Clergy Wellness: Private Grief in Public Ministry

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By Rev. Debbie Sperry

Grief is a funny thing…it twists and turns and jerks you around in ways you might not anticipate and, yet, not at all at the times you do anticipate. As gravely ill as I knew my mother was, I didn’t really anticipate having to grieve her death in the first year of my new appointment across conference lines. And never in a million years would I have thought I’d lose my mom when I was only 35. Yet in the past year both of those things came to pass. Just two months into my new beginning in Moscow, Idaho, newly turned 35, my mom died of stage 4 adrenal cancer.

Rev. Debbie Sperry

We knew she was sick when we said yes to leaving southern California and moving to northern Idaho. And I knew when I hugged her at the car as she left our house to go to a rehab facility, the day before our movers came, that it might be the last time. And yet, as much as I *knew* those things, I don’t think I dared to let my heart believe them. My mom was one of those mothers who had always been there to support, encourage, teach, and love me. And I always imagined having her into the future. I’ve called her for parenting advice and ministry help and I couldn’t imagine those things missing from my life. Sure, maybe eventually, you know, way down the line, but not when my children were 5 and 1, and I still have 30 years left in ministry.

But she’s gone. She rallied over the summer, despite a grave diagnosis, and then took a quick, stark turn and her “final days” were really only three. She died on a Wednesday, the day I normally send my weekly church email. I debated about whether or not to even mention it to my congregation. I figured the news would get out soon enough, but I didn’t want my e-letter to be all about me. In the end, I decided that as Christian community we are called to be vulnerable, and that starts with me. So I wrote a tribute to my mom and sent that as my e-letter. People were super supportive and encouraging. They replied immediately with condolences and then in the coming weeks with meals and cards, extra hugs, and support for my time away in California.

Two weeks later we flew down to be with my dad and to help sort through mom’s things. It was a bittersweet time of going through closets, purging piles of fabric and yarn, reminders of the projects she had imagined but would never finish, looking through boxes and boxes of photos, and receiving help, hugs and emotional support from amazing friends. It was exhausting, beautiful, and oh so tender. And yet, after all that work, it hardly seemed real that she was gone. She had been sick for nearly 2 years and spent many months in a care facility. It seemed like she must still be there. She couldn’t be dead.

And yet, when we returned to Moscow I spent a good bit of time writing the liturgy for her funeral. I don’t exactly know why, but I felt compelled to write the liturgy for her. I told my dad he could take it or leave it, that the writing had been what mattered for me. But ultimately I was glad those were the words that shaped her funeral.

When I returned from the funeral, there were a few fires to put out. Fortunately, we have great leadership at the church who helped a lot. We were in the process of reworking the stewardship campaign from years past, a significant task. It was a busy time, and I was lucky that I was still in “functioning” mode and able to work through it even into Advent.

I’m a theme preacher and was working on a series for the New Year. I debated whether to write a whole new series or reuse a series I’d done before. I really wanted to do something new, but I wasn’t sure how long my energy would hold up. So I defaulted to the former series that required less effort. In the end, it was a good thing. Christmas wasn’t as bad as anticipated, but January brought the worst bout of sadness.

It started near my mom’s birthday, January 29th, and lasted until their anniversary in late February. At first I didn’t even realize what it was. I was just tired all the time…more like the depression I’ve battled over the years. I asked my prayer group from seminary for prayers for energy. One suggested I see a doctor and have my iron and thyroid checked. No one related it to the grief. So I scheduled the appointment, and when the day arrived I sat in the waiting room filling out new patient paperwork and the symptom form. Tiredness and fatigue. That was it. I felt silly seeing a doctor for just that, but I had the appointment and I hadn’t yet gotten established with a new physician, so I stayed. It took only minutes with a very kind doctor to realize it wasn’t illness, but grief. Saying it out loud made me immediately feel a little better (and still slightly silly that I hadn’t figured it out sooner).

It’s now been 8 months since she died; a reality that still hardly seems real. The numbness of grief is slowly waning and the rawness of emotion is revealed. Most days are relatively easy, others hit like a ton of bricks. The tears come and my heart aches from missing her. It’s not predictable. I remind myself that’s normal. There’s no “right” way to feel as I grieve. I just feel what I feel and try to be gracious with myself in the midst of it. For me the healthiest thing has been to share my memories. I find deep appreciation for who she was as a person and as a mother. And as I write, I create a storehouse for the future so I can keep holding her tightly in my heart.


Rev. Debbie Sperry serves as pastor to Moscow First United Methodist Church in Moscow, Idaho.

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