Lessons on Loss

October 1, 2021 by Beth A. Richardson

Each year about this time, I start using light therapy to counteract the increasing hours of darkness that we’re experiencing here in the Northern hemisphere. While many people love this time of year there are others, like me, who struggle with “Seasonal Affective Disorder” and the feelings of sadness and grief which are a part of that.

This fall seems to be especially difficult for many—and not just because the days are shortening. Last year at this time, we knew the winter was going to be long and hard. But we were hanging on to the hope that a vaccine would free us. The vaccine did come—and has changed the threat of a COVID-19 death for most vaccinated people. But here we are, again, facing a long and hard winter ahead of us.

We find ourselves in a difficult, lingering season of loss. As I wrote last month, all of this is complicated by the fact that we have not had a chance to fully ritualize the losses of our friends, co-workers, and family members. The pandemic has meant that we have been unable to gather together for the stories, the collective grieving, and the services that humans need in order to process such feelings of grief.

Lessons on Grief

I’ve been thinking a lot about loss and grief, especially following the death of my friend, Dave, who passed away in July. I’ll offer some learnings on grief and loss and then a few tools that help me process the losses of the past season.

1. Grief is messy.

I was in seminary in Tennessee when my mother was dying. Mom had an inoperable brain tumor which had grown back after two earlier surgeries. It was before the days of hospice care, so Mom spent her last months of life in an Oklahoma hospital on a feeding tube. I remember deciding that I would learn all about grief and would use her dying as an educational opportunity. I took a pastoral care class and read every book I could find about the process of grief.

I went home to sit with her in the hospital, having compiled a list of things I wanted to talk with her about. I don’t remember all my questions, but I remember having the expectation that we would have beautiful talks about the meaning of her life, the process of her dying, the things she feared or loved or regretted.

None of that happened. I sat with her in the hospital, holding her hand. There were very few words spoken. As I was preparing to leave her to go to the airport, we shared our last words. “I love you, Mom,” I said. And she said, “I love you, darlin’.”

It was several years before I actually began to have feelings of grief about her death. I had intellectualized the process and had stuffed the feelings away. When that process of grieving finally began, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it out of that bottomless pit of sorrow. I learned in those days that I didn’t have to do life alone. There were people—therapists, spiritual friends, companions along the way—who could help me navigate the grief.

The process of grief is not linear. We can’t control when or how the feelings and memories come. What we can do is to welcome the tears, the feelings, the memories into our lives when they surface.

2. One loss brings up other losses.

When my friend Dave died, I was hit with a huge wave of sorrow. I recognized that my grief wasn’t just for Dave—it brought up all the unresolved grief that I carry in my heart. The sorrows of my life—parents and grandparents, unattained hopes, sadness about the brokenness of this world—all these get rolled into that “slush fund” of grief that I carry around me.

I used to run away from such feelings. But I’ve learned over time that the feelings don’t go away. Those old tears need to be shed, the sorrow needs to be felt in order for that pain to be transformed by the Holy One into gratitude, compassion, freedom from the past.

Imagine that God’s keeping track of the tears that you have shed and is waiting to comfort you whenever you touch into that river of grief that is inside of you. [See Psalm 56:8.]

Tools for the Journey of Grief

During the weeks when I was grieving Dave’s death and dying, several things helped me with the process. I’m still using these tools. Getting in touch my grief around Dave has flooded me with the vast losses in this season—to the pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, the groaning of our world manifest in fires, floods, and storms. Like many of us, I’m stuck in the in between place of having experienced loss, but not had the chance to gather with others to share those losses.

These things have helped me to continue to “metabolize” the grief, and maybe they’ll help you too.

1. Stories.

We were not able to gather as a community to remember and celebrate Dave. But those of us who were close to Dave have found safe ways to tell each other the stories of Dave’s contributions to our lives and to the world.

Are there stories that need to be told about a person or situation that is bringing you sadness? Call a mutual friend and swap a story or two. Write down what you remember. Or turn on the video or audio recorder on your phone and just talk.

2. Creativity.

Through the weeks of Dave’s journey to death, I found myself sitting at my desk cutting out pictures and pasting them onto a 5” x 7” card. This tool, SoulCollage®, has helped me process in a non-verbal way the feelings that I was having.

You can find instructions for this technique here. But you don’t have to follow this format. Just find words or pictures that tell a story about your loss and glue them together. Below are three collages I created during the early weeks of my grief about Dave.

Collages by Beth A. Richardson

3. Music.

Music was, and continues to be, a way to comfort my wounded heart. On my morning walks, I have turned away from listening to podcasts or books and created a playlist of music that was consoling.

I found myself listening to the music from the CD, “The Last Journey: Songs for the Time of Grieving” by John L. Bell & The Cathedral Singers.

One song in particular comforted me: “O Christ, you wept when grief was raw and felt for those who mourned a friend. Come close to where we would not be and hold us, numbed by this life’s end” (“O Christ, You Wept” by John L. Bell and Graham Maule).

4. Singing my prayers.

Every time I visited Dave in hospice, I prayed for him and sang to him. I have found that singing my prayers allows me to communicate my feelings to the Holy One on a deeper, more intuitive level. I often sing “song prayers” that I have written. The song that I sang to Dave and continue to pray when I am needing grounding is “All Shall Be Well.”

In this season of loss, may you find connection, grounding, and comfort. You are beloved. And you are not alone.

Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent.

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