This text is from a 1988 UUA pamphlet written by John H. Nichols. Used with permission.
When our parents left us at summer camp the first time, when our first pet died, when our best friend moved to another community, we grieved. We suffered what seemed, then, a very serious loss. The road to maturity is paved with losses and griefs.
Our smaller losses condition the ways we respond to life's major losses, for which no one is ever fully prepared. These could include the loss of a parent, the loss of a spouse through death or divorce, the loss of a job, a favorite home, or a stage of life that seemed promising. Times like these are turning points for everyone. Our personal universes are shattered by these events, and we seek wisdom and strength to carry on while we adjust to living with the change that has happened. In these moments Unitarian Universalists want the support of their religious faith.
When we suffer a serious setback it is tempting for most people to ask, "Why me?"… [People] have always wondered if there is some cosmic connection between what they have done or thought and a loss that seems like God's punishment. Responding to this feeling, some religious traditions have taught that God is indeed the author of losses, that God causes losses to happen in order to teach us a lesson or to test our faith. Believing this, some people have smothered their anger or grief for years so that they do not appear weak or faithless. Angry at God, but unable to express it, they turn their anger, instead, upon those they love most.
Strength and perspective
Unitarian Universalists do not believe in a God who uses losses and tragedies either to punish or teach. The feelings that sweep over us in grieving, however uncomfortable and strange, are essential to rebuilding our personal worlds so that we may become more accepting of a life that contains joy and sorrow. We want our churches and fellowships to be communities that will be with us at times of loss, to comfort and to wait with us in the confidence that we will emerge from our grief with greater strength and perspective.
Each person's journey to maturity is necessarily singular, but in our approach to loss there are remarkable similarities in what has been helpful to us. Often we differ only in the words we choose to describe the turning points in our lives.
When they anticipate or experience a serious setback, many people look for a religious belief that will ease their panic and take away their pain. Unitarian Universalists believe that each person's religious ideas evolve not as much out of a faith that is given to us or inherited as from the life experiences that leave us with a feeling of confidence in the goodness of life and in our ability to enjoy it. To achieve a better perspective on the Unitarian Universalist response to loss, we asked six religious liberals to speak about difficult life experiences and the lessons they learned.
Affection and compassion
"Coping," Barbara Kirkpatrick asks, "What is coping? Often it is breathing in and breathing out while struggling to keep one's essential affairs in order despite emotional desolation. Sleep brings respite, but at every awakening a devastating numbness, a feeling of unreality, returns.
"Time and a sense of responsibility for oneself and others bring a new level of coping. The isolation of sorrow is breached by the touch of another's love and need and pain, and the numbness yields a little. The presence of affection and compassion in dear ones remaining around me becomes a tangible warmth, now, and I am able to allow it to flow into my experience. Time is part of coping. Experiencing the beautiful new sweetness of the loves who are left to me is part of coping. The pain ever so gradually becomes an underlying given in my life—always there even when not in conscious awareness. I find it shedding a subtle glow on day-to-day living, highlighting the preciousness of love, of contact with others, of keeping lines of communication open.
"Coping is also paying attention to what is yet within my power to effect, to change, to move, to teach, to become. So loss, ironically, by the sharpness of its contrast, brings appreciation of gain, and even, in time, celebration."
To grieve and to heal
No one welcomes serious loss. It disrupts our lives and our equilibrium. Few people, at the moment of loss or even for a long time afterward, can say, "Maybe I'll grow from this." Many religious liberals testify that growth occurs when we can allow grieving time for its expression. One person remarked that after an intimate encounter with disappointment she found that she had become a more effective and loving person.
Katrina Finley writes, "I have learned the value of getting angry rather than staying depressed. I have learned to take more risks and not worry so much about perfection. I have learned to say yes more often to my legitimate needs and wants without guilt or apologies. I have learned that in order to face down my fear of lacking my own authority to act I must exercise my energies and love, for these define me. I have learned to give myself more to others in order that by being myself in their presence they can feel it is all right to be themselves. I have experienced sharing love with my children, other members of my family, and friends, and when I love someone, I tell them and show them how much. In all the laughter and beauty around me I've experienced what it means to have self-love and to take the time I need to grieve and to heal and to take care of myself."
To affirm life
In the wake of each loss we are inclined to curse the existence that deals out so many hardships, but many Unitarian Universalists emerge from their grieving with a sense of renewed faith in life, which offered them strength and hope when they most needed it. Life gives us more than it takes from us and we express this feeling in several ways—some choose traditional religious language and others their own.
Kathryn Polhemus speaks of "an innate sense of optimism I've found during hard times. Because I've been able to grow in my life and become more and more who I need and want to be, I feel a confidence that whatever happens I'll be able to get through it and learn from it."
Frances M. Bancroft explains, "I handle my losses by having a faith in an expanded reality out there that encompasses those I've lost and other mysteries. And in my family's tradition, where the job of those who survive a crisis is to go on with life, I go on, and by so doing, affirm life."
You are not alone.
In a sermon, "The Faith That Sustains Us," one of our ministers, George K. Beach, describes the sacred: "The understanding that is not so much achieved as stumbled into, as a kind of insight; the strength to endure, which is not so much a result of trying harder, like Avis, as of owning my own sense of weakness, fearfulness and alienation, because I have felt that kingdom in me and among us which runs deeper still; the sense of inner strength, a being self possessed and rooted in oneself, which is no result of self assertion or being ever and always 'the master of my fate and the captain of my soul,' but is found precisely in the letting go of control, the letting be of my life, the self-acceptance which I call 'being given to myself.'"
Carl Scovel, a Unitarian Universalist minister serving one of our Christian congregations, uses these words, "If there is one message that has given Christians hope, courage, and joy in the face of history and personal pain, it has been the promise, 'You are not alone. In your sickness you are not alone. In your anxiety you are not alone. In your prosperity you are not alone. In your privation you are not alone. In your waking, in your working, in your sleeping, in your dying you are not alone.' That promise, I believe, beyond every creed and dogma (necessary as they are) has been the lifeblood of the Christian church and the breath of life in Christian[s]…for almost twenty centuries of the church's existence."
Life gives more than it takes.
Since our experiences, perspectives, and theological orientations differ, giving advice is a hazardous matter for anyone. But there is more commonality in our approach to loss and grieving than it might seem. One of the essentials of coping with loss is taking ourselves very seriously. Feelings of sorrow or confusion, even anger, are real and must be expressed in order for healing to occur. When we cease trying to push our pain away we discover, little by little, that we can bear it. Having freed ourselves of the fear that we cannot bear the pain, we discover that others are genuinely reaching out to us. They are not frightened by our grief as perhaps we thought they would be. Suddenly, the larger world begins to open up again and feels more secure than it felt at the moment of our loss.
Far down the road of grieving, we recognize that in the context of a larger reality, which some Unitarian Universalists call God, we still have that which was lost, and much more. This life always gives us far more than it takes away. With this conviction we turn again to the task of living and to those near at hand who need us to live well.