Knocking on Death’s Door… with Cookies

We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.

When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?

I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.

I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.

My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.

I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.

I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.

This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.

One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.

So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.

I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:

“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.

Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.

Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.

Let’s show up.

 

 

On The Pain of Going to Church and How Community Orchestra Helped

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It was hard to be in church yesterday.

Trump won the US presidential election, and it is no secret to readers of this blog that I was sad about that (although I will respect him and pray for his government). But I was sadder still that pollsters said more than 80% of evangelical Christians voted for him, and so it was hard to go to worship in an American evangelical church on Sunday morning. With a US flag up front. Even though the prayer was tender, and the sermon spoke so directly and kindly about loving our Muslim neighbors. It was hard to be there.

I was sad about how divided the church is.

I was sad about how much damage we’ve done to each other and the witness of the Gospel in the world by presuming to speak for God with “endorsements as Christians.”

I was sad about what felt like a win for fear and divisiveness, when the church is supposed to be about mercy, radical welcome, the kingdom of God, and love.

hate feeling this way. I feel a bone-deep grief for the church and our community, and I’m wrestling with my own attitudes and judgments towards other believers who are just as loved by God but who seem to come to such different conclusions about life. “What a mess we are. What a mess I am,” I wailed as I drove alone in my car yesterday afternoon. “What do you think of this, God?” I challenged.

He didn’t say anything.

I had to cut my prayer rant short and find parking: I’d arrived at the community hall where a local chamber orchestra was giving a recital. I brushed the tears off my face and slipped into the back row. They had just started the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th: a well-known and well-loved piece if ever there was one.

And friends, it was…. how shall I put this? It was…. not the best rendition of Beethoven I’ve ever heard. I confess I winced more than once in the first few minutes, particularly when the cellos sounded discordant (I’m not sure if that’s because the strings section was weaker or because I am particularly aware of cellos since it’s the only orchestra instrument I’ve ever played.)

But it wasn’t long before my wincing was replaced by more tears as God gently walked me through a series of thoughts:

“This doesn’t sound very good, but I couldn’t play any better than this.”

“The skill level of each of these individuals is pretty high, but getting people to play music together is so much harder than playing alone.”

“A player’s individual weaknesses are sometimes disguised by the sound of the group, but each person’s weakness also lowers the overall quality of sound.”

“And when they’re not listening to each other or the conductor, it sounds particularly messy.”

And then,

“Each one of these musicians knows how this piece is supposed to sound. And each of them knows that it doesn’t sound like they wish it did. Perhaps they’re tempted to quit because they don’t want to be a part of something that sounds so awkward. And yet they keep playing. It doesn’t sound as it should but it’s better than it did when they first started rehearsing. And so, they keep playing, and doing their best. Measure by measure. Movement by movement.

“If the cellists were to realize they were the weakest in the group and simply stopped playing, the whole thing would fall apart. All the parts matter. Rather like 1 Corinthians 12. Who are we to honor one part above another, or say to any one else “I don’t need you?”

“And, still, they are making music. Listen, that part with the pizzicato was lovely. Listen, your heart beat faster in that section. Listen, awkward as it is at times, they are making music together and look: it is finished, and you are clapping, and you mean it.”

God showed me a glimpse of the church as his little community orchestra, filled with faithful-and-far-from-perfect musicians. Each person with their skills. Each person with their weaknesses. All of us letting the others down at times, and yet all of us soldiering on together at the conductor’s urging. Sometimes the combined sound makes us wince, but what shall we do? We’re not where we should be yet, but God knows: we have to keep playing.

So I’ll go back to church on Sunday, and I will focus my efforts on playing as faithfully as I can and keeping my eyes trained on the Great Conductor. We all will. And one day, we will look back, and we will have muddled through and made music together, and we will be glad.

Lament for a Boy (Jamie Calloway-Hanauer)

This lament is written for Jeremy, Jamie’s son, gone too soon from SIDS. 


Lament for a lost baby

 

Lament

Why, oh God, have you have ripped him from my bosom,
torn him from my womb?

No better than a thief,
you have emptied my stores to fill your own.

You have stolen from me, oh God,
in ways unfitting of your name.

(You sacrificed your Son for me, but don’t think I haven’t noticed
you waited ‘til he was grown.)

You once demanded all firstborn.
I trusted those days were gone, but you have shown me I was wrong.

Oh, creator God. Giver of life and breath, you have rendered me empty—half dead and hanging by a thread.

