How to Grieve Well: A Special Conversation

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podcast banner How to Grieve Well: A Special Conversation

How to Grieve Well: A Special Conversation

What can we expect in the first moments of loss? How is it possible to grieve someone we may have never met? How can we best support people who are in mourning? In this special conversation, Kate speaks with Reverend Dr. Susan Dunlap about how our minds, bodies, and hearts respond to deep loss and the best practices for allowing ourselves space to grieve well.

Guest

Susan Dunlap

Susan Dunlap has been teaching at Duke Divinity School since 1995. She teaches in the area of pastoral care in times of grief and illness, as well as the integrative courses for the M.Div./M.S.W. program. She has published two books, Counseling Depressed Women and Caring Cultures: How Congregations Care for the Sick. She also serves as the chaplain at Urban Ministries of Durham. She is currently researching and writing on the topic, "The Religious Lives of People Living in Extreme Poverty." As an ordained Presbyterian minister she has been the pastor of churches in the Presbytery of Baltimore.

Transcript

Kate Bowler:
Hello. My name is Kate Bowler and this is a very unusual thing for the Everything Happens Podcast, but I wanted to have this conversation right away, in the wake of something unspeakably awful. A dear friend to so many, Rachel Held Evans, passed away suddenly. She leaves behind Dan, her husband, and two beautiful little ones. She was the author of four books about her Christian faith, and she really was a giant among us, kind and supportive to so many who are marginalized, and so this week, grief is not hypothetical. It is fresh, and it feels bottomless. Even if you didn’t know Rachel, I hope this conversation about the first moments of grief can be helpful to you, too. I’ve asked a Duke professor and friend, Reverend Dr. Susan Dunlap, to speak with me, because Susan is also a pastor and chaplain who has spent her life writing about and serving people who are burdened by grief. Susan, I’m so grateful you’re with me today.

Susan Dunlap:
Thanks, Kate. It’s good to be here.

KB:
I talked to a lot of people who are really surprised to feel so disoriented right after a deep loss. What kind of feelings can people expect?

SD:
Right after a great loss, people usually feel numb and a sense of unreality, disbelief. This can’t be. Of course, why? Why did this happen? Why did this happen to such a lovely, generative person who’s meant so much to so many people?

KB:
When I’m overwhelmed by grief, sometimes I find I’m making little rules, like I used to make a rule that I can’t talk about sad things after 8:00 p.m., and it was kind of a stupid shorthand, but I wondered if you had any suggestions or guidelines for people in those first moments, or first maybe weeks after a big loss.

SD:
I think a really important rule is to just feel what you feel, and it may surprise you what you feel. You may feel betrayal, or abandonment, or anger may surprise you in its intensity, and of course deep sorrow. But we know that grief has many different elements to it. Cognitive, emotional, even physical. My counsel would be, my rule would be, to accept them, and not become anxious about the varieties of responses that you have. My physical response to great loss, I’ve noticed, is fatigue. After my mother died, I felt exhausted for three months. I remember I felt that way after 9/11, and I felt that way after I had a miscarriage, so you just don’t know if you’re going to feel tired, or upset stomach, or achy, or headache, but that doesn’t mean that you’re sick or you’re doing anything wrong. It just means that you’re grieving. People have different things that nurture them. For me, I need to be around people who are grieving the same loss that I’m grieving, who really get it.

KB:
If you’re the person around the person who’s grieving, what are some best practices for learning how to better care for people who are going through something awful?

SD:
Lots of listening, nonjudgmental listening, lots of patience, knowing when to say, “Come on, let’s go get some ice cream,” and knowing when to just let them sit and be. Of course, we all know that steadfast presence with someone who’s in pain is the greatest gift that we can give. Our empathy, our unconditional empathy, our non anxious listening, so that we don’t communicate, the strength of your feelings is scaring me to death. Please, please slow down a little. Could you please just dampen down that feeling? It’s too intense. I just stay with them and go with them where they go, and be willing to sit with a lot of silence.

KB:
Those are some of my strongest memories of people around me. Right after my big crisis was I just… I remember their hands on my shoulders, or I had a lady who always came with me to chemo, and my favorite lady just sat there and made herself busy. She was just right there. She had a crossword puzzle. She was, she was just there without needing anything.

SD:
She wasn’t asking anything of you, or trying to cheer you up. Or?

KB:
No, she didn’t require me to feel anything.

SD:
Yeah, so with regard to the death of Rachel Held Evans, I think it would be very healing to get together with other people whose lives have been really opened up by her words, to tell stories about what she has meant. When did you read her first book? When did you really feel the impact of what she had to say, and then talking about her legacy. That’s usually for a little bit farther down the road with grief, where you start consolidating memories, and writing down what’s important, and also further down the road you can name the lasting legacy. In other words, what still bears fruit from her life, and your life, and in other people’s lives, but that’s a little bit further down the road than after that sense of unreality,

KB:
One of the strangest parts of our modern world is the way we can feel so close to one another and yet so far away, so when a public figure dies, maybe someone that we interacted with and loved on social media, it can feel very strange to miss them when we’ve never maybe met them in person, but grief isn’t limited to proximity, is it?

