Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Foundations of Grief and Loss — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on November 27th, 2011


Reading    From Letters, by Emily Dickinson

What shall we do, my darling, when trial grows more, and more, when the dim, lone light expires, and it’s dark, so very dark, and we wander, and know not where, and cannot get out of the forest – whose is that hand to help us, and to lead, and forever guide us, they talk of a Jesus of Nazareth, will you tell me if it be he?

Sermon     Foundations of Grief and Loss     Rev. David Pyle

If the one constant of the human condition is change,
then the only constant companion to the human soul is loss.

I know, that is a very depressing sounding statement.
I drove around town last night for about an hour
trying to think of a way to say it
that did not sound like an advertisement
for a new anti-depression medication… but there it is.
If the one constant of the human condition is change,
then the only constant companion that walks with us
on the human journey is loss,
and the grief that loss inspires in us.

How we understand grief, loss, and death
is one of the most important questions
that human beings seek to answer.
It is a question that rests at the heart of every religion,
every philosophical system, every psychological therapy.

This will be a little less of a story-telling sermon
than I usually preach, and more of a set of observations
about grief and loss… a “lessons I am still learning” if you will.

The first lesson that loss has taught me
is that grief and loss are about so, so much more than death.

We see our losses most clearly when they involve a death,
but I have come to suspect that
it is many of the other losses of our lives that shape us the most…

I know I am profoundly shaped by the death of my father,
and it has taken years for me to understand
that it is not actually his death that I grieve.
No, what I grieve is the loss of the relationship
I might have had with him, over the past 17 years since his death,
and into the future we might have expected
to have together had he lived.

The loss that is my companion has taught me
that the pain I feel most strongly is the loss of possibility…
the loss of what might have been.

We experience that loss of possibility
in so many ways that do not relate to death.
There is the loss of possibility each time
we apply for a job we do not get,
after having imagined what it would have been like.
We experience the loss of possibility
when a child chooses a different path for their life
than the one we dreamed for them.
We experience the loss of possibility, the loss of dreams,
when we accept that perhaps the world
is not what we thought it was in our teens.
We experience the loss of possibility
when a friendship ends over a quarrel or a misunderstanding.

And nowhere do we human beings experience
the loss of possibility more profoundly
than when a romantic relationship finds its ending.

There is something inherent in many of the emotions
we lump together under the word “love”
that causes us to dream of possibilities.

A young boy fails an algebra class
because he is spending the days looking across the room
at an unaware young lady, dreaming of a future together.
A couple plans out the next thirty years of their lives together,
lying in bed holding hands in the dark.

A young man dreams of being allowed to love someone openly,
even though neither of their families accepts
that he and his beau can or should feel such love for one another.
A young woman dreams that her lover
will soon take their relationship just as seriously as she does,
and will offer her a ring.
An elderly couple meets and feels not only love for one another,
but dream of the possibility of taking care of each other
in the years that are to come… and of not ending up alone.

All of these are dreams of possibilities
that go to the core of the hope
that not only is part of the human soul,
but is to me the lift that raises the human spirit.
For myself, I never did pass that Algebra class…

With all of these dreams of possibilities inspired by romantic love,
what do you think is the track record
for these possibilities being fulfilled?
Oh, it does occasionally seem to happen…
the couple has the storybook relationship
where they are swept off into the sunset
to live happily ever after…

Yet in my experience if you scratch the surface
of even the most possibility fulfilled relationship,
you find that the reality never matches the dreams.
For most of us, the reality rarely even comes close…
and when those possibility fueled dreams are unfulfilled,
we experience each of those as a loss
as or more profound than the death of a cherished loved one.

My companion loss has taught me
that in these unfulfilled dreams of possibilities
lies a precious gift…
for nowhere else is what is truly important to us
displayed so clearly.

It is in our dreams of possibilities that we allow our souls to speak.
My companion loss taught me to see those dreams
not just as the loss of possibilities,
but as my soul telling me what is important.
What a gift that lesson has been…
even as I have thought and felt through
the loss of possibilities in the death of my father
at such an early age.
When we look at what we’ve lost, we see what we value.

(Break, Water)

My companion loss taught me
that while it is a human tendency
to build an identity from reflections,
it would be better for me to build my identity from within myself.

This was, and continues to be a hard lesson for me…
one of the hardest of my life.
One of the theological ideas I was
most attracted to in Zen Buddhism
was the idea that the image of self is an illusion,
because this seemed to let me off the hook
from doing the hard work of building a self image from within,
of doing the core discernment about myself
to understand who I am, who I have been,
and who I dream of becoming.

And yet, it was my companion loss
who taught me why I had to do that work,
to understand who I am from within,
and not from the reflections without.
When our image of self, our core understandings of who we are
is built in what relationships we have with other people,
and in what opinions others have of us,
then we live our lives never knowing
who we are from moment to moment.
While there is some existential truth to this
that Buddhism points to,
my companion loss taught me
that I needed some sense of self to survive,
and that if I left that sense of self up to others
then I was subject to that most fickle of creations…
human opinion.

There is a powerful idea in the first principle
of Unitarian Universalism that I believe is implied but rarely stated.
The principle applies first to yourself.
You have inherent worth and dignity.
For that to be true, there must be something
that is inherently you to hold that worth and dignity,
something more than a reflection of the opinions of others.