Who could I be without this misery?
The pain of asking is too much.

You have come like a thief in the night, plundering
butterfly kisses, radiating heat, a neck wrapped tight by little arms.

How, God, can you now demand my trust? My faithfulness?

My palms ache empty, outstretched and longing to be filled.
You have emptied me, Lord, in ways no other could:
You are the breather of life and the taker of life. The power is all yours.

Yet your goodness reigns over all sorrow, filling
cradled arms;
an otherwise empty cup;
and limp-limbed hollow-eyed women
with your righteousness and love.

Filling even
the depths of empty wombs.

You, oh God, are ruler over all.

Draw me nearer, God.
Grow me in your fertile soil. Raise me tall and strong.
Let your goodness weigh heavy in my arms.

I feel your presence, God.

Your goodness resounds deep within my bones. In my teeth and aching hips.
In the knitting of my insides and the fading pangs of birth.

Only you, oh God, know the way ahead.

by Jamie Calloway-Hanauer
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

*************

I wish no mother knew this pain. I hate that Jamie, whom I love so much, has been through this. Jamie is so many things: a friend, a wicked-smart writer, a poet, a lawyer, an editor, a patient encourager. And twenty years later, she is still a grieving mother. Jamie has a tattoo for Jeremy with a line from one of her favorite poems, Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost. You can see it and read about tattoos and cardigans here.

The Day She Died (Christine Coates)

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The day she died

Tonight, as I walk, midnight swallows me

on a road only I can see.

Night blades 

its way to my tongue –

a dance that tastes like old tin.

Midnight swallows me tonight –

the last of the road spits me into morning.

The day ends even as I say it,

the day that doesn’t know.

The slice of light that tears the sky,

this morning should be banished,

be hounded to a black hole.

The world should know yesterday

ended.

by Christine Coates, HOMEGROWN, 2014 by Modjaji Books, Cape Town;
Art by Corrie Haffly.
********************

I’m beginning to realize that while there is a lot of poetry about love, and wonder, and joy, there is also a lot of poetry about grief and suffering: the ineffable truths. “Midnight swallows me” says something of loss that I feel, even if I don’t understand.

Christine Coates is a South African artist and poet, and when I told her about this series, she was kind enough to send me some of her favorite poems (including The Peace of Wild Things) as well as a number of her own published works. I chose this one for two reasons: first, because grief needs a voice. And second, because Christine is my mom’s cousin, and the women she has loved and lost are in some way, my own people, too. (Thanks, Christine. <3 to you.)

(Update: Christine had sent me a collection of poems, but I hadn’t told her which one I’d chosen, or when it might run… I chose this one, and I chose today, but I had no idea that the poem was about her mom, and that today was the anniversary of her death. What breath-taking, beautiful, poignant timing.)

Let me tell you about Mini

I think it’s time to tell you a story. The story about Mini. It is not an easy story to tell, but it gets easier with each telling.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited to pee as I was on that cold, December morning. We had started ‘trying’ just two months before, and I was a day ‘late’. We bought a pregnancy test and waited until the next day, having heard that first-thing-in-the-morning was the best time to test. I woke up before 5am, and bolted for the bathroom. The test said to wait three minutes for the result, but 45 seconds later I could already see a faint, second line developing on the stick – and with tears and squealing and oh-so-much-joy ran into the still-dark room to tell my husband the happy news that our two was now three. We named our expected one Mini. We called our parents and siblings, we went out to dinner, we dreamed of the future: the future of us-with-Mini.

Two weeks later we were at a conference in Missouri and I came down with a cold, and we delightedly fretted about whether taking airborne and extra vitamin C would be safe for our new baby. The kind medic at the Urbana missions conference assured us that taking vitamins was totally safe, and we walked out holding hands, smiling our secret to ourselves as we huddled with throngs of students.

Two weeks after that, the bleeding began. At first just a spot, then a little more. We called the doctor, who said something about ‘implantation bleeding’, and advised us to rest, wait and see. I rested. I waited. I bled. I prayed.

The bleeding continued and so we did what young, anxious parents of our generation do: we searched the internet, trawling for numbers to give us hope. As if the statistics and probabilities of others would reveal the future of our own. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, I read. Which means three in four don’t, I reasoned. But which also means one in four do.

Two days later, still bleeding, we called the doctor. She agreed to see us and scheduled an ultrasound. With a compassionate but matter-of-fact face, she took a look at the blobs on the screen and interpreted them for us: “this is not what we should be seeing with a healthy 8 week old foetus,” she said, “I’m sorry.” We went home silent, stony and crushed.

