Time to acknowledge the grief many hide
September 7, 2022
Mother’s Day was always fine for me, until it wasn’t. My husband and I had been trying to have a child, and month after month stretched into year after year. Eventually, we grew to dread the annual double punch of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Our well-intentioned church tried to soften the blow on those special Sundays by giving every woman a rose on Mother’s Day and having a blowout barbecue for the all the men on Father’s Day. I still, though, found myself choking back tears and doing a lot of fake smiling. It already felt like God had grown deaf to our prayers, but not finding our experience acknowledged in our church community made it worse.
The reality is that very few people have the actual “greeting card” version of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. And when our experience differs from the storybook stereotype, we feel the loss, which leads to a grief that has a very difficult time finding a compassionate place to heal.
Dr. Kenneth Doka, a licensed mental health counselor and bereavement expert who has taught and written on the subject, named this particular grief “disenfranchised grief” — a loss that a person experiences when the community and culture have difficulty acknowledging and speaking openly and honestly about it. This means that the person must bear their grief alone in silence.
You can imagine how it goes in the fellowship time after the Mother’s Day worship service. Someone innocently asks a couple when they plan to have children, not knowing the struggles they are having with conceiving. And then there’s abortion, miscarriage, domestic violence, deportation, illness, addiction, abandonment and dementia: the list of ways that our hearts break is endless, which goes to show that parenthood is a fragile and fleeting blessing that needs to be celebrated as such. As the church — the body of Christ called to care for one another in community — we need to grow in our ability to share with vulnerability and compassion when the blessing of parenthood shatters.
The church can become a place where it is safe to name life experiences that are different from those found on greeting cards. We can initiate conversations characterized by gentle curiosity: What is today like for you? How can I best walk with you? We can refrain from unsolicited advice like “you should pray harder.” We can remember that the biblical narrative is full of examples of God-loving people who have been unable to conceive the child they longed for, who are disappointed by the parents they have or alienated from the families that they long to include them. The more that we are able acknowledge losses and struggles, the more we can embrace the joy that God has for us all, not just on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but every day.
The Rev. Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder serves as a Presbyterian staff chaplain at LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Today’s Focus: Grief
Let us join in prayer for:
Let us pray
God, thank you that you are a God of peace and love. We pray for those who need healing from confusion, pain and despair. We ask your blessing that we might bear rich fruits. Amen.