In Denial

My husband bought a used Ford F-150 almost 20 years ago, shortly after we got married.  He maintained it for many years, replacing the engine, the brakes and the transmission.  But the little stuff all pooped out.  The radio quit, and the doors won’t lock.   The heater hasn’t worked for years.  There are rust holes in the truck bed.   It never did have cupholders.

But no matter how bad it got, he would not let go of that truck.  All the neighbors knew him when he drove down the road.  He’s one of the few guys in town who doesn’t blow a big wad on shiny trucks, and he’s proud of that.

Finally a few weeks ago, the starter gave out, and he said, “That’s it.  Time to buy a new truck.”  He shopped for days on line, then coaxed me to take him half way across the state to buy the one he picked out.  When we got there, we discovered there would be a delay in obtaining the title from the owner, so he drove it home without the title and parked it behind the barn.

The next day he bought a starter for his old truck and got it running again.  I started wondering if we were ever going to see the end of that old thing!  But instead of blowing up, I tried to remember how much he loved it.  He was in denial, unable to let go and grieve the loss.

People say all kinds of negative things about “being in denial”, but really, denial is a useful phase on the way to grief and change.  It’s for that time when your soul cannot keep up with the pace of change going on around you: just ignore the change, maybe it will go away.  Just keep fixing that old truck!

In churches experiencing loss, I think it’s wise to give people time to work through their denial.   It takes time to recognize the change that has already occured, never mind what’s coming down the pike!  While some in a congregation are ready to get on with grieving and acceptance of change, others will hang back, tending to old details that may seem crazy (this is known fondly as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”).

The problems occur when we let those who are in denial hold the rest of the congregation hostage.  If you are afraid to bring up the elephant in the room because Aunt Tilly might keel over from shock, the group will never be able to move forward.

Michael Weldon, in his book “A Struggle for Holy Ground” suggests the use of ritual as a way to help congregations move through their grief.  He writes,

Effective grieving rites formally articulate that the loss affects not only individuals within the culture but the whole culture itself…Unarticulated grief encourages a host of culture-destroying behaviors, often including holding on to time-tested ways of living.  But holding on strangles; letting go heals. 

Does this imply that we should throw a funeral for my husband’s truck?

I would like to report that he has finally let go of that old truck and is embracing the shiny new one.  But no.  Today he loaded up the oldie, saying, “I’m going out in the mud and I don’t want to get the new one dirty.”

Oh well.  Acceptance will come in time.  And thank God, it’s coming with cupholders!

7 responses to “In Denial

  1. Pingback: “From Death To Life” « Merrill District Sharing Blog

  2. Gail, Thanks for the truck story. I’m married to a similar guy. Our 1990 car, with the 85 engine is still running. No cupholders.
    Regarding ritual and grief. I remember serving the Redgranite Church, which had a beautiful new building but the folks kept talking about their old building which had burned down. On the fifth anniversary of the fire, we had a memorial service for the building at the sight of the old church. I heard their stories, we read scripture and prayed. And I never heard any more stories. It really helped them move on.

    • Bobbie, this really resonates with what Michael Weldon writes in his book about the need for ritual and “unarticulated grief”. What a great idea to have a memorial service for a building. Thanks for sharing that story!

  3. I love reading ALL your stories Gail! Many thanks! I pour over the paper with my coffee this morn, dragging my feet…knowing that there are only two of us to prepare a “brunch and browse” for who-knows-how-many(?!) at our little church’s 99th Anniversary celebration this Sunday. The church is all paid for, and many non-profits who rent from us, (mostly school and after-school entities) all hovering, wanting to buy it. Happily, we’ve got a new non-denominational GLBT congregation renting the sanctuary – great bunch of folks. Hard to know whether to keep on or give up the burden. Many thanks for your thoughtful musings!

  4. Ginger, a 99th birthday is a mix of sweet and sad. Yet it’s exciting to have different groups, even a new congregation, using your historic building and even wanting to purchase it. I really loved walking in the cool shade of your church with its courtyard and surrounding old trees; such a classic California setting! In another post, I mused about how some new churches might think of themselves less as “worship space” and more as community ministry sites. I wonder if an older church like yours could re-imagine itself as a gift to the community for gathering space. I don’t know how, in practical terms, you could acheive this; there is insurance and church charters and finances to consider. Plus, you must still have a core who long to worship together. Maybe it would need to be done as an entirely new non-profit organization in cooperation with your Synod or something?? Just thinking wildly here… Whatever happens, I sense that God is at work there. Celebrate the good news, Ginger! In a tough world and economy, your church is a harbor for the frail and outcast. Isn’t that what God desires?

  5. Martin Toepke-Floyd

    Gail, I think we in the mid-west hang on to things. Just one visit to our house and you’ll see what we mean. We still drive Tammy’s ’79 Chevette that she drove to California and back several times while in seminary. I just filled it with gas, but it will soon be parked in the back yard for the winter!
    It does take time for folks to let go. The idea of letting our little church close first came up in a meeting seveal years ago. It took another year to consider the options and alternatives. It took another year before any straw polls were taken. Over the past several years we have had a number of big “Celebration Services” — 90th Anniversary, Final Celebration, and finally after the furniture was gone and we were using folding chairs, a Last Service followed by a potluck picnic in the park.
    Even now we are still sorting through files of old papers, women’s meeting minutes, Sunday School records, etc. It takes much energy to do things right and it just can’t be rushed. There’s a lot to go through physically and emotionally. The biggie is still unresolved — what will happen to THE Building. Verbal commitments from another institution to move it, but nothing in writing that’s legal and final. For the people, they are willing to help pay for the moving than to tear it down. This month we hope there will be a resolution as well as meetings.
    Thanks for the posts. Good Luck with the old and new trucks!

  6. Marty, your patience with that church is inspiring to me. From a distance, we might think, “What’s taking them so long?” But it takes many years to build the corporate memory of a faith community and it will take years to re-frame those memories in a new way. In the ritual life of the Church, we go from death to resurrection in a few days’ time. But it is not that way in real life. The building is so central to the symbolism of the church, too. I used to overlook this. One of my interviews was with a lady who will not drive through the main street of her hometown because she doesn’t want to see her old church building standing empty. Thank you for your faithfulness to that congregation in their process of letting go.

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