Sometimes I write because I feel like something needs to be shared – a word, a thought, a theological position – and I use my blog as a pulpit to proclaim these ideas. At other times, I write because I need to write; it helps me unpack what’s in my heart, assisting me in finding the voice that’s muffled under scattered thoughts & feelings. This post is of that nature – a place to give a voice to feelings that I have yet to articulately communicate even to myself. I’m simply going to let my heart do some stream of consciousness writing and see where I end up. This much I know, I think my heart has some advice to give beyond my own self.
It has been just over 2 years (2 years and 35 days, to be exact) since I miscarried our baby girl. We named her Emma because of a dream I had years before where I was holding a baby in my arms with my husband standing next to me. I looked into her little face and said, “Emma.” It was the only word spoken in the dream. Little did I know then that the name Emma meant, “whole” – her very name became a prayer that we would begin to declare over our little one when we received a dreadful diagnosis in utero. “Worst case scenario, she will live a couple hours after delivery; best case scenario, you will lose her before, “ the Doctor said. So, I clung to that dream of a girl named “whole” only to lose her a week later. I’m sure I will eventually write about all of those days at some point but I literally have journal pages taped shut for now – things that I wrote before we lost her that I simply have not been ready to revisit…although I’m closer to it now than I was a year ago.
For now, I want to unpack my thoughts about grieving while moving forward, especially as a pastor’s wife. We have a loving, supportive congregation and for this I am eternally grateful. But only those in full-time ministry will understand the weight that you carry when you fulfill that call. The weight comes from real responsibilities and assumed responsibilities/unspoken expectations. For instance, we feel the real responsibility to be a safe place for our people to bear their burdens all while feeling the unspoken expectation that we have no one in which we may safely trust our feelings. We feel the real responsibility of encouraging the body of Christ while feeling the assumed responsibility of always appearing encouraged to others. In other words, you always feel “on” even when you are trying your best to be authentic (something my husband and I strive hard to be with all people). Even when you are living a life of authenticity, as a pastor there are unspoken obligations to be superhuman in some ways, and never was the felt more than in this past two years of grieving.
Our congregation was quick to give us 2 weeks off after losing our Emma, and I am so thankful for that time. But looking back, I can honestly and unequivocally say that it was nowhere near enough time. I seriously could have taken the last 2 years off from ministry and probably would have been a much better pastor for it…and I seriously do mean that. For me, church became a very unsafe place for my heart and it would have been better for me to process away from the crowd. People don’t mean to be cruel. They don’t mean to be selfish. But for the person experiencing their own problems, your problems are often “out of sight, out of mind,” especially when you are the pastor. I don’t fault people for this; it really is human nature; but, for a person in ministry, it only adds to the assumed responsibility to be “on” at all times. In some ways, I am thankful for the lessons I have learned while being “in the spotlight” while processing grief. It’s taught me that people can be both well-meaning but extremely hurtful to my heart all at the same time. Some kind people simply have very low emotional intelligence and cannot see past their own intentions. How I respond to such a moment is key to growing in maturity, so I am thankful for these experiences. But for anyone going through it? It’s tough.
It’s also tough when your spouse grieves differently than you do. I would have preferred that people not talk to me at all. Just avoid me. I am dead serious when I say it would have been better for me to walk away this past year or two instead of having to be around people week after week. For me, it didn’t feel safe. But my husband? He needed the people overall. He needed the “I’m sorry for your loss” and the “how can I be there for you” moments. He needed a friend while I needed solace. Unfortunately, as the man who lost a child, he received very little of this while I received almost all of it. Once again, this is human nature to assume that the woman needs it more since she is the one who physically felt the loss. But that assumption would be wrong for our personal experience. My husband feels the loss just as deeply if not more than I do, and what he needed from people, he didn’t get much of. In fact, one wound that was hard to watch him experience was when a very small handful of people that my husband thought were “all in” to the church vision, up and left. It wasn’t so much that they left that hurt him – it’s that he thought they were his friends/in his corner, and they left while his grief was very, very fresh without even acknowledging his loss. It was heartbreaking and ridiculous, really, that people had already dismissed his pain. It's the crisis of narcissism in the church today, however. It's everywhere. But that's another post.
After our two weeks away, I decided that a Wednesday night would be the safest night to return – less people meant less harm - or so I thought. But before the service even started, I was given a gift regarding our baby by someone very well meaning. It literally, physically made my heart race, made my stomach churn, and I was close to falling apart, though I graciously took the gift from them and thanked them for it, barely managing to keep my composure. I crept away silently and then ran to my husband who took it from me and hid it from my sight. It took months and months to feel safe near that person again, let alone in the building.
I tried to communicate with people that I needed space for healing. But still, a few days later on a Sunday, another well-meaning person insisted on hugging me and even acknowledged that they knew I probably didn’t like it, but they insisted they needed it for themselves. I graciously yielded and let them “do what they needed to do,” ignoring my own feelings. Once again, I no longer felt safe in the building. The next week, my husband had someone who is almost a stranger walk up to us and placed their hands on his cheeks and pulled him close to say, "God will bring you something better." Once again, well-meaning, but no one should ever touch another persons face without asking, let alone someone you don’t know very well and no one should ever under any circumstances say "God will bring you something better" after someone loses a child. But we are the pastors, and so it is assumed that we will be comfortable with every gesture of support. So, we complied, smiled, and felt unsafe once again.
THIS is the pressure you carry when you pastor. And trust me: these are only a few stories – not to mention people talking to me about their babies, their pregnancies, their weight loss, their fulfilled promises – things for which I honestly rejoice but things that were also crushing to me personally. But what other response could I have had? This is something I still struggle with to this day. How honest can we be as leaders? I never, ever want to be rude, but does each person in the body of Christ, even leaders, have a right to say, “This is too painful for me”? It’s a hard balance and I don’t know if I have all the answers. It’s also hard because every single person needs to grieve in the way they need to grieve and so we need to create a culture that allows for that person to clearly communicate what that looks like – what best suits them. Then, we as the body need to honor that even if we are itching to respond differently. Maybe I’m writing this to give some pastor’s wife permission to speak what she needs. Maybe I’m writing this so elders and board members can make their pastor’s emotional health a real priority. I don’t know. But everyone in the body needs to find healthy boundaries on their journey to healing and that will require us to lovingly express our feelings, even if it means it causes the other person to be uncomfortable…and even if it means paying pastors for a few months to take true sabbaticals in order to make their heart healthy, happy, and whole.
So, I guess this is one lesson I have learned after two years of grieving while in ministry: let’s create a culture where we can honestly communicate our emotional needs to one another so that the journey of healing is easier. Whatever your pastor needs, find out. Whatever your church member needs, find out. Be willing to sacrifice and be willing to hold back if needs be. Church should never feel unsafe to anyone as it has been for me. I hurt knowing that this has been the case for many leaders and congregants alike. ASK before you hug. THINK before you act. PAUSE before you speak. Because if we make it a priority to find our voice and honor the process of grief in us and in others, we may actually end up being an example of healthy and prosperity to the world around us.