Forming emotional attachments to other people and things is part of the human condition. The things that matter to us draw not only our focus and energies but our affections as well. In life, however, things never stay the same, and one of the few constants we can count on is change.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. – Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
We go through a variety of seasons that can bring bewildering and painful changes, and in some of those seasons, we lose the things that we treasure most. One of our consolations is that no season of pain or loss lasts forever – there will be other changes that come into our lives that we can celebrate, and learning to navigate these seasons skillfully is what life and wisdom are all about.
Can I grieve a lost dream?
There are many things that people grieve, but not everything has broad societal approval or is seen as something worth grieving over. It is socially acceptable to grieve the death of a loved one, to mourn the end of a significant relationship, or to lament the loss of your family home or the death of a beloved family pet.
Your employer might give you time off to mourn these losses, and people will create space for you to express your loss and go through your grief. However, we all encounter and process loss differently, and the end of a dream can be significant enough to require grief as the appropriate response.
It’s important to understand that you can grieve a lost dream or an unfulfilled dream. While other people may not understand why it’s so important to you or why its loss makes the impact it does, the main issue is that you feel the loss. You may have desired a career in the military to follow a family tradition, but for one reason or another, you never manage to get enlisted.
Or for you, being an artist (musician, writer, poet, thespian, or a visual artist) is something you’ve thought about and worked toward your whole life, and when your work gets rejected or opportunities get shut down, you may feel like your life is over.
Or perhaps you want to get into college, but your grades don’t pass muster and you can’t get into the college you’ve dreamt about being a part of. Or perhaps working for a particular company or with a certain individual has been your goal throughout your career, and then that door gets shut irrevocably. Maybe you’d hoped to reconcile with a particular person with whom you had a broken relationship, and you never got the chance to because they died.
Or perhaps you accomplish your goals, but the one person you wanted to witness it is not there to do so. Our dreams can center on work, family, relationships, travel, and so much more. All of these are situations in which long-cherished dreams are shattered and grieving such a loss is an appropriate response. After all, our grief relates to the now frustrated or lost emotional connection we have with a person or thing.
What can add to our pain is that if our loss doesn’t conform to the pattern of widely accepted objects of grief, we can feel further isolated in our grief from a lack of support or empathy from the people around us.
The grief process
Grieving any loss is a process. It takes time, and just how much time it takes will vary between individuals. Grief is many things, but one of the things it’s not is neat. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross laid out five stages of the grief process, but one must be careful not to be too prescriptive about how grief unfolds in any one person’s life.
The loss of dreams and hopes can continue to wash over you at significant times such as anniversaries or other important milestones. Grieving is like the wind, blowing where it will in your life without rhyme or reason.
The five stages of grief that Kübler-Ross delineated are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages of grief aren’t clear-cut, linear stages that you progress through systematically. You don’t say, “Oh, I’ve worked through my anger, and now I’m at the bargaining stage. I’m sure I’ll be through that soon enough and be on my way to the depression phase of grief.”
You can probably identify how you’re feeling and what you’re going through using these terms, but grief is often complicated. You may feel anger today about your lost dream; anger at the time you spent working on it, anger at whatever circumstance or whichever individual stymied your ambitions.
That doesn’t mean that anger is a thing of the past. You can work through your anger, but a memory, a sight, a smell can trigger you again and you find yourself feeling angry all over again. Additionally, people don’t enter the grieving process at the same stage, so don’t expect to begin at denial as a rule. You may find yourself feeling depressed and linger there for a while.
Grief will buffet you like waves in the ocean – sometimes it’s manageable and familiar, but at other times it can inundate and overwhelm you. The takeaway here is that however you process your grief and whatever it may look like for you, process your grief, and allow yourself to feel what you feel.
In grieving a shattered dream, it may seem foolhardy to set new goals and have new dreams, but not to is to cease living. Our dreams and goals animate us, and they enrich our lives in innumerable ways. The Christian writer C.S. Lewis once said that “You are never too old to set another goal, or to dream a new dream.”
Part of your grieving process may be that you need to lay an old dream down, grieve it, and begin learning to embrace other options. That, no doubt, brings about some pain, but not letting go of a dream when wisdom suggests we ought to, robs us of the joy of enjoying the present season the Lord has us in.
Where does the strength and audacity to continue to hope and dream come from when a cherished dream dies? One of the things that stem from Christian hope is that regardless of the dreams and hopes that may get dashed in this life, we can continue to entrust ourselves to God and place our ultimate hope on him.
Truly, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind” as C.S. Lewis once said, and so while we mourn what lies behind, we can continue pressing forward, we can have the strength to continue to hope and dream because Jesus Christ is our hope, as Hebrews 6:19-20 reminds us: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.”
Things don’t always work out, but the strength to carry on flows from our understanding that God is good, and from our ultimate hope that cannot be frustrated or fail to pass.
“Paper Airplane”, Courtesy of Sebastian Leon Prado, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dream It. Believe it. Achieve it.”, Courtesy of Carolyn Christine, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Follow That Dream”, Courtesy of Alex Azabache, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dream”, Courtesy of Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com, CC0 License