• Leanne Friesen "Making Space for Grief" | Transcript

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Hello, friends. Welcome to the Love, Henri podcast, produced by the Henri Nouwen Society. My name is Wendy Vander Wal Martin, and I’m part of the team that are encouraging spiritual transformation through the work and writing of contemporary spiritual Master Henri Nouwen. I’m so grateful to have all of you listening today, whether you’re a longtime fan of Henri or just being introduced to his work. Now, if you aren’t already a subscriber to our daily meditations, I encourage you to go to our website, henrinouwen.org. It’ll be in the show notes and sign up for a daily reminder that you are a beloved child of God.

    Now, I’m thrilled today to have Leanne Friesen as our guest. Leanne, welcome. I can’t wait for our conversation.

    Leanne Friesen: I’m excited to be here. Thank you for having me

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Now, Leanne serves as the executive minister of a gathering of churches in Canada. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and her two teenage kids, and she’s the recent author of a hot off the presses amazing book called Grieving Room. Let me get the subtitle right, Making Space for All the Hard Things After Death and Loss. What a timely book post pandemic. And so many of us are just staggering with loss. Now this podcast is based  well based, we use Henri Nouwen’s letters as a catalyst for conversation. And Henri was someone who just was so disciplined and dedicated to responding to his mail. He did it every single day. Apparently there’s 16,000 of his letters in the archives, which if he like used email, I can’t imagine. But some of those letters were put together in a book called Love, Henri. And that’s the name for the podcast. But let’s begin first by just hearing Leanne a little bit about this passion project of yours, this amazing gift to the world of your book Grieving Room. Tell us about that.

    Leanne Friesen: Thank you. Well, it’s been a passion project for some time, and it really started many, many years ago. I’m not sure why, but when I was even training to be a minister, I always had great interest in grief, in making space in the church for death, for dying, for lament, and for grieving. When I began in ministry, I started my first lead pastor role at the age of 27. I very much still cared about that, wanted to make space for that in the church. But a few years later, my sister, my eldest sister, whose name was Roxanne, died of cancer after fighting cancer for eight years. And I often say that I sort of thought because I had had this area of interest, I had studied grief. I’d done a lot of courses, a lot of electives in that area, read all the books. I regularly conducted funerals. I sat at deathbeds. I thought I would be a little bit ahead of the gate when it came to grieving, for lack of a better term. What happened was after my sister died, of course, I saw things with completely new eyes and understood grief in this profoundly different way. And came to start really doing a lot of teaching and speaking and blogging about this idea that we just needed to let people grieve. That grief needed space. That space for lament mattered. And eventually it evolved into this term grieving room. This idea of, you know, sometimes we talk about we need grieving room. And I thought we need grieving room. We need space for our grief.  And I started a blog,  excuse me, an Instagram page @grieving.room  which has built quite a large number of followers and has become a really beautiful, I think, community of making space for grief, sort of concurrent with writing.

    Ultimately this book that I describe as part memoir, my own story of learning to grieve, find grieving room for myself, both as a griever and then as a pastor who had so much to learn what I learned from congregants and so on. But also partly how to, you know. What does it mean to find grieving room for ourselves and give grieving room to others. So I often joke that grief is my weird hobby. I have a pretty intense day job. It takes quite a lot of time and emotional energy, and it’s a little bit of a joke when people who know me that, you know, in my spare time, I do all this grief support my spare time. I write posts about grief and Instagram, but yet it, when you say passion project, that’s a perfect description of what it’s because I’m very passionate about giving grief room.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Thank you so much.   I’m someone who’s been touched by death pretty much my whole life. My mother died when I was 16 months old. And then just six months ago, my father at age 87 died. I’m listening to you talk about this passion project, and it just strikes me again, as someone at this moment in time whose life has been sort of bookmarked by death. And Henri spoke a great deal about death. He had a brush with death where he was walking and a bit absent-minded and got clipped by a van. And it seemed like he was okay, and then suddenly was a lot more serious than he thought. And so he reflected a lot on death and talked about how our death can be fruitful and often talked about the both/and of death. That death and dying and grieving a loved one necessarily needs to include bot  the deep sadness and the loss as well as hope and even joy.  Joy, quite different from happiness, of course. And that’s certainly been my experience now in this bookend moment of my life, having lost my parents.  So, thank you.

    We’re  going to dig into that as we read Henri’s letter, but first we’d just love to hear from you, how has Henri Nouwen been  an accompanier for you in your journey through ministry and life and spirituality?

