When Communities Grieve
Emerson L. Lesher
I first met Rod Sawatsky in 1990 in an airport shuttle. I had just made a presentation to the conference we had both attended. We spent a couple of hours waiting for our flights, but mostly we talked, which for Rod always seemed to come easily. He responded to my presentation and was immediately engaging, hospitable, humorous, insightful, challenging, and encouraging, all at the same time - all the qualities we learned to love about Rod when he later became president of Messiah College.
I met Rod a second time after he was president of Messiah College , and I had just become president of Messiah Village. We shared the joys and challenges of being leaders of organizations, ones just a few miles from one another. Ruth, my wife, and I also started attending the Grantham Church and soon became members of the same Sunday School class as Rod and Lorna. I still remember his strong voice when we sang together. In more recent years, I was invited to serve the College as a trustee and appreciated anew Rod’s hope, vision, and faith. And so, I lament the loss of a friend, brother, and fellow leader.
The loss of this great leader is felt not only on campus but also in the greater Harrisburg area and the larger Christian world. Here are just two examples: A pastor of a multiracial church in downtown Harrisburg credited part of the church’s vitality to the encouragement that Rod had given to students and faculty to reach beyond Grantham and become involved in broader, global contexts. Secondly, the president of a prominent evangelical seminary on the West Coast lamented the loss of Rod’s visionary leadership in Christian higher education.
Rod Sawatsky’s passing is not only personal for those who knew him well, but, because of his leadership and influence in a number of communities, it is also communal. Just as individuals experience stages of grief and can benefit from learning more about these common stages, communities also travel through often predictable patterns of grief and can be comforted by knowing that others have journeyed through similar cycles of mourning. Understanding these universal patterns can help individuals and communities honor the deceased, grieve, grow, and move into the future.
When a person well known to a community dies, especially a beloved leader, not only are individuals who worked closely with that person in mourning, but the entire community is also touched by the loss. Communities as corporate bodies often mirror individuals’ responses—experiencing shock, denial, lack of direction, uncertainty about the future, blurred focus, feelings of emptiness, and general unsettledness. The community may have concern for the future, disappointment in unfulfilled plans, and regret over the loss of the person’s influence and wisdom. The community may also wonder what a new leader will be like. How will this person help us to realize our mission? The community may even ask why God did not save or heal this person. Will God be present with us during our mourning?
A wide variety of communities face the loss of a leader at some point: churches, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools. These communities may feel some apprehension about starting over with a new leader. There may even be worries and regrets: Did we do everything possible to prevent the illness or death, did we push this leader beyond what is reasonable, and did we give him or her enough support? How could we have shown more appreciation? Did this leader know how much we cared for him or her?
Inevitably, not everyone in a community agrees with the leader. The experience of grief may be even more complicated for any in the community who felt uncomfortable with the leader or those who had disagreements with him or her. Such thoughts can lead to a sense of guilt or remorse. Death often evokes uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and sometimes confusing emotions.
Rituals of mourning help channel grief’s emotions and are as significant in the life of communities as they are for individuals. Expressions of mourning in the context of a community are important for the following reasons:
- Times of mourning help to define communities. People realize again that they are part of a larger experience, of something that is bigger than they are. This renewed understanding helps members not feel alone in their grief.
- Times of mourning help to remind communities of what is most important. Such times can identify and reinforce the heritage, values, purpose, and goals of the community.
- Times of mourning help to provide opportunities for support and connection. It can be a time to increase mutual care, cohesion, and hospitality.
There is a sense in which the loss of a loved one changes a person forever. In a similar way, a community may be permanently changed by the death of a beloved leader. Most grieving individuals find hope for the future and a will to live. They have hope even in the midst of much pain. So too a community is likely to feel pain with the loss of a leader. But with time, its members find hope again for the future. They begin to envision the community’s future together. They may even begin to see opportunities of how they can become a more functional and meaningful community.
There is not one “right” way for a community to cope with grief. But usually the process must involve (1) acknowledging that a loss has occurred (communities can deny the loss, just as individuals can) through public announcements; (2) interrupting the routine of community life to show grief and lament, as well as honor and respect through vigils, services, parades, times of silence, etc.; (3) showing compassion and support for the family and close friends of the leader; and (4) creating tangible memorials and symbols to carry on the memory and good work of the leader (painting portraits, naming places, writing books, contributing funds, etc.).
While grief and loss at times seem unbearable it is amazing how emerging hope eventually overcomes the dread of grief. Grieving and hope should not be rushed. It is important to enter into the uncomfortable experience of grief’s pain, both as individuals and as communities, knowing in time hope will again appear. It may not be today, but it will reemerge. We put our faith in God, that even with grief, hope will return again—that is the important task of the individual and the community during a time of loss.
Emerson L. Lesher ’74 is a psychologist who was in clinical practice for nearly 15 years and is now president of Messiah Village, Mechanicsburg, Pa., a network of services for older adults, and a member of the Messiah College Board of Trustees.