Part 1 of a 8-part series on the deeper Self that awakens in laboring through grief, living through loss, and embracing endings as the seedbed of new beginnings.
The following articles will be published at a later date.
Part 2: Unresolved Grief, Liminal Loss and Memory: Relocating the Past Instead of Re-living It
Part 3: Coping With Grief and ‘Coming Home’: Bearing Loss, Beautifying Scars
Part 4: How We Sabotage the Grief Process: the Call to Grieve, Celebrate and Ritualize Endings
Part 5: The Art & Artifacts of Grieving: How Grief Counseling Re-members and Retells the Story
Part 6: Complicated Grief and Fear of Breakdown: Dissociation Dulls the Growing Edge of Grief
Part 7: The Overstated 7 Stages of Grief: Finding a Grief Pathway That Works for You
My mother emailed the other day – again – with a polite “request.” It’s a good thing she’s polite and that I’m her son. Stated more fairly and plainly, it’s a request that has become a reminder. Really, a leftover reminder warmed up with a kind plea.
This request turned reminder turned plea might have been best served cold – as a deadline. A firm date by which to “get your boxes out of our basement, because your father and I are (a) moving (b) downsizing (c) retiring from our role as warehouse attendants for your childhood.”
It seems to be an adult-child rite of passage: responding to a parent’s proverbial bidding to finally clear out your belongings. Perhaps it’s a small cottage industry, parents selling off their kids’ unclaimed artifacts. (Is there an app for that already?)
It shouldn’t be this hard. Nor this easy: a librarian would blush over the carefully catalogued lists Mom made, from cartons of baseball cards enshrining my boyhood heroes, to high school yearbooks and wrestling and soccer trophies.
But even with this expedient list, I demurred and delayed for months. The question is … Why?
In short, it’s because I’m terrified of death. I cannot bear “endings.”
And those boxes were chock-full of endings.
There are many kinds of endings – death, divorce, shattered dreams, estranged relationships, geographic moves, job changes, housing transitions, and so on. And those are just the obvious ones. It’s the everyday endings and leavings that can be deeply unsettling, but slip our attention.
Even “good” events – weddings, births, promotions, graduations – are layered with endings and losses, which are often overlooked in the face of changing roles and responsibilities. Rarely do we slow down enough to see the value in marking and grieving the life stage we are “leaving.”
The Christian Paradox: Endings Entangled in Eternity
Almost all endings are elementally difficult in that:
Endings beget endings: Any given “ending,” no matter how seemingly small or trivial, can open a portal to other endings from our past. Especially if these past losses are unconscious or unresolved – if they haven’t been acknowledged, accepted and worked with.
Endings evoke desire: Sometimes it’s not simply the loss or leaving itself that’s painful, but how they expose deeper longings that we’ve disowned out of fear, hurt or a misplaced sense of duty. Grief may call our attention to a fuller or unlived life that we’ve missed, but still have the chance to grab hold of – if we’ll risk owning our desires.
Endings point to finitude: The finality of endings reminds us that we are finite creatures. We have limits. Endings portend the death that everyone experiences. Encountering our mortality, even subtly so, can be both liberating and suffocating. Heaven’s promise does not entirely extinguish the existential angst of living and dying – nor should it.
Endings defy our creation: We were created for eternity. And while the temporal here-and-now is certainly part of that never-ending story, the Garden of Eden and its abundance were never intended to become a “paradise lost.”
Endings and eternity: This is the paradox, the good mystery, that we are called to lean into as growing Christians. The present-day endings we suffer echo with the original ache and anguish of The Fall, says Christian author and psychologist Dan Allender.
“We were never meant to end,” Allender says, “so every ending bears some level of heartache, disappointment, confusion and fear.”
Resisting and Resenting
When dealing with grief, we often fail to see or imagine the blessing of endings – how they’re subtly woven with new beginnings, for example.
Often we forfeit our own growth and grounding by refusing to grieve an ending.
This refusal to grieve complicates the already painful loss. (More on this in Part 4.) We become trapped in the quicksand of resisting and resenting, avoiding and lamenting. Mourning is not the same as grieving. Mourning (lament) can actually sabotage the grief work that initiates deep change and transformation.
Beyond Reasoning: A Deeper Listening
Our fearful resistance-avoidance is the work of our weaker ego-self – not our deeper and truer Core-Self. The weaker ego-self is resourceful, wry, and well-reasoned. Its voice is so easily worked up, but so persuasively familiar, that it’s difficult to depose and hard to even identify.
It took some reflection, but I soon recognized my avoidant ambivalence to Mom’s email about the boxes. I heard the inner voice of my weak-ego self: After all, I live 3,000 miles from my parents’ home and my East Coast roots! With my busy personal and professional present, how can I prioritize picking through and shipping out my boxed-up past? And while I’m the sentimental type, how much of this stuff do I want? (Given that those Pete Rose baseball cards probably won’t fund my kids’ college education.)
All good reasons, of course! But what they miss – and unconsciously resist – is the underlying anxiety, shame, and permeating sense of loss that so many of us carry about endings.
Those boxes, and the stunted endings they hold, represented a displaced and disowned part of me that needed to come “home.”
Christian Counseling: The Call to End Well
As Christians dealing with grief, we sometimes resort to “spiritualizing” loss. We subtly convince ourselves that endings should not be a central part of our story, or God’s story for us.
However, Christian counseling views grief work – ending well – as natural and necessary for growth and healing. “Well-ending” is defined by intentional acts of grieving, celebrating and ritualizing, which we’ll explore later in this series.
First, we need to take a closer look in Part 2 at how we resist endings – given the liminal, desert places that they occur in, and the trauma that often accompanies them.
Allender, Dan. April 26, 2015. “Endings – The Allender Center Podcast,” theallendercenter.org.Photos
“A Single Leaf,” courtesy of Shaunne Thomas, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Remember,” courtesy of Ben Grey, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0); “The Struggle,” courtesy of Gabriel Kronisch, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)