March 7, 2024

How to Grieve Losses With No Funerals

Finding a way with God through ambiguous loss

by Rev. Dr. Amy F. Davis Abdallah

“I lost my job.” “We broke up.” “I lost the baby.” “My dog died.” 

These losses carry the same kind of grief as losses the church marks with funerals. 

But there is no obituary, no funeral, no announcement or recognized worship ritual that helps us process such a loss in community. Each time we tell people of our loss, we wonder if we’re allowed to be sad because church and society don’t give us time off to grieve such things. 

“My alma mater closed. Generations of my family attended Nyack, I met my spouse there, and I even graduated from Alliance Theological Seminary. I wanted my kids to attend there.” 

The loss of an institution, a physical place, a legacy, feels like a death. Even though there are plans for the continuation of an Alliance seminary expression in New York City, we perceive it as a loss until the plans are definite. We grieve, but when no space is made for that grief in community, we stuff it down and go about our day trying to ignore the sadness.

Psychologist Pauline Boss calls losses like this ambiguous loss—losses with no casket or funeral, like a parent who is physically present but emotionally or socially absent, or a 9-11 victim whose body was never recovered. Ambiguous loss is ever-present in our lives, but not all of it hurts quite like breakups, miscarriage, unemployment, pet death, or institutional loss. 

Losses that are recognized by things like funerals, bereavement fares, and job leave are legitimized or enfranchised by society and the church. Other types are disenfranchised, writes Kenneth Doka, as when a friend offers us a puzzled look when we cry or get angry upon seeing a photo of our deceased pet, previous partner, or closed college popping up on our memories. 

It doesn’t help to ignore our sadness, to stuff it down because we don’t think we should be so sad about it. The path of healing requires we observe our grief—we both look at our grief and find ways to honor and process it. 

My new book, Meaning in the Moment: How Rituals Help Us Move Through Joy, Pain, and Everything in Between, offers reasons to ritualize the ends, middles, and beginnings of our lives, keys to effective ritualizing, and “Right now,” “With Friends,” and “At Church” rituals, like one for miscarriage.

Given that many of us are grieving the loss of Nyack College, I’d like to use it as an example of ambiguous loss. The way I suggest we process it can be adapted to other types of ambiguous or disenfranchised loss.

The first step is to recognize the loss as legitimate and allow ourselves to experience the strong and sometimes ambivalent emotions that go along with such a loss. This recognition often opens a flood of memories—both the good and the not-so-good kind. 

The next step is to accept that there will not be complete closure. Alliance Theological Seminary people know we can’t yet have closure because plans for continuation are in process. But even Nyack College people will not have closure around this loss, and the lack of closure is actually very good. We Americans like the losses of our lives to be quick, wrapped up in a neat bow and put down, never to be picked up again. It turns out that is not healthy. Maintaining continuing bonds with a deceased spouse, like still celebrating their birthday every year, helps people create and maintain new relationships and marriages. It’s healthy to still love the place and institution even though it no longer exists. 

The third step is to examine the nature of the loss. In this case, I mean examine and record what was really incredible and amazing about Nyack. Also record what was neither incredible nor amazing. Then, we record exactly what is lost. Is it the ability to return for homecoming and meet up with friends and professors? Is it that the generations of Nyackers have ended? Is it a loss of hope or dreams? The loss can be past, present, or future and is usually multifaceted. 

These first three steps take time, effort, and intentionality. If rushed, rituals that mark ends are not as effective as they might be when we take the time. 

After this, the final step invites others to help mark the loss through a creative worship ritual. The more devastating the loss, the more investment the individual and community must make in order to have an effective healing process through the worship ritual. An effective worship ritual will name and let go of any negative portions of the experience—those items that were neither incredible nor amazing. It will also name the other losses and embody their release through symbolic action. Finally, it will name the good and embody continued bonds with that good and with Nyack. 

I was a member of the faculty at Nyack/Alliance University for twenty-one years. I am also an alumna of Alliance Theological Seminary. If I were to create a worship ritual for my loss, I would do it with close friends and, if possible, others with whom I made the seminary journey. I would not need to do it with the entire church. I’d think through and prepare symbols in advance of the worship ritual.

I’d begin with a prayer of invocation—inviting the presence of God to especially inhabit and bless the Letting Go of Nyack worship ritual. After naming them, enacting the release of the negative would involve some sort of destruction—perhaps burning something that symbolized the negative, or simply burning the paper on which I wrote the negative. Embodying the release of other losses would be less final, perhaps involving writing them on paper with washable markers and then washing it away in water or blowing out a candle that symbolized each loss. As for that which I maintain from those 21 years, I would want to build something visible. Perhaps a pile of stones like the altars in the Old Testament, or a beautiful bunch of flowers that I’d dry and keep visible, each symbolizing something I’m taking with me. Then I’d declare my hope and trust in God through all losses and gains, asking someone to bless me with Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

For me, this ambiguous loss is best processed through a ritual with a small group. Other losses might find healing through ritual with the whole church, with one’s family, or simply with a friend. However we choose to mark our ambiguous losses through ritual, it is still true that we find healing through naming and marking our losses with others for the glory of God.

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