One of the most interesting things I have learned about grief since losing my mom is how hard it can be to walk into a church on a Sunday morning.
First, lets clarify a few things: I am a committed follower of Christ and I love going to church. I have nothing but positive things to say about my church, and many of my closest friends attend the same church I do. Yet there are some days where walking out on the dock of Camp Crystal Lake and waiting to be approached by a machete-wielding man in a hockey mask seems less frightening than showing up on a Sunday morning. Why?
I also want to acknowledge the various types of grief that we experience. For some, grief has come after the death of a loved one. The grief of others may be from a painful or unexpected divorce. There are people grieving after a sudden job loss or after getting a difficult medical report. Regardless of the cause of our grief, we all feel pain.
I don't have a great scientific answer, nor have I spent years of field research on this topic. But I have discovered some unique insight based on my own personal experience that can shed some light on the question.
When my wife's mom passed away, she had a very difficult time attending church. She would either stay in bed, dread coming, or take off shortly upon arriving. The pain was just too difficult to bare. I didn't understand why this was a problem. I viewed the church experience as a safe place full of loving, caring people. Why would this be a place to avoid during such a painful experience? If anything, shouldn't it help? I felt like I was failing as a husband because she didn't want to go, and when she did, she often left during the music or message because it was too difficult. She and I would often talk on Sunday afternoons about it, but all I was really able to understand was that as an introvert, it was difficult and exhausting being around people under normal circumstances, let alone during grief.
My perspective changed dramatically after my mom passed away. The Sunday following the funeral, I wanted to attend. I knew that my church family would be extremely loving and supportive. I remember walking in and feeling absolutely frightened to the point of trembling. But I was met with hugs, kind words, love and tears.
However, despite such a loving experience, I couldn't even make it to church the following Sunday. I don't remember the specifics of that morning, but there's at least a 25% chance that it involved dipping fried chicken drumsticks into pints of rocky road ice cream and feasting like an Orc...
Since then, there have been several Sundays that I either skipped or had a very difficult time attending. Sometimes they were near a holiday or special occasion. Other times, it was just a tough grief day. This last Sunday fell on my mom's birthday, and I had a very tough time finding the strength to attend church.
I've learned something through this experience: This no longer has anything to do with being an introvert. I'm highly extroverted, yet have felt oddly similar to how my wife did after her mom passed.
Why is church so scary when we grieve?
A Few Reasons
1. We don't feel like ourselves when we grieve. We can feel shame. We wonder if we will be accepted. Will we get judged? And putting on a mask or faking a smile feels too exhausting.
2. We can't control our environment. Will we get hurt? How will others respond to me? Will they respond with care and empathy? Or with cliche's like "it's ok, they are in a better place" or "Heaven just gained another angel."
3. We feel exposed. Raw, vulnerable, open for attack. We feel weak and unable to protect ourselves. Several years ago, I had hernia surgery just above my belly button. I went to church the next Sunday. Needless to say, when someone thought it would be fun to slap me on the stomach (he didn't know about the surgery) as a way of saying hello, I fell to the ground. The next week, I kept a 3 foot distance from every other human. I might have even stiff armed a few people like I was an NFL running back. We are like this with our emotions as well.
4. Everyone seems so happy, and I do not. "Great, they chose the most fun, happy, upbeat song to play this morning. Is it ok to crumple up my church bulletin and throw it at the lead singer?"
5. We may be wrestling with our faith as a result of our loss. Anger, confusion, resentment, and doubt are all very common when we experience grief or other deep emotional trauma.
A Few Solutions
1. Be honest. You don't have to tell everyone everything. But committing to a "Today is a good day" or "I'm having a tough day" system was very helpful for me. Eliminate "I'm fine" from your vocabulary. If you always walk around with a fake smile and tell people things are great, two things will happen: either they will believe you and treat you as if you are great. Or, they won't believe you and will pick up the vibe you are sending - "please leave me alone. I don't trust you enough to tell you how I'm really feeling." Neither is helpful.
2. Build a circle of safety. Think of 3-5 people that you know you can go to if you are having a tough time. Don't wait for a bad day to approach them. Talk to them ahead of time and let them know what you are feeling. Ask them if they'd be available if your having a bad day and don't have the ability to communicate anything other than tears.
3. Depend on God's sustaining grace. He loves you as you are. There is no expectation other than being exactly who you are. If you have never experienced grace, this can be a powerful time to experience love and acceptance. And extend this grace to those around you. They often say things trying to be helpful, even if it feels like a personal attack. Often, they just don't know.
4. Practical tip: sit near the back. There you have quick access to kleenex if the need for a good snot cry should arise.
5. Don't run from difficult issues relating to pain and suffering. This can be a powerful time of discovery and transformation. Here are two books that I HIGHLY recommend that speak to this issue with both intellect and empathy:
Where is God When It Hurts by Phillip Yancy
A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
So, back to this past Sunday morning. I was sitting down looking at pictures of my mom. Her face and actions were so vivid in my mind. I didn't want to lose that moment, yet I could have probably filled up a bucket with the various liquids that were flowing from my face. That's when I looked up and realized that church would be starting in 10 minutes. This is where I'd normally say something like "there's no way I can go to church on a day like today. I'll never make it through the service." Or, "I don't want to talk to anyone today." Or even, "Does anyone know a nasal plumber? Because unless we get this drippy nose fixed, someone's gonna have to hook a brotha up with a bib."
One thing I've learned during this BEHIND THE IMAGE project is that vulnerability is a powerful thing. It requires us to step out of our shame and let go of our fear. And as a result, we get to experience freedom. So, I got dressed, threw on my Detroit Tigers hat (such a rebel, my 8th grade youth group leaders would be very disappointed) and rushed out the door.
I prayed in the car, "God, give me your strength and courage, not just to endure the service, but to be myself. Help me be ok with not being ok, and let go of any expectations I have to be something I'm not capable of being. I want to experience your love and acceptance, and I know you want to reveal that to me through my church family."
The very first person I spoke with was a woman who was greeting and handing out name tags. She asked me how I was doing. "Just tell her your great and keep going." Nope. Instead, I committed to the truth.
"I'm doing ok."
"That didn't sound like you were ok."
"Well, today's a tough day. It's my mom's birthday, and I'm really missing her. We always shared a birthday, so birthdays are a bittersweet time now."
This next part got me good... "It's my birthday today too!"
Someone must have started cutting onions right at that moment, because I definitely felt some moisture in those tear ducts. I couldn't help it, I needed to give her a big hug. She's not my mom's age, but she's still a mom. It was a powerful moment and a beautiful gift from God to share a birthday moment with her.
The rest of the service, I did the best I could. I sat in the back row. I listened to the message and excused myself from service when I needed a break. I talked to people out in the lobby for a moment, and even got to chase after a little toddler who just started walking. (Strangely, he and I walk very similar...) Most importantly, I felt like I could just be me, and as a result, I got to experience love, acceptance, and connection from those who care deeply about me.
The risk was worth the reward.
Join The Conversation
Have you found it difficult to attend church in the midst of your grief? Why? Was it one of the reasons above, or was there something different? Have you had an experience when you fought through those emotions and had a beautiful experience? Share your thoughts below, or contact me on Twitter @RickGuttersohn.
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