Getting Our Bearings: Ministries of Coping

A Guide for Reflection & Conversation

If you look up the words “cope” or “coping” in a dictionary, you’ll find entries like these: “to struggle or deal with, especially on fairly even terms of with some degree of success,” “to face and deal with problems or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner,” or “to have the capacity to deal successfully with something difficult.”

Their common term, the idiom “deal with,” itself seems a little vague. Look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find qualifiers of “acceptance, calm, and equanimity” in the face of difficulties. And there, too, are those connotative suggestions of responding to situations “effectively” or “successfully.”

The roots of the word “cope” trace back to Middle English “come to blows, meet in battle,” to Old French “a blow,” and to ancient Greek “a blow with a fist”—the roots of the word suggesting a fierce encounter, a contest.

Coping, then, has a few dimensions to explore: the character of a response to a situation, the nature of the situation requiring coping, and an evaluation of whether the response is effective or successful.

The three essays in this month’s magazine are very personal responses to experiences of life and death, the authors generously inviting readers into profound vulnerabilities so that all the dimensions of what it means “to cope” can be richly explored. Lawrence Richardson describes the very difficult life experiences of abuse, neglect, trauma, homelessness and poverty. Both Darleen Pryds and Angela Yarber respond to the difficult situation of their brothers’ deaths. It is only for these authors to know if terms like “effective” or “successful” make any sense at all as ways to speak of how they’ve coped. But the articles themselves bear witness, for us, to the possibility and power of resilience and are, therefore, beacons of hope for us in our own difficult times; all three authors offer deep wisdom—hard-earned—by which we might enlarge our own capacities for coping.

Darleen Pryds “Five Days in a Thin Place: A Pilgrimage before Coping

Pryds, by experience and profession, is well-versed and well-schooled in ways to cope with difficult situations. Faced with the difficult situation of her brother’s death, however, her primary bit of counsel in this article is “don’t rush to cope.” For Pryds, the rush to cope—at least with the circumstance of the death of a loved one—might have prematurely closed her off from experiences of the “thin place” where she continued to encounter her brother after his death, offering her something that gave a different character to her subsequent coping.

Pryds experiences her brother’s presence to her after his death in very sensate ways—she sees him in a car, she smells him, she experiences his trickster personality. She feels the press of how he is pushing her out of her comfort zone, a familiar aspect of his personality and their relationship in life.

• Have you ever had these kinds of experiences after the death of a loved one? Recall them, remember them.

• How did you react? How did/do you account for them? What sense did/do you make of them?

A feature of the concept of coping is the idea of dealing with difficulties “effectively” or “successfully.” Pryds herself says, “We are expected (or we expect ourselves) to get back to work even as grief continues its own work on you.”

• How do expectations of what coping should “look like” shut down our openness to experiences at the “thin places”?

Pryds describes her experience of her brother after his death as scary, surreal, strange, disorienting, wild, crazy. She also describes how they made her feel vulnerable, exposed, and even embarrassed.

• How do these descriptions align with your own experience? How might these experiences shut down your openness to experiences at the “thin places”?

Pryds accounts for her experiences of her brother as “unexpected glimpses into a mystical way of being that is usually beyond most of us,” and in so doing highlights the gentle, soft, cocoon-like, consoling, protective, and real dimensions of her experience.

• Have your experiences of thin places had the character of this kind consolation? How so?

Pryds quotes the words of poet Sharlande Sledge to describe what a “thin place”: Where the door between the world /And the next is cracked open for a moment /And the light is not all on the other side.
Near the end of the essay—after the door to the next world began to close some, after she returned to teaching and begun to “cope” in earnest—she describes an incredibly poignant time when she was in worship, sitting next to a local homeless man who showed up that day for the first and only time and who silently held her hand as she wept throughout the entire service. This she also considered being at a “thin place.”

• How do you imagine this might have been so for her? How do you see this as so?

Lawrence Richardson “Life Happens: Five Ways to Continually Cultivate a Spirit of Resilience

Lawrence Richardson is an incredible witness to the power and possibility of resilience in the face of almost unimaginable personal pain and trauma. His essay offers unimpeachably trustworthy and reliable guidance in service of our expanded capacity to cope with life’s challenges by developing spirits of resiliency. The essay is not an instruction guide on “how-to-cope” with difficult situations when they arise. Rather, Richardson identifies life practices that, if developed, will create an interior repository of resilience from which will come the energy and power to meet life, to encounter life in healthy and life-giving ways.

• It might be beneficial to consider Richardson’s five practices by bringing to mind a personal example of a difficult situation you have faced in the past or are presently struggling to deal with. Think about it in full detail—the nature of the challenge, your emotional responses, implications in different aspects of your life, etc.

Although Richardson doesn’t state it explicitly, there is some resonance between his thinking and Pryds’s counsel to “not rush to cope.” The actions and dispositions he counsels are often based on a prior encouragement to take the time to feel things, to take the time to be hurt, to grieve unmet expectations, to cry and feel sorry for one’s self, to let one’s self feel sick and tired in the deepest way. This would be contrary to other worldly advice such as “fake it ‘til you make it.”

