I was first introduced to the term, “Loss Expert,” in 2001. My wife decided to become a stay-at-home parent early in the year 2000, and the family moved from Boca Raton to Ocala (Florida) to be near Chris’ mother. After being home for a year, my wife felt she had enough space in her home and in her heart to care for foster children, in addition to caring for our two daughters (7 and 4.) The process to become foster parents included an interview, a home study, seven 2-hour classes (MAPP,) and a final home study to ensure identified deficiencies were corrected before the first child was placed with us.
The classes ranged from the proper care of vulnerable children to parental self-care. The trainers used a combination of humor and “battle scar” stories to illustrate how difficult foster parenting was. From the start, it became apparent to me that the most difficult part would be to let the children go after their time with us was done. The best foster parents, the trainers told us, were “Loss Experts.” They knew how to love and care for the children while they were with them, while gladly letting them go when it was time to reunite them with their parents. The goal was temporary placement, leading to family reunification. Those foster parents who harbored “Adoption Fantasies” were often heart-broken when the child was removed. Eventually they would become bitter and drop out of the program. In the trainer’s words, “You must let them go, even if your heart is breaking while you help them pack.” This proved to be very sage advice, and we were foster parents for over four years, until we moved to Pennsylvania for seminary in 2005.
I have been thinking about loss these last few weeks. Episcopal priests, like foster parents, are required to become loss experts. We always enter in the middle of the story. By the time we start our ministry, the congregation’s history has been unfolding for multiple generations, and that story continues after we are gone. We are responsible for nurturing and loving our parishioners to the best of our ability when we are with them, and then we must be able to walk away to enter another congregation’s story. And, in the same way foster parents are highly discouraged from contacting former foster children and their families, priests are required to stay away from their former churches to give Interims and new Rectors the opportunity to establish their ministries without interference.
All of this sounds healthy and proper. There is wisdom in these practices, and most priests try hard to abide by them. But I wonder if the people we spent so many years nurturing feel abandoned. Do they know it is proper and expected that priests stay away once they leave? One moment we are caring for them, from birth to death, and all the in-between experiences of life, and then, almost overnight, we are gone. Do they feel as though our time with them was just a job? Do they wonder if we really care for them as much as we seemed to care when we were with them?
I also wonder about the priest’s own heart. We spend so many years caring for, and worrying about, our people that there is a real sense of loss when we leave. Some of us are blessed to have adequate support systems, but I often wonder where other priests go to deal with the cumulative grief they amass over the years. Ministry is isolating and we don’t get to take the friends we made during our time at a church. We must leave them behind and commend them to God’s care. Experts remind us that “Ministry is ministry is ministry.” We must spend all our energies on the new ministry context and let go of what came before. I wonder about the wisdom of this advice. In any case, it is not the ministry most of us miss but the faces of the people we grew to love. In my case, I still pray for them by name, and although I must stay away, I will always carry them in my heart.
How about you? Have you had to become a loss expert in your own life? If so, how have you dealt with these losses? Are you now dealing with a loss? If so, how are you doing? If you would like to talk about loss and grief, please join us at the next Coffee with the Rector on our new time slot of Tuesdays at 8:00 AM.