Archive for September, 2009

Sep 23 2009

A Black Square (Death): Final Part

Published by under Death

I have just a few more things I want to say about what I learned in Chicago at Chase’s funeral.

Music is Powerful

For the funeral, a friend of Alex and mine played a song he wrote about losing a loved one. At noon on Saturday, we arrived early at the church so he could soundcheck. Amidst row after row of empty pews, I sat in the sanctuary alone. The sound man wasn’t ready, so our friend began to play his guitar and sing his song acoustically.

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It seemed the music triggered something. I immediately started crying. Tears of mourning feel contradictory. They’re the result of great pain but seem to bring calm and healing. I could feel the place beneath my heart calm – like someone put their hands inside me and said, “Shhhhhh,” in a gentle way, “it’s ok to cry.” I kept saying to myself, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” not wanting to really believe Chase was gone.

In 1 Samuel 15, Saul, the king of Israel, is rejected by God because of his wickedness. The Spirit of the Lord departs Saul and an evil spirit torments him. His servants suggest finding someone who can play the harp so that when the evil spirit comes, someone can play music that makes Saul feel better. One of the servants remembers a young boy he knows named David. So they call David to enter Saul’s service. And whenever the evil spirit “came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Samuel 16:23).

Music is outrageously powerful. It has the ability to help us heal. If one of your friends has a loved one die, think of a couple songs or albums you feel would help them – slow, somber songs that will match the tone of their soul. For most people, I learned music that’s too loud or too busy is too much. The grieving heart isn’t ready for Soundgarden. It needs garden sounds. Think of some music and then buy it for them (using the Gift this Song feature in iTunes is helpful).

Connections Are Quick
For the friends and family who gather for any period of time beyond the funeral, the connections and friendships are instant. I finally met a number of Alex’s friends and family he’d talked about for years. I’ll be friends with them for life. When people are mourning, the masks come off. We see each other as a bunch of vulnerable humans who are lost and need each other. If you’re concerned that you don’t know very many of your friend’s friends and family, don’t worry. You’ll be hugging them in very short order. There’s a bond you’ll form that is unexplainable – a bond that only shared suffering can produce. It’s like the bond Ruth formed with Naomi after both their husbands died.

Activities Are Therapeutic
If you’re comforting a friend, suggest going out to do things they like. Don’t push them too hard, but keep suggesting things. On various days in Chicago, we went to favorite restaurants, the beach, and to a Cubs game. Even swinging golf clubs in the front lawn was an event.

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Table for Two, Game for Five
On the night we went to the Cubs game, we bought six tickets. Prior to leaving to go downtown, one of the guys canceled. We called about 10 people in Chicago to see if they wanted to join us. No one was available. We ended up with one unused ticket. The empty seat became symbolic – as if Chase really was with us. As they often say: gone, but not forgotten.

The End
After someone you love dies, you’ll never be the same. Their bodily disappearance seems to take part of you with them. But the gifts of the grave are the innumerable ways you change. If you have photos from the days after you lost someone, look at them carefully. The somber expression on your face hides the reality. Those are some of the most violent photos of upheaval you own. Those were the days God was very tangibly making you a different person.

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I honor Chase’s memory by saying, in truth, that my life is changed. I am a different person today than I was when I woke up on September 8, 2009. And I continue to be changed because of Chase – in what I’ve written in this series, in private ways I don’t want to share, and in unknown ways I cannot yet express. His death is bringing me life. I thank Jesus for the work He’s doing in me because of Chase and his family.

I love Alex. I still don’t know what to do. These have been days I wish had never come but days I will never forget. There must be better ones ahead – days of pictures with happy hearts and smiles and laughing on the golf course and dreams coming true. I’ve always believed in Alex – most especially now.

My final encouragement to you, dear reader: if your friend loