Ambiguous Loss and the Communion of Saints
One early morning last summer, as I walked under the rising sun, my mind kept returning to two people. I tried to listen to my favorite podcast, to chant some of my go-to tunes for help with focus; yet every few minutes, there they were again -- two strangers inhabiting my world suddenly and vigorously. I posted about this experience on Instagram and on Facebook:
"As night transitions to day, I hear news of two deaths. Both people are strangers to me until their deaths -- a father of young children out for a hike; a young woman trying to find her way in a big city. Gone.
"But they actually enter my world by dying. These losses, of people I will never meet, seem to me to be a particular kind of ambiguous loss. Psychologically so present, and yet their physical forms never sharing space with mine. A contemporary realm in The Communion of Saints."
That brief musing led to many conversations with friends, and as we approach the day when my tradition celebrates all dead -- saints and otherwise, people known to us and those we have never met -- I continue to ponder this “Contemporary Realm in The Communion of Saints”.
The Communion of Saints is a term that began to be used as early as the 4th century CE. For many, it refers to all members of the Christian faith, living and dead. For many others, including me, it refers to all members of the human species, living and dead.
That realm of beings feels vibrantly full and present to me, particularly during this season. Every year on or around November 1, most liturgical churches spend time sharing the names of their community members who have died as well as those beloved by their members. The list can become quite long, depending on the size and general age of the congregation. Some churches invite participants to bring photos and memorabilia of their departed loves, and altars are made that celebrate these precious lives.
It is a blessed and beautiful tradition.
And it can become overwhelming for some.
I belong to an Anglican lay religious order of women, the Daughters of the King, and one of our most sacred commitments is to celebrate All Saints day collectively. Members from throughout my state travel to our cathedral in Denver to attend services and the celebrations that follow. The first time I attended, as the names of the departed were read aloud, tears filled my eyes. Each name, echoing out through the magestic space of our cathedral, signified just one life; but I imagined the ripple created by that one life -- each person affected by that individual and all the gifts brought into the world by the existence of one single soul. That year, I was recovering from my most recent heart and lung surgery, and it was abundantly clear to me that, had circumstances been just a bit different, my name would have been one of those recited in that long list.
Overcome with gratitude, I felt a new level of contentment with that awareness. I will someday join that list.
When I do, when I become listed as one of those Saints, I will have joined a realm of beings that are no longer called “beloved” just by family members and others who shared intimate time and space with us.
I will then become available to be Beloved to all who remain here on earth. This will happen to you, too.
Henri Nouwen, a deceased Dutch Catholic priest, writer, theologian, and professor, explores the effects our dying has on the living in his inspiring book, Life of the Beloved, in which he declares,
"For the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, dying is the gateway to the complete experience of being the Beloved."
"It is only when we have died that our spirits can completely reveal themselves."
We are all Beloved Children of God.
And as I took my morning walk that summer day and found my mind immersed in thoughts of two strangers, I was somehow connecting with those Beloved Children of God. They had taken their place in the Communion of Saints, and my morning walk became a service of sorts.
Social media has, I believe, increased our opportunities to participate in such spontaneous Services commemorating All Saints. When I was growing up, I read newspaper articles and listened to radio stories about the deaths of strangers, and I felt the beginnings of this movement then. Often I was drawn into these deceased strangers’ stories momentarily as I learned of their passing and perhaps a few details of their lives. Now, however, through the abundance of images and writings that flood our feeds daily, I have the capacity to learn so much more about strangers as they die.
Like I did with the young father and young woman whose lives were connected to mine by the thinnest of threads of “friends of friends”. Indeed, I only became aware of their existence through their deaths.
Why, then, did I experience something that felt so like grief, even if only a sliver of it?
How could I possibly feel anything in connection with them at all?
As I brought to mind images of each of them (not imagined, of course; these were actual images that filled my computer) and wondered about the loss their loved ones were just entering, these two people -- with whom I would never share space or time -- seemed somehow psychologically present.
Years ago, I would have judged myself harshly for such explorations. I vividly remember criticizing acquaintances for “co-opting” the grief of someone they barely knew. I felt that they were attempting to gain attention through the passing of someone who was not really in their lives.
I still cringe at such attention-seeking behavior related to grief, but that reveals much more about my own areas of discomfort and judgment than it does about anyone exhibiting those behaviors.
Now, though, I wonder if such experiences and expressions might be a very particular strain of Ambiguous Loss.
Pauline Boss’ revolutionary work in Ambiguous Loss, an area of bereavement work, provides us with a depth of understanding and nuance previously not identified in grief psychology. She explains that there are two types of Ambiguous Loss:
When someone is physically present but psychologically or emotionally absent (as is often the case with a person experiencing dementia)
When someone is psychologically or emotionally present but physically absent (for example, missing persons and prisoners of war)
(listen at https://onbeing.org/programs/pauline-boss-the-myth-of-closure-dec2018/ to Boss’ interview on the podcast On Being; it’s illuminating)
Those two strangers who entered my consciousness only through their deaths, was I somehow grieving them?
Not, of course, in an individual way. They were never part of my life, so I will never feel their absence. But I do -- many of us do -- experience some sense of loss when we allow ourselves to contemplate such stories.
This collective type of loss should never be confused with individual loss. It is not the same at all. When someone close to us dies, we do not choose whether or not to grieve; we are not gifted the luxury of turning our focus away from this great loss. The remainder of our days will be bereft of their presence, and our lives are drastically altered by their absence.
Confusing the collective loss of a stranger with the personal loss of a loved one can lead to great suffering. It is vitally important that we consciously determine which experience we are having.
For instance, when I attend All Saints Day services at the cathedral this year, I will hear many names. As most of those names are read, I will be able to feel not a sense of loss but of gain -- those strangers have become available to each of us as they entered the Communion of Saints. Their physical absence actually becomes psychological and emotional presence in this theology and in practice as we honor their passing.
However, I will not feel a gain when one particular name is spoken. When I hear the reader say the name Ron Malzahn, I will experience loss. This beloved elder in our community passed away in September, and our church members are in early days of mourning. I still want to see him sitting in his pew every Sunday morning; I want to be able to share the Sign of Peace with him.
It is challenging to release Ron into the Communion of Saints. Fortunately, that is not my task this year. My work is to grieve his loss. And I am, therefore, abundantly grateful that those gathered that day will celebrate his entry into this collective realm.