    Leanne Friesen: Oh, Nouwen has had such a profound impact on who I am as a Christian,  as a leader. And it would be almost impossible to describe, and I know so many listening would feel the same way, but my first introduction to Henri was when I was 21 years old. And during my reading week in university, I attended, sort of a special leadership, really, it was internship for servant hood experience in downtown Toronto at Sanctuary. You might be familiar with Sanctuary. They used to do these weeends, I don’t think they would use the term homeless shelter, but it’s a community in that neighborhood  that makes space and community for people who have all different types of lives and provides meals and so many different things. And I was so profoundly impacted by this. I was part of the group Navigators at the time. So this group of Navigators gathered for this really life shaping experience. And the textbook we were given, so to speak, was In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. And we had to read, and each day we would reflect on this book, which of course is one of his most well-known books about the temptations, you know, to be powerful, to be relevant. And I just remember this book blowing my 21 year old’s mind. And I was a program director at camp that summer. And I remember doing this whole session about this book with all these 15, 16 year-olds looking at me like, what, you know, I just couldn’t kind of express, you know, this is so incredible, this idea of, you know, what it means to actually serve. And I was, I was so profoundly shaped by it.

    And then of course, I’ve read so much of his work since. And, and the other, that would’ve been probably my other favorite. I know they’re all the classics would be Return of the Prodigal Son, Life of the Beloved, all these things.  I just, he’s been so influential. And I guess the funny story, which you can keep really about that is sort of a personal funny one was when I – one of the first days that I met my husband. We started in seminary together a few years after I had gone on this first encounter with Henri Nouwen and I know many people that knew him. I mean, this is the really early two thousands. I was from a Salvation Army background. This sort of Catholic priest wasn’t someone that many people had encountered, you know? So I didn’t know a lot of people reading Henri Nouwen, even though now I realize lots of people were reading Henri Nouwen. And it was like our first day at seminary, and we’d been put in small groups to get to know one another. My husband was about three people older over from me, and he quoted a Henri Nouwen book. And you know, for me, this was about as attractive as, and we always joke that that was the moment that I went, oh, this man is very interesting. Because he quoted Henri and even in our wedding program, it says, you know, Leanne first noticed Dallas when he quoted her favorite author. So that’s sort of our funny little connection that I was like, that’s a fabulous story. I was like, he likes Henri Nouwen. And I like Henri. Now we got married 11 months later. So I don’t know. Henri’s been pretty important in my life. Yes. And if I were to turn my screen here, you’d see a, a row of Henri now and books one after the other little collection of his work, just kind of just right behind my shoulder here.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Well, now that I’m with the Henri Nouwen Society, of course I have many Nouwen books behind me, but I always like to say I had definitely a full shelf before I ever took this role.

    Leanne Friesen: And don’t you find there’s never, like you, if you read one, you haven’t read, there’s not too many of those left for me, but you just read it and go, you did it again. Like, you know, and never, you never read one, and don’t just find yourself profoundly impacted by the profundity of what he’s saying. At least that’s been my experience of that’s one time after another.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: One of the reasons I’m so passionate about working with the Society now is, you know, it’s almost 30 years since Henri passed away. So I think those of us who were in seminary sort of nineties, early two thousands… I wonder sometimes for those who are training now to be clergy  or ministry leaders of any kind, chaplains, whatever,  are they, do they think Henri is still relevant? Because no wonder when I took this role, I was like, and did the deep dive yet again.  I just, I know Henri’s wisdom is so timeless, so I’m passionate about the younger generations, not only of ministry leaders, but just those who are spiritually hungry and seeking someone who can bring this incredible, emotionally connected, vulnerable, honest  invitation into a deeper spiritual practice. Well, it’s so exciting to find another Nouwen fan

    Leanne Friesen: Well, it would certainly be interesting to see you’re right in that next generation, because so many people teaching that generation were so impacted by Nouwen. And that I would wonder if the stuff that we read and went, wow. Like when I read In the Name of Jesus, and no one was talking about leadership this way. There’s an element that you almost hope, well, maybe that’s become so pervasive in how we think as leaders that maybe it won’t seem as profound to the next generation if we have embodied it in a way that it’s become more normalized. Who knows? So I’d be curious, which way it would go. Is there an element …. I’d be really interested to know that. And part of me would hope that’s true. That, you know, I would love it if a 21-year-old read In the Name of Jesus now and went, oh, okay. No, this is how my pastor led. I don’t understand what makes this special.  would be interesting actually. I think it would be a compliment to Nouwen

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: How much has Nouwen shaped those who are writing today and speaking today? Like yourself.  . And at the same time, we are so human. Humanness. I think we still need Henri.

