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A Grief Deferred
If not now, do it later, but do it.
Last Tuesday night, October 17, 2023, four Pepperdine University students: Asha Weir, Deslyn Williams, Peyton Stewart, Niamh Rolston—all Seniors, had their lives taken as pedestrians along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu by a speeding driver who lost control of his car. Our community has been in grief ever since, and I’ve been doing what I can to help the grief-stricken get through this tragedy.
The memorial service was this past Sunday.
Walking with others on the sacred ground of grief is a holy calling. “God is near to the afflicted and rescues those who are crushed in Spirit” (Ps. 34:18). If you are family to or pastor to the grieving, you may find it difficult during the tragedy to, “be strong,” for those mourning. Many pastors, however, manage to compartmentalize their emotions during such a season. I am one of those, but I’ve adapted my approach over the years. I feel like I deal with proximity to trauma better than I used to. Here I don’t mean I’m more of stoic than in the past. On the contrary, I pay much closer attention to my soul than I used to. It serves the grieving better, and I have learned to pastor myself as one impacted by the event, not as an inanimate object standing by at the event. I allow myself to feel more than I used to, and I pay much closer attention to the aftermath than I used to.
I have found generally can allow myself to experience about 30% of the grief I would normally feel in the moment and still be helpful to those most impacted by the tragedy. It’s enough to make me sensitive to their needs, while allowing me to hold it together enough to remain clear-headed and give those most impacted a sense someone is OK enough to guide them through. I believe it is OK to, “be strong,” for trauma victims. It helps those mourning to have a pillar to lean on, a trail guide down their sad road that isn’t lost along with them. So, I rarely allow myself to feel the full brunt of what has happened to others in the moment.
Some might think this sort of self-management is mechanical or inauthentic. I would argue it is hyper-authentic. Knowing yourself and submitting your frailties to what is needed for others in a traumatic moment feels right to me. I will grieve in full. Just, not yet.
When I was younger, I tried to feel nothing and locked my feelings in an emotional closet. Athletics had trained me to be a master compartmentalizer. I was good at it, and I would open the closet only to deposit more things I did not to feel. Thou shalt not open the closet.
I came to realize that wasn’t healthy. To be sure, there are times a leader needs to compartmentalize, or choose not to dwell on certain traumatic events. Sometimes what others experience as traumatic isn’t for the pastor because they are at least one degree removed from the immediate situation. There are lots of caveats.
However, grief will surface again down the road in obvious and subtle ways until it is dealt with properly. One cannot bear witness to suicides, brutal divorces, orphaned children, grievous sin, murders, infant death…traumas of that magnitude…for decades without it making an impact that must be healed somehow. God didn’t make us that way. There are more pastors serving today with at least a low-grade PTSD than anyone would realize. They likely won’t bring it up. They may leave ministry altogether, in which case the grief moves with them—but they lose a part of themselves that helped them cope with the grief. Option two: They continue limping along with an ever-worsening arthritis of the soul. About ten years ago I realized I’d chosen option two.
Some years ago, I tried an experiment. I decided to schedule my grief. Literally. Put it on the calendar. Give myself the time to process, freak out, cry, be angry—whatever is needed —but do it at a time down the road from the tragedy in question—but not too far down the road. I knew I’d have the chance to grieve properly, just not right then. Right now is for others. My time to be sad would come soon—and God was waiting for me there. It worked wonders for me. I didn’t have to deny the way I felt, and I wouldn’t escape or compartmentalize the way I felt. I could serve others in the moment without packing for myself long-term emotional baggage.
There are times where this sort of spiritual discipline is not necessary, not possible or not advisable. Maybe I will flesh that out in another post. But, for those of us who lead or are in the healing professions (doctors, police, paramedics, pastors, and most leaders—suprise!), we deal with more trauma than most because we help most cope with their trauma. We also deal with our trauma and their trauma under pressure. “Pressurized trauma,” may be one way to describe it. We help others deal with their trauma under intense time pressure, sometimes media pressure, the pressure of criticism, and always, the pressure of fighting off our own grief in the moment.
If we choose the noble work of leading and healing, we have a responsibility to take seriously how we plan to process what leadership brings with it. That does not mean we are obligated to fall apart or process things in the same way. But, we should know ourselves well enough to know what we plan to do with our pain.
It make not work for you. For me, scheduling grief works well much of the time. In a case like tragic deaths, I usually aim for within a month of the memorial service, and the sooner the better. For this unspeakable tragedy, the date is set. I’ll probably hike, and listen to worship songs. I’ll pray. I’ll be still and silent. I make some room for God to do whatever He wants to. I’ll keep doing it until God brings healing.
One more thing: I plan the beginning, but not the end. I start when I plan to start, but I’m only finished when I’m finished. There have been times when I thought it would take an hour and it took a month. There have been times I thought it might take a year, and I seemed to pull through in a week. But the key is—allow whatever time is necessary. You may go ahead and schedule the beginning, but you cannot plan the end. The end happens when it happens. It is a process, not a date on a calendar.
We are different people. I have a makeup, family of origin, life and a past that is different than yours. You handle stress and trauma differently than I do. So, view this post as descriptive rather than prescriptive. But, know yourself, be honest always with yourself and a see a therapist if need be. It was, after all, a therapist that taught me to schedule my grief. Make a plan of your own. We owe it to ourselves and those we want to love well.
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