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Living in the unknown — finding hope in the future

Light for the Way seriesWe continue in our Light for the Way series. Our goal is to deepen our focus on scripture with attention to our shared service to older adults.

This week we share devotions and grief resources anticipating All Saints Day on Sunday, November 1. All Saints Day is celebrated by Christians all over the world who remember that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ — spiritual ancestors through the centuries who cheer us on and help us persevere (Hebrews 12:1). All Saints Day can also be a day of personal remembrance, for calling to mind those you love, whose words still speak to you and whose example still steadies you.

By Optage Hospice Chaplain Jenny Schroedel, who provides grief support and education across PHS communities for residents and families and for the broader community. 

Living in the unknown: where are we now?

When I was 15, I went on a 20-day canoe trip in the Canadian Wilderness. We were driven 180 miles and dropped with a compass, canoes and backpacks. We made our way back on foot and by canoe. There were supposed to be trails, but often, we couldn't find them. We all got the stomach flu, and I tripped on a rock and broke my fall with my forehead.

My camping misadventure reminds me of 2020, which has been similarly bumpy. It has been a year of living in the unknown, of making plans in pencil. Therapist Pauline Boss coined the term Ambiguous Loss for losses without closure. It can describe situations in which a person is physically present but psychologically absent (dementia, addiction) or when a person is physically absent but psychologically present (missing children, an incarcerated parent). 

Recently, she described the ambiguous losses connected with the pandemic. We have lost ways of living, working, connecting. Life feels unsafe and uncertain. Pauline Boss offers these suggestions:
  • Name your losses. When you have a word for what you are experiencing it can feel less overwhelming. Better yet, make a list of your losses since March and realize how much you have come through.
  • Use Both/And thinking. We can hold two opposing thoughts at the same time. Something can feel both overwhelming and manageable. We might go back to the way things were before or we might not. Our most difficult experiences can be both unbearable and bearable.
  • Balance Powerlessness with Mastery. We see how little control we have, but also how powerful our actions are. Focus on what you can do: check on a neighbor, write a letter, join a virtual book club. Small things go a long way to empower us.
Grand Marais on New Years

Long before this pandemic, you may have had some practice with ambiguous loss. Perhaps you cared for a loved one with dementia or a child with autism. Both then, and now, we can find our way. But we need not do it alone. If you are struggling, let someone know so they can help you along the path. None of us can fix this, but we can face it together. As Pauline Boss says, "Sadness is treated by human connection."

Hope and the future: where are we going?                                                                                        

How does one move forward in uncertain times and in the midst of loss?

This is a question that often comes up at grief groups — people wonder when they are going to feel better. This varies from person to person, depending on the relationship and the type of loss. But one thing that is consistently helpful for moving forward is hope.

First, hope is not:
  • Presumption. We do not know the future so we need to be careful about offering false promises. Every step of the way, we can be honest with ourselves (and others) about what we know and do not know.
  • Positive Thinking. There is a fine line between hope and denial. Positive thinking is not the same as hope. Instead of trying to be positive, try to see things as they are and then consider what might still be possible within your own situation.

Now, hope is:
  • Basic. We often think of hope as something grand. But hope can be very simple. Sometimes hope says "I think I am going to get through this day." Or, "If I take a walk, I'll feel better." 
  • Helpful for the Brain & Body. Hope is a buffer against stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that hope can change the neurochemistry of the brain, leading to healthier habits and lasting change. 
  • Fluid. Often in life we discover that we will not get the thing we most hoped for, but hope is flexible enough to shift toward a new goal — something that is still feasible within our own situation.
  • Active. Almost every great thing we are able to do begins with a thought of hope. Hope gets us out of bed each day and gives us eyes to see what might still be possible.

As the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, "In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart." Often the most powerful thing we carry in our hearts is hope. No matter what we are facing, hope helps us to see the larger horizon. It reminds us that we won't always be where we are now, and that it can help us get there.

On Thursday’s blog, Chaplain Jenny will conclude reflecting on All Saints Day with an inspirational video. “We are not alone in this,” she says, alluding to Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

Explore more grief resources and support offered by Presbyterian Homes & Services.

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