Sometimes we are forced to grieve alone, in silence, because no one knows the depth of our connection to the one who has died. Sometimes no one knows that we even exist. Sometimes we are known, but not recognized as part of the group of legitimate grievers. Perhaps we were a secret lover, an ex-partner, a divorced spouse. Perhaps we find ourselves excluded by homophobic families or churches when our lovers or friends die. Perhaps our loved one has "gone home to die," and we are left without an outlet for our grief. Or, maybe, we simply feel that no one knew how close we really were.
No matter what the circumstances that cause this, we are dealing with exclusion as grievers. Our grieving is compounded by a deep sense of isolation. We may even be forced to hide our grief entirely, crying only when we are sure of being alone. It is extremely difficult to do the work of grief in a conscious way when we can't even acknowledge that we are grieving. It becomes essential that we understand our own grief, and take special care to make spaces for it. Grief symbols and private rituals will help, and joining a bereavement group may lessen the intensity of our feelings of isolation. As with any grieving, it is important to be able to tell our stories over and over again. Finding a friend, pastor, counsellor or group is even more important when dealing with disenfranchised grief.
I want to say a word to those of us who are in ministry. When we conduct the funerals of our congregants, we are often disenfranchised grievers. We are there to facilitate the grieving of our people, but we are expected to be calm, composed and comforted by our faith. Our reality may be quite different. We, too, may have lost a loved one, a friend, a significant member of our circle of support. We may also have walked with this person through the dying process. The death may have been completely unexpected, or especially traumatic. We carry all of our knowledge of the person, the family and the situation into the worship service. We probably also know of other difficult situations being lived by other members of the grieving congregation. As pastors, we have to try to hold all of this grief inside, while staying emotionally open and present. This adds up to a heavy burden. And the load gets heavier with every funeral.
I strongly encourage my clergy friends to find a holy companion. Find someone who can listen to your grief stories. Find someone who will affirm your right to grieve. Give yourself permission to take regular time in your week to sit with those who have gone before, and to feel whatever you need to feel. Refusing to understand our own grief will ultimately lead to burn-out or compassion fatigue, neither of which will serve us or anyone else.