Making peace with losing what we want to keep is hard. We understand impermanence in the abstract, but still, our hearts crave continuity. The loss of a job, a relationship, or a loved one leads us to offer tender rituals for giving comfort: we bake each other zucchini breads, offer consoling words, and offer public liturgies for sharing our memories. But what about the losses of things yearned for, that have never been: the loss of hopes and dreams? How do we grieve those?
No zucchini bread for the person who discovers a passion for justice, but does not get admitted into law school. No consoling phone calls for the overlooked musician. No candle lit ceremony for the infertile woman who has run out of options for having a child. These experiences are lonely, and shame may make invisibility seem like the only reasonable option. Who would understand?
The disappointed would-be lawyer must find a new self image. Hopefully, another way to fight for justice will present itself, and become the right path, but first, the lost hope needs tending. This is part of the work of grieving; something precious must be given up, before the ugly duckling can awaken as a swan. What if the loss of opportunity is genuinely unfair? It must be grieved anyway. The other option is bitterness, which will be an emotional burden forever.
Infertility is an especially cruel loss. The ability to have a child is generally taken for granted; pregnancy happens so often without planning, to people who wish it had not, that we assume it must be easy. Sometimes it is not; infertility brings a deep private sadness that a woman must grieve in her own way. If she lives in community, she is constantly, graciously admiring other people’s baby pictures all the while; it is impossible to have a life on Facebook and avoid daily reminders of the lost possibility of creating a child. Healing from her disappointment must happen while being wounded over and over by people who have no idea they are doing so.
Grieving a lost hope can be isolating, unless we learn to protect our hearts from these unintended assaults. People often have poor intuitions about how to be supportive, and make things worse with their cheery words or offers of glib reassurance that “God never gives us more than we can stand”. It is important to insist on the right to grieve, even if your grieving makes others uncomfortable, and it will. What helps is empathetic listening, without giving advice, or minimizing the grief of lost possibility. The shift from grief into depression can be subtle and confusing; it is certainly true that at some point, if the work of healing is stalled, the loss of hope can lead down a dark and unproductive path. Ironically, our loved ones may be quick to diagnose depression, because that is a problem with a more familiar solution. Let us not be too quick. The experience of transforming lost hope into readiness for something new and unforeseen takes time, and we are changed at the depths of our being, if we allow it.