My point of entry into this conversation comes from my own experience. When I was 18, Alex, a close friend, committed suicide. His death greatly affected me and I faced 5 difficult struggles:
- A need to understand what had happened
- Feelings of guilt and responsibility
- Perceived abandonment through loss
At the time, my faith community was a strong support network and creatively cared for these five struggles. I should mention, based on my review of the research literature, there are no prescribed methods, steps, or approaches to this type of traumatic loss. This traumatic loss can be surmised as “complicated grief”. Complicated grief is prolonged acute grief - grief that includes denial, fear, shock, anger, regret, guilt, anguish, loneliness, depression, and feeling overwhelmed that interferes with everyday functioning. Based on my experience, flexibility and creativity can be used in the provision of care for complicated grief.
Practical steps that can help to care for traumatic loss and complicated grief include:
Sharing Their Story
At the time, I had three individuals reach out to me and share their stories of loss. Two individuals had lost a loved one to suicide, and one had lost a close friend. What was so significant is that they had reached out to me and shared their stories. I felt empowered to share my own story, and did not feel alone or afraid as I began the grieving process. In addition, two of these individuals stayed in contact, and we would meet for coffee regularly.
On a consistent basis, my congregation and congregational ministers would reach out and invite me to group activities. In my suffering, I would often isolate myself thinking, “Nobody wants a sad person to be a part of their group.” I was uncertain as to how to live with ongoing grief in social spaces. What I learned, through these invitations, is that people can handle my sadness and grief. While my fears led me to believe that I would burden others with my struggles, I learned that people are happy and willing to help. I would have never learned this if I had not first been invited.
One trait all congregational care ministers had in common was their intentionality. On a regular and consistent basis, multiple friends and congregational care ministers would check in on me. This would happen through a short text saying, “Hey, JP! Just thinking about you and hope you’re having a great day. Love you, man.” Others I would see walking around campus and they would yell my name from across the lawn and walk with me to my destination. It was a combination of many “small” acts of care that helped me to begin caring for my grief.
It is interesting, looking back on the five core struggles of complicated grief, how the heartfelt sharing, warm invitations, and kind intentionality of my congregational care ministers helped me to cope with my traumatic loss and begin the process of healing. I used to think that helping people to heal comprised a magic formula with systematic steps. I overlooked the efficacy and power of basic human traits of sharing, inviting, and being intentional.
I write this blog in honor of my good friend, Alex White. 1/1/1987 – 7/7/2005