Dealing With Loss While Continuing to Live

Dealing With Loss While Continuing to Live

Jim Stinson, Former Consultant on Older Adult Ministries


In response to a professor who was fond of saying that “life is about learning to deal with loss,” Frank Bruni, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote recently that the professor was only half right.

In a column reflecting on maturity, Bruni agrees that loss is an inherent part of life for which skills of coping must be learned. However, he observes, “Life is about learning to look past what’s lost to what’s found in the process.” At least, he notes, maturity is about that kind of learning.

Unwittingly, perhaps, Bruni’s column led me back to “The Wounded Healer,” in which author Henri Nouwen wrote that it is the losses and wounds of life that enable empathetic responses to people in distress of any kind. Those observations are worth remembering as we minister to and with older adults. Older adults have usually faced many losses and have usually learned to look past them and discovered new life. They have often learned lessons in acceptance and patience. And they have wisdom to share regarding coping skills. There is so much we can learn from them about living if we are open to what they have to say.

It was serendipitous that I read Bruni’s article after an eventful day at United Wicke Health Center of United Methodist Homes. As I had been preparing to leave for the weekend, a woman approached and asked if I had time to meet with she and her sister about their mother. The staff knows the mother very well because of several previous stays at Wicke; currently she is quite weak and perhaps terminal.

Complicating the sisters’ dilemma was the fact that their father was at home with a terminal illness, and their brother had died a week earlier in a house fire.

“Mom doesn’t know these things yet and we don’t think we should tell her,” she said. “We’re afraid the news would kill her. Do you think we’re correct in not telling her?”

Certainly a question that raises more questions. When, if ever, is it right to withhold information from someone? Is there a risk in sharing bad news with someone who is already compromised? Are those risks greater than the person finding out by accident and being angry and mistrustful of the one(s) withholding information? I did not envy those two sisters, nor did I suggest an answer, other than saying it had to be their choice and they needed to be prepared to live with the consequences. I am not inherently more capable of making such choices than anyone else.

That same evening my bias toward always telling the truth (which I carefully had kept to myself) proved itself when called back to Wicke to see another resident. The woman’s niece, by marriage, to whom she had become a second mother had died unexpectedly. This 94-year-old resident is also in precarious health, and has had many losses in her life. Her daughter had decided to tell her the news, which is when I was called in.

With the wisdom born of experience she shared her tears and pain and then said calmly and faithfully, “She’s with God now. I’ll do what I’ve learned to do. I’ll trust it to Him and I’ll get on with my life.”

The “wounded healer” was healing those around her (the nurse who had sent for me, the daughter who gave her the news, and myself who had wondered what to say to her), even as she was allowing herself to begin the healing process. The wisdom of experience had taught her she could deal with whatever came to her, and she was teaching others as well. We were witnessing maturity in action.

Feel free to print or share with your congregation. © 2014 Rev. James Stinson