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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Overwhelmed in the Face of Heartbreak

This week's question involves a really tough situation - for both the parishioner and the minister. The minister writes:
A woman in my parish unexpectedly lost her adult daughter a few months ago. She has been experiencing severe, paralyzing, debilitating grief compounded by alcoholism. She rarely accepts offers to visit, although she will occasionally speak to me on the phone. She has been evaluated by social workers, but will not accept any alcohol or grief counseling. I am overwhelmed. I feel helpless to help her. I know I can't fix it, and I'm honestly having a hard time even being a non-anxious presence, because nearly every time I speak to her she repeatedly asks me how I would feel if I lost my child. I don't know what to say to that heartbreaking question - not the first time, and not the tenth time. I really don't know what to do.

Mompriest offers:

This is such a sad situation. There is no answer to the question she asks, it's rhetorical in its very heartbreaking asking. But there is a response - to care for the aching woman and her loss by taking the sorrow to prayer. Her decision to soothe her pain by drinking is her decision, a sad one, but it is a (unhealthy) way we humans respond to pain, stress, life.... Eventually she may awaken from her darkness and choose another response.
Prayer too is a response. One that brings God into the situation and the response. That is the primary action the clergy can take in response to this. Secondly the clergy can empathize with the woman, even if they haven't experienced it personally, and honor that her loss is one of the deepest magnitude. Sometimes all we really need in our deepest pain is to know that some one is listening, deeply listening, no answers, no suggestions, just listening. And praying.
A third option, as she is ready, is to refer to her a therapist who can help her understand why she is choosing to assuage her pain with alcohol, which in the long run only prolongs the experience of, and therefore the moving through, of pain.

Revhoney writes:

I can hear the anguish of a pastor’s heart in your words. We answered this call, at least many of us did, because we want to help others. Sometimes, however, we feel absolutely powerless, completely useless.

But we are not powerless or useless. We are the chief intercessors for our people. Pray fervently for this woman. Pray for her grief to be eased. Pray for her deliverance from her addiction. Pray for yourself to be fully present with her even if you have no answers for her questions. Pray for God to grant you words that may offer comfort. Pray for others who may be trying to comfort her. Pray before you call her on the phone.

When she asks “how would you feel…”, could you acknowledge some sense of how you think you would feel? Broken-hearted, beyond grief, hopeless? Perhaps all you can say is, “I can’t begin to imagine how it must hurt. I am so sorry.” And if she is silent or angry in the face of your response, let that be okay. Let her know that she is safe to express her grief with you.

For your own spiritual and emotional health as a caregiver, I strongly urge you to consider a relationship with a spiritual director. S/he can be a tremendous help for you as you learn to accept your limitations and embrace the means of grace that God so freely offers us.

Sunday's Coming adds:
I don’t know what to do either.
I am reminded of a wise chaplain in a psychiatric ward who once counseled me to listen to what my gut was saying when I sat with people experiencing mental health problems. Often they did not say very much, but how they were feeling was communicated to me in how I went away feeling (I hope that makes some sort of sense!).
As you describe this woman’s situation and your own response I feel lost, overwhelmed, helpless... I feel it, you feel it, is it too simplistic to suggest that she feels that too? So ‘all’ you can do is be the steady presence – continuing to ring and ask how she is, continuing to pray, responding with a visit when she is ready for that.
She’s in a rough sea – you’re the beacon of light when she’s ready to try and steer for shore.

And you don’t need to be alone – at least one other person needs to also be phoning her from time to time, and maybe if you have the right people a small group could pray for her and let her know they are doing that. It is all you can do – and I pray it will help in time.

There's a striking unity to the wisdom the matriarchs have written, with prayer at the core of what we ministers have to offer. What else might you say to this struggling minister?


  1. I’m not a matriarch. I have sat with people and felt helpless and I’ve also experienced grief and been angry at some of the ‘help’ I was offered. I agree, get a spiritual director, or trained supervisor, who can help you with the ‘what is my role here’ question. At times I have been reminded I am not the person’s daughter, or sister, or counsellor, I am their minister, and that means reminding them they are a loved child of God. And that shows in that you keep ringing, even in 6- 12 months when everyone else has given up; and you pray for the person. I think the answer to her questions about how would feel – I don’t know, but it sounds to me like you feel…….... . When I was grieving I found it very frustrating to have people tell me how I should feel and how I should cope, rather than listening to how I was feeling. Grief is such an individual thing.
    I was reminded this morning, by a person I had been asked to visit [who feels that her family finds her grieving uncomfortable] , that there are few people who will listen in a non judgemental way. Yet that can be the greatest blessing.

