January 19, 2021

Dispatches from the Wilderness of Grief


Dispatches from the Wilderness of Grief
Scottsdale, Arizona. Dec. 5, 2016

This week I am in Scottsdale, AZ attending a training given through The Center for Loss and Life Transition and presented by Dr. Alan Wolfelt.

Dr. Wolfelt is a grief counselor and one of North America’s premier authors and educators in the area of grief and loss. He champions an approach called “companioning” mourners, in contrast to the “treating” model that has been common. Wolfelt founded and directs the Center for Loss and Life Transition and he presents numerous educational workshops each year for hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, funeral homes, community groups, and a variety of other organizations as well as trainings for bereavement caregivers like the one I am attending.

The training is not only excellent in terms of its content, but also with regard to the personal interaction that takes place during the sessions. Many skilled and compassionate people from all over North America have gathered and part of what happens is that we learn each other’s stories of loss and vocation.

Here’s a woman who unexpectedly lost her husband to a series of unanticipated infections a few years ago. They were deeply in love and the wound was deep. She found she couldn’t just go back to her former way of life without him. So she retired from her work as a special education teacher and is taking personal sabbatical time to travel, study, and explore the possibilities of working in a place where she can serve others who are grieving.

Here’s a man whose wife died of breast cancer. They too had been inseparable. Providentially, he was downsized out of his job and was able to care for her during her last months at home. Now he volunteers at a cancer center, providing support to others who are on similar journeys.

And then there is the story of a Roman Catholic woman who moved to a southern state when she got married so they could live near her in-laws. The first thing that extended family let her know when she got settled was that they understood she wasn’t really a Christian and that they were going to make her their project. In time, she became pregnant but lost the baby at full-term. In the midst of her grief, she received a card from the family church. Its message? “Maybe this is what will finally bring you to Jesus.”

This is akin to another who shared that when their baby died, the pastor visited them at the hospital and informed them that this had happened because the father worked for a brewery.

On a ledge in our conference room is a shelf where people have brought pictures and mementos of their loved ones who have died to honor them and keep them in mind as they take the training. There’s a picture of a little girl there with her dad. She described him as one of the kindest men she had ever known. Then in the next breath, she said, “And he was also an alcoholic who became abusive when he drank.” What a complicated mixture of memories and feelings she had to face and work through.

Another woman had a younger sister who had been ill from the time she was a little child. This woman had always been her sister’s caregiver, had always looked out for her, had always been there when she needed support or assistance. But a time came when she wasn’t available. An unexpected death in the family prompted a crisis in the younger sister’s life right at the same time the woman in our group had another family emergency. Unable to handle this death, her kid sister died by taking her own life. This woman had always been there to help her. But she wasn’t there that time. Now she’s dealing with the grief and regret of that. At the same time, she had always found her identity in caring for her sister — now who was she? She no longer knew who she herself was or who she might be in days to come.

Dr. Wolfelt talked today about the “ripple effects” of grief. Grief is not just about being sad that a loved one has died and is gone. Yes, we miss that person and mourn the loss of his/her presence, but we also grieve other losses that are organically connected to the relationship we had with that person.

  • We grieve the loss of our self-identity. Part of our own self-understanding was grounded in the relationship that has now been changed forever by death. The important people in our lives are like mirrors who reflect who we are back to us. But now one of those mirrors has been removed. Who am I now? we ask.
  • We grieve the loss of security. “I never knew how much grief felt like fear,” C.S. Lewis wrote. The people in our lives are anchors that give us a sense of stability and security. When one or more of them are removed from our lives, we can easily lose our bearings and begin to question whether anything is safe or solid.
  • We grieve the loss of meaning. When we lose someone who has made a significant contribution to our lives, other things may seem rather unimportant when he/she is gone. The technical term for this is “anhedonia,” the inability to experience pleasure in things we’ve usually found enjoyable or meaningful. We also may lose meaning in the sense that the order we previously thought present in the universe has been shattered. We may find ourselves losing faith in things or people or beliefs or practices in which we previously put great stock. Loss can provoke a true existential crisis.

Usually we think of grief as it is related to death and bereavement, but grief is not confined to what we feel when we lose a loved one. We all face losses in many areas of life. And these same “ripple effects” — loss of self-identity, security, and meaning — flow over us with those losses too.

My own most significant loss was the loss of my vocation as a parish pastor before I found a new path through hospice chaplaincy. When all of that happened some twelve years ago, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had always been a pastor, now I wasn’t. It affected our family as well. My wife had always been a pastor’s wife, my kids PK’s. Our community, our networks were shattered — in other words the fundamental context in which we had lived our life for a quarter century was no more. Who was I? Who were we?

And I was scared. I had devoted myself to the church and in turn the church had always provided for me and my family. Now I was gone from the church through circumstances I didn’t choose. I had no idea what I was going to do. And there wasn’t a lot of time to figure out how I was going continue to do my part in taking care of a family of six plus a grandchild. I had fallen off the tightrope and there was no net in sight. Frightening.

