Encountering Grief: Mary Ellen Owen

This week on the podcast, Dan and Rachael begin a new series that takes a deeper look into the topic of grief. In this particular episode, they engage in conversation with special guest Mary Ellen Owen, who is a core member of The Allender Center team as well as a mental health therapist with over 20 years of experience. Rachael describes her as a woman with wild depth and someone well acquainted with grief, both in her own life and the lives of those she serves.

So, what are we talking about when we talk about grief? Over the course of their conversation, you’ll hear more about the necessity of and different kinds of grief, what boundaries we put up to avoid engaging grief, and how grief connects us to the work of Jesus and the tenderness of God.

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Episode Transcript

Rachael: I’m here today with Dan and our guest Mary Ellen Owen. And we’re actually entering into a new podcast series on grief and if there was ever a more relevant time to try to dive more deeply into the concepts, an action, a reality, an embodied expression of grief, now is the time. And we’re going to be doing– we’re having this conversation over a few weeks, but today we’re so privileged to be joined by Mary Ellen, Mary Ellen is a core member of our team here at the Allender Center. She is a veteran therapist, she has been doing this work for over 20 years. She is a graduate of the original Mars Hill Graduate School, now known as The Seattle School. And she is a woman of, I would say wild depths. She is someone who can bring me laughter and delight in ways that just feels so precious and so lavish, and she is a deep well of a woman, a woman who is well acquainted with grief and has walked that way with Jesus over many a season in her own life and in the lives of the people that she is called to love and to serve. And so today we’re going to just kind of lay some groundwork and explore together: What the heck are we talking about when we talk about grief? And what is the work we’re called to join Jesus in when we talk about grief?

Dan: Well, welcome mary Ellen, whom I would also say has been a dear friend for many decades and again, you couldn’t have said it better, Rachael. She is a woman of extremity. I would in the early years of knowing her, I would never have thought that grief would have become something of your labor and work and in some sense calling. So for such a wild, lovely sense of humor to also be asked by the living God to enter levels of heartache. Again, it’s your story. So I will not go into the nature of that other than to say, you really have become something of our resident expert. And it’s not something one wants to become a resident expert in, but we’re again so grateful that you are with us. Where would you like to go?

Mary Ellen: Well, thank you, thank you for having me. I wouldn’t have thought that either. I wouldn’t have thought that I would be one that so deeply believes in the necessity of grief and the “always trying to figure out ways” of grief. Because I was tough, like I was a tough girl, I thought maybe I didn’t have tear ducts at one point. And that I just that I didn’t cry and so I think or I didn’t grieve. And so I think from my own journey of learning and experiencing the comfort of God and the spirit and the tenderness of God has been the only thing. I can be one of many defense structures and nothing really works in the end, so I had to, I had to study it, I had to learn it, I had to risk it from my own wellness and from my own being and then I think it just expanded when I teach this, I usually bounce off of Rachael and say she somewhere in her teaching, she always talks about being people of fierce love. And I think one of the primary paradigms for being someone of fierce love as being someone who knows how to grieve. And I even, I even liken 1 Corinthians 13, you know, when they go Paul goes through that major description of love and then, and then, you know, he gets to the end and he’s like faith, hope and love of these things, it’s love that will remain and then a verse about prophecy and then this very seemingly non sequitur verse that says “when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, a reason like a child when I became a man, I put childish ways behind me”. And it took me a long time to realize that putting childish ways behind me is going to be anything that hinders that kind of love until my ways my, what I would call my defense structure had to like be surrendered, handed over. And I think grief is the way that happens, because all the sense structures come from my story and so to go back to those stories.

D: So is it fair to say that in many ways you would never have seen yourself many years ago as a person acquainted with grief and yet we all know one living in a fallen world can escape the reality of, of reasons to grieve, let alone the process itself. So, to what degree you would wish, what, what is your grief journey?