  2. Having lost my husband I can this - a few months is NOTHING.

    The alcoholism makes it more complicated but I know I really resented it when people suggested I get counseling for grief. Grief is a normal response and not everybody needs to be hustled into counseling.

    There's really nothing you can do. You can tell her that you are there if she ever wants to talk to you but she probably won't call you. When she asks you how you would feel say "I don't know" because you don't. No offense to Anonymous but I would not tell her how it sounds like to you she feels. I would probably have smacked someone if they had said that to me. Although be aware the anger can be so strong that anything you say will piss her off because she's already so terribly angry. Just say I don't know. You could ask her "I'm willing to listen to you how it feels."

    Sometimes you can be helpful sometimes you can't. I had a young boy in my parish who was run over on his ATV by his father on the tractor. The father never got over it as far as I know.

    Call her once in awhile. Tell her she's in your prayers. And pray.

  3. As you perhaps know, I lost a young adult son to suicide 10 months ago. I agree with much of what Anonymous said.

    I have been reading about what is termed "complicated grief" lately, just to check on myself, and you might find it helpful to explore that subject. I suppose it is a grace in my life that my grief is not complicated by alcoholism and is perhaps helped by my seeing a grief counselor and going to a survivors support group, and that I have been glued and re-glued together by two phenomenal spiritual directors, who mostly listen and listen and listen in completely nonjudgmental ways. I am reading about complicated grief because the depth and length and loneliness of grief after the loss of a child is shocking even for me, someone who had experienced much loss and knew a great deal "academically" about grief before this happened.

    I agree that someone who could help you articulate your own feelings might help you respond to this woman's question. As I have written in my blogs, one of the most devastating and isolating facets of this process has been the repeated "I can't imagine."

    The biggest "helps" have been the many notes I received periodically for several months from another woman in my church -- I couldn't really absorb them, but I was very aware of her noninstrusive effort to articulate a recognition of what we were experiencing; the occasional notes and emails and gifts -- a poem, an essay, a reference to a book -- from my directors, which also remind me that someone is aware of something that might speak to me when he comes across it from time to time; and the complete focused and listening presence of a couple of my seminary classmates, who seem unintimidated by my occasional meltdowns.

    I think that you should expect to feel helpless. You should know that the chances of your words being comforting, of conveying in words to her that she is a beloved child of God or that God is with her in this, are slim, at least at this point. Presence is eveything. My guess is that her inability to accept help arises not merely from her illness but from an intuitive recognition that few people are willing to accompany her on her journey. I am in seminary and I have two wonderful pastors, which means that I am surrounded by ministers and would-be ministers, and there are almost none among them who will venture into this dark place.

    Psalms 88 and 139 make up the guidebook, in my view.

  4. In case you aren't already, and because it hasn't been said already specifically, yes, pray -- pray with her on the phone. I think too often we assume prayer works best in person, so we don't do it when we're on the phone. But if phone calls are what you have, use them. And don't be afraid to put silence into those phone prayers. It is one way of reminding her that God is still present in her life, which is presumably something she's having trouble experiencing on her own right now.

  5. After reading the wise words from the matriarchs and the commenters, I am grateful for them. What a wealth of knowledge!

    I am also a mercy person and that gets me in these difficult places and spaces too. I'm an extrovert as well and have to remember to give people space.

    I have a notebook that I write "pouring out" prayers. It's where I agonize and pray over things I can't change or fix. One of my mentors suggested this so that I can verbalize (a way that I process emotions and experiences) without overwhelming the person who needs a silent praying listener.

    I am grateful that you are present for this woman...


  6. Hi all,

    I’m by no means a matriarch, I am a lurker of several years duration and a long time hospital chaplain in Behavioral Health. There is much wisdom in the previous responses, but I’d like to add few thoughts which may, or may not, add some value.