As for the loss of meaning, this was the critical juncture that put me squarely in no-man’s land, in the post-evangelical wilderness. All the questions that had nagged me for years about evangelical doctrine, pastoral ministry, and church practice rose to the surface like a thousand barracudas and began eating away at my flesh. It hurt, it made me angry, and I felt badly let down by a world that had defined “God” and “faith” and “the meaning of life” for me through the first part of my adult life. Now the one thing I knew was that I could not go back to the way I had previously practiced my faith. But what next?

Who am I? Can I trust anything to keep me safe? Where do I go?

What I’m learning through this conference so far is that what we grieve, we must mourn.

Grieving is the complex inner response to loss.

Mourning is made up of the outward expressions by which we acknowledge our grief and work through it until it becomes more and more integrated into our lives.

We never stop grieving, but our losses can become part of our lives in such a way that we can carry them with us and move forward into a new normal. We can forge a renewed identity, find more peace in the midst of life’s uncertainties, and discover a broader and deeper sense of meaning than we ever thought possible.

In many ways, I thank God through Jesus that I am on that path.

As the poet said, however, “miles to go before I sleep.”


  1. William H. Martin Jr says

    Lost my father in 95. Single most influential man in my life. Taught me how to work and that has been the only blessing that has carried me this far. He died and everything I did reminded me of him because he taught me and I lived at my grandfathers house I bought from the estate after he died. We both worked out there all my life. I couldn’t help shedding a tear for over 10 years every time I thought of him. He was an alcoholic but a functioning one and he was always at his happiest after about 6 -10 beers. It was then he would let his guard down.

    My mom was always mad at him for drinking. I grew up thinking women were suppose to be mad at you. Guess when I first married a woman who was always mad at me it was what I thought was normal. Only she would say don’t fall asleep tonight, or if I were you I’d watch what you eat. Towards the end she came at me with knives. My mom never did those things she was just mad. Divorce is a loss and that person must die to you and after 20 years it isn’t easy.

    Cindy died of cancer the one person I could always count on no matter what. I got through the first year. The second I just walked away from everything. God does have a way of not leaving you alone even when you try hard to be. Trying to find my way with him again. Don’t want to go back to what was but go forward to what can be. I have hope again it isn’t real strong but it grows like the light of a new dawn. I just don’t want to be alone no more.

    • William H. Martin Jr says

      Oh I’m Sorry Chap…..thanks

    • senecagriggs says

      “There’s a picture of a little girl there with her dad. She described him as one of the kindest men she had ever known. Then in the next breath, she said, “And he was also an alcoholic who became abusive when he drank.” What a complicated mixture of memories and feelings she had to face and work through.”

      Being a mess of contradictions myself, her story resonates.

  2. I wonder if the repeated experience of grief without mourning results in a mourning deficit, sort of like the deficit one builds up from not getting enough sleep. If so, then decades of such build up may easily result in a mourning deficit difficult or impossible to catch up with. In which case, establishing a “new normal” moves beyond reach.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > grief without mourning results in a mourning deficit

      I doubt it; there have been theories like that for various emotions. But at least based on what I have read [Scientific Weekly, etc…] emotions do not work this way. My friend who is a shrink would also say “No” (we’ve had that conversation). Emotions do not accumulate in discreet categories; stress on the other hand does seem to have an accumulative property – and emotions can certainly create stress. So these things may be able to accumulate in a general sense. The important upshot being that the consequences are mostly addressable in general terms – boring old answers like: sleep, exercise, and social activities.

      > establishing a “new normal” moves beyond reach

      I am skeptical of that; humans are crazy adaptable. But we are also prone to habituation.

    • That can explain why you might sometimes see someone explode into sobbing or a bout of depression that doesn’t seem equal to a particular loss. They have held back in the past but some simple loss, a pet frog or even defeat by a favorite sports team, now triggers the expression of deep seated grief.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And the trigger — no matter how trivial — causes a flashback cascade at full emotional intensity.

        Six years ago, acquiring a piece of fantasy art caused me to have a full-intensity flashback of the breakup with my only girlfriend, over 30 years before. All I can think of is some event while acquiring the art piece paralleled something in the breakup close enough to trigger the flashback. Took me over a month and writing a 10,000-word magic-realism fantasy short based on the event to recover.

  3. Burro [Mule] says

    Thank you for this column. I was sucker-punched earlier this year by several losses in rapid succession. I lost a beloved family pet in May, whom I kept alive past his time because of my own selfishness. I lost my job in June with little or no hope of ever living at that level again. I lost my mother in July. Then both of our children revealed that they had been sexually assaulted by people they trusted, our daughter by a church boy. The experience launched our daughter into a cycle of promiscuity that I am certain will not end well.

    The part about anhedonia spoke to me. I feel like wet sand and broken glass inside.

    I prayed for the Roman Catholic wife. My own wife has been throwing my conversion to Orthodoxy in my face as well, but Christ and His suffering saints are my only comfort at present.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      There are no words for when life sucker punches like that.
      : e-hug : Hang in there.

      > anhedonia spoke to me. I feel like wet sand and broken glass inside

      Indeed; been there.

    • So sorry for the overwhelming piling up at once of difficulties. Like Adam said, hang in there. Christ is above and below you.