    Leanne Friesen: Absolutely.  Oh my goodness. Yes.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: So, as I said, we’re talking about some of Henri’s letters, because in them, the things that Henri valued so deeply, relationship, honesty, vulnerability,  and deep connection to the spiritual life are so present. And in today’s letter Henri offers consolation to a woman named Mrs. Healy who had a daughter, Beth, who was a 23-year-old jockey, like she rode horses.  And she tragically died in a horse racing  incident in  Idaho. So Henri is writing from the Abbey of Genesee. So those of you who’ve read the Genesee Diary, this is where Henri is as he writes this letter. And it’s dated Octo not October. Let’s see if I can read this morning. August 2nd, 1974. So 50 years ago.   And this is what Henri writes.

    Dear Mrs. Healy, many thanks for your very kind letter. I’m very happy to hear from you again. I realize that Beth’s death will remain a source of deep grief and much pain for you. Few people will probably fully understand what it means to lose your own child. It is a very deep and very intimate pain. And in a certain sense, you have to die with her to find new life and new hope for yourself. Jesus said, if the grain of wheat dies, it produces much fruit. I think that you are realizing this too, that you feel the death of Beth hurting you deeply, but also that her death can bring many fruits to you and other people. You have to go through the pain and the grief to realize this. But this is the mystery of our life and of our faith. When Jesus spoke about his own death, he said to his disciples, did not the Messiah have to undergo all this so as to enter into his glory?

    I think that he tells us that this is also true for us. We have to suffer to enter into glory. I believe that Beth’s death has made us suffer, but also can make us already now sense some of the glory that is promised to them who accept their pain. This is also the meaning of the Eucharist, the Holy communion. We eat bread made from crushed grain to realize that we enter into new life by participating in the suffering and death of Jesus. [Now, they had given Henri a plate for communion.] And so he says, maybe you would like to use these words for the communion plate. If the grain of wheat dies, it produces much fruit in memory of Beth Canning, September 16th, 1950, to May 25th, 1974. This text is from the Gospel of St. John, chapter 12, verse 24. I think this is a beautiful text since it brings Beth’s life in deep contact with the life of Christ and with our lives. And it also expresses the deep meaning of the Holy Communion. But if you have other feelings about this, just feel free to let me know. We pray here often for Beth, and she is often in my thoughts. I pray also for you and your family, that Beth’s death will not only bring you grief, but also new hope with many greetings to your husband and all the members of your family, especially to Beth’s sisters, Carol and Jane, wishing you much hope, courage, and confidence. Yours, Henri.

    Now, Leanne, what resonates for you? As you hear me read these words of, of Henri to a grieving mom.

    Leanne Friesen: When I first read this letter, when you sent it to me, I probably read it about five times. And the theology in it, I found very moving and encouraging and hopeful. I did find myself curious about the dialogue they’d had up to this point. And we could probably talk more about that later, because I thought there would be times after a death that some would not be ready to hear this sort of, you know, we hope for fruit to come for this and, and those kind of things that, that could feel too soon or not where they are. But yet, you know, that it was a dialogue back and forth.  But the truth of how he explains this to me is such a beautiful, hopeful view of death. But I have it on my phone here, so I’m looking at the quotes that stood out to me.

    But what really struck me were the very pastoral pieces of the letter. And forgive me if this wasn’t what you were hoping to discuss, but I was very struck by a couple of the lines that maybe wouldn’t be the ones that we would think would stand out.  I was very moved by, if you have other feelings about this, just feel free to let me know. Maybe that seems like a strange line to stand out. But to me, that was such a permission to acknowledge that he may not understand what this griever needs, and that he, his answers may not have been the right ones for them, or may not have been ones they were resonating with, or that there just might be something else that they wanted to name as what God was saying to them. And I thought that was a very pastoral comment.

    You know, I offer this to you. This is some truth from scripture. This is how we understand Christ’s death and resurrection and the hope in it. But if there’s something else you’re thinking about with this plate, you let me know.

    And then I was also very touched to say, you know, we pray for you. We pray for Beth, we’re praying for your family. And maybe there’s some bias there, especially to Beth’s sisters, Carol and Jane. And you’re nodding on that. And the mention of the other family members by name was so touching to me. And as someone who’s lost a sister, that was very touching because I, I often write about sibling grief, especially on this Instagram page that I have. And frequently people will say, you know, siblings are forgotten, grievers. Now I didn’t feel like a forgotten griever, so to speak. People absolutely acknowledged my loss as a sibling.

    But it is true that it is one that can feel overlooked. And I remember one point seeing a very cherished friend, more of a mentor, actually five or six months after my sister died. And I remember thinking they didn’t live in the same place. And I’ve been looking forward to seeing them. And a few of us were going to go out because as I said, this is someone that had mentored a few of us. And I remember thinking, “Oh, you know, they’re going to ask me about Roxanne, and, and this is someone I could talk to.” And they said, very kindly, “I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your sister.” And I said, thank you. And they said, “How are your parents doing?” And it was a very fair question. And I remember just feeling a little wounded because I thought, “My parents aren’t here. This woman doesn’t even know my parents.” She was empathetic to them because she was their generation. So I’m sure she was thinking, oh, wow, you know, they lost their daughter. But I thought, “I’m right here. I lost my sister.” And so sometimes that can very much be forgotten. So I really appreciated these very pastorally sensitive pieces of this letter. And just saying, Carol and Jane, I see you and I remember you, which I think is a mother, Helen, I believe her name was, who received this letter, is also such a caring thing to do, because a parent who is grieving the loss of a child is almost always also trying to help their other children grieve if they have other children. So they’re also carrying the weight that their other beloved children are grieving. And they’re trying to be a parent to children going through a great loss. And so I suspect that was also very much appreciated by this mother, that he was aware of their children’s grief as well.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Well, and I wonder too, depending on  Beth was  in her early twenties, we’re not sure

    Leanne Friesen: So young,

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: where she was in the birth order. But, we don’t know how old Carol and Jane are, but sometimes I think children who are just into adulthood or adults feel, a different kind of relationship to their parent who’s grieving.  And that can make it difficult for adult siblings or even children to attend to their own grief if they’re very concerned for a parent. So I, who knows…. You know, one of the mysteries as I do these podcasts is we don’t have the letter from the sender. I have just Henri’s letter. Which is okay. It’s okay to imagine a little bit and to be curious about, you know, what, what is Henri speaking to? What context does he know that we don’t? And in these conversations in the podcast, I think that exploration of all the many  pastoral realities that arise in these situations that Henri writes to people about.

    Leanne Friesen: Absolutely. And they’ve obviously written before because he’s replying. And they’ve had enough of a dialogue that there’s this gift, this plate that I’m intrigued about. Is she giving it to Henri? So there’s a lot of elements going on here that I would just love to know more about. But even the fact that two months has passed and he’s taken the time to acknowledge this mother’s deep grief and that first line as well, you know, I know. Let me get the exact words of that, that beginning part of the letter. “I realize Beth’s death will remain a source of deep grief and much pain for you. And few people will probably fully understand what it means to lose your own child. It is a very deep and very intimate pain. And in a certain sense, you have to die with her to find, find new life and new hope for yourself.” And I can almost picture a grieving person reading something like that and just saying, “Yes. Yes, absolutely.” Because that acknowledgement your death, this death is still a source of deep grief for you. And that couple months after someone dies, actually say this in my book. My experience has been that the two to four month mark, I often warn people who have gone through a loss or they’re supporting someone, a loss. In my experience, that’s often when it hits real hard for a griever.  Because sort of that initial shock and funeral planning and tasks of grief have subsided. And now the reality is sitting in, I often say, you know, reach out to people at that two to four month mark, because that’s when they are really, really feeling the reality.

    And it’s often when the letters have stopped. And it’s often when people aren’t reaching out in the same way, which is okay. You know, that we, I wish I could help everyone remember to remember grievers, but of course, we cannot carry people’s grief with us all the time. It’s impossible to carry this level of grief with everyone around us. But yet grievers can feel very alone in that season. So I think that timeframe that he is writing her, and then simply saying, I know that this grief is so big and so heavy, and so many people simply can’t even begin to fathom what the grief that you’re feeling is, I think would’ve been so validating and beautiful. And that’s my experience when I talk to grievers. That in my experience, I often say that my Instagram page, I say, if, you know, if you  want to go and read it, Wendy, and I say, you’ll see 99% of the posts could be summarized as follows, “You’re normal, that’s grieving.”

    And whether I’m writing about anger or anxiety, or fear or conflict with families, I write about all kinds of things. It’s really an exercise in validation that the thing that you’re experiencing makes sense. And it’s part of the grief journey. And that’s what many people are looking for that space to say, “Okay, it’s okay for me to feel this way. It makes sense for me to make space for this grief. This is what my grief needs to let, let this experience be just as it is.” And I feel like that paragraph did that, and I thought that was very beautiful.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Amazing to think that Henri wrote it 50 years ago. And we’re talking about it today. Now language changes.  Context changes. It’s not so much the myth of a linear trajectory of progress. But I wonder if there’s anything in the letter that you sort of say, hmm, in today’s context, I might phrase this a little bit differently, or I might offer a different question or anything that you would maybe say in today’s context. “If I was writing Mrs. Healy, this is, this is something I’d want to make sure I offer.”

    Leanne Friesen: It’s interesting because I, I did think about this quite a bit, and I don’t know if it’s about being today’s context or just my own ways of doing things. And I’ve already mentioned this wondering. But again, it comes back to not seeing her original letter. And so I agree with everything he said there, and I think there’s profound hope, right? When he says, well, we remember that there can be fruit from this death. And that is true and powerful. Personally, if I were to now be working with a group of pastors, and it was two months after someone died, I would say, nobody wants to hear that two months after someone died. Nobody’s looking for the silver lining. They don’t want to hear, you know, oh, but you know, God can use this for good. God’s going to redeem it. Some may at some point be ready for that.