    1) Grief, especially after the death of a child, of any age, is a an excruciating and lonely journey, under the “best” circumstances; if this mother needs to drink and isolate this early on in her journey that is what she needs to do. Honor the dignity of her grief by honoring her need to sufferer in the wake of this horrible loss. I suspect that, as hard as it is to watch, in her own time, this phase of her grief will run its course; most likely because the drinking will produce its own negative consequences which will force her to stop and reevaluate.
    2) My guess is the woman’s repeated questioning of the pastor as to how she would feel if her child died is a complex articulation of many things. On one level it seems to be a statement of profound loneliness and fresh brokenness: “I am so alone in my grief and shattered, how could you possibly know what I am feeling? And since you can’t, how can you possibly have anything of value for my life now that it has been ripped apart.” It should make a good pastor feel helpless and anxious. And who is to say that a non-anxious presence isn’t anxious on the inside. The point of the question goes to its second level: “Can you take this journey with me or will you run away from my pain or try to take it away from me like everyone else? Are you, pastor, in this for the long haul?” They only answer to the question is to be there with her in her grief and not try and fix her, because you can’t. This, in the long run, is this sad woman’s business with God not with you and not with the Church.
    3) Which points the way to the next consideration—theodicy. It is the theological struggle at the heart of her journey. Where is God when God seems gut wrenchingly absent? Reread your Kierkegaard and Tillich’s the Courage to Be and the Dynamics of Faith, and your Multmann. Read Job, not for her but for you, read it prayerfully. Read Serene Jones’ gripping chapter in Hope Deferred, “Rupture,” it’s about grief and pregnancy loss, but speaks eloquently and with great respect to theodicy of pain in child-death. I’ll leave you with Jones’ prayer; no matter the age, when a child dies a mother’s body breaks, her life force pours out and the center of her life and creativity dies. “Please, God, receive this: our will, broken; our, hope, lost; our body, ruptured; our blood, poured out; our womb, a grave.”

    Try also

    Hope there is some value here.

  7. A great wealth of responses here...thank you all.

  8. I am certainly not a Matriarch...even after 40 years after Commissioning, but offer this...

    The others are do not know how she feels, so you can only agree with her feelings. They are hers to own. but...

    Keep in touch, speak with her as she allows, be the listener, you don't know who else is offering even that. Alcohol will not.

    Prayers are for us really, and her. God already knows her intimately, and you as well. God is aware of her need for an ear, and whatever else.

    She may not be interested in God-talk, or church, but she's still sometimes connecting with you. Let that flow naturally.

    We aren't expected to know it all, we cannot feel her pain, but we do feel our pain...walk with her, but it may need to be mainly a silent walk for now.

    Ask God to let his peace rest with her and touch her with his healing. God is the only one who knows where that pain's core lies: unfinished business with her daughter; guilt; feeling abandoned; or whatever...God knows. Rely on that fact.

    And allow yourself to also rest within God and let him hear your words of grief for this woman and her loss and for you own desire to help her.

    I find often it's best to step back from the deep worry, not from keeping in touch with her, but the emotional stuff that is triggered inside us. We are trained to act and to pray.

    But, we are not alone, God is with you in this too. Be at peace as are able, so you can carry on with other parts of your ministry, but be watching for signs in this woman who may at some point be ready to talk, vent, grieve,or be may come at you, BUT, none of this is about you.

    We can only walk beside someone's grief and let them know that we will not abandon them.

    And God will not abandon you as you do this. God's silence is often our own inability to rest within our soul and let God's peace permeate us.

    You will be in
    our prayers for your well being as well as hers.

  9. I think all of the comments here, esp. those who offer wisdom borne of grief, are wise beyond all.

    Sometimes all you can do is pray, and listen.

    And that's so hard.

  10. I am so moved by the many wise comments here. Thank you, all, for sharing, esp. those of you who have dealt with or are dealing with terrible grief of your own.

  11. I would say quite simply that it is OK to be overwhelmed. I buried two young people last year, a 5 yr old and a 20 yr old, their parents entered a deep darkenss and are starting to come through. One set handled grief in a healthy way, the other turned to alchohol.

    Being there is essential, and waiting until they are ready to move is frustrating, but you must, and you must continue to be there.

    One of the most helpful things you can say is probably to admit that no you don't understand her pain ( inless you do), but that you love her and care about her.

    Keep being available, and keep being present, and keep trusting God...

    That is enough.

  12. I, too, am so amazed and grateful at the richness of responses!

    This one comment from Anonymous 2 jumped out at me: "And who is to say that a non-anxious presence isn’t anxious on the inside."



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