M: I think largely my grief journey started in intentionality when I was in school back 20 years ago, 22 years ago and I just was in the throes of doing story work and I could feel lament and, and sorrow and brokenness, but I could not get to it. And I have this great moment of January of 2000 and I just come back to Seattle from christmas and I could feel that lament and I could feel the sorrow and I was like, I’m not one to cry, I wanted to get up and move around and not let this come into a visceral place for me. And I, I literally did that Bible cracking thing, like I cracked open the Bible and you know, like when you get a good verse, you’re like, oh there’s something to this kind of like fortune cookies, like if you get a good one, you’re like, oh I bet, I bet there’s something to this. And I cracked open, literally cracked open to Jeremiah 9:16 and it says “consider now call for the wailing women to come, send for the most skillful of them” and I was like wailing women skillful, what is that? And I asked Dan a couple days later, I asked Dan and he said their professional mourners and I–and he said people need to be led in grief because people resist grief and I remember thinking I want to be that like that’s what I want to be like, if that’s how people know God, then that’s what I want to be. That was 20 years ago. I would say there has been a long journey of, of learning what grief is of learning how to let go. I would say the last 10 years have been particularly hard. Even just with my own, I’m a second wife to my husband and I have stepchildren and I have– there’s just some very heavy sorrowful stories there that have been um part of our marriage and then part of our grief and then even more more recently– and I probably will get a little jumbled because it’s so close– in the last year and a half I’ve lost two very close people unexpectedly to death and then cancer and for a third person. And so that there it created really two big huge categories for me like grief that’s thrust upon you in a way of harm or loss or betrayal or, and death. And there’s lots of support out there for that. And then there’s this other category of places that I know that I must go to grieve. And I think both need to be addressed and even, grief, on a more global level, but there are different kinds of grief. There’s different kinds of ways they hit the system and there’s different remains of grief.

D: Take us through it. Again, I just admit that this has been a season where there has been so much loss, and so little margin, and I find in my own experience of loss for myself, for my family, for my friends, for this country, like I can only apparently let my heart feel for so long and only so deep. And it has been difficult to admit that not only that I don’t want to grieve, but I actually don’t have a lot of capacity to grieve when the grief feels like it is both so vast, so relentless, so unremitting, but also so deeply personal. So I know I’m listening particularly as you talk about those two different kinds of grief, what you’ve learned as you engage this process of letting your heart grief– because you’ve already underscored grief was not kind of like a natural part of your life prior to this.

M: No, I think, I think the biggest thing to know there is that grief is such a weird process. You can, you can grieve in 30-second intervals when you just stop and you know, like, like I know for me, like if my feelings get hurt or I feel a little jolt of like, oh that didn’t feel good, like talking to somebody. Like if I just stop and pause, like sometimes I will be like your sensitive there Mary Ellen, like you know what that is to be slighted like that, you know, and those are literally momentary griefs that you just slow your body down and go, “yeah.” and whatever comes to mind, usually a scene is going to come to mind, and just creating a practice of oh my poor little 10th grade girl inside of me, like she knew a lot of harm, you know? And things can get you back to those places instantaneously. And then I think for grief that comes in the aftermath of trauma or past or present, I think you just, you have to develop a yes to the waves, and grief comes in waves. And it’s exhausting when the waves are really big, but they’re not always big. I think, I think when a practice that I’ve developed for, when I grieve I do art. So my nephew died very unexpectedly in September of ‘19 and I have made, I am still working on an art piece. One for my sister who is his mother and one for me. And I find that during that process it’s taken a long time because of what you’re saying, like to sit down and to be in that story is taxing, like it’s just taxing. But I have to do something with my feelings of I miss him then my sister, I know she’s in it daily. I’m thinking of him every day. She’s thinking of him all the time. And so I think it honors that person. It keeps you out of that regret and guilt thing of no, it’s just that this is pain, this is pain, like I can move into that. I should have called him more often, I should have… but I think that’s just something that people do to step aside out of the pain or if a wave is particularly big.

R: Well, I’m thinking too, like I’m wondering about some of those obstacles, right? Because they’re there for all of us and they’re so embodied. Like I know I can say for myself, one of the things I’ve had to learn is usually when I have a strong anger reaction to something that’s personal, like deeply personal, um grief is right under the surface, but it is so much more satisfying at times for me or it feels more protective and it’s so subconscious, not like I’m like, “I’m going to stay in anger because that feels safer”. It’s just like I hit a moment where I’m like, what is happening? Like what does that play from right now? Because I’m picking fights when I actually know cognitively what I most feel is just heartsick and what I’m, what is keeping me from entering that heart sickness? And so I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit to what are some of the, I mean also we just live in a culture I think, especially in the United States of America, especially coming out of like the white evangelical church where we don’t actually have robust practices or disciplines of grief that we see as like biblical. So I love that you’re talking about the wailing women and you know, we’ve talked before on the podcast about the sheer amount of psalms of lament and expressions of heartache, but I’m just wondering mary Ellen, if you can speak to like what, what happens on the other side of those obstacles? Like why is it worth becoming aware of them, pushing through them and grieving, like what is happening in that process?

