There are no two ways about it… life involves loss. Graduation arrives. Jobs change. Favorite jeans wear out. Children grow up and move out. Dreams pass us by. Friends move on or away. Loved ones die. There are two kinds of losses, those that are necessary and those that are not – the ones we could have avoided. A Christian clinical psychologist by the name of Archibald Hart writes,
“Whenever we suffer a loss we are designed to become depressed. It is part of the ‘grieving process’ that helps us to say our good-byes. It serves an important function and is all part of God’s design.”
Every loss brings pain, but it is a pain that gives birth to maturity, insight, and wisdom if it is processed in a healthy manner. It transforms us, but sometimes at a very heavy price. Who am I? Who are you? Well, in part, we are the sum of our losses and the resurrections that have come from them.
The theme of loss marks the last few weeks of the season of Easter as Jesus prepares his followers for his eminent departure. This Thursday will mark 40 days since Easter Sunday. It is the Day of the Ascension when Jesus’ followers witness him ascend into heaven. Never again will they fellowship with the one they love. It is a necessary and painful loss.
Jesus promises not to leave those who love him as orphans. The image of an orphan hints at the depth of this loss in the life of his followers. Jesus keeps his promise by sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter. The loss of Jesus opens the way for something new: the creation of the Church and the personal empowering of each believer to live in the fullness of life, loving as Jesus loves.
The experience of loss has been a significant feature of our Easter season here at St. Paul’s, with four burials in the last month, three in the last two weeks. Learning how to grieve our losses well is an essential skill in life. Some are better at it than others.
We first begin to develop this skill as infants. From the moment of birth we are a “being-in-relationship”. We require attention, care, and the touch of another. All of our needs are met relationally. Unmet needs evoke in us frustration and fear. We experience separation as a loss and it elicits in us anxiety and anger. When the parent returns, the child expresses what one theorist calls the anger of hope. The child hopes that his or her anger will make the parent feel repentant for the separation and as a result will not leave again. The more inattentive the parent is the more the infant will experience an anger of despair. Carrol Saussy, a professor of pastoral theology writes, “The major thread weaving through both anger in children and anger in adult life is the experience of separation and loss, which can be misinterpreted as the experience of rejection and abandonment.”
Necessary losses are often thought of as occurring “out of necessity” or as “a taking away.” “She is moving on to greener pastures.” “The good times can’t last forever.” “Well, the Lord called grampa home.” In each case there is a reason for the loss, perhaps even a higher purpose. Unnecessary losses, on the other hand, evoke feelings of rejection and abandonment. “There must be something wrong with me.” “I must have done something to deserve this.” “I am not lovable.” Examples abandonment: LaBron James leaves Cleveland for Miami, the paper mill moves out of Franklin, a family member takes his life. The anger of despair may be focused on the abandoner or it may be transferred to something or someone else, but almost always we turn at least a part of its venom inward on ourselves.
Think about Jesus on the Cross wrestling with the ambiguity of what is happening to him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Has he been abandoned? Is his death pointless? Or is it out of necessity? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” “It is finished.” The answer will be apparent three days later.
Archibald Hart describes another challenge associated with unnecessary losses, which he labels “reactive depression.” He writes,
“In reactive depression the real problem lies not with the absence of the lost object but with our attachment to it. In other words, depression continues because we will not let go of the loved object; we will not free it to be dead, lost, removed, or not materialized.”
Reactive depression finds its roots in overattachment. It can be overattachment to a thing (“I can’t get over losing my house), a relationship (particularly the death of a loved one), or something abstract (such as the loss of one’s reputation). When you are overattached you experience a loss of something in the external world as a loss of a part of your own self.
Healthy grieving gives us a space to relinquish and release what we have lost. This is not possible if we feel abandoned by or overattached to what we have lost. Hart observes “when our losses are not ‘clean’ our grieving becomes confused and distracted by anger and resentment at what has happened to us, and our depression becomes intense and even incapacitating.” Significant or on-going depression needs to be taken very seriously and requires professional help.
I have told many of you privately about my depression. It has been with me most of my life, but I did not recognize it or seek help for it until after my marriage ended. I did three things. First, I initiated a relationship with a professional counselor. Over time, our conversations helped me to see and think in new ways. Second, I talked to my doctor and began to take an anti-depressant. I feel blessed that it has changed the chemistry in my brain and makes it possible for me to see and think in new ways. All of this unfolded in my life while I was pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree. I used the opportunity to do a directed study on anger and depression, which included reading about a dozen books and integrating what I learned with the events of my life – a process resulting in a 125 page paper. These experiences have changed who I am as a person and as a priest. The unnecessary death of my marriage and the grieving that followed transformed me; giving rise to insight, wisdom, and deeper maturity.
Today’s reading from John hints at how we learn to let go of a loss as something new enters into our lives. It may be better than what we lost or it may simply be good enough or it may be a reason for us to reemerge in the world of hope and begin to live again. The loss of Jesus leads to the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Hart writes, “Life is a journey, and what makes it a miserable or a happy one is how you master the skills you need to live with your losses.” One thing you can count on: God will never abandon you in the depths of your grief. “I am with you to deliver you.” “I will wipe away every tear from your eyes.” “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” “Come to me, all who are weak and burdened with heavy labor, and I will give you rest.”