The most common thing people say to me these days when they first see me is, “You doing okay?” Sometimes it’s just an offhand remark, but more often it feels like an expression of genuine care and concern for my well-being. So, I thought I’d try to tell you something about where I am in the grief process – and how this relates to Emerson.
So, how am I doing? Well, I think as well as anyone might who is eight months out from the death of her beloved husband and co-minister. In fact, I think I’m functioning at a pretty high level – even over functioning (and more about that in a bit.) And my work and other parts of my life are not without pleasure and joy. I’m aware, though, that often when I have pushed myself for many days in a row, there comes a point when I have to stop and just give into my tiredness and grief for a few hours and not do anything other than allow myself to feel the pain of loss.
Sometimes people seem to think that I should be done with grieving, say things like “So, it’s been several months now, you about getting over this?” No, I’m not over it. The pain of loss is always there underneath the surface. As I’ve said before, grief counselors say it can take two years to adequately grieve a beloved spouse. And in some ways, it is more painful now that the numbness and disbelief are wearing off.
I realized recently that during the first few months after Mark’s death, I unconsciously felt that “if I can just get through this or that Sunday (or other ministerial function)” or “if I can just cope with this or that (household repair or estate task)”, then somehow Mark would come back. I know this sounds irrational. As I say, it’s unconscious. But it’s not uncommon. In Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death, she relates how she felt that if she could just find the shoes her husband had on when he died, he would return to her. (There’s a reason she entitled her book The Year of Magical Thinking.) More lately, my magical thinking has been replaced with what I call the “really real” realization that Mark isn’t ever coming back, that he’s gone, gone, gone. And that’s a very sad place to be. I wonder if this is starting to happen for some of you, too. A few of you have told me that you have realized that, at first, you were unconsciously waiting for and expecting Mark to return some Sunday as if nothing had happened, but that, as time has gone on, the reality of his death is sinking in.
So, yes, I have been pushing myself, over functioning. And some members of the Staff and volunteers have, too. Unless you are involved in the intricacies of the church’s functioning, I don’t think you could tell much of a difference in the life of the church from before Mark’s death, except perhaps for the few extra pulpit guests. On the surface, the church is still functioning at a high level. But what people don’t always see is the toll this takes. We can’t over function this way forever. And even with that over functioning, there are still aspects of the church life which are not receiving adequate attention.
As you know, the Board, after some discernment – and in conversation with me and other members of the staff – has decided that we need a temporary part time assistant minister to help address the ministerial needs of the congregation and to help us navigate this unprecedented situation. I think this is a wise course, given that there are different opinions in the congregation about what future ministerial staffing would look like. It is important to remember that we aren’t trying to replace Mark and we’re not making any irrevocable decisions about the direction of the church. What we are doing is helping ourselves heal and helping ourselves move forward with wisdom and grace. If you presume that some of the dynamics of individual grief are duplicated in a congregation, we all need an adequate time to grieve that Mark isn’t here.
I know that sometimes people don’t know what to say to me to express their caring. Well, you don’t always have to say anything in particular. You can give me a hug; tell me you miss him too or tell me that I’m in your heart (I really do feel that and believe that and it helps). And don’t be afraid of the lump in the throat or the tears in the eyes – either yours or mine. Sadness is real. And it’s normal, healthy, to react to sadness. That’s part of how we move through grief. And just because I may choke up or shed tears doesn’t mean I can’t do my job or that I am going to fall apart.
I think it is important to remember that we are in an unprecedented situation. I know of no other incidence of one member of a clergy couple co-ministry team dying while serving a congregation together. It certainly hasn’t happened within the Unitarian Universalist world and my local colleagues in other faith traditions don’t seem to know of such an occurrence either. There’s no road map to follow here, folks. But I have no doubt that we can navigate this together, that if any congregation can, we can.
In faith, hope and love,