By Carra Hughes Greer
Each time I returned to my grandparents’ home, I felt like I needed an arsenal of anxiety medications to get me through the feelings of emptiness, sadness and yearning for what used to be.
My grandmother’s home was exactly as she left it, except there was a layer of dust covering all the memories. My grandfather could be found sitting in this “memorial” he created over the years, mourning the loss of his best friend, the happiest times in his life and some of the happiest times in all our lives.
She is gone. She is not coming back, but we insisted on leaving everything as if we still anticipated her return. It hurt too much to move on, move forward. It felt like we were forgetting her; we didn’t want to forget her. We were not sure how to grieve such a significant loss in our lives, so we just held tight to “how it used to be,” in hopes we would awaken from this dream and all would be right in the world again.
Church folk are faced with similar grief. We see this play out in churches as the aging Builders and Boomers place value in the “institutional” church while newer generations are more likely to value the “spiritual mission” of the church. Many are involved in churches with longstanding traditions and plenty of memories of “how things used to be.”
As the years have passed, programs once vibrant are now showing signs of decay and death, and we are left wondering how to grieve the loss of something meaningful, significant to us. In many cases, the pain is so real, so raw, we hold on to traditions, programs, buildings and processes because they were once very successful and full of life.
They were places where we have wonderful memories intertwined. They are spaces where we remember our families gathering, our children being baptized, our teenagers graduating, and our spouses being laid to rest.
The church as “it used to be” was often the only unwavering force in the swirling chaos of our lives. The programs drew hundreds to our faith communities; it seemed so easy, so effortless..
While we longstanding, church-goers are distracted by our grieving, those not a part of the mourning feel as if the church has grown stagnant to the world around her. People new to our congregations and new generations of Christ-followers misunderstand our grieving and our intense need to hold tight to the past as an unwillingness to move forward, dream new dreams and create new memories.
A simple place to begin a healthy process of grieving over the past may be conversation between those who cherish “how it used to be” and those who “dream of what it could be.” Neither group is wrong in their placement of value; there is simply a need to compassionately see life through a new lens. Those who linger in the “how it used to be” and those who “dream of what it could be” need their voices to be heard and valued before a realistic compromise can be reached. The process is not painless or quick and inevitably, everyone will not feel at peace with decisions made because feelings of loss remain.
Grieving is a process which takes time to work through. After years of grieving, my grandfather donated my grandmother’s clothes. He sorted through her jewelry and passed the most precious pieces to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He shared her hand-stitched quilts and dishes. My grandfather, with much support from his family, finally loosened his grip on what had become a painful past to dream new dreams with our growing family.
He is surrounded by a new generation. While the great-grandkids never met my grandmother and are unable to have that connection in common with my grandfather, they value, appreciate and love each other in new ways.
Loss is difficult, for us as individuals and for many congregants in our churches. There are no answers to helping people through pain that can be deep and lasting. Nothing can replace those things we “lose” which hold so much value, significance, and meaning. No one is asking us to “replace” the people, memories, or traditions, but we should be intentional about creating space in the midst of our grieving to make room for new hopes and dreams. May we discover this Lenten season an eye-opening peace amid our grief in order to see the new life which can rise from the bleak, wintered earth.