By this time I was convinced this was, in fact, a case of accumulated loss catching up with me. It made logical sense. It felt true. It was being confirmed by people I trust and who know me.
But I became troubled over the next few days as the felt experience of loss didn’t seem to be letting up. There was an expectation inside me that once I had identified the problem, that was somehow the “solution”. Writing it down reveals the irrationality of it, but the truth is, I thought, “Great! Now I know that this is grief and loss, so I should start feeling better…right…NOW.”
The reasoning is something like waking up to water cascading through cracks in your ceiling, climbing into your attic with a flashlight, shining the light onto what you can clearly see is a burst pipe, and then saying to yourself as you head back down the ladder, “Oh! It’s a burst pipe! Well, glad I got THAT sorted out.” As a chaplain, I would smile and gently correct ANYone with this kind of thinking in the midst of a greif event. I know better. But not so much for myself.
The crying fits weren’t letting up. I couldn’t pray or say the daily prayer officers (which have been the devotional center-piece of my life for a decade or more). Being “near” God was too much. Being still, looking inward or contemplation just brought more tears. I’ve had down times before. I think I’ve even been depressed before. But this was different. So I did two things.
First, I began to enumerate the losses. As I brought some precision to bear on these feelings of brokeness and loss, I had the sensation that I was in some ways, seeing them for the first time…as MY losses. One of the traps of being in people-work is failing to acknowledge that the pain and losses of those you are helping impact you too. In a clinical setting it’s called Vicarious Trauma or Secondary Trauma. I teach cops and firefighters about it all the time…
- In the last year or so, three very dear friends have lost spouses.
- I have been with over 20 families who have lost loved ones to everything from cancer to self-inflicted gunshot wounds. (I sat with one 12 year old boy and talked about how brave he was after he had discovered his father hanging in the garage just an hour before.)
- There have been other nearby illness, tragedies and accidents too.
- In terms of direct losses, my friend’s spouses were also my friends. I lost them too.
- My brother died this spring, but because we were largely estranged, I minimized it. I neglected to realize that with his death also died the hope of ever getting things right with him. I lost the chance of ever having him as a “real” big brother. Something I’ve always wanted, but never had (though I’ve been blessed by many surrogate older brothers)
- I tried to re-categorize the departure of dozens of people from my church as a “vocational inevitably”, but the truth is it has been a steady and catastrophic dismantling of my community. Some left for reasons I understand. Some for reasons I understand but may not agree with. Others for reasons I don’t understand at all. Some because they no longer trust me or the church I am responsible for building. Some left because we lean too far to the left, and other because we lean too far to the right. So many people have left…for so many reasons.
- I’ve lost my youth. I’m no “old man” yet, but I’m mighty close. It would be boring and a little gross to enumerate all the things that a man my age must say goodbye to.
- And to undergird it all – I’m not sure what church is even supposed to be anymore. Oh, there is definitely a church. There is a Kingdom of God. There is a Body of Christ. There is the Ecclesia. I’m just not sure I’ve been understanding it properly for the last 25 years. Wait, that’s not fair. The way I’m seeing it is changing, so that means the way I used to see it is “a loss” too.
There were (still are) more tears to shed for these and other losses.
The second thing I did: I got more help. As loved and supported as I felt/feel, this was a uniquely intense and protracted event that I was feeling less and less control over. It occured to me after a week, that I better see a clinician.
So I called my friend in Indiana.