Anyone who has lived and worked cross-culturally knows that there are significant losses baked into ministry:
So how do we handle loss and the feelings of grief that are evoked as a result? The short answer is by learning to mourn well. It is common for people to use the words loss, grief, and mourning sometimes synonymously. But it is helpful to separate them and define them.
A Loss is an ending, separation, or change in relation to someone or something to which we have a significant bond or attachment. Grief is the bodily, cognitive, and emotional reactions to losses, separations, or changes. Mourning is the process by which we recover from losses and our feelings of grief.
Losses are often easy to identify: they are unambiguous. Some losses, however, are hidden in plain sight: they are ambiguous. Psychologist and researcher Pauline Boss (Boss, 1999) identified 2 types of ambiguous loss:
It seems to me that most of us are experiencing a type of ambiguous loss right now. Some of us have experienced obvious, unambiguous losses: of job, of health, of relationship, of life. But I suspect that, for many, there is a sense of sadness and anxiety just at the edge of our awareness that has to do with the loss of life structure as a result of the pandemic: a psychological absence with physical presence.
A little more than 40 years ago, psychologist Daniel Levinson (Levinson, 1978, 1996) was studying the normal life-cycle development of adults. His research led him to propose the idea of “life structure.” The life structure is the underlying pattern or design of a person’s life at any given time; more specifically, it is the individual’s pattern of involvement in relationships, roles, activities and physical settings. The life structure enables one to live out and elaborate basic choices and values, conscious or not, as well as adapt to one’s surroundings. For many of us, the patterning of our lives has been significantly, if not profoundly, disrupted.
In what ways have you experienced losses “hidden in plain sight”? Are you aware of a sense of disruption of your life structure? Have you felt unexpected feelings of sadness? Loss of focus and energy? Feelings of dread and anxiety? If so, you are in good company.
So how do we navigate our unambiguous and ambiguous losses?
I’d like to suggest that how we handle loss and our feelings of grief is one strong predictor of our resilience over time in ministry, in general, and in missions, in particular.
Resilient people recognize that grief is the price of love (Parkes, 2015).
Rather than settling for relief, resilient people learn to embrace their feelings of grief and mourn well.
Resilient people become skilled at the process of mourning. This is important because learning to mourn well: 1) helps us to bond deeply and also to let go of those people and things to which we are attached, and 2) helps us to “travel light” in relation to past losses. Un-mourned losses and the stored feelings of grief that accompany them get reawakened by current losses, making it more difficult to cope.
So, how do we mourn well? Consider these strategies:
Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief.
Levinson, D. J. (1978). The seasons of a man’s life.
Levinson, D. J. (1996). The seasons of a woman’s life.
Parkes, C.M. (2015). The Price of Love.
N.T. Wright (29 March 2020). “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus.” Time magazine.
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