M: I’m so with you on that too, I think our wiring is weird, like our amygdalas don’t want us to go back to painful stories, but other parts of our body and heart like want a comfort that will come. Yes, hopefully that will come. But I think on the other side, I call grief embodied surrender. Like ultimately, we are laying down our management of it, you manage through anger, so do I. But you have far more control in the short run and you, you have, you have far far more control over the level of vulnerability you want to be in and so I think in those growing up in those spaces to say it’s grief, it’s heartache and I do think that the church and like modern American culture with your enough and you have all that you need and you’re the best and like two is so like I think it actually creates a crisis and spirituality because I think ultimately what defines us, one of the pillars of definition of us as we are in need of a savior. And I think to surrender into lay down and be in those painful moments in those sad moments is actually the most deep, deeply faithful act because if you didn’t have a modicum of– even just a mustard seed of God’s goodness that: “blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” is true or like what, what I really have clung to over the years is Psalm 56 when he says, you keep track of my sorrows, you’ve collected all my tears in your bottle and you’ve recorded each one of them in your book. Like if we knew God like that, like if we knew the tenderness that we are going to be met with a tear collector, I mean you have to be pretty near and you have to be pretty tender to collect tears. And so I think grief actually, you know, like in the Celtic tradition, they call them thin places where the divine meets the human. I think that’s our grief, our willingness to grieve and draw near to God. Is this why we grieve?

D: There’s a sense for me that again, the loss, whatever it is, is an assault against our humanity, against the desires of our very heart and body. And there is a kind of calcification. I mean, I can feel that in my own body at times, like an arthritic reluctance to move when the harm has felt so severe and in that moment to actually go: what’s going to be needed to restore my humanity? You know, it’s not going to be by getting busier, muscling through, taking control. I mean in some ways it’s adaptive, but it’s not transformative, it doesn’t return me to one sense who I want to be. Yet. The process itself feels like death itself. So the bind is that the only means by which we can return to being human, feels like another level of death. And that is the entry into whatever death it is that we have suffered. So what have you done with that sense of that crazy paradox that we’re in with regard to grief?

M: Wait. Like there’s a waiting. That’s the whole risky thing. We don’t know when the tear collector is going to come. We don’t know when or how the comfort we just have to be open and waiting and in that vulnerable place of, my heart is aching. my heart, I need a savior. Like I just that I think this is why we don’t grieve because it’s not a really controlled process. It’s not really like sometimes you don’t know, I know for me sometimes I don’t know the comfort or calm until I’m getting back up like that. There was some sweetness in it. In the tears in the honoring of the pain itself. And I mean, I wish it was that thing where we entered into the Holy of holies in a really feel-able way. I think that’s what grief is. Like we enter like we can– if we’re surrendered, if we’re saying I can’t manage this pain anymore and I’m in need of a savior. I think that’s when the curtain rips open. That’s when God runs off the porch. Like, “there you are.” and probably God is saying, “there you are”.

R: Well, it just makes me think so much about, you know, I’ll always go back to like this groaning spirit, this interceding spirit. And I think sometimes our imaginations are so limited by what we’re capable of doing when someone else is grieving and what we imagine a tear collector is doing. And I think sometimes we also need to know that part of the way that comfort comes is that God is groaning like on our behalf to birth something new. So it’s not that we’re just left in our grief and it’s like, oh, let me comfort you. It’s the same thing as a comforting mother who’s like, I’m going to bring you comfort, but I also want to bring fierce protection. And it just makes me think even to like you talked about the wailing women, and so what’s the role of us joining other people in grief? I think back to this call for us to be people who grieve with those who grieve and rejoice with those who rejoice and that being really like a true mark of spiritual maturity and like full humanity. And what’s the role of community, whether it’s a therapist or friends or family? What’s the what happens when not only are we met with God and the holy of holies, but we encounter other human beings who have enough courage and capacity to to actually wait with us there.