SD:
It’s not limited to proximity. For Christians in particular, presence is a mysterious thing, right? We experience the presence of our Lord when we gather around the table, with the cup and the bread, right? We also know that we can be physically with someone, and they’re not present at all, so presence does it always require a face-to-face ongoing relationship.

KB:
Yeah. Yeah. I hear in that, too, a permission for people to just, to be able to recognize how much someone far away might have meant to them without maybe being embarrassed.

SD:
Exactly. Exactly, and what I think is important about your podcast is this conversation that we’re having is you’re addressing the issue of disenfranchised grief. Cultures have rules for grieving, about who you are allowed to grieve for, and usually you’re allowed to grieve for kin, for people who you’re related to, and so you are allowed to publicly mourn, maybe wearing black in some cultures. You get lots of nurturing casseroles, and cards, and you receive a lot of social support, but people whose grief is disenfranchised, they don’t get all those forms of recognition and nurture. When you grieve the deep loss of a neighbor, or a coworker, or a teacher, or a pastor, or in this case, someone that you may never have met, then you don’t always receive the kind of social support and public recognition that you would get if your grief were enfranchised. What you’re doing through this podcast is you’re giving people permission to grieve, and not feel embarrassed, or ashamed, or weak for feeling that deep sorrow.

KB:
It was amazing to me in this last couple of years, realizing how intimately connected I have felt with people, and the encouragement I’ve received from people I’ve never met, and how rich and real that’s been. Yeah, how odd it is to describe when online feels like it’s labeled as like fake or not real, and then, it may be a local community or book club. That’s all real. Even though you might not interact with them every day.

SD:
Right, exactly. Yeah. It’s mysterious.

KB:
It is.

SD:
It’s very mysterious.

KB:
Yeah. If people are feeling disconnected from a community they can grieve with, what might be some things that they can do to process their feelings?

SD:
Journaling, praying, going for a walk, and just seeing what comes to mind. Maybe finding a trusted friend who may not really get it, but who will let you just talk, and talk, and talk. It’s a good thing, isn’t it?

KB:
Yeah. Everyone needs a few of those.

SD:
Yeah.

KB:
Yeah.

SD:
Of course, all the pieces of advice about eating well and sleeping well. When the world’s foundations have been shaken, it’s good to have some regular routines that are pillars around which you can organize your time, and your feelings, and so trying to have a disciplined time of devotion, or exercise, or Bible reading, you can give a sense of grounding.

KB:
In my worst season, I put up a big sign that just said basic. That was my reminder, like I am a basic person. I need to sleep at a normal time. I need to read something that is not sad. I need to get really into, I think it was at the time, like the Mindy Project, I was totally obsessed with this television show. Just, I found my grounding. I think you’re right. Routine can really help recreate a sense of normalcy when it feels totally disorienting.

SD:
You can give yourself permission to not think about it.

KB:
Yeah.

SD:
Say, “You know, I’m going to get on Netflix right now.”

KB:
Yeah, totally.

SD:
Just sort of distract myself. Yeah. Have you read the sermon by William Sloane Coffin that he gave at his son’s funeral?

KB:
No.

SD:
His son drove off the road, and into a body of water, and died, and so Coffin says, he says his son blew it. His son blew it, but he doesn’t believe that God goes around with his hands on steering wheels, steering his son’s car into the water. He said something that really meant a lot to me. He said that God gives minimum protection and maximum support. I find that very helpful, that God doesn’t prevent horrible things from happening to us, but we get maximum support.

KB:
Yeah. Yeah. That God draws near the suffering, and the weak, and the downtrodden, and the people who just don’t know if they’re going to get up again. Yeah. That has been my experience of God. Yeah.

SD:
Have you experienced God as weeping with you?

KB:
I think the closest experiences I had where I just felt… I felt a kind of emotional safety, like it wasn’t going to be as bad that I could be carried a bit through, that I’d still have to walk it, but that my feet wouldn’t quite scrape the ground as much. That was the closest thing I felt to feeling protected in a situation which I was still going to get the needles, and I was still going to have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I really like your image of minimal protection, maximum support. I’m so grateful you’ve been with me.

SD:
Thank you.

KB:
This is so beautiful. I wondered if I could close with some language that was helpful to me. A Blessing for the Brokenhearted by Jan Richardson.

Let us agree for now that we will not say the breaking makes us stronger, or that it is better to have this pain than to have done without this love.

Let us promise, we will not tell ourselves, time will heal the wound, when every day our waking opens it anew.

Perhaps for now, it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating, as if it were made for precisely this, as if it knows the only cure for love is more of it, as if it sees the heart’s sole remedy for breaking is to love still, as if it trusts that its own persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom, but will save us nonetheless.

Thank you for joining me, my dears.

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