BY REV. DEBBIE SPERRY

It wasn’t too long ago that a woman from my second church lost her battle with cancer. Her daughter reached out to me to see if I had any photos of our mission trip in 2010. I couldn’t find them readily, so I started searching old emails (I’m one who rarely deletes email for just such a time as this), and then searching old photo files, then Shutterfly, then Snapfish, and on and on. Along the way, I got to see a lot of beautiful people I’ve loved in churches and ministries. And, as you might guess, a number of saints. I ran across a series of simple pictures we took outside for a photo directory at one church. And there were oh, so many saints in those pictures. Ernie, LaVerne, Rev. Isabelle, Doris, Bill, Jeanne…I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. And it was so glaringly obvious: we say goodbye a lot.  

Rev. Debbie Sperry

In my first church, we had a period of about six weeks where we were doing three funerals a week. It was originally a retirement community, and in that church, 90 was young—and most folks can’t live forever. I was new then and good at death and had no idea that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. In ministry, I’ve had other years where I’ve only done one or two funerals. Then this last Holy Week alone I had two. In 13 years of ministry, I’ve probably done 100 funerals. I’ve had to say goodbye a lot.  

And as a pastor, I would imagine you have too. We say goodbye in death—at funerals for those we have known well, and some whose family simply need us to walk them through the step of closure known through a funeral. We also say goodbye to people from our church or community who are retiring or taking a job elsewhere. Sometimes we have to say goodbye in the quiet of our hearts to those people who seemingly disappear from our pews without a word. And, then, of course, there are the goodbyes of our moves in ministry.  

They are all losses. And losses beget grief. And grieving takes work. A lot of times in ministry I find myself pushing through all the required tasks, but most often, I don’t stop long enough to grieve—to feel the loss as it presents in my life. It can feel selfish, or unnecessary. But, if I’m not careful, those emotions build up and begin to take a toll on my well-being. I’m not as focused. I’m not as creative. I’m not as fruitful. I’m not as happy. I’m not as connected with those I love. 

One of the Holy Week deaths I mentioned earlier was particularly hard. It was heart-wrenching and heavy, and hit way too close to home. And I didn’t grieve well. I just kept doing my job until I couldn’t. All that emotion built up and hit me all at once. I was exhausted, hardly able to do anything, and then had to fight the most severe migraine I’ve had in months. It wasn’t *my* loss, but as someone who cares deeply for the family whose loss it was, I needed to grieve. I hadn’t really talked about it or written about it. I hadn’t even allowed myself to cry about it, not like my body needed to. So, the day after hitting a wall I dove into my grief.  I was working, yes, writing liturgy and preparing the funeral, but not from the Book of Worship, or my regular resources, but writing it from scratch, piece by piece, just for the young boy. I cried most of the morning, received hugs from staff and colleagues, and began to share with my confidants. Even as I write this, tears come readily, showing me that I have more work to do.  

Grief is a journey. I can’t just hammer away at it one day and expect it to be gone the next. It needs my attention. Walking, creating, talking, destroying, cooking, crying, resting—each of those have been helpful tools for various types of grief. They’re worthy of my attention for a variety of reasons, but especially so when the emotions are strong and the loss is big.  

We say goodbye a lot. In some ways we’re accustomed and allow ourselves to become calloused about it. But our losses are still losses, and loss still begets grief, and grieving is worthy work for us all.  


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

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you Elder Sperry. I deal with others grieving as one who “walks others home,” or as I help others walk others home. You are absolutely correct when you say we must tend to our own grief or the usual things that wouldn’t provoke tears or depression, or relational difficulties – do trigger grief. And untended grief can be triggered by the smallest of things. I.e., it doesn’t take much before we hit our wall. One I experienced was doing last things for my wife, of blessed memory, every time I thought I was done, I wasn’t. I would say for clergy, tending to grief from loss for clergy is like discernment—it lasts a lifetime. Thanks for your great contribution! Deacon Dianne Lowe

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