Yet, it is a consistent human trait to build our self-image
from the opinions that others hold of us.
The next closest material we use to build our self-image
is what we do… what our job is or what expertise we have.
In third material we often use in the building of our self image
is where we belong… were we’ve been accepted into community.

No where do we put more faith
into building our self-image from the opinions of others,
from the doing of our lives,
and from the places where we belong
than in our romantic lives.
We seem almost hard-wired to build
our idea of who we are in relation to the opinions of us
that those who love us hold.
Especially during our teens and twenties

When our identities are still new and forming

I do not know how many of you know that I am divorced.
I know I’ve mentioned it a few times
in pastoral counseling, but I don’t think I’ve said it from the pulpit.
Personally, I don’t know how I could do relationship counseling
if I had not had the experience of a marriage
that went horribly wrong…
and it is far enough in my past
that I can reflect on the experience of it
with only a shadow of the pain that was so real in the moment.

Much of the pain of the ending of that relationship
rested in that I had invested a tremendous amount
of my sense of self in that marriage.
Who was I? I was Dawn’s husband.
I knew I had value because she loved me.
I belonged in the community of responsible adulthood
because I was married to her.
Who I would become was built around the dream
that we would always be together.

So, when the relationship ended

in a rather emotionally devastating way
I was left with nothing.
I no longer knew who I was.
I did not seem to have any purpose for being anymore.
My value, my worth, and my dignity
had been defined in relationship to another person,
and that other person was now gone…
What did that mean for who I was?

My companion loss taught me that
to be a whole and complete human being,
I had to build my self-identity and worth from within.
This is a lesson I am still learning…

It took years, counseling, and seminary,
for my companion loss to be able to teach me
the barest outlines of learning
to build my sense of self from within, not without.

This lesson my companion loss is still teaching me
has me wondering if this is not the essential task of being human;
learning, discerning, and understanding who we are.

(Break, Water)

There are many other lessons my constant companion loss
has been teaching me,
as we walk together through this adventure we call a human life…
but there is one more I want to share with you this morning.
It is a lesson I had to see first in reflection,
and then in my own life…
and it took a year as a hospice chaplain to see it.

My companion loss taught me
that you can never be “done” with any grief…
you can only learn to make a place for it in your life.
There is a trend in our culture to treat grief as if it is a pathogen…
as if it is a disease or a sickness
that with proper treatment and just the right amount of time,
you can be cured of.
People have for decades mis-interpreted
the Kubler-Ross “5 Stages of Grief”
as if they were a checklist to curing the illness of grief.

I actually had a family member of a hospice patient
make up a calendar with each of the five stages
on successive months after her husband’s death,
because she wanted to make sure she was
both “doing it properly” and not “wasting time”
getting over the death.

Sound familiar to anyone?

Countless times I’ve heard
“It’s been a year, I should be over this by now”
or “something is wrong…
last week I was all the way to acceptance,
and now I’m clear back to anger.
How do I fix it and get back on track?”

Grief is how my companion loss speaks to me,

And to be done with grief would mean I was no longer listening.

I believe this is what we are often taught to do.
When the daughter of one of my hospice patients
told her father that he should be over mom’s death by now,
she was telling him to stop listening to his grief…
to stop walking with his companion loss.
I have come to the belief that we do this to each other
because someone who is grieving reminds us
at a sub-conscious level of all the losses
we are no longer listening to ourselves.

Because of this, most of humanity
has layer upon layer of losses buried in our lives,
like the ruins of ancient cities.
They lie there dormant, unacknowledged and unknown,
as the foundation of everything else we try to build in our lives.

Many of these ancient foundations
of lost dreams, possibilities, and self-understandings
were laid down by the death of loved ones,
by the ending of friendships, by the failures of careers,
and of course, by the relationship implosions
of our romantic lives.

My companion loss has taught me
that part of our work together
is to dig through those foundations of grief and loss,
to explore them, and to make places for them
in this journey of human life,
almost as if we are archaeologists
exploring the buried ruins of ancient cities.
It is careful, hard work…
and it is part of understanding the self-image of who I am within.
It is part of understanding the dreams of possibilities
that name what my soul values most.

Sometimes those excavations in my own life
have been carefully controlled,
looking at a nice square little digsite
in my buried losses and griefs,
just like you might see in National Geographic…
but most often it is in exploring something unearthed
in ways that I did not plan, and are beyond my control.

Sometimes a fresh experience of grief does this…
makes it possible to see the connections to a past loss…

And sometimes, digging around in my past losses
is inspired by someone else…
this is the way it always seems to happen for me
when the loss is one of a romantic relationship.

Over the last few years, I have had a disturbing trend

And that is a long series of ex-girlfriends,

From highschool and my early twenties

Who find me on Facebook

And want to “Process” our former relationship…

Maybe it’s because they see I’m a minister now
and figure it is my job to help them understand
why I was such a jerk in High School.
Or how I was “the one who got away”,
or how they have felt guilty for decades for something
that happened between us when we were in our twenties.

My companion loss has taught me
that there is so much to learn,
so much wisdom buried in all of the griefs and losses of my life,
that I could never live long enough to learn it all.
My companion loss has taught me
to be prepared for the opportunities for us
to explore those ancient ruins of loss
to happen when I least expect it.

My companion loss has taught me
that one of the best ways I can learn
what my losses have to teach me,
is to, when invited, walk with someone else
in their own explorations of their grief and pain.
We, all of us, owe each other that…
Especially those whom have once loved one another.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.


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