    Let me rephrase that. I shouldn’t say nobody at two months or at two months. They might not be ready. I would be so sensitive to be sure someone was ready to hear that. And in my experience, we often want to jump to that a little too quickly. We do all kinds of versions of that when we’re with people who are grieving. You know, we say, “God will use it for good”, or “God has plans for us”, or at least we do. “At least they’re not suffering anymore.” Or, “You’ll be able to help others.” And all of those things may be true, but there’s a season where the grievers simply need room. They just need room for their grief to be, and they don’t need answers, and they don’t need theological answers or theological explanation. I hesitate to push back too much on the letter though, because it sounds like she’s coming to Henri for that.

    And Henri’s in a unique role. He’s a Catholic priest. And so if she has asked, you know, help me understand what scripture’s saying about this. This is such a reasonable answer, or, how do I understand this? Or How do I make sense of where God is in this? He is in a role where this answer makes sense. And so, again, I’m a bit of two minds about that. Right. So I think it’s so much about contact, but I think sometimes what I would invite people who might read this letter and say, that’s a great answer. That’s what I would give, I would give that answer. The answer you would give depends on the role you have with the person and the time of the loss, the time of when you’re writing, and what the person is asking for from you. So I would be hesitant with some of this shift to, you know, if we die, it bears fruit and all that stuff shortly after a death, I’d be hesitant if you haven’t been asked to be in that role.

    So a lot of us feel a need to give theological explanations at funeral homes, and I often say, funeral homes are not places for theological discussions. If someone dies and they say, “Why does God allow this?” They’re very rarely asking for an actual answer in that moment. And there’s also the who, right? Again, he is in a role where people are coming to him for theological explanation. And sometimes we want to give that to people when they’ve not yet asked for it. And what I mean by that is someone says, oh, “I’m just really struggling.” And then we say, “But listen, God’s going to bear fruit out of this.” That’s just not what they’re asking in that time. So I don’t know if that answers your question, Wendy. But I think that, again, there’s the piece of this to me, the questions weren’t so much about what he said.

    And if it’s timely today? It’s absolutely timely today. I think it’s true and profound. And as I said, as I always do with this stuff, I read it about four times and just thought, this is beautiful. I found myself saying, would I, in the exact same scenario, say it this way, but I don’t know the exact scenario. So to me, it would be what was, this isn’t advice I would just hand over to anyone to use in any context in that time. There’d be so much to consider before I’d share it. Does that make sense?

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Absolutely. It just reminds me how, how critical it is to, to truly be incarnational with one another. To really be fully present and able to discern and connect. And I think that is a challenge with letter writing, period. It’s very different than being present. And you and I are currently on Zoom, which we can see one another, it’s even still not the same as having the energy between the two of us in a shared space. You know, hearing your breathing, whether it it’s increasing or decreasing, or just having a sense whether you’re tensing up or, or whether there’s a peace to your embodied presence? So, these are such important things when we seek to accompany someone who’s grieving. Now you’ve been….

    Leanne Friesen: And I think that’s what I, if I may, that’s what I loved about the end of the letter, though. And I think that’s the grace of it, right? When he gets to the end and says, if some, and I know he was talking about what’s on the plate, but I think it spoke to the whole, it speaks to the whole letter, but if this isn’t quite right, tell me what you think. And I think that’s just such a grace. Yes. That really covers everything that he said.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Now you’ve been taking this book out and about…. I’ve seen some photos on Facebook.

    Tell me about what are the things that people are coming to you with as they hear about the book, as they’re wanting to connect with you, the author, who have not only thought deeply, but prayed deeply and been relationally, deeply present in the reality of grief. What are people coming to you with?

    Leanne Friesen: And this has been something that I’ve been experiencing for a couple of years, because the Instagram page has been running for a couple years now. And then the book was just released in February. And I would say that the most common question I get, I think, think I’ve sort of named this already, is some version of, “Am I normal?” Which usually looks like something like, “It’s been two years and I’m still really struggling.” And I go, “That makes sense. That’s okay.” Or I’m doing this, or I’m not crying, or I’m crying too much, or my loved ones saying this or saying that. And the big thing that happens is people come and talk to me about the book, which is such a great honor, is this statement of, you know, thank you for helping me see that my grief needed room. And I’m doing, I’m trying to let my family know this. I’m trying to let my loved ones know this.

