As you get in line for the amusement park ride, there’s a sign. It may be a cutout yardstick, but just as often, it’s a child or animal (depending on the park) holding out a hand: “You must be this tall to ride this ride.”

I’ve felt that way through the years as I’ve looked at various grief workshops and groups. “Your grief must be this big to be here.”

Without a doubt, it’s important for people who are dealing with a particular kind of grief to have a place of their own; for example, people grieving the loss of a parent, a spouse, a child or a pet. There are specific dynamics for each of those losses.

When my father was dying of pulmonary fibrosis, I sought out an online support group in which I found people who understood the grief of watching a loved one slowly drown.

When we talk about grief in general, though, it really isn’t grief in general. We frame it in terms of the loss of a living being, usually human but occasionally a pet. Which leaves out a whole lot of people.

You may not grieve your parent’s death for even a minute because they were a toxic, cruel and abusive person, and you’re glad to be done with the worry about them coming back into your life. You are devastated, however, to lose the job and career that was both your lifelong dream and your identity.

Older adults may freely choose moving into a retirement community or assisted living as the next logical step, but they also grieve deeply the loss of the rooms filled with memories and the record of children’s growing heights penciled on the doorway frame.

Changes in health bring with them grief for abilities lost. Running and being active was always your best stress relief, but now even walking up one flight of stairs leaves you winded.

Loss can wear a hundred different faces, but traditionally faith communities have only recognized a few of them. This does more than deprive grieving people of support. It sends a message that their loss doesn’t really matter.

I know this because I’ve heard it over and over again. “I’m being silly.” “It’s not a big deal.” “It’s not like somebody died.”

Such statements shame our hearts for feeling what they feel. How can we admit that we’re grieving if we haven’t suffered a “real loss”?

I deeply grieved the death of my dog Ralphie. I’d lost my other dog just a few months before and going from two dogs to none was hard. Taken by surprise by his sudden decline, I made a series of choices that in retrospect were all wrong and prolonged his suffering.

Gathering with my fellow staff members as we prepared for a grief workshop gave me a chance to say what I needed to say, to be heard and to have my grief honored. Only then could I let go of the grief, guilt and regret that had followed me since his death.

I know that my experience is very different from the experience of my friend whose son died in Iraq. She misses him every single day. I think about Ralphie on occasion. Because her loss is deeper and more far reaching doesn’t mean that I didn’t need to grieve my own loss. It’s not a competition.

There’s a belief that it just doesn’t work to have people together with such different kinds of losses. Yet, I’ve staffed grief workshops in various parts of the U.S. for over 20 years that have done just that.

We’ve had groups with people grieving the loss of parents, spouses, children, pets, jobs and the loss of what they never got to have; for example, a safe childhood that they never had due to abuse. All of those losses in one group. And it works.

It works because we lay aside our measuring sticks. We stop judging whose grief is more significant and instead focus on what their loss (whatever it is) has meant to their hearts. Sometimes the most healing thing for them is just being heard without shaming or minimizing.

It works because we share the common ground of loss. Whether or not that person’s loss would have been painful for you doesn’t matter. All that matters is what it means to them.

We learn to listen with open hearts. We learn from each other.

Even beyond workshops and groups, our faith communities can acknowledge the many faces of loss in liturgy and conversation, in teaching and preaching. As we normalize the great diversity of grief, we open the door to healing.

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