Coming Home to Unacknowledged Grief

Just over a year ago, Marcia, Amanda and I presented “A Sort of Homecoming” to Brian Walsh for the first time. The presentation took place in the middle of the same month that I was preparing to leave the place that I had called home for the previous decade. Along with the desire to honour a friend in the midst of his transition to retirement was my own grief of a personal transition that largely went unmarked, due to the circumstances we had before us.

The pandemic spurred a lot of change for many people. The biggest and most pressing for many was the loss of life—of loved ones who died from COVID-19, or in its aftermath. It added increased stress to many lives in the rapid shift to working from home (for those who could), continuing to work with the public in a frightening public health situation, or losing stable work entirely. There were many more—especially those regularly served by shelters and charitable meal programs who had so much more to deal with.

One of the biggest impacts for me and my family was the decision in March of 2020 to move closer to family—temporarily, we thought—while we waited out the pandemic. Along the way, weighing the options, weighing our feelings, uncertain of the next most faithful step—faithful to ourselves, to our family, to the community we loved so deeply—we made a decision. A weighty decision. An impossible decision.

The decision to leave home, and to somehow—I still don’t know how—make home in a new place.

This week has met me with grief. I was reminded earlier today that this is the one year anniversary of my return to Vancouver—to pack up my apartment and office—as a result of a decision to move to Rossland, BC. We sold the apartment in Vancouver Cohousing we had worked so hard to build. I knew that I would be leaving behind my work at the Cathedral, and closest to my heart, the Maundy Cafe community and the St. Brigid’s community that were key parts of the ministry entrusted me in those times.

One year ago today, having just arrived back in Vancouver to pack, I found myself on a Zoom call with students in a Church Planting course at the Vancouver School of Theology, talking about the beauty and challenge and gift of co-planting St. Brigid’s with the Rev. Marnie Peterson, all the while choking back tears, knowing that the end to that chapter was near, even if it wasn’t yet public.

These past months have been replete with unexpressed, inexpressible, unacknowledged grief. If anything is true, it’s this: I miss those communities. I miss those people. I miss the life we had in Vancouver, even if some things were no longer working, even if some things needed to change. And in the intervening months, I have buried that grief, or perhaps more truthfully, not known how to process the ways in which a global pandemic has shifted my life so dramatically.

While I have an address on a street near family, I don’t know that I’ve arrived anywhere. It feels as though I have feet on two shores, never having fully left Vancouver, never having fully arrived in the Kootenays.

There are so many things I don’t want to give up—the time with friends, the easy walks to the park, the lunch-hour meetups. The vibrant life downtown, the diverse community. The people. Time and again, the people.

It seemed a lot easier a year ago to say that none of these things were available to me anyhow. That the things that I missed were not possible as we practiced physical distancing. There would be no lunches with friends, no backyard barbecues, no random meetups and hour-long coffee conversations after running into a friend I hadn’t seen in weeks.

Zoom, I thought, would keep us together. It broke down the distance. But all Zoom did was added additional strain. After endless days on Zoom for work, an evening Zoom meetup seemed more like punishment than joy.

Things are different now. We’ve been in Rossland for over a year. What started temporarily has become more permanent.

And yet, I am still as displaced as when I arrived. I don’t know if I’ve admitted that to myself yet.

As we enter this next stage of the pandemic, as case rates across the province drop, I have no sense of who my people are, or if they’re here, or if one day this place will become home. I live here, but when will I arrive? When will it become a home?

Home is, by its very nature, a storied place. Walsh and Bouma-Prediger write about this in Beyond Homelessness, in their phenomenology of home.

And yet the story of me in this place—to-date, at least—has been a story without colour. A story without contour. Sure, there’s the life of our little family in this place. There’s the story of our arrival, of connection with relatives. But it’s all been so…closed. By necessity, of course, but closed all the same.

This summer, I’ve been experimenting with a small garden on the lawn outside of the church I now serve part-time. Tomatoes and beans and kale. Strawberries. Lots and lots of strawberries. One of the things that I’m learning about gardening is the biological reality that a closed system is dead. In a closed system, one that keeps out visitors (pollinators, for example), there is no life.

And yet, the lives we have been asked to lead for the last year and a half are precisely that: the dead life of a closed system. Minimize exposure, hunker down. And I’ve taken this to heart. I’ve done my best. And at times I fear I don’t know how to connect again, how to reach out. Is the muscle memory even there any more? What work will it take to adapt to this new and emerging reality?

I want to make home. I want to embrace the reality of now, to accept the gift of this time, this place, and the people around me as ways to encounter God, as ways to become myself once again. One thing I’ve realised in recent weeks is how vital community has been to my identity, to my thriving and flourishing in life.

The people in my neighbourhood. The people I’ve had the chance to serve and serve alongside. The community of thousands who made life possible and real and storied. And now, maybe now, is the time for stories to be woven and embodied, and told again. No more hunkering down. No more hiding—from the virus, from people, from myself, or—quite frankly—from the grief of the last year. It’s there. It’s real. It’s hard. It’s a part of me.

It’s not the only story, but I pray it’s not a story that gets lost. Without grief, and without lament, we lose the shadows and contours of the truth. I think, ultimately, that’s what I’m seeking in this moment.

For truth to be told, for life to be lived, for direction to be regained, for nothing to be swept under the rug, but for the chance to be more fully, bodily, human-in-community again. That, in a nutshell, would be a sort of homecoming I’d be up for.

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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