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A loved one of mine posted some misinformation on Facebook this week. She does that a lot.

She is against the vaccine. She’s against the Democrats. She’s against CRT. She’s for guns. She’s for freedom. She’s for Jesus.

I’ve spent a lot of emotional energy in the past couple of years trying to make sense of her. I will never not love her. And she has gone so far into this world of nationalism and conspiracy, I feel like she’s lost to me for good. I could still send her a text or meet for coffee, but I fear that the person I once knew – or the friendship we once had at least – is no longer there.

Many of us have folks like this in our lives. In our families, in our churches.

Pauline Boss is a psychotherapist who coined the term Ambiguous Loss. Originally, she used it to describe the loss of someone mentally but not physically – like loving someone suffering from Alzheimers or experiencing addiction. Or it can be the loss of someone physically, but not mentally – like a deployment or immigration. Over the years, Ambiguous Loss has become a helpful way to describe lots of other kinds of losses that are complex, that are drawn out or confusing, that elude closure. 

Living as a Christian in America during COVID has come to feel like an ambiguous loss to me. The community that I once loved, that once loved me, still exists. But also, it is gone. Or, perhaps it is my trust in it that has gone: my trust in the church as a place of safety, as a community of integrity, as a people committed to Christ. For me, this has not been a deconstruction of my faith. It’s been a process of grieving the departure of the Christians around me from the ways of Christ. 

I learned that one way to cope with ambiguous loss is to practice both-and thinking. That means holding two opposing ideas at the same time.

I’m so angry with her; I love her so much.

The church I loved is gone; it is also still here.

Already; not yet.
Sorrow. Joy. 

Christ has died. Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

26 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Indeed. Such a beloved person in my life, one who in the past actually healed me, a spiritually-gifted healer, a blesser, an anointer, a former VP of my congregation, now using all his/her gifts in the anti-vax / Fauci-conspiracy-crusade, is now lost to me, in my sight but on the other side of an invisible but impenetrable wall.

  • Gary VanHouten says:

    “It’s been a process of grieving the departure of the Christians around me from the ways of Christ.” That’s what gives me, like you, great sadness.
    Thank you for expressing it here.

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    Thank you for naming what I am experiencing!

  • To me, a message of the cross is that God identifies so closely with us, loves us so much, that enduring–even suffering for–the sin of the other is the deepest expression of that love. This is the only way I can have compassion and love for those whose ways I cannot understand or tolerate. I guess the cross also tells us how hard it is to do, and how much we need to rely on God for this love. I sense you testifying, Kate, that it is possible. I, too, can tell you it is possible, even life-giving. With God, it is possible.
    Thank you for lifting up Pauline Boss’s work. It is so helpful. You can find an interview with her by Krista Tippett at On Being.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    You have touched the raw nerve that is vibrating in our lives and churches. The deepest problem is that those who sit on that nerve in my life truly believe they are fully following the Christ of scripture. We both wrap ourselves in the righteous surety of our interpretation of the Bible and, because for the first time in my adult life, my world view on some issues is profoundly different from theirs, I feel exactly what you have described. With many precious friends we have made an unspoken truce to not talk about these things, working to preserve the love between us. I wish it were otherwise.

  • Helen P says:

    For me it’s been a “loss” of people I once respected that is the most difficult…the utter stupidity of their decisions that have endangered the lives and wellbeing of others.

    I pray for patience, for continued love (even without liking) on my part, and for epiphany in them and in me.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    The plight of many … in just such a watershed moment as this, wherein for some guns and gawd are pretty much the same, and for others, diametrically opposed in what those realities represent and create. Do “they” sense it, too? The loss? I have the uneasy feeling that their anger pretty much buries whatever sadness they might otherwise feel with the loss a friend- or kinship … perhaps that’s just my imagination.

  • Grace says:

    Thank, Kate, for naming what I too am experiencing. I’m also experiencing anger toward the unvaccinated. Unfortunately, it’s not a righteous anger.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Kate, thank you for uncovering some of the ‘both ands’ many of us live with, the loss and the hope, the pain and the love, as we struggle to live in the “already but not yet” of life. And thanks for the reminder that “one way to cope with ambiguous loss is to practice both-and thinking, which means holding two opposing ideas at the same time.” This reminds me of the “Yets and Thoughs” of scripture, like the “Yet” of Habakkuk’s conflicted praying, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will choose to rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.”

    • Lynn Setsma says:

      Such a great verse to see, Lou, as I just started listening to “Hinds Feet on High Places” which I read quite a few years ago. Good to see your name which brings back so many memories of growing up in Wyoming Park. Blessings.

  • Henry says:

    You sure touched on something here. I struggle how people can so go off the rails. Why? Has their faith been tested and they chose anger and hate instead of love. Don’t want to judge but I just don’t get it. I feel challenged to love the “wayward”.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    Hmmm. Just for fun, I’ll try applying this to me.

    I’m not “against the vaccine” but I am “against any action by the government–federal especially–mandating the vaccine in most circumstances.” (Note that Joe Biden used to agree with me on that).

    And I’ll admit I am very much against most legislation that the Democratic party is trying to pass these days, not to mention the executive actions the Democratic President has been taking.

    I oppose much or perhaps even most of what today’s Critical Race Theory standard bearers advocate (e.g., Ibram X. Kendi, via “How to be an Anti-Racist”; Robin DiAngelgo, via “White Fragility” — yes I’ve read them and others), preferring the views/explanations of such authors as John McWhorter, Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele.