    Just this week I spoke at an event, in Newfoundland, a palliative care conference. And I was really touched because the woman there had already read my book. But this woman came up to me who had just lost both her partner and her father in the last year or so. She had already read the book, and she said, I just want to thank you so much, because I was reminded that I can ask for grieving room and I can tell people that’s what I need. And she said, you know, just a few days ago I was telling my friend I was having a hard day. And she said, “Oh, like, this is still bothering you?” It’s funny because I’ll sometimes say to people that people will say, “Aren’t you over it yet?” And people say, “Nobody says that.” And I say, “People say that all the time.” It might not look exactly like, “Aren’t you over that yet?” It might look like, “Oh, that’s still bothering you, huh?” Like, that’s still bothering you. And she said, you know, but your book gave me the strength to say it is because I’m still grieving. And I just got tears in my eyes, because I said, “That’s why I wrote it.” You know that of course you’re still grieving and you’re saying, “I need this room.” And hopefully she’s learned to give that room for you as you helped her see a little bit.

    So when you say like, what kind of questions are you getting, it’s questions sometimes shrouded in comments along that line. Like, “Is it okay to say, I need this room?”, or “I’m realizing I need this space. I need the time, I need the emotion. I need to have the bad days. I need to have the good days.” All those things. That’s what I’m seeing. And that’s what I’ve seen for many years, which is of course, really what led to me writing the book. To saying, you know, people, the line up and say is, people don’t need grief. Excuse me. Grief doesn’t need to be avoided, minimized, or fixed. And what I mean by that is sometimes we avoid it, right? I won’t bring it up because that they’ll be sad, but they’re already sad and they’re already thinking about it, and it’s already a part of their lives.

    And when we don’t bring it up, it doesn’t help them avoid it. They just think that you haven’t asked about it. Or we try to minimize it. And minimize it is, you know, just sort of say, as I’ve already mentioned, well, “At least they had a long life.” Or “At least they’re not suffering anymore.” “At least you can have more children.” All things we say. Do people really say this? Yes, they do. And we’ve actually, many of us have said it with good intentions. Right? “At least they’re in heaven.” “At least they’re in a better place.” That’s kind of minimizing the heaviness of what they’re feeling. It’s really a version of saying, “You don’t need to be quite as sad as you are, or angry or upset.” Or fix, and that’s the big thing we try to do. We try to fix grief.

    So we go to the funeral home, or we talk to the loved one or at the funeral, and we think, “I need to say something that will make this better.” And you can’t say anything to make it better. And I love that Henri didn’t try to make anything better, right? He said, you have this grief, you’re going to carry it. But here’s some reflection on the Christian hope that when a seed dies, fruit can come and it doesn’t somehow mean the death didn’t happen, and we just can make you feel better about this. But it means that you can have a future. And that’s beautiful. But often we want to fix it, right? So we’re saying something like,
    “I need to make them feel better.” And I think when we release ourselves from making a griever feel better, we let go of a lot of things we might try to do in those moments.

    And I say, you don’t need to make a griever feel better, but you can make them feel loved and you can make them feel supported, and you can make them feel heard. And those things are part of the road ultimately to healing.

    So you are very newly grieving yourself. The loss of a parent, which I’m sure is such a profound loss, no matter what our relationship with our parents, there’s such a significant thing that happens when a parent dies. And six months, I’m sure doesn’t feel very long…. and yet just to think that someone would say to you, “Oh, are you, oh, you’re, that’s still bothering you.” Isn’t that, doesn’t that, does that feel silly to you? Does that feel bizarre to, to think? Of course, it’s still bothering you.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: What strikes me, Leanne, as you’ve been speaking, is this concept of grieving room empowers the one grieving to articulate what they need without getting angry at insensitivity. Probably well meant, or….

    Leanne Friesen: It’s always well meant. And I think we need to acknowledge that.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: ….. about why they need some space. So I think that is a tremendous gift of empowerment to a griever to have language to say what they need.  And you’ve given permission as well as a lexicon, so that they can articulate and then not feel worse about themselves because they lashed out, or because they got defensive or they felt guilty about needing room. In that process of grief, yes, we need validation and permission, but sometimes we need the tools in our toolbox.  Because like yourself, even those of us who’ve read about grief and accompanied others, when it’s your own grieving process,  you know, you sort of are in new terrain no matter what. It’s unpredictable. The things you thought would make you ready, don’t really make you ready. So thank you as one of your readers, and for those who will be reading the book for the great gift that is.

