The Journey of Intentional Grieving: Naming Your Losses
My daughter is walking the Camino de Santiago for the next two weeks with her dad before she graduates from high school. The camino is a 791 km (490 mile) spiritual pilgrimage with multiple routes which all lead across parts of southern Europe ending in Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. If you are one who believes in sacred spaces… the camino is just that. Hundreds of thousands of people have walked those paths since medieval times— reflecting, praying, seeking (and nursing blisters).
Alex typically leads a men’s retreat on the camino each year— 5 to 7 guys come for six days to walk the minimum 100 km necessary to receive a ‘compostela’ or certificate of accomplishment. They are sometimes in silence, sometimes in conversation with Alex, focusing on a theme for the day, and sharing what they heard at the end of the day with each other. It sounds amazing in theory, but as one guy told me, “That was NOT a retreat. A retreat is me with my journal at a monastery. The camino with Alex is more like a spiritual bootcamp.”
So Karis has signed up for bootcamp with her daddy.
My daughter has done a lot grieving work already this spring (as I wrote about in my post “How to Leave a Place Well”), but this time on the Camino will be what we call liminal space— a place of in-between— in-between childhood and adulthood. And she has some specific themes to pray through on the journey.
When I asked her about how she was going to approach the grief of leaving home, she said, “I really just want to sit with two questions: What is never going to be the same?” and “What did I not have in my childhood?” I don’t know how she came up with that, but those are million dollar questions to lead you into the heart of grief.
If grief is about loss, you have LOST something. You had it once, but now you don’t. We can lose all kinds of things: A special person. A marriage. A sense of security. Independence. Mobility. A dream. Trust. A sense of purpose. A familiar way of life. Community. Or in my daughter’s case— she is leaving behind her childhood, a country which has shaped and formed her, a language she loves, and dear friends and family.
Grief in one of its simplest forms is acknowledging what will never be the same. In order to grieve well, we have to take stock of what we have lost. The question, “What will never be the same?” helps to NAME our losses. We need questions like these because every transition we undergo: happy transitions, sad transitions, forced transitions, chosen transitions will hold loss of some sort.
However, grief can also be acknowledging what you never had. So the question, What did you NOT have that you needed/desired? helps get us in touch with grief linked to disappointments. Maybe you are grieving not having… a stable family system growing up. A life companion to share your journey. A spouse who pursues knowing your heart. An adult child who doesn’t stay connected. Life long friends who hold your history. The experience of being pregnant. A parent who is affirming.
Part of the grief for my daughters is that they will never have the American high school experience. No football games, prom, summer jobs, youth groups, or opportunities to kick butt in volleyball (okay- I may be projecting). We can at times be too quick to say, “But look at all the other amazing things you have had in your childhood instead… travel, culture, fluency in another language, churros,” because we don’t like to think about loss.
But naming your loss does not mean you are ungrateful for what you have. Acknowledging your grief doesn’t make you a complainer. Because we can still be sad that our parents never really ‘knew’ us even though they were amazing parents in many other ways. We can grieve that our father won’t walk us down the aisle even though we love our stepfather to pieces. We can still mourn the loss of a meaningful career we gave up to stay home with our kids and not love motherhood any less.
The point is, grief can stand alone, separate from the rest of the beauty of our lives; one doesn’t negate the other. And we need to create space to acknowledge them both.
Sometimes just the naming of our losses in and of itself will be incredibly helpful. It’s out there. It’s acknowledged. It’s not just the vague sadness that you can’t articulate. A friend who lost his wife recently was asked to make a list of all the things he will never do again with his wife. He wept like a baby as he made the lengthy list. Then he strangely felt a little better. Of course, he’s still grieving, he will be sad when some of those moments come, and will discover other losses that he was not even aware of, but these type of questions help provide some watershed moments of grief.
But it’s not just about “letting all your grief out.” These moments can become holy ground for new connection with God. We all have a tendency to relate to God through a handful of character traits– savior, redeemer, shepherd, friend, father.
In times like this, we can open ourselves to be ministered to by completely new facets of God’s being. The Bible uses over 900 names/titles used to describe the character of the Christian God. Maybe this is the season where you begin to know God as Healer. Comforter. Strong Tower. Healing Balm. Wise Counselor. The God who Sees. Sustainer. Bearer of our burdens. Defender of the weak. The Man of Sorrows. Lover of your soul. Grab on to that aspect of God’s character like a life line and don’t let go. That’s how God become real to you.
As we pour out our grief, loss, and disappointment to God, He promises to listen. He is moved by our prayers and our pain. He will sit with us as long as we need in the rubble of loss (see my post on Sitting in the Rubble after a Major Loss). But when we are ready to move forward, He will also impart to us what we need for the next season. I can’t tell you exactly what facet of God you need to know because it’s different for each person.
Seasons of grief aren’t too unlike the journey they are experiencing on the Camino de Santiago this week. Hard. Painful. Cathartic. Long. Exhausting. But they will also experience God in new ways… through community with others, beautiful scenery amid the pain, and joy in companionship. Because life will always hold a mixture of both grief and joy. And I can’t think of a better place for my daughter to be as she crosses the bridge to adulthood.
Buen camino, Karis.