Grief at church

It is strange to think that my first months at St. Chrysostom’s will always be intertwined with losing my mother. My first Sunday was June 12, 2016, and my mom died on Sunday, July 24, 2016, six weeks later.

In many ways, it has been a blessing to be here: we live closer to my dad and my brother’s family; the church and staff have been sources of great comfort and understanding for Adam and me. Still, the summer I started ministry here will always also be the summer that my mother died.

As a clergy person, it’s hard to hide your emotional struggles from your congregation. You’re on stage every Sunday. Your family is often in the pews. Your face is visible, your voice is audible, and your words through preaching come tumbling out, in the midst of all your people. You could hide an emotional trauma like a death, or cancer, or mental illness, or an affair from your congregation, but chances are that people would still feel that something was wrong or hurting in you.

6-dscf0752My mother died on a Sunday morning – a morning I was scheduled to preach. I was putting the finishing touches on my sermon when Dad called to tell us to come to the hospital. It was 6:50 a.m. Wes, our rector, shared with each of the three services that morning that I was missing because my mother was in the ICU, and then that she had died. (Somehow, he also came up with a sermon.) From that first day, this congregation has been part of my grieving.

It’s not easy to mourn in public, but I wonder if it would be harder to grieve in isolation, alone or hidden. I have received a comforting blizzard of sympathy notes from church members – dozens of people who I have only just met — as well as from friends and family. I have held each one in my hands and feel supported by its tiny, but heartfelt, weight. I have received, without number, kind greetings, warm handshakes, and compassionate hugs. Men and women who have lost parents too soon themselves, even when I am only meeting them for the first time, have looked at me with eyes that understand this place I am standing and often shared part of their own story with me.

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I have been excused from the office when I can’t leave our apartment, or when I need to spend a couple hours crying. Other staff have been able to share in the preaching, baptism classes, bible studies, and vestry meetings, as I try to emotionally recover enough to pick up the relational tasks of ministry once again. It will be a long journey, but I am grateful to work in a place where this strange time of grief is received without discomfort, or alternately, with so much compassion and attention that I feel suffocated.

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In Judaism, stages of mourning are ritualized. First, the days immediately after a death leading to burial, which happens quickly in the Jewish tradition, in which a person is exempt from any religious or social duties. Second is the time of shiva, after a burial, where for a week, people come simply to sit with you in your home. The time of sheloshim includes that first week, of “sitting shiva,” and another three weeks, when a person may return to work, but is exempt from social functions like weddings and parties.

When you lose a parent, the time of sheloshim lasts an entire year.

Obviously, as a priest, I can’t consider myself exempt from weddings for an entire year. (Could even rabbis keep sheloshim in this way, I wonder?) Still, I find comfort in this recognition that life is changed after the death of a parent in a way that is hard to explain to someone who has not experienced it. Many people who’ve been through it tell me, too, “It will take a full year, really, to make your peace with this loss.” Others have called it, “A year of firsts” – the first time you experience a million things, large and small. Large, like Christmas or birthdays, and small, like a book I wish I could tell her about, or the question only she could’ve answered, or the shirt she will never wear again.

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Grieving at church and in public includes this blog, my Facebook feed, and my Instagram feed. I have grieved quite publicly in those places, too. Grieving publicly means that sometimes I get comments or attempts to share words of comfort that sound awkward or wrong to my ears, or even hurt me, despite the fact that I know everyone cares and means well in what they are trying to express. This is the risk you take by grieving in public – that people will say something you don’t want to hear.

By grieving in public, I risk my own vulnerability – I am well aware that I may seem, in my worst fears, to be a drama queen, or pathetic, or pitiful. That I am asking others to “look at me!” or pay attention to me because I am grieving, because I lost my mother too soon.

I choose to take that risk, because I feel so held and supported in my grieving in this visible way. I choose to take that risk because I also want to honor my mother, who she was, what she taught me, and what she taught so many others (as I am learning and may later try to share here).img_3481

Each of us must choose for ourselves how publicly we will grieve. Grief, as so many have taught me, is personal and unique to each person and each relationship.

I am grateful to have been able to choose to grieve at church, on social media, with family and friends – to burst into tears sometimes, to share lots of pictures of my mom, to receive so many expressions of love and comfort from other people.

Thank you.

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