    Leanne Friesen: And I hope you keep finding that grieving room as well.  And the book is broken up in chapters.  There’s plenty of them. And each of the chapters is a different type of room. So when I talk about grieving room, I think about so many types of room that that means. So, you know, I kind of journey through my experience of my sister dying and her eventual death about all the rooms that I needed space for.  And they include room to be uncertain, room to, you know, room to have doubt as a believer, as someone who might be a person of faith that not being sure about what all this means, room for dying as she was dying, room for as then as she was, as after she had died. Room for things, like I talk about room for rituals, room for the grief rollercoaster, room for rage. The chapter that many people comment on is room for imperfect goodbyes. And I talk about how when someone dies, it hardly ever looks like the movies or tv. And we need room for the goodbyes that were messy and complicated and not what we hoped. But the book does move to room for resurrection. And so room for that reality, that new life can come and room for redemption, which is ultimately, of course, what Henri was talking about with Helen.  And that when I read that, I thought, that’s what he’s saying. I hope you’ll make some room…. that there can be new life. We might use the term redemption, resurrection, new life, hope. But that’s really what he is saying. Right. That there’s so much grief here and, and please let yourself have that grief, but maybe you can make room for some hope too. That’s what I heard in the letter, right? That this doesn’t have to be for naught. And I think that was very beautiful.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: That co-mingling again, right?  Of pain and hope.

    Leanne Friesen: One of my chapters is room for “And”and that one comes up a lot too. Yes. And I think that’s what he names in the letter too. When I talk about the “and” I talk about, you know, room to be, I write that chapter in light of when my sister was dying, you know, room to be terrified and room for hope that both can coexist and room to just want to be absolutely certain about everything that’s  going to happen. And want easy answers in a textbook and room to not have a clue what’s going on and room to be very, very sad and room to be real, really happy with the memories that you have and that it’s hardly ever either/or when we’re grieving or experiencing loss, but simply and lots of complicated things all at the same time.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Now you’re currently serving as an executive minister, so that means you’re connecting with a lot of ministry leaders and clergy folks. What are some things that you are seeing amongst our churches   around grieving? And what are some things that you hope, you know, your book and, and other resources out there will continue to equip and prepare the care-ers  but also just the body of Christ as we walk alongside one another? Now you’ve said some of the things. Some of the typical platitudes that can cause pain, but,  you know, you’ve taken a deeper dive into this….

    Leanne Friesen: Absolutely.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Ministry of grief accompaniment more so than most. So what are you seeing and what would you hope our, our care-ers can be equipped with?

    Leanne Friesen: Absolutely. Well, and I’ve seen this for a few years. I’ve actually, often for a number of years, been really surprised by how Ill-equipped and prepared many of our pastors and ministry leaders do find they are, when they come to seasons of death and loss. A lot of our seminaries and Bible Colleges now, those counseling courses, death and dying courses, they’re electives. And if someone didn’t choose to take them, you would be, I think, absolutely stunned, Wendy, with the number of phone calls I’ve gotten through the years, more than I could count of a pastor saying, “I have to do my first funeral. And I have never done a funeral and I never did a course. I had this in seminary, and can you please help me know what I’m supposed to do?” Or, “Someone in my congregation has a child who’s dying and I feel absolutely lost. Please help me not mess this up.” And, you know, we think pastors should be experts, and some of them are, you know, some of them have the years of experience under their belt, and they do have lots of training and some of them don’t. But even for the ones who do, there’s still that sense of like, “I want to do this well.” So it’s really encouraging because you hear people say, “I  want to do this well. I want this to be meaningful.” And I’m hearing more and more people say, “We do need to make space for this in the church, and we do need to be talking about this more.” Because they’re seeing it in their congregants. You named at the beginning, especially coming out of Covid.

    And so I started this role a year ago, and one of the things I do is often go to visit our churches. And I’ve been to quite a few churches this year, and they write and say, “We’d like our executive minister to visit.” And then I would usually send, here’s a few sermon options. You know, I have kind of a few that are relevant if you’re visiting, if they want some ideas. And one of those, I say, I could speak about grief if you want. And I often say, I know that might be a weird one. That might not be what you’re looking for from the executive minister. But of course they know me and I say, you might know this is an area I’m really passionate about. And if you’d like that. And that’s the one most pick! Isn’t that interesting? That’s been the most common one I’ve been asked to do.  and so they have their executive minister come and, you know, I love talking about vision for church and hope for the future and mission. I do those things too. But most often people are saying, “I’d like that sermon about Naomi.” I talk about Naomi and grief and space for grief. And, it’s been really neat to bring that and hear people say, “You know, thanks for helping our church think about this and helping me.” So I’m really encouraged because I’m seeing people really want to do this well. But I’m also aware that we haven’t always given the tools. The truth is there’s lots of great grief books out there, right. So a lot of people are like, I’m so glad to find your book. I didn’t have anything out there. And sometimes that makes me sad because I think that there is good stuff. But we haven’t taught people how to find it, and we don’t, they don’t know where to look, and we don’t tend to look until we need it.

