Grief in the season of joy

Many years ago an older colleague commented that when a pastor serves a church for a long time, a transition takes place from officiating at funerals for parishioners to officiating at funerals for friends. “Most of the funerals I do are for my friends these days.” I understood his words and I knew that they were accurate, but I didn’t completely know how it would feel at this stage of my life and my career.

In my previous calls, I certainly officiated at funerals of people who I had known for a significant amount of time. We served 7 years in our first parish and 10 in our second. But there was a significant factor in those parishes and it was my age. I was 42 years old when I left that second parish. That meant that the bulk of the funerals at which I officiated were of people the age of my grandparents and a few of people the age of my parents. I’m older now. I’ve officiated at a fair number of funerals for those who are younger than I. And more and more the people whose funerals at which I officiate are my peers. Our church still has elders. We’ve one member who is thirty-four years older than I, but when it comes to age, I fit in with those who are identified as seniors.

One of the key elements in the ethical code for pastors is that we serve all of the people of the church without showing preference or partiality. It is important for the life and health of the congregation that pastoral services be offered to all and that all be served. However, it is nearly impossible not to form closer relationships with some members than with others. In the natural course of events, I’ve been invited into some homes more often than others. I’ve found more common interests with some members than with others. My life intersects with some folks more often than with others because of common interests and activities.

Some weeks hit me harder than others. The congregation needs and expects a leader who is not simply an emotional basket case. I am allowed to be human and to have feelings, but there are moments when my personal feelings should not get in the way of meaningful worship or effective pastoral care. Like those in other professions, there are days when I need to “suck it up and get back to work.” Still, this is being a challenging week for me. The death in our congregation was not unexpected. We had the blessing of three meaningful years after the diagnosis of his cancer, a particularly cruel form of caner than claims over 90% of its victims within a few months. I personally had the bonus of many mornings of meeting for coffee. The past 18 months especially have been filled with some very good times of visiting and sharing.

We have lots of shared history. He had served on and chaired the Department of Stewardship and Budget in the church. He had served on the Church Board and been moderator of the church. One of the years he served as moderator was especially tumultuous for me. He was my direct supervisor when my brother, my mother and my father-in-law died. He held that role when our first grandchild was born and when our daughter was married. He walked with me through transitions in church staff and changes in church leadership.The stories we could tell just about church life in this congregation are significant.

The journey of his final days was not terribly different from others who have died. His transition was peaceful and Hospice House was able to very effectively control his pain. I didn’t see him win significant discomfort and his sense of humor remained to the very end. I have been blessed by knowing him.

And yet I’ve been in a funk for a couple of days now. I know that it is grief. I know the signs and stages of grief. I’ve been through it before. But each experience is unique and has its own pace. It isn’t the first time in my life that my Advent has been colored by grief. It is just four years since one of the kids I counseled in church camp and to whose family I am close died during Advent. The season carries both joyful and sad memories for me. And this experience ads another layer to a season that already is filled with layer upon layer of memory.

One of the experiences of aging is that there are more layers of memory that shape my feelings than was the case when I began my career. 40 years of funerals does not make them blur into a single event. It does not make any single funeral commonplace or routine. Each one has its own unique journey of grief.

I take the fact that I have deep feelings and personal reactions as a sign that I continue to be called to this work. I still care as deeply and as passionately as i did when I was 25 years old. I’m not the same person as I was then. I have a great deal more experience. But my passion and my sense of call to the ministry is as strong as ever. I am grateful for the closeness I feel to the people that I serve.

Love is always worth it, even when it leads to the pain of loss. Love always wins. Love endures forever. I say these words a lot and use them in funerals a lot. And I know that they are true. Death and grief are no longer theoretical concepts for me. They are ever-present realities. I have a unique role to play in the community as an officiant and eulogist, but the most important part of the work I do is that I walk with the people whom I am called to serve.

No one can do this work alone. We get through by walking together.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!