The 5 Stages of Grief: Thoughts on 2016, Privilege, and Hope Headed into 2020

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. And about Spring since that’s the season in Oregon right now. And about resurrection, and the pain and joy of birthing a new thing; about mourning what we thought we had but never did, and about where we are now in the stages of grief.

We’ve been doing nonstop farm work lately, getting it ready to open, and it’s been both awesome and exhausting, you know? Like, everything we wanted and also all-consuming. I haven’t had a lot of time or energy to write here, and I miss it terribly, but baby goats soothe me in the meantime. 

I’ve felt tired lately, but it’s mostly physical instead of the overwhelming mental, emotional, and spiritual weariness that has dogged me since 2016, and that’s a change I welcome. OPEN ARMS, Change. COME ON OVER. Sit with me on the couch a while. Let’s snuggle and whisper sweet secrets and share a glass of wine and laugh together. I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons behind this shift, too. What changed? Why, after three years of living under a cloud of unwavering sorrow, am I starting to feel like I can breathe again? How come my laughter has felt free-er? Why, when there’s still so much pain and suffering in America and in our churches — harm caused by exclusion and discrimination and division that’s getting worse, not better — am I feeling a lightening? A lifting? And the slightest bit of dawn on the horizon that outlines, just barely, a path forward?

I’ve concluded there are two primary reasons for the change. First, I’m moving through the stages of grief. And second, and more importantly, I’ve shifted my focus entirely.

When our country, fueled by white, evangelical Christians, decided party lines were more important than truth, integrity, decency, and treating marginalized humans with a modicum of respect resulting in the election of Donald Trump, followed shortly by the sudden decision that our church denomination would no longer allow those of us who desire the full inclusion of our LGBTQ+ friends and family to remain part of it, I found my foundation severely shaken. I, after all, have lived with a nearly obscene amount of privilege, perhaps the highest of which was the the fact that my blindness to my privilege cost me nothing.

I had, in other words, every advantage (other than a penis), and moved through the world with so much ease that I didn’t need to see or acknowledge the challenges of others. Oh, I was compassionate. You don’t grow up overseas in the highlands of Papua, nor do you make a career in humanitarian aid, without a deep-seated desire to help people who are suffering. But I thought — truly — that America was getting better on an equality front. I mean, we revere Martin Luther King, Jr., right? There’s a whole holiday celebrating his work on civil rights. He has a monument. Surely, America was post-racial-discrimination other than tiny pockets of bigots we’d root out eventually. Right? I thought we were on a continual upswing. I believed in bootstraps — that people had them, first of all, and that they could use them to leverage themselves up in the world. I failed to see that I have wealth (by which I mean stable housing, food on my table, education for my children, health insurance, employment, and a retirement plan) because my parents had wealth and their parents had wealth. I didn’t understand to any level of depth the way that systematic and generational discrimination affect enormous swaths of our population. I thought Flint was an anomaly. I didn’t know that 1.6 million — million — Americans don’t have access to any running water, safe or otherwise, and that we don’t even keep records of the millions more who don’t have safe water to drink. Furthermore, I didn’t listen well to my LGBTQ+ friends who told me horrific tales of their treatment at the hands of the Church universal and our churches specifically. I told them to wait. I told them we were trying. I told them we had their backs. But we allowed them to continue to be harmed. We didn’t have their backs at all. We didn’t know how to. And we didn’t know we didn’t know so we perpetuated the harm, having meetings upon meetings upon meetings to “discern” whether and to what extent they’d be included. Accepted. Loved as they already are. Made in God’s own image. Worthy of marriage in the church. Able to teach Sunday school. Able to preach. Able to be wholly and fully themselves.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I built the life I have on the foundations of America and the Church. I have believed in inherent opportunity, a hard work ethic, the pursuit of happiness, a country and a church who welcome the outcasts and champion those who have suffered. I worshipped both, and neither were worthy of my reverence. Neither were what I thought they were, because what I was trying to do was build my foundation on Love, and I misinterpreted institutions that said they welcomed all comers for actually welcoming all comers. And so it was with an enormous sense of shock and despair — just an utter sense of loss akin to death — that I discovered that what people and organizations and communities and whole countries purport themselves to be is not necessarily what they are. GOOD TO KNOW, right? Good to know — truly — but the knowing ushered me into the first stage of grief. DENIAL. This cannot be. We are better than this. 

Two thousand sixteen and early 2017 were heavy, friends. I didn’t understand how what was happening was even possible, because I couldn’t accept the reality that our country chose to be lead by a man with a complete lack of values, morals, or ethics, and I was stunned that the church to which Greg had faithfully devoted all of his four decades no longer had room for him or his family.

DENIAL. I walked around for months just shaking my head and going WUT? with buggy, bewildered eyeballs. And denial was followed by its friends — Anger, Bargaining, and Depression — sometimes all at once, because nothing about grief is linear or tidy. 

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a change. 

An anticipation.

A small, sweet energy buzzing barely under the surface, edging out, just slightly, the rage and sadness.

There’s a willingness to laugh a little more readily.

A gentler attitude toward myself.

A change of direction to face into the truth rather than turn my back on the challenges we collectively face.

Which I’m realizing is the fifth stage of grief: Acceptance.

Not acceptance as in “it’s OK” that things are the way they are. It’s NOT OK that people are shunned and belittled and othered. It’s not OK how our country treats asylum seekers and immigrants. It’s not OK how we treat people of color or women or those who experience disability. It’s not OK how our country or our churches treat gender and sexual minorities. It’s not OK that we don’t listen and won’t hear their stories. It’s not OK that we don’t believe them when they’re loud enough to overpower our fingers in our ears. It’s not OK the way our government and universal church representatives vie for power. It’s not OK the way we excuse their behavior. It’s not OK that we continue to “discern” what we already know is true and keep putting vulnerable humans in dangerous situations while we cater to what makes the majority comfortable. Is the majority ready yet? How about now? How about now?

But I accept that this is our reality right now. As in, I’m no longer blind nor pretending that we live in a prettier, more just world than we do. Denial doesn’t hold sway over my understanding of the barriers and obstacles my fellow humans face. I’m actively working to unclog my ears, and to JUST STOP when I feel defensive. To take time to sit with vulnerable populations’ criticisms of me and “my kind.” To accept that I have a kind, that I’ve benefited from being that kind, that I have forgiveness to ask and reparations to make, and that it will take more than the rest of my life to join in the long walk toward equality and kindness.

And, finally, there’s this: my attention has shifted. I used to be focused on the people who have wronged others. Those who worked actively to eject us from our church. Those who ensured we were no longer welcome at the places we’d once called home. Those who believe Trump’s lies and refuse to see the unequal yolking of evangelical Christianity to the Republican Party. Those who’ve rejected Jesus Christ’s words and lived example of Love in favor of a rule-bound faith that resembles him not at all. I mean, I’m still angry and baffled. Obviously, bless my heart. But I realized belatedly that I’ve already spent as much time and attention as I’m willing to spend looking back and trying to rebuild bridges others burned. What a silly waste of energy.

Instead, I’m looking toward those who continue to be marginalized. I’m looking for ways to amplify their voices. To aid in the telling of their stories. To build havens of safety and belonging. To welcome folks home. To build a new foundation based only on Love which is where I should’ve built all along. And gauge that Love by action and not words alone. 

It feels more hopeful over here. And weirder. And more wild. And wonderful and riddled with grace.

I think I’ll stay.

With love — and waving in the dark (and at dawn) as always,

 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
11 comments
  1. This is so great. Thanks for always putting things in words when the rest of us can’t. I am awed daily with behavior from our country these days.

  2. You (and your commenters before me) are all so eloquent and wise. I have nothing to add, other than I admire your truth-telling, and your journey of discovery. I hope you are able to find like-minded churchey people to help fill some holes in your soul.

  3. I love everything about this post and the comments. I’m an atheist but Christians like you make me open my mind to christianity. Thanks for writing truth to power.

  4. I loved reading this. Sadly, I’m still in anger. And there is so much else going on in my world that just makes me angry about evil. But, your words are hopeful. Thank you.

  5. Honestly, I’m still kind of stuck back in the baffled and angry stage. and I’m definitely at the Dixie Chicks stage of “Not Ready to Make Nice” with the religious people who claim they love Jesus and have gone on medical mission trips to Haiti and Africa yet they still blame immigrants at the southern border of the United States for trying to come here. It disgusts me that it’s okay for US to go to those countries on mission trips but it’s apparently not okay for the people who want a better life to come here. I bite my tongue a lot and it hurts. And then I cry because I’m fairly certain I’m no better than the people with whom I am so very angry. Or maybe I’m even worse because I don’t want to go to Africa or Haiti or Guatemala; I want to stay here and be comfortable.
    Also, I think my church is dying.
    Waving in the dark,
    Karen

  6. I grew up in the prosperous white America of the 50s. I believed in a Norman Rockwell world. And later I believed in a West Wing political world. Yeah, the loss of something we thought we had and never had was devastating. You mean racism still exists? That discrimination based on sexual identity/orientation was a thing? That there really are lots of poor, really really poor people in America? I never knew. Why didn’t I know? Awakenings in one’s seventh decade are never pleasant. Carry on being mighty. It beats the heck out of being in despair.

  7. Yes. A thousand times, yes.

  8. Wise friend, keep on writing and sharing! What a great read and reminder about true values. Waving back in the morning light. Harry

  9. Ooooooo my good gaaawwwwdddd Beth! You are magnificent and this piece (and peace) is exactly, EXACTLY, what I need right now. Thank you, thank you, thank you. So much resonance. So much light and tenderness and antibiotic on my wounds. I adore and greatly value your talent as a writer and feeler, your voice and humor and grace, your vulnerability and how it speaks so deeply into my life and my soul. Please keep doing what you’re doing.

  10. Thanks, Beth.

  11. Beth is my president! ☺️

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