder with the many preferences and needs in relation to grief.
An implication for those leading a community of faith through a period of grief is that they need to find multiple ways for people to grieve.
Some people will value a chance to share in a group how they feel, others will want a liturgical event to mark the ending, still others will want individual pastoral care.
Some will talk to friends and family, others will talk to almost no one. Some will cry regularly, others will be angry; still others will appear almost untouched. All should be accepted and, as much as possible, space found for a range of ways to grieve within the community.
I find that how I grieve is not uniform even within a set of preferences. Sometimes I crave company and at other times I want to be alone. Sometimes I want to talk about Michael and how I feel, other times I want to talk about anything else. Sometimes these needs come and go within a short space of time, within the same encounter with a person.
I have been most helped when I am with people who take their lead from me and accept where I am in the moment. This requires me to be honest and the person caring to be flexible.
Through my grief I have been sustained by a remarkable community who have been willing to walk through the darkest valley with me.
These people have been the face of hope to me.
They have allowed me to doubt, to grieve, to lament, to laugh, to remember, to trust and to hope. I have learnt the power of community to support and sustain. In this I see the God of community reflected.
Continuing Education Coordinator