    • I will light another candle for you, dear Mule.


    • If this is too far off topic then CM can toss this comment.

      Where are all these people who vilify the pre-Luther church coming from? I’m firmly convinced that the Baptist Landmarkism had to be invented so they could claim a heritage separate from the RC and OC and other similar churches. But are all of the RC/OC haters hanging on Landmarkism? Or is there something else?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        They do not need to come from anywhere – they have always been here. I turn 44 today – not that old – and I can remember use of the term “papist” used in my rural home town, and all sorts of anti-catholic whispering. Nothing new under the sun.

        Maybe a bit amp’d up recently by the surge in Identity Politics. Probably all to be expected in a period of accelerating demographic and economic change. Sad.

      • To be fair, I’ve also been told I should come back to the ‘real’ church by Christians from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. This desire to be the true believers seems fairly wide spread across the different church traditions. Arrogance doesn’t recognise denominational boundaries.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          More like “be the ONE True Church/True Believers”.
          At which point, “the Universe cannot have two centers.”

        • It comes from obsession with avoiding hell, for ourselves and those we care about. As long as Christianity is understood primarily as believing the right things so one won’t go to hell, there will always be obsessives who stay up late at night worrying that others will go to hell for holding the wrong beliefs. What becomes most important is “getting it right”; airtight theological systems must be developed to calm the fear of “getting it wrong”, and others must be convinced to sign onto one’s bill of beliefs, especially those one loves. Belief in eternal conscious torment makes acceptance of imperfection and fallibility in doctrine hard to tolerate or acknowledge.

          • A saying from AA and other 12-step programs: “Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.”

            A lot of people in AA come from an abusive religious background — either Protestant fundamentalist or old-school RC. The word “God” is repellent to them when they first hear it in a meeting. Hopefully, they come back often enough to exchange their idea of a vengeful, perfectionist God for the idea of gradual spiritual progress, working *with* a Higher Power.

    • Mule, hang in there.

    • I’m so sorry, Mule! What a terrible series of tragedies!

  4. CM, excellent article. When things are going smoothly is when we need to remember poverty of spirit in the world around us. When we are in mourning we see mourning everywhere but when all is well we forget. Your work is a constant, good reminder. People are hurting everywhere and compassion is required.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Maybe this is what was meant by that story I was related about “depression can be your spiritual gift”.

      NOT Clinical Depression — that’s just destructive — but the mild level of depression that brings Lamentation and awareness of hurting; related to CM’s thesis that American Christians have forgotten how to Lament.

      • I can certainly see that possibility. It doesn’t fit into a neat theological category but that has never stopped Him before.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And I’ve found from experience that it’s often the dark and strong emotions that put power behind a story or work of art. I have had only three or four occasions where a story came into my head fully formed and effectively wrote itself, and all of those were dark or Lamentation in some way.

  5. I lost a best friend suddenly to an aneurysm and my dad, a few years back. My grieving process was different for each–one a surprise, one I was prepared (so to speak) for.
    But my greatest loss has been realizing and processing through the loss of what I never had growing up: being/feeling loved, valued, precious, and securie, someone to defend me, lack of being nurtured, lack of any family connectivity. And this in a wonderful evangelical family (sarcasm, here)….
    Thankfully, this has made me run to the throne of grace, not from it.
    So glad my husband’s family, while not believers, are safe and fun.

    Mourning/grieving loss comes in random spurts–but carthartic!

    Thx for sharing your conference–we all need to be there!

    • I wonder at times if I’m just too cold. My mother died a couple of years ago and after years of distance with all of her kids. I and my brothers in general are just glad it is over. (LONG history here.)

      We just moved my mother in law to an assisted living home and turned over primary duties to another daughter. This is after 6 1/2 years of her living with us and my wife discovering that the mother she thought she had never existed and was mostly just a facade. My wife doesn’t hate her mom but she sure doesn’t feel much in the way of responsibility anymore. And what love she thought was there, well, now she’s not sure it ever existed.

      Anyway we now feel a bit “freed” and are hoping to lead a bit more fulfilling life now.

      Grieving comes hard for us just now.

  6. Mike Jones says

    Great article. Sorry for all the losses mentioned above. I think the greatest insult to grief is to minimalize it. Jesus wept, should I say more.

  7. Christiane says

    Grieving takes form in other ways than tears. And some of those ways are not realized at first. This is not something that people can control, or even should control . . . . . but it is good to be aware of this possibility and to understand that grieving for someone dearly loved and much missed needs to happen and cannot be ‘shelved’ forever and never taken down and dealt with from time to time.

  8. Susan Dumbrell says

    Today I experience grief past, present and to come.
    My best friend took her life three years ago today. I miss her every day. We were soul mates.

    My husband is in care as a Dementia Patient, so each visit tears at my heart. This I see as present grief.

    Anticipatory grief as I don’t know how long I will have my husband, he may live for years but I feel a great loss now and at every visit. He is not the man I married and have known for 50 years.
    I feel I am living in suspense. I know he will never return to the man I loved and lived with but I just wish for a glimmer of our past together.
    I have great support from my Christian friends but I cry every night at my present and future loss.

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