Ambiguous Loss

I once came across a recipe posting for “Funeral Sandwiches.” Instantly, I knew the look and the taste of the sandwiches, even without the recipe. I am guessing many of you do as well. When a family mourns the death of a loved one, our congregations often have tangible traditions for how we support them. But what happens when the loss is more abstract?

We expect grief after a significant loss like a big move, a breakup or divorce, or death. Communities are quick to respond to tangible, obvious loss with patience and understanding. We hold space for people in these times, helping them to navigate and providing for their needs. When someone experiences a clear and major loss, we expect a range of emotions from anger to guilt to deep sadness. Support systems give them time to navigate the physical and mental reactions like difficulty focusing or sleeplessness.

We don’t have a recipe or a plan for supporting those grieving an ambiguous loss. The loss is less obvious when an injury finishes a season too soon or when one can no longer pursue the college or career for which they longed. Young people can experience grief over the loss of their school year, proms, graduations, sports seasons, theater productions, concerts and more. They are long awaited and meaningful moments that are lost, and that loss can be deeply painful. But often there are no special sandwiches or potatoes we share for these moments.

As parents and young leaders, these are important time to be present. We can bring warmth, challenge, and grace into these critical times as they grieve loss of what should have or could have been.

Remind them that God is faithful, even in times when we experience loss. We have a God who walks with us through every aspect of life. God’s faithfulness through all generations to offer love and forgiveness can bring hope. The God who died on the cross to forgive our sins knows our name and our pain. As every young person mourns differently, we can all trust a faithful God to be with us.

Check in on young people who have experienced a sudden loss of something long planned for or expected. Asking them to talk about it will not make it more painful. Certainly, it is something that is on their minds already. Inviting and giving them the space to talk and process the loss will help them grieve. Don’t be fooled by a lack of tears or of joking. This generation is good at deflecting pain with humor. Make sure young people know you are available to talk whenever they need.

Don’t dismiss ambiguous loss as less important. Just because there will be other seasons, shows or dances does not replace the one that was lost. As adults, we might be tempted to diminish the importance of these events because over time their importance for us is lost. This isn’t true for a young person. What they are feeling is real, valid and deserves a time of mourning.

Help them to place their identity in their Baptism, and not in the activities they participate in. Gen Z is particularly quick to place their identity in their activity and achievements. When those are lost, they may struggle more than previous generations. Be sure to remind them that beyond any thing they do, they are God’s beloved child. Focusing on that identity that doesn’t change can help bring stability as they mourn the loss of key vocations in their lives.

Be understanding as they experience the impacts of loss without knowing exactly why. With ambiguous loss, young people may find that they have strong emotions or negative behaviors, but they don’t know why. Help them by affirming how they feel and talking through healthy ways to grieve. This may be a time that needs extra warmth and grace.

For those who have an unconventional loss, we can find different ways to support as they work through grief. In fact, the grief may not show up right away. As people who love and care for young people in our church, we can be loving, constant and Christ-centered examples of how to manage difficult times. We can be parents and significant adults who God uses to draw them closer to Him, especially in times of trouble.

About the author

Julianna Shults is a DCE serving a Program Manager for LCMS Youth Ministry. With a BA in Psychology and a Masters in Community Development, Julianna served congregations in Florida and Chicago. She writes for the Youth E-Source, co-authored Relationships Count from CPH and co-hosts the podcast End Goals. Julianna is a self-proclaimed nerd, coffee snob and obsessive aunt.
View more from Julianna

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