    OK, I don’t own a gun but I am thankful that our Constitution contains a Second Amendment. And I have friends who own guns to boot — and they shoot them, at deer, elk and targets.

    Along with Abraham Kuyper, I absolutely cherish [political] “freedom” (that is, political pluralism), a concept that was and is best exemplified in the the “American Experiment” (an idea quite exceptional in both theory and practice).

    And I certainly am “for Jesus.”

    I wonder how others in this forum, the author or otherwise, will judge me. Fortunate, few who engage this forum know me, so I probably won’t be cause for them suffering a feeling of ambiguous loss.

    For some reason, the biblical account of the prayers of the Pharisee and Publican come to mind.

  • Mary says:

    Thank you Kate! You expressed so clearly the disappointment I feel in the irresponsibility of the church and it’s members, my friends.

  • Gordon says:

    Thank you Doug, for expressing a kindly way so many of my thoughts. I am fully vaccinated and don’t completely understand some who resist, but support their right to do so. We pray for healing of body, mind, and soul.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Doug V., for your comment. With Kate, I recognize the polarization in American politics. When Democrats have a difficult time getting even a single vote from across the aisle to join them, or when the Republicans have the same problem of getting a single vote from the Democrats, you can’t help but to realize our country is deeply, deeply divided. If Democrats could somehow get into the mind of Republicans, they would see the value of their mind set and the opposite is true as well. Doug obviously sees value in wanting less government intervention, even as Kate sees value in wanting greater government involvement in pushing issues. And both see value in claiming faith and love for Jesus. Although, I think both believe Jesus would support their own political mind set. And therein lies the problem for the church. There was a time, not too far in the past when churches didn’t enter the political fray or support particular candidates. And one’s vote was a private matter. Not so much as of late. And look where it is getting us in the church and family. I’m beginning to wonder if even Jesus can hold the church together. Whose side is he on, anyway?

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I think it would be a good idea to address what Kate said:

      A loved one of mine posted some misinformation on Facebook this week. She does that a lot.
      She is against the vaccine. She’s against the Democrats. She’s against CRT. She’s for guns. She’s for freedom. She’s for Jesus.
      I’ve spent a lot of emotional energy in the past couple of years trying to make sense of her. I will never not love her. And she has gone so far into this world of nationalism and conspiracy, I feel like she’s lost to me for good. I could still send her a text or meet for coffee, but I fear that the person I once knew – or the friendship we once had at least – is no longer there.

      While some of those items are ambiguous to say the least (“against the Democrats” “against CRT”), the defining sentence for me is this one, “And she has gone so far into this world of nationalism and conspiracy.” As I read your comment and the comment of Doug, I don’t find a tenor of nationalism (support for one’s country to the exclusion or detriment of other country’s interest) and conspiracy. When I read both Doug and your comments, I hear someone I disagree with in some issues and not so much on others. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that Kate is identifying a different kind of friend than you and Doug are describing yourself to be (admittedly friends in Christ, not personal friends).
      One more thing to add, I often hear calls for the church to stay out of politics. I wonder if that is possible.
      – Many people of faith run for office and share that their faith shapes how they view the world. Some people think this is important.
      – The root word for politics is the Greek word “Polis” (if I’m not mistaken), which means City. To engage in politics is to engage in the life of the City. It the church has nothing to say about the life of the City, then I think we are pointless and should close up shop.
      – Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar. We can argue about how we should understand his answer, which might be fun, but what he didn’t say is, “I don’t have anything to say about politics.”
      – Paul speaks to Christians in Rome about the role we have in politics (an interesting text to study in light of mandates, but of course, democracy was not in Paul’s mind, so maybe it is not an appropriate application), and simply the act of speaking about it seems to suggest that our faith has something to say about the way the City is organized.
      – I think we would find significant interaction between people of faith and public life (politics) throughout our history (I hope so). I wonder what the difference is today, what makes it so different or makes so many say we should stay out of it.

      I know this though, I will stand with anyone who calls for people of faith to not be partisan. This is poisonous and very unhelpful. We vote how we vote. We speak the truth to the best of our understanding on issues and how the “City” is organized, but we should not stand in the pulpit or other church leadership positions and say, “Vote Democrat!” or “Vote Republican!” That doesn’t help anyone, and by the way, it’s a great way to lose your tax exempt status (not the most important thing, but not insignificant).

  • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

    I think what has left me so disillusioned with many of my fellow believers is how thin their sense of the other seems to be. Writing from a Canadian perspective, I wonder if there’s no shame among the unvaxxed at the prospect (or reality) of their requiring emergency medical treatment because of COVID means that for all intents and purposes they’ve elbowed their way to the front of the health care line thus effectively delaying or denying treatment for the catastrophic illnesses or conditions others may be suffering from. Whatever respect I once had for them will not return.

  • Kate, this is beautifully written and conveys a challenge we all face, if we are honest with ourselves and God. Charles Peguy, a French poet and writer, wrote, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” In today’s highly polarized world, our reflex is to begin with politics and then try to get to God. That usually doesn’t work. The only way I know to hold together the paradoxes which you rightly identify is to engage in an inward journey that finally connects you to the reality of a love which connects everything, transcending the bitter, binary divisions entrapping our souls. Our politics, with steadfast clarity about what God’s justice intends, should begin from there. I find that path extremely difficult, but the only way forward that gives unexpected grace a chance.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you, Kate, and all who pray with her.

  • Susan C DeYoung says:

    Beautiful, Kate.

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