Loss and Loneliness

Loss and Loneliness in the Church

Loss is part of life, in some cases a significant part of life. But how does the Church play into this life of loss?

I think a fair assumption is that most pastors and most Christians recognize when someone experiences loss; and they offer help. Death, unemployment, job transfers, family separations, divorce, etc. Many times our fellow Christians come to our side, walk with us in the stages of loss. But how long does that last?

This is where loneliness follows on the heels of loss, and may not even be recognized by the Church as an added burden. This kind of loneliness is subtle, creeping into a person’s life slowly, silently.

Consider the death of a spouse. The shock and grief begin, usually mapped out in five stages. Of course, the stages can be mixed up and not in order. But the issue of loneliness is not even addressed in the stages of grief, often because no one thinks it’s an issue.

Loneliness

After the visits, hot dishes for the family, after family leaves, then a loneliness settles in as an unexpected and uninvited guest. The room feels empty, the bed stark, the morning conversations are only an echo of past times. Sometimes the phone call is a distant memory.

Obviously no one else can fill that void left by someone. The shared knowing moments, the slight smile, the hand slowly caressing the hand, never to be no more. And loneliness becomes more real.

What can the Church do?

We in the church can recognize the loneliness. Take a moment to speak with the person who has experienced loss. Share some thoughts, that may only apply to you, but you want to share with someone. Expand the circle of friends.

Obviously there is so much that can be done. If this is all new to you, then take halting steps in one way to be with the lonely person. The more you know this person, the more you will be able to tell what is helpful and what is not. Even if you “make a mistake” you can still care for someone. A mistake is that, not the end, but a turning point as the other person experiences your willingness to each out.

And don’t forget pastors. They, too, can be lonely, experiencing not only the the same losses as the rest of the congregation but their losses accumulate. They may not open up, but they need your love and support as well.

Personal loss and Loneliness

In the past six months four significant people in my life have died. The birth mother of our sons died two years ago, but we just found out at the end of April. Although we had never met her (being in Korea), she was very much part of our lives through our sons. My wife’s younger brother died in June. My mother died in August. And one of the most influential guitar players in my life died in October. Each played a major factor in my life (and my wife’s), and each was cumulative in understanding loss and loneliness.

For me my mother’s death was especially hard. She is the last of her generation. We were very close over the years, sharing memories and stories, many from her early life. I was so glad we spent time with her in June of this year celebrating her 88th birthday.Mother’s 88h birthday

But now the loneliness is setting in. I reach for the phone 2-3 times each week to call her, to remember a detail of some event or story. And that is now gone. The loneliness has begun in real. So many questions to ask, and now of my father who died in 1991.

This also changed the dynamics of my role in the story. Now I am in the older generation with the family stories. My younger brother was sorting through my mother’s photo albums recently. He described one photo and commented that it must be [name], who he knew through fishing trips. I realized that the man in the photo was not alive when he was describing the photo. The man in the photo was actually the father of the man he identified. And so I passed along another bit of family history.

Thus, I find these odd memories, photos, conversations are the things that increase the loneliness, and yet change the loneliness and my perspective. At the same time I am helping carry on memories, photos, and conversations to my brother, my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

My mother began hand-writing a partial biography in the late 1990s. Her purpose was pass on to her descendants elements of her life. I began putting that into the computer (writing, editing, page layout, etc.) in the early 2000s. Ultimately we published it in 2006, with enough copies for her family/descendants and her brother’s family/descendants (her brother died in 1974). We eventually published two more runs as people in the area (northern Minnesota) became aware of it and wanted their own copy.Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 10.32.45

Am I still lonely? Yep, and I suspect for a while. But I also realize that her stories in person and the selected glimpses in her book will be part of my life from now on.

And I am a little less lonely. But I still want to pick up the phone one more time…

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Who Am I? Reflections

I take this opportunity to thank my friend for writing the five part series: Who am I? The range of human sin and emotions, overwhelmed by the grace of God, the love that sustains. We rejoice in his story, and even more in God’s story. As I reflected on this series one thing stuck out:

Ten years—no visitors

That is hard for me to imagine, and yet not so hard. We went ten years without any contact from our son. He was in prison most of that time. We know he had no family visits, but maybe a couple friends. So, yes, I can imagine. No family, no friends, just prison and fellow inmates—in the image to the right, not even one of those impersonal contacts.

That is the epitome of loneliness. How does one deal with such isolation? What impact will that have on the person’s life?

Frequent visitors

This last week I came across another blog that presented a view of imprisonment from a family member’s perspective (a role I am very familiar with). Shannan reveals her frequent visits to her son who was in prison. Most of the contact was over the phone. But now the visit was face-to-face.

Shanna’s story: Reconciled

I threw it out often, “Ask us anything! We’ll answer!”

But he hung back at the ropes, listening to all our stories, sharing his own. Never asking.

Until, one night, he did. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” he asked across the crackling prison line.

Her answer, unexpected by her son, the prisoner, began a new (positive) phase in their relationship.

The Hard Question

This brings me to my own reflections about our older son and his many times in prison. [Read the story here] This last week I mentioned that we have seen our son only one time in almost 17 years. The pain is there, the hurt is never far away.

Someone then asked me whether we had hired an investigator to look for him after all this time. I appreciated the genuine interest and concern. But the question stopped me for a moment. How do I answer this? Am I responsible for the continued gulf between us?

In all honesty I responded, “I’m not sure I (or my wife) could handle trying to search for him. That sounds almost uncaring, but for our own protection we are not at that place.”

We are concerned about him and yes, we still love him. But we have a history going back to 1978 with him and the deepening pain in living with him, without him, not knowing about him. I admitted to myself: Can we endure opening that door and exposing our selves not only to the painful memories but also to new pains, concerns, and agonies?

Right now for me that is a protective measure on my part. Is that appropriate? I have read the Prodigal Son parable for many decades. As I studied in detail in the 1990’s, one thing I noticed. The father in the parable does not seek everywhere to find his son. Rather, after the son has reached bottom, and the son returns to the Father, the father runs to meet him at the edge of the village to protect him from the ridicule and scorn of the villagers for what he had done. If our son were to contact us, then we would respond like the father.

I do know that in my ministry I have (and still do) minister to families who are going through some of the anguish that we endured from 1978 to 1998. And some who may be facing the not-knowing that we have faced from 1998 to the present. Every time it is a reminder of pain with flashbacks to knowing what people are experiencing, but also a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us, even when we were not.

Final thoughts

If nothing else from my story and the story of this friend, and Shannan’s story, that we live with life as we experience it. I wish that life were easier, that the pain would stop, the questions would not arise. I wish that families would not experience the loneliness of imprisonment, the fear and uncertainty of the missing, the sleepless nights of worry. But it is God who is the greater One, the One who sustains us in the deepest valleys. The One who reassures us that He will never leave us or forsake us. And that makes living worth living.