The Unnoticed

The paperwork for admission to the hospital was on his table. His last conversation with his son did not end well. They argued about a favor his son had requested, and hung up on each other. The old widower had been coughing up blood. He stared at his phone, and decided not to call.

He came home from church, having given his heart and soul to leading and preaching, and looked around his empty condo. His ex-wife and kids were in the house he used to live in. Overcome by emotion, he went for a drive, only to see families walking and biking together. He pulled over and wept bitterly.

She had a health scare and ended up in the hospital for a few days. Her kids were with their father. Her friends texted and called, but she spent most of the time alone in the hospital, yearning for a loved one to sit with her. This memory brought tears to her eyes.

His daughter had been home, sick, for several days. The doctor said it was probably COVID, despite the negative test results. As soon as she recovered, he became ill. She had a choir concert, so he rose from the bed of illness, watching the concert, hoping the people around him wouldn’t notice his dry cough. He kept his head down, unable to see parents, siblings, and grandparents supporting their kids as he, a widower, sat by himself.

Three of these episodes are real, and one is from a feature film. All of them provide snapshots into the cold loneliness experienced daily by the unnoticed.

The unnoticed are all around us. Divorced men and women learning to experience life all by themselves, often alienated from family members, living in tension with children, struggling to manage busy schedules of work, family, and newfound single life. Suffering with the pain of separation, coming to terms with themselves, tending to their own wounds of pain, working feverishly to assure their children of their love – the divorced unnoticed are expected to be at the top of their game at work and as parents and friends.

The prevailing view of widows in our culture is that they mourn their loss for a period of time before re-entering life. Many widows are learning how to handle daily tasks for the first time – managing finances, tending to a household, even learning new skills. I know widows who couldn’t cook and I taught a new widow how to drive some years ago.

Quick-hit reactions and web searches yield success stories. They tell us about divorced people who rejoice in their freedom, live it up, and find new love right away. We hear about villages rallying around widows, cooking for them, watching their children, mowing their lawns and shoveling their driveways. I read an essay in the New York Times written by a guest columnist who had advice for women who wanted to woo a new widower, arming them with strategies on timing and tactics.

In my experience as a widower and a confidant of other widows and divorced people, these stories do not represent reality. Divorced people searching for support find themselves grasping for straws to meet people for companionship. Widows and widowers wander through a multi-layered fog. Their friends imagine them sitting at home, missing their spouses. But there is that other fog, the one that overcomes one’s brain, making one freeze without moving. Preparing meals, dropping and picking up kids, working, paying bills, managing a household – the sheer volume of things that need to be done create a fog, and one can truly become momentarily frozen from not knowing where to begin.

The Church responds to widowed grief by emphasizing support from the time of death up until the funeral, and perhaps for a short period of time afterwards. Some parishes host support groups for people whose mourning has no expiration date. Christians offer this kind of support before those who suffered loss become unnoticed. In most cases, support is offered to survivors of a loved one’s death. Support for those suffering the loss of marital and family life can be rare, as if divorce did not inflict loss, pain, and fog. Indeed, it does.

In response to an appeal for more support, theologians will be tempted to create a new liturgy. Assembling the Church to pray with the unnoticed would be a beautiful service, an important gesture, and an opportunity to reach out to broken people, limping through life, who have fallen off our proverbial radars.

As much as I would like to initiate the creative process of composing an office of prayer for the unnoticed, it is unnecessary. The liturgy of serving the unnoticed and lifting them up in support is right before our eyes in the Scriptures. This liturgy is one of action. It requires assembly, but the action does not draw the faithful from the world into the Church, but it flows in the other direction. It is an act of sending the faithful into the world, to be alert and aware, to hear and listen and see, to meet the unnoticed in their midst.

The liturgy is a service for the unnoticed with no expiration date. It sends Christians to shovel snow and mow lawns, to make meals, to assist with rides, to deliver groceries, to help with medical appointments and overnights, and to assist as needed.

Above all, this liturgy sends Christians to become the companions of the unnoticed – to walk with them, through the fog of grief and the brain fog that confounds and freezes. And finally, the service is free – it asks nothing of return because it is a free gift of grace and love that has no fee, and no strings attached.

The unnoticed are among us, bearing the weight of their crosses; may God send servants to ease their burden.

5 comments

  1. You brought back to me the pain of being a divorced parish pastor, humiliated by my inability to keep a dead marriage alive and while everyone seemed supportive, there was no one who came to me with “Pastor, we love you”. I became an “unnoticed” even though in front of the folks I served. There was no judgement or malice, just pain at seeing my pain and seemingly unwilling or unable to reach out to help.

    I now am on the hunt for the unnoticed as I have returned to serve a parish part-time in my retirement. My job is pastoral care, and I am on the hunt for the unnoticed all of the time….my goal is that no one else suffer alone. I know I will not be successful all of the time, but I will keep trying. My goal is also to equip others to hunt for the unnoticed and reach out to them with something as simple as a smile.

    I know I will always have work!

  2. This reflection brought to mind the other side of the coin, which is that many people feel they must hide their pain and brokenness, either because they are ashamed and don’t want to admit to it themselves, or because they perceive (sometimes rightly) that others do not want to know and will blame them for their misfortune or shun them for it. Our society is not making stunning marks for compassion.

    Yet there is all that pain out there. I am reminded of the Christian pop song (by Matthew West), “Truth Be Told” (which has a good video that you can easily find online if you are interested):

    Lie number one: you’re supposed to have it all together.
    And when they ask how you’re doing
    Just smile and tell them, “Never better.”
    Lie number two: everybody’s life is perfect except yours.
    So keep your messes and your wounds
    And your secrets safe with you behind closed doors.
    Truth be told,
    The truth is rarely told…

  3. A tangential sidebar on a different kind of un-noticing (in mirror image, perhaps?): we’ve just gone through 10 days where possibly the most widely viewed ever English-language Christian liturgies have been celebrated, and it seems the sound of crickets dominates English-language liturgy discussions. (One of my personal themes of these days is what might go under the handle of “The corgies that didn’t bark”, chief among those being the absence of perceptible security incidents – an absence I and many others doubt would have obtained if such an event were held in the USA these days.)

    Sure, theses are state ceremonials that don’t have immediate transferability to local contexts, yet does no one consider how they may change the context of and mould assumptions that liturgically less formed people may bring to what they do and don’t experience the liturgies of their ordinary lives?

    I am not talking about the splendor in its many forms. Rather, I am thinking things such as the consistently high degree of professional competence – not just individual but institutional (from the interactions of small with large groups) – in liturgical arts and what it takes to nurture, sustain and harvest the fruits of it. (I have witnessed that kind of competence at the parochial level, but more rarely than I would prefer.)

    For historical context, people should realize that these liturgies would very likely not have been celebrated this way 200 years ago. The liturgical music and praxis of the established churches in the British Isles changed a lot over the course of the first half of that period. Enormous liturgical change happened – and yet that change goes unnoticed today.

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