• How do you react to Richardson’s counsel to take the time to fully feel painful losses, wounds, and grievances? What are the benefits in taking this kind of time? What might be some risks?

• How do you understand how this counsel is related to being one’s own advocate?

Richardson encourages the practice of releasing attachments to particular outcomes, saying that, for him, living more peaceably with uncertainty made him “spiritually nimble” and more receptive to new ideas and information.

• What kinds of attachments did Richardson himself have to release? What outcomes did he have to let go?

• Does his description of attachments illuminate outcomes to which you are perhaps unhelpfully clinging?

• What circumstances have you faced/are your facing that are difficult because hoped-for outcomes are just too hard to release? What are risks for you in practicing this release of attachments? What might be the gains?

Richardson’s third practice is to “understand that we are not the things that happen to us or around us,” and he makes it quite plain that this understanding requires that we acknowledge our need for others and our need for help. It has been said that it only takes the positive influence of one significant adult in a child’s life to foster resiliency against a whole host of otherwise negative factors. This certainly bears true in Richardson’s life, lifted as he was by the love of his paternal grandmother.

• Who in your life has nurtured your resiliency? Whose resiliency have you nurtured?

To reckon with the influence of trauma, whether in childhood or adulthood, often requires the assistance and support of professional counselors. This kind of assistance is an integral element of practices of good self-care. It is worth noting that common definitions of “coping,” however, with their emphases on effectiveness and success, can seem to imply that this is work that must be done alone.

• Have you sought professional support for your challenges in coping? What are the risks in doing so? What are the benefits?

Richardson details how becoming an overachiever and his drive to prove his worth to the world was a serious consequence in not having closer attachments with parents at an early age. With this he raises a red flag and holds up a mirror, asking for self-reflection about whether we, too, are caught up in the race of doing, over-compensating for what has been lacking in deep, interior ways. To this end, Richardson encourages practices of self-reflection and looking inward.

• What do you see as the spiritual and psychological yields of having a practice of self-reflection?

• How has such a practice helped you to cope or be resilient?

In Genesis 12, Abram is not coping well with the reality that God’s promise of many descendants seems to be a broken promise. God directs Abram to step out of his tent and to look at the stars in the night sky. Too many to count, this will be the number of Abram’s descendants. But Abram needed to get out of the tent, where the problem of no heir or offspring loomed large against the limits of his imagination; he needed to get out of the tent where he and his concern took their proper perspective in God’s greater purposes. This is what Richardson has learned from his own life experience and it is the impulse of his counsel to “look up.”

• What do you do to keep your experiences in a perspective that affords more resiliency? What are some practices that would contribute?

• Do you believe yourself to be loveable and capable? What do you need to strengthen this belief? How might Richardson’s five practices support this belief?

Angela Yarber “Coping through Creativity: Holy Women Icons of Grief

Angela Yarber is also coping with the death of a beloved brother, coping with the impact of the “savage, relentless beast” of addiction on her and her family, and also coping with the difficulties she faces when her Christian tradition and Western grief practices failed to help her process her grief.

Like Pryds and Richardson, Yarber identifies something fundamentally necessary in the effort to cope—the embodied experience of loss, grief, trauma, and abandonment. Critiquing how in Western grief practices “stifled feelings are pre-packaged as dignified,” she writes her icons in full expression of the human experience. We see and read what the holy women in her icons of grief do: they wail, heal, protect, watch, carry, avenge, weep, destroy, and create.

• Which Holy Woman are you most drawn to, either by description or by visual representation? What aspect of your experience is she calling you to more fully embody?

Yarber makes a close connection between women’s full experience of grief and traditions of corpse care preceded “the erasure of women’s leadership roles in grieving.”

• According to Yarber, what is lost in the transfer of corpse care to morticians and funeral directors? What do you see as losses?

• Have you experienced your grief at the death of a loved one somehow truncated by funeral home practices or religious rituals? In what ways?

• What do have you most needed when processing the death of a loved one? Where did you find what you most needed?

• Consider experiences of death and lost among family and friends. Where were the women? What were they doing?

Caring for the corpse, however, is only one way to express one’s grief and find ways to cope with loss.

• What other rituals and traditions—in the church or without—have you found meaningful in coping with death and being resilient in grieving?

In the discussion guide for the Bearings magazine issue on Cultivating Creativity (March-April 2018),
the question was asked: how was it that the church, so specially poised to be a cultivator of creativity, had become the thing that artists and artist-activists felt they had to work outside of?

I think a similar question could be asked here in response to Yarber’s critique of “the commodification of grief” and “the industrialization of death care.”

• How is it that the church, so specially posed to be a cultivator of coping, is a place people must be outside of in order to find wholistic ways of coping?

Cover Image: Daniil Silantev, “Pause.” (Sep. 7, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

h