    So you don’t read the grief books until you need them. And then you go, “Somebody needs to tell me what to do. Someone needs to help me. I don’t know what to recommend.” But I do say, I wrote the book that I always wanted to give to people. I always found there was one that was good for this and one that was good for that one that was good for this. So I was like, I’m  going to write the one that I think really summarizes what I think people need. And I hope there’s a piece of that that’s done that.  But that’s what I’m seeing.

    And so I think the other thing is our ministry leaders also need space for their grief. And it does not get talked about. And I think we forget how much grief our pastors carry. Of course, they’re often grieving themselves, you know. They have loved ones who die. But when you are pastor of a church for a long time and you bury the chair of your deacons board, you’re burying a friend and you are grieving and you actually have to help other people through that. And I don’t know if we’ve really helped our pastors,  ministry leaders name the griefs that they carry. And beyond that, the griefs that they carry for things like changing churches and dying churches and pain that they’ve suffered in churches. So I hope to also give language to that.

    The conference I just spoke at on Friday was for the Palliative Care Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. So this wasn’t a Christian group, but it was people who work in palliative care, occupational therapists, nurses, social workers. And I took a few moments to name that and thank them. I say, “I’m here today to talk to you. I know you all came to learn how to help others grieve, and that’s beautiful. Thank you for doing that. But I’m here to help you think about your grief and the losses you have.” And I begin by saying, “You know, take a few minutes and could you talk about the people you grieve for in your role?” And that you could just hear the sniffles in the room. And some shared their story of, you know, this patient that I worked with for so many months and the sadness and grief I felt when he died.  And those kind of stories. And I don’t know if people had ever really said to them, “You get to grieve too.” And it looks different. You find a different space. So I want to say that to our ministry leaders, that they get to grieve too. And I hope we can keep helping make them make space for that. I know I went a little bit down three or four different roads there, but that’s awesome. Those are all things that I think about as I think about our ministry leaders.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Well, and, and naming grief when it’s not a moment of crisis or tragic loss, but that the language of grief and lament become normalized in our communities, in our relationships, even. So that we can say to one another, “I might not know why, but I’m feeling loss. I’m feeling sad,  I need some room. I need some room to grieve.”

    Leanne, I ask every guest my closing question because I think this is so important. Regardless of the topic we’re speaking about. What are some of your personal spiritual practices that help you to live a sustainable and flourishing life?

    Leanne Friesen: Well, I think that there’s many that I need to be using more these days, but honestly, the number one, I would have to say that’s been so meaningful for me since I was 13 years old, writing dear diary and didn’t know what to call it, is spiritual journaling. And journaling for me is the thing that I guess is someone who likes writing, getting those words onto paper and pouring them onto a page. Those prayers, naming before God, what I’m feeling in the times of great heaviness in my life, the thing that I want is that pen and piece of paper to just write, you know, dear God, or put the feelings and then they turn into a prayer as I’m writing. So spiritual journaling has been really meaningful for me. And although I’ve been a little bit remiss in the last year or so, when I began seeing a spiritual director, several years ago, this is something that I think a lot of our pastors may be new to, certainly my tradition, but are starting to embrace.

    I think that’s something that I think a lot of our pastors and spiritual leaders and those of you in ministry, it’s such a gift,  to make that space once a month, every other month, maybe a couple times a year, that someone is helping you make space for God. Because as ministry leaders, that’s what we’re doing for others all the time, whether it be when we’re preaching or counseling, we’re just saying, “Let me help create this space for God, for you to see God in your life.” And when we sit before a spiritual director, we have that time that someone’s helping do that for us. And we’re released for a few moments. And that’s been really helpful for me as someone who does find pausing difficult. That was a big shift. But the biggest would be journaling. I don’t know if that answers your question.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: That’s wonderful. Thank you.  I get to sit in this chair and hear everyone’s different responses. And you know, we all learn, we all attune in different ways. And so I just think it’s wonderful for our audience to hear all the different ways that people are making space for God, connecting and really communing with the divine, with our amazing lover, Creator who calls us beloved.

    Leanne, it’s really been a delight. Thank you. This is clearly just an area of passion, but also an area where you bring so much wisdom. So thanks so much for being with us.

    Leanne Friesen: Thank you for having me.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Well, perhaps we’ll have you another time again. We’ll see where this whole podcast thing goes. For those of you who have been listening, this will also be available on our YouTube channel, which you can find on HenriNouwen.org. And if you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, share it with family and friends or stop by, give us a good review or a thumbs up.  We’re so glad that you’ve been with us. And again, check out all the projects and initiatives of the Henri Nouwen Society on our website. And if you don’t already receive them, sign up for our free daily meditations. Now don’t forget that no matter what happens in your life, no matter where you are, what you’ve done, or where you’re headed, you are a beloved child of God. Thanks.

    Leanne Friesen: Thanks, God. Thank you.

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