The worst part was not the waiting-to-see-if-something-was-wrong, nor the hearing-that-something-was. The worst part was coming home, knowing that our baby was lost, and yet still having to endure a few more days of losing Mini. I sat at home: weeping and bleeding and waiting for it all to pass. My best friend, four months pregnant and grieving for me even as she carried joy of her own, brought me tea and books and let me cry.

Returning to work was hard. Cheerful students and co-workers who didn’t know brought welcome distraction but also somehow intensified the ache. We hadn’t asked them to celebrate Mini’s life when we first found out, and so it seemed unfair and unnatural to ask them to grieve our baby’s death. We were lonely. We felt very grown up.

I remember taking a counseling class where the teacher posed the question: “what is the worst type of grief?” I remember scouring my mind, weighing up the imagined relative trauma of losing a spouse, of suffering great violence, of burying a parent. The lecturer’s words cut into my thoughts: “Your own,” he said. “The worst grief is your own.” His words came flooding back in the wake of losing Mini: maybe it was worse to lose a child already born, or a still-born child, or one later in the pregnancy… but those great griefs were not our own. We had lost Mini early on, but that grief was our own, and it was the worst.

A few moments stand out from that first month after our loss. The moment when a co-worker asked about my absence from the staff party: “Are you pregnant?” they asked. Stunned, I blurted out “I was”, and left them floundering in the parking lot as I ran into the building. The wedding we attended a week later, where more-than-a-few people asked us if we were planning to have kids any time soon. I don’t know how we made it through that night. In the photos from that day, my mouth is smiling and my eyes are glassy. Then, on retreat with our young adults group a few weeks later, a come-to-Jesus moment when I sat all alone in a snow-silent world, and cried all the tears I had stuffed in silence in the weeks before.

And I recall how, one by one, I slowly started to hear others say that the same thing had happened to them. “That happened to me too,” said the smiling Mom-of-five after church one Sunday. “We lost three,” said another. “I’m so sorry,” whispered yet another, “I remember how that felt.” And all of a sudden that one-in-four statistic wasn’t just about our odds for our baby, it was the story of at least one-in-four women that I knew and loved and saw often… but we had just never shared that part of the story before.

More than anything, it was comforting to know I was not alone.

I think perhaps we make a mistake when we keep pregnancies a secret until we’ve had an ultrasound to say that “everything’s okay”. A baby is a baby and a life to be celebrated long before an ultrasound says it is so. A life is a life before anyone has measured its spine or assessed its chances. Mini was a baby, and it was right to celebrate. And then we lost our little one, and it was right to mourn.

We found out we were expecting again a few weeks later, and our mourning for Mini became less intense, and less frequent. From time to time I would feel the loss acutely: standing in the snow, or hearing another’s story, or reading “Heaven is for real” all brought fresh tears for old sadness. But the tears were less, and the sadness more distant – especially as I heard the stories of more and more friends experiencing similar loss and became one of those offering a hug and whispering “that happened to me too.”

A few weeks ago, I told our eldest that there had been another baby before her. I told her there was a little one who had first made us a Mommy and Daddy, but we hadn’t had a chance to meet yet. I told her we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl, but that we would meet them one day and know for sure then. My daughter assured me it was a girl: the sister she had been longing for, but would one day meet. The next day she told a stranger at the park that she had an older sister in heaven. This is going to be awkward, I thought. But it wasn’t, and she didn’t mention it again.

Until this week. I was cleaning up after breakfast and came upon my daughter playing with her brothers in the living room. She was holding an arm full of stuffed animals, and introducing them to her admiring audience: “this is me, and you, and you”, she said as she gestured to three bears and to the three of them on the sofa. And then, holding up a tiny, fourth bear, she told her brothers “and this is Mini. She is our sister too, but she’s in heaven.”

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There they are: my four children. Three in my arms, and one in Jesus’. Telling the story has made it easier. And now, hearing the story from the mouth-of-babes has brought a fresh wave of hope and joyful anticipation.

And so I’m telling you. Because maybe it’s a story you need to hear today. One-in-four, and all that, but for the one – it’s the worst grief of all.

The Empty Chair

If you have ever found your life situation abruptly changed, and grieving the loss of a time in life when you used to feel useful, but don’t anymore – perhaps you will appreciate this.

Please click over to Ungrind to read about hope and kitchen furniture: The Gift of The Empty Chair.