What ambiguous losses are you facing right now?
I want to speak openly and share a few ambiguous losses that I’m feeling. That is just what I’m asking you to do in this episode of Three Minute Ministry Mentor (3MMM). So I’ll start. I feel like there are many areas of my life where ambiguous loss and grief are present. So I am sharing briefly about three of them. I hope my confessions will help you to name your own ambiguous losses and griefs.
Then, I hope you will watch my 9-minute conversation (below) with Dr. Joyce Ann Mercer, associate dean at Yale Divinity School, about ambiguous loss and grief. We are returning this season to brief videos (10 minutes or less) for most episodes. We are bringing you excellent conversations and interviews in an ongoing commitment to inform and inspire your practice of ministry and to nurture your pastoral imagination. Do you know someone who could use this kind of support? I hope you will share today’s episode with them.
Teaching is perennially interlaced with a series of losses and griefs. Just when you hit your stride with a class, and students are learning from each other and listening to their own souls, then in the blink of an eye, it’s over. The syllabus comes to a finish. The term winds down. And your role as teacher comes to an end. And that sacred space of learning with its intense and shared intimacy, is suddenly gone. A mixture of pride and joy in what has transpired and a sense of loss mingle in these moments. They are moments that will never come along exactly again.
Three years of pandemic measures introduced entirely new forms of ambiguous loss to teaching. As I’ve said elsewhere, being together online is not simply bad, while being together in person is good. The two practices of teaching and learning — in the same room or virtually — include unique gifts and downsides. Our present task is learning to enhance the virtual connections that are here to stay. They are new. Thus, we have much to learn about doing them better.
Teaching online, asynchronously, and in hybrid forms can be good and valuable and deeply important. Yet in every change there is also loss. We moved through the changes so rapidly that we missed taking time to name and acknowledge those losses.
I miss the subtleties of speaking in person, breathing together, noting details of a person’s embodied presence, and feeling a “sense of the room.” And I miss the energy I feel when writing on the board and moving around to lecture and teach. I also miss shaking hands, giving high fives, and the informality of communication.
What losses, clear or ambiguous, are you experiencing in your communities of teaching and learning?
Someone once told me that parenting is a long series of griefs. This idea really helped me at beginning the parenting journey. It is helpful to remember this week. And this very day, as I parent a teenager. Each stage includes both deep joys and deep losses.
The journey of parenting itself was preceded by a different long journey of becoming a parent. For us, that road held many heartaches, losses, and a very long series of griefs.
And that journey was preceded by most of our friends and siblings having children many years before we did. Their choices to become parents created hard-to-name losses in our relationships. We strangely missed our friends who left parties early, always seemed distracted, or simply felt too tired to connect at all. These ambiguous losses were interwoven with strands of joy at welcoming tiny new humans to our circle of family and friends.
Longing for and becoming a parent includes losses and griefs not easily defined. No clear endings or beginnings. They are losses. And yet they may also be entangled with many other feelings. So much that sometimes we miss the strand of grief woven into the thick braid with all the rest. Until we suddenly find ourselves sobbing over a ridiculous commercial, or stomping in anger from the kitchen, or lost and driving down the wrong road. These are all normal grief responses, and yet without clarity about what we have lost, they can seem misplaced. Disorienting. And confusing.
Parenting in a pandemic amplified these many losses and griefs of this relational work. It also generated new losses. Yet so much of it continues to go unnamed.
What ambiguous losses and griefs related to parenting are part of your life at the moment?
I don’t exactly know how to be in community right now. My work means a mix of travel and online engagement. We are making a lovely community at the Writing Table. Certainly, I have a far-reaching network of friends and colleagues and family members who make up my community. I go to church either online or in person whenever I can. And yet this morning I couldn’t get in the door at church, and it felt like a metaphor.
In this new world, every time we figure something out (very much like in the work of parenting), it all changes again.
Today my community of faith ordained Kelley Doyle as a new minister of the gospel, the ministry of good news and love. Kelley will be working in what her teacher, and my colleague, Viki Matson calls the “Studio of Love.” In her challenge to the congregation, Vicki invited us to see our work collectively as gathering in the “studio of love.” When we gather, we are to learn how to love in a world so riddled by challenges, decline, conflict, and desolations.
Even the metaphor of feeling locked out at church this morning? It was literally just one minute before people ran, ran, to the door to let me in. We must reframe the terrible things that have happened to us in these three years. Because each one is an opportunity to learn how to be people and communities of love. Such reframing does not skip over loss or grief. For grief is simply the aftermath of loving, another form of love.
What challenges are you facing in participating or leading in your community? What losses need to be acknowledged, named, and given space for grief?
Acknowledging Ambiguous Loss
How is grief, “another way of loving?” Read what today’s guest, Rev. Dr. Joyce Ann Mercer says about it in her article “Grief is a way of loving: Pastoral theology for a pandemic” in the Presbyterian Outlook.
Rituals and habits in every area of life from parenting and teaching to being in community and leading the people of faith have been disrupted and undermined. Now is the time to reframe and reimagine how to live creatively with these losses. How do we start? Join me in this wonderful conversation with Dr. Joyce Ann Mercer as we consider ambiguous loss and grief.
Finally, please watch for more episodes with Joyce Ann Mercer in the coming weeks. She has more to share about grief and loss and how we live creatively with them.