In the Deep End With Grief: Thoughts On Pastoral Care to Those Hurting Most 

In the Deep End With Grief: Thoughts On Pastoral Care to Those Hurting Most 

As the previous year comes to a close, I’m reposting some articles from 2014 I wrote elsewhere on the web. This is a post I wrote about grief that originally posted on the blog Antioch Session.

I find it hard to carry the weight of my own pain, let alone the weight of another. I have found that the grief we carry is sometimes so heavy, so disorienting, even – sometimes – so embarrassing (how could I let this happen me?) that it is hard to share that weight or let it out. The weight of grief is compounded by the inability that we all experience of isolation and being unable to see beyond it. Grief is a lot like floating out in the middle of a deep lake, nothing close by to grab onto. Unable to see the bottom, I tread water and try not to panic.

Even as a pastor, facing these painful moments with others can often be scary. Realizing this, I recently shared some of my fears and questions with a friend who is a retired therapist. His response to me was not what I expected. “I was afraid too,” were the words that fell from his mouth.

My guess is, regardless of your vocation, you have plenty of opportunities to be with those who suffer and may have similar questions and fear. For my post this month on Antioch Sessions, I wanted to write a little about some of the things I am learning as a pastor, as I work with others who share their pain, loss and grief with me.

I would love to hear what has helped you in this work as well.

How we carry our own pain matters

I write as someone who has experienced my fair share of loss. Just this past month, an article I wrote about the suicide of my step-dad was published in Friends Journal, “Suicide and the Things We Carry”. It took me ten years to really come to a place where I can say I have experienced healing in relationship to his death. In fact, it was partly the writing of that article, which was one of the first times I was able to put some of our story down in writing, that led me through the valley of darkness.

When it comes to my own healing, I have found Parker Palmer’s book, “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life,” extremely helpful. There he writes that as we seek to move towards wholeness, we are not trying to find some elusive perfection, but rather a wholeness that comes out of the devastation of our lives. Wholeness is about “embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” If I am honest with myself, I am fine with a comfortable level of vulnerability, but really moving down into that devastation, where new life needs to happen, often feels out of reach for me.

But I am learning that in order to genuinely care for others, I must work at how I carry and tend to my own pain. Doing the grief work around my step-dad’s death has opened up new ways of connecting with others in their pain. I have to remind myself that is okay to admit that I need care too. A “wounded healer,” as Nouwen calls it, must learn how to descend that staircase into those buried wounds, even though we are afraid. In doing so, our own pain can become a source of a healing for others and our sensitivity can, like a diving rod, guide us in toward where the true woundedness resides in others.

There is no shortcut through another’s pain

When we sit with someone who has encountered devastation it can be scary. This is partially because the path towards healing is rarely ever clear. It often feels as though there are far too many routes that must be travelled down to even know where to begin. And if it is obvious which way one should go – working through family of origin issues for instance – the path is rarely paved and easy to travel. I face the temptation of wanting to know exactly what to say – and what not to say – so that I can (quickly) bring healing to a hurting friend. All these untrodden paths feel very overwhelming and confusing.

This is one place I am helped by the Quaker tradition. In fact, I believe – if not always practice – that my role is not to have the answers, give good advice, or “heal” another person at all. All I am to do is create a safe space where he or she can begin – or continue – to listen to the Inward Teacher. My work is to create a space where their soul can be honored and held.

This type of listening comes in the form of seeing each meeting as a divine “Opportunity.” In Quaker parlance, an Opporunity – with a capital O – is where both people sit, listen and discover where the Spirit is moving in another. Being comfortable with silence is essential, allowing the wounded person to be the focus of the conversation and to carry it where they will. I don’t have to know which path to go down. That isn’t what the focus person needs from me.

So what is my role? First and foremost it is to ask “open and honest questions.” Parker Palmer describes these as questions that open up rather than restrict possibilities. These are questions that honor the work of God in another person. I don’t already know the answer to these kinds of questions. I ask them because I am hoping that the question will create more space for the other person’s soul to show up. These are questions that are meant to help the other person go deeper into his or her own story. There is no shortcut through another’s pain. No arrows pointing out the proper direction. Only the patient process of embracing each Opportunity with the practice of listening and carefully asking good honest question.

Healing comes through theological vulnerability

Finally, the process of healing can come about from those who exchange vulnerability. To embrace an Opportunity, to walk with someone through pain, despair, and grief requires both parties to allow a space to be opened up where walls are laid low.

I know a minister whose husband committed suicide and left her as a working, single-parent of six kids. This happened many years ago and now you can see in her ministry that she has not only done her own grief work, but that she has allowed that pain and devastation to become a way of connecting with people that is truly genuine, questioning and powerful.

My own vulnerability lies not just in my working through my own grief, but in the very core of my theology and what I believe about God and the world. Consider, for instance, the many top-ten lists that bloggers love to post about “what not to say to those who have experienced deep loss.” On the one hand, we actually need these posts because people do say some really terrible and triggering stuff to folks who are hurting. On the other hand, I think it’s interesting to consider why we continue to find these top-ten posts on “what not to say” so fascinating.

While we want to try and curtail the external behavior of people who say this “well meaning” stuff, we have been unwilling to allow this exchange of vulnerability to not only effect our behaviors but also our theology. A church based on “inerrant” or “infallible” Scriptures, creeds, the 4 spiritual laws, heaven and hell paradigms, vengeful God narratives, or any other foundational beliefs that cannot be called into question betrays a lack of vulnerability at the base of much of what passes as Christianity today. You can’t expect people to be nuanced in their grief work if their theology is just as bombastic as their behavior. None of these things create space for, as Palmer puts it, “living into the questions.”

God does not need our protection. God does not need us to make excuses or justifications. God does not need or want us to appear impenetrable. Instead, I believe that God desires that we stand with victims, that we listen, that we learn and that we allow our theology to be made vulnerable in light of the pain of others.

For me, to sit with another’s pain in this truly vulnerable way is to begin to experience a kind of letting go within myself. I let go of the need to fix, help, or sound brilliant. I let go of the need to heal, shield my own wounds, and defend myself or God. I let go of my protective walls of self and the theological explanations I know too well, in order to faithfully enter this exchange.

Entering into these Opportunities is like floating out in the middle of a cold, dark lake next to someone struggling to stay afloat. That initial chill of the water sets in, and then you begin to swim just enough to stay afloat. If you work too hard, you get fatigued. If you disengaged, you both drown. Even though you desire to know, you have no idea how deep the water goes. You don’t even know if you can make it back to the shore, but you swim nonetheless. You swim with that other person because that other person holds within her the seed of God.  You swim with that other person because he may not be able to swim himself.

You swim with that other person, because that other person could be you.