M: I actually think that is what the world needs the most, like people who will hold space for people when they grieve. And I also think that’s what’s missing the most. Like if you’re hesitant or afraid of your own tears, you will definitely be afraid of other people’s tears and uncomfortable and whatever your propensity is to make it all nice, shut it down, get them out of it quickly. I don’t think that’s what the wailing women did. I think the wailing women intensified and held space that I think primarily like, I mean we grieve to know Jesus in a way that we would have never known, but also because we have to be space orders, we have to be wailing women. I think Jesus was the ultimate of wailing women. He held space all the time um for sorrow and Dan, how you were saying about the calcification, like I think all grief is rooted back in what we lost in Genesis 3. Like it’s like I think grief does bring this sense of like, just come back to Jesus because we weren’t meant for this kind of loss and harm and separation and then I feel like there’s this this like, becoming event too, and it’s like, and it’s not your time and you still are here. So on space, like, and Dan used to say all the time about if you live close to your tears, you will also live close to your laughter. Grief does pass.

D: It does. Two things that I would underscore. One is how granular grief needs to be at times, because if we think of this as grief work where we’re gonna go do the work. So often for me, grief comes in moments, I would never expect it, just out of the blue coming up to 20 years of my father’s death and it just dawned on me like, we’re in the year 2021 oh my gosh, 20 years and that moment, and it was a number of weeks ago. Like, the event is in August for the 20 years, but it was just even the awareness that 20 years and I was hit. And yet it passed quickly. And I think there is a sense for many of us that we’re not doing good grief work because we didn’t somehow get it done in that spot. So, for you to underscore that you’re creating art that allows you not only to gift yourself, your sister, Not only to create memory, but in one sense, to have granular movement in and through this process, that just feels crucial to underscore, don’t make grief a work.

M: Or like how you took that, that wave with your dad, like, like, just because you’re not wailing and gnashing your teeth doesn’t mean it’s not grief like that. You are a man of grief if you let it come in those ways and. you just pause even if it’s momentary.

D: Well, and the second thing: I love your two words courage and capacity and I’m coming back to the reality that my capacity for much of anything right now is dim. Diminished. You know, the margins, the issue of having a reserve. I’ve never been in a period of my life where there’s less reserve like emails where there’s an invitation to enter someone suffering. I find it 50 times harder to respond to than I would have, I think I’ve had courage, but I also know this season of capacity has withered me back to a minimal level. And then there was a sense of responsibility, the pressure, the demand, the shame, the accusations for not doing better with my own and other people’s grief has actually been a distraction from a whole lot of grief that I could allow myself to feel. So I again want to come back to that question of: what are you doing in this crazy season with so much racial violence, so much cultural polarization, so much war among white evangelicals in the context of COVID 19 and economic, again, all right, I could just keep going. So in the midst of that, how are you addressing the issue of your own capacity?

M: I think because all that you’re just saying right now on the global level also happened when I lost the two people in my family and then my mother got diagnosed with cancer right after my father died. Like it just, like I had to decide what I could hold. IfI had taken in all the insanity of the world and what was happening in my own story and my friends. You can only hold so much. And then that’s why we all need to be space holders and creators because you can’t be you can’t hold it for everyone. Like there needs to be other people, right? I mean, I think I think there was a point during the pandemic when my mother got diagnosed with cancer, seven weeks after my father died last year. I just froze like I just until we waited and we waited to see what was the outcome. Like, I was like, no more. I cannot. I stopped watching the news. I stopped. I just And my mother is cancer free by the way, after six months. She beat cancer at 78 years old, while in deep grief herself. I would I would say, and this might just be my bent, like you have to stay with your own story first because that creates a foundation to be able to hold story for the people in your sphere and the global, but if you have known those thin places with Jesus and that he does come and he does collect our tears, then you have to pace yourself. And some of the global overwhelm, I think Dan can be a distractor. like you’re saying like it keeps you out of the dirt and the granularity of your own story and that’s kind of like a reset like I where am I, where is Jesus? Where me and Jesus? Where am I with that story that tends to be haunting me these days? But I think if you are a person of grief, like and you’re not afraid of it, the global does overwhelm I think period, but maybe not unto despair.

R: Yeah, well I think there’s also a difference between the global and then like collectives where it might be like you might have a collective story of grief that you actually need to have permission to enter as a collective and that’s different than a collision of so many different stories in so many different briefs because you no doubt about it, God is quite capable of being so profoundly particular and embodied with us and also so particularly global and caring about the collision of all these things. And I think I love what you’re saying real in the sense of: grief is meant to grow our capacity to love fiercely. So if you are faithful to tend to the places of your heart and body and mind where there is a need for dignifying because I think there’s something incredibly dignifying about grief and being met in the horror and haunting places where we have not known a God who weeps over us and for us, and there’s something about tears for ourselves from others on our behalf that give us back parts of ourselves, we didn’t even know we had lost. And when that becomes a discipline and a capacity you grow, it will radically change the way in which you join in a larger lament to bring about God’s justice, right? And let me just caveat that word discipline. Because the reality is a lot of people would say grief is a privilege. Like if you actually have space and capacity and like the chance to come up for air enough to grieve, that’s a privilege. And I think Mary Ellen did such a great job of talking about how there’s a difference between trauma and the kind of intentional making space for grief either in past stories or in current seasons. And so what I’m using that word, I’m more just saying it’s a spiritual practice of mourning with those who mourn in the same way of rejoicing with those who rejoice.

D: But that phrase of discipline in practice. It’s like, oh my gosh, that’s that’s a new thought right there. Like have you said that before, Rachael?

R: I don’t know because in my own fragmentation these days, I don’t remember many things, but you know, I think that I just, I do want to reiterate because, but I think Mary Ellen even you saying you froze right? Like there also has to be an honoring, like we know in some ways, some of the grief of this larger collective story of all that has been lost in this past season of our lives. We know that some of that grief we’re not going to be ready for until we’re no longer under severe threat. Right? And so there’s also spaces. I think there just has to be a grace for people who might be going, I want to grieve. I want to enter the grief of this thing. I feel numb or I feel frozen or I don’t know how to get out of these things. I just want to go back and reiterate your sense of sometimes there’s a process of waiting. And sometimes there is a process of knowing this is a, this is a season where the provisions I need to be able to enter that kind of grief that kind of rest in grief is possible.

D: But that moving is a form of discipline. I mean, there’s something in that phrase that says, look, if you’re learning how to play the guitar, if you’re learning how to garden, it’s a discipline. It’s a process of growing in your capacity and your knowledge. And I think for me, at some level, I think grief is just inevitable and therefore you just have to sort of wait till it happens and then hopefully you’re going to do some good work. But again, the way you put it is, and I think it’s indicative of the art project that you’re making Mary Ellen, you’re disciplining yourself, you come back to it to actually add to the beauty of it. And in that process there is ownership might not be for a long period of time, but it is enough to keep, in some sense, your heart beating, the blood flowing, something softening so that if there is a climactic– and I’ve had moments of deep climb active grief that feel not like now it’s over, but some transition really has occurred. So this process is far more mysterious, but it also requires energy, effort, and commitment to say, I’m gonna sit with this grief for five minutes, that feels like I can do that.

M: And I do think it’s a practice, like we practice joy, why wouldn’t we practice grief? Right? Like I and trauma and grief are different like Rachel, how you were saying like, when your, when your body comes back down after the trauma, then that’s when grief is always a choice. Like it doesn’t feel like it all the time. Dan, you’re the one who said that 20 years ago. I remember you saying when we were all new students and some of us knew in our stories when you’re talking about grief and you said something about you’re entering into what feels like a dark night of the soul or grief, and then you have to go to work and you have to write your paper and you have to show up, so you have to put that on the shelf, but where you can see it and get it back off. And I think that is the practice of I think that’s like that’s the practice of love and softening and staying surrendered and in the reality, and I need Jesus, like, I’m not terribly good at being God even though I try [laughs].

D: In some sense, the tragedy, but the glory of grief is that it returns us to our humanity and in one sense removes from us the presence of that kind of hubris that we can make it on our own and it does open our hearts, at least gives the capacity to open our heart to a community, to lament and to a desire for indeed what will one day be rather than what is. So Mary Ellen. Thank you. Thanks for joining us today.

M: Thank you for having me and may people grieve well and develop practices of grief so that joy comes.