When death happens in a family, I have always felt that church was where you go to find comfort… the place that reaches out and wraps its corporate arms around you to give you a bit of peace in the chaos that has just rocked your world… the place where you know you’ll find the words to ease the pain, share the grief, and unburden your soul. But what happens when the church isn’t there for you?
My mother died unexpectedly, 10 days before Christmas, this past year. Celebrating Christmas was difficult, especially since she always spent that particular holiday with me and my family, so I sent my choir director a text to keep him updated on my attendance. The idea of going to services was too painful for me to fathom. I simply wanted to spend time with my husband and children, so we didn’t go to Christmas Eve services. New Year’s came and went so I could concentrate on planning a service that would honor my mother’s memory. I grew up in her church, so I felt comfortable creating a service that would have pleased her in the choices I made. I had chosen Psalm 121 which had, unbeknownst to me, been included in services for both her father and that of her father-in-law, so I honestly felt her hand guiding me in the selections for her service.
January flew by in a blur… mum’s funeral service, executor responsibilities of bills and cleaning out her home, drives to/from Pennsylvania, along with growing concerns about my father’s health. I went to one church service, but couldn’t handle more. Clearly I was hurting, but there was no rest for the weary…
Seven weeks after my mother died, my father died as well… from complications of Parkinson’s exacerbated by a car accident in November. While I wasn’t as intimately involved in his service, my stepmother asked me to honor his memory by singing one of his favorite hymns. I asked my choir director for a copy of the music, since I couldn’t find it in the various hymnals at our house, and practiced it in my kitchen as often as I could. It was a heartwrenchingly difficult thing to do and as much as I didn’t *want* to do it, I desperately wanted to do something tangible to honor him. I may not have wanted to sing, but I’m so grateful that she asked me. They are Episcopalian as well, so the service was familiar and comforting even if I hadn’t been inside that parish since my father and stepmother were married almost 40 years ago.
A month after my father died, I saw my priest at the local store when I was working. I apologized for not being at church lately and mentioned that it was still so hard for me to get through services after losing both my parents. He said that he understood and said “you know where we are if you need us”. Maybe it was the place where we were speaking (I was hosting a wine tasting at a local liquor store), but there were no words of comfort spoken… no short blessing or prayer… no attempt made to reach out to me *as my priest* to meet with me in the future.
I’m not entirely sure why this phrase hit me so hard, but it’s the one that resurfaces each time I think about returning. Thinking about it now, I believe that by using those words, he was placing the next action squarely on me. I wasn’t, and still am not, in a place to make that sort of move… to ask for help… to seek consolation… to get back to church…
And so I don’t. I don’t attend church at the moment. I don’t sing in choir. While I pray daily and sing constantly in my car (those long road trips can be cathartic), I have withdrawn from the corporate church.
While it hurts my heart to have made the decision to “break up with my church”, I don’t feel the same comfort from this particular parish any longer. The two or three individuals who initially reached out to me have gone on with their lives, which didn’t include me from the beginning. I’m sure that some will say it was up to me to return and “rejoin the living”, but sometimes that’s just too hard. Priests are given the tools, and the personnel, with which to reach out to parishioners in the midst of whatever personal struggle they face. I truly believe that, by not having any contact with the people of this particular parish, we have been cast aside and left to our own devices.
While my faith is not entirely dependent upon corporate worship and prayer, I can’t help but wonder if the pain I still feel might have been lessened if I had felt welcome to share my grief at church… if someone had reached out after my mom died, and again after my father died… if my church had cared about me. I really tried to make this church our home, but it has become glaringly obvious that it’s not… grief has brought that into sharp focus.