Have we learned to grieve our losses and disappointments?

The image with this blog post may be pretty disturbing, unless you love zombie and living undead movies. A hand reaching out from a grave. Perhaps I meant to publish this two weeks ago on Halloween and missed my timing? But as stark as it is, it resonates with a mental impression I had a few years ago. I was meeting with a few others as part of spiritual direction training, and we were sharing pretty deeply about our lives and concerns. I was in a time where disappointments seemed to be very real, the losses mounting. Yet instead of facing and integrating the losses, I had repressed the pain and just moved on into more activity.

That always catches up. When we repress disappointment and loss and don’t grieve it, allowing an integration to happen, it can come out in other ways whether in physical problems or mental, emotional, and relational consequences. As I shared with the small group that day and we prayed together, I saw an image similar to the one with this post. I was standing over a grave, trying to run. But a hand was reaching out from the soil gripping my leg and wouldn’t let go. Something I had thought dead and buried was neither, instead very much alive and stopping me from forward progress.

This stark image of an inner reality has been true at various times in my life. Like all of you reading this, I have had losses in my life. Maybe you have had more, maybe less. But we have all been disappointed. Some of us have been fortunate to have people in our lives to help us face these losses, so they don’t become the living dead. Perhaps a trusted friend, a counselor or therapist, a spiritual director, a pastor. Someone who knew how to listen and not under a compulsion to ‘fix’. It is rare that we can find peace and healing from our disappointments and losses alone. For those of us who have religious faith, there can be a temptation to say that we are ‘trusting God’ and it will be fixed that way. While it may be certainly true that our faith is real, we often also need the human embodiment of that faith in a person we love and trust.

Here are a few simple points to consider. I’m sure you would have your own if you were writing this post.

  1. Be attentive to things that may come up in your life that may indicate areas of un-dealt with disappointment and loss. This might be ‘trigger’ points of not being able to go to a physical place, see a person, hear a song, some kinds of physical ailments. Are there ‘toxic’ environments or contexts for you? Is there a hand reaching up from your past to grip you from the grave?
  2. Get the help you need. As I said above, it is rare that we are able to deal with this kind of pain alone. I listed some of the kinds of people and roles that can help us. I have had some of these kinds of people help me in my life, and it has made such a difference in seasons of transition and loss. Don’t let your pride and stubbornness hold you back from getting the help you need.
  3. Warning, this is a political point. For some reading this who voted Republican in the last Presidential election in 2020, there may be a need to acknowledge that you lost the election and the candidate you voted against is now President. For perhaps millions of people in the USA, they still have not been able to grieve the disappointment of losing the election. Led by the former President, they still believe the election was stolen. If you believe that, you will never be able to move on and grieve the loss. It may be true for you as a Democrat also if you still believe the 2016 was stolen by the other side, or in 2000. Even in the political realm there can be real disappointments and sense of loss that must be faced, grieved and integrated.
  4. Learn what some have called the ‘lost language of lament’. As a follower of Christ who loves to read and meditate on the Bible, I have been in a journey of seeing lament all through the Old and New Testaments. This has especially been true in all the losses and pain of losing friends to covid in the past 18 months. To lament is to learn how to grieve, yet not without hope. All of life is not victory. There is much pain, much sorrow, much death and loss. We need in our personal lives, our churches, our national conversations, a language of lament. A practice of personal and collective groaning, joining creation in that groaning as the writer Paul says in the New Testament book of Romans, chapter 8.
  5. Refuse a false positivity that masks the real pain and loss and disappointment. We all have coping mechanisms. For some, it is being positive and in harmony. Anything perceived to be ‘negative’ is taboo. Yet all of life is not positive. All of life is not triumphant. It is ok, and indeed healthy, to be authentic in your struggles and pain. It is ok also to be positive, if that is an honest expression of your feelings or perhaps sunny personality.

Back to that stark image of the hand reaching up from the grave, as I finish this post. It indicates that what is buried is actually not dead, but alive. There is hard inner work ahead perhaps to dig up that grave, and face the stench and loss buried there. Don’t do it alone, but if we are aware of this to be true in our life, we need to reach out to others to see it done. Hard inner work is always ultimately worth it. It may take years, or moments.

I continue to do this inner work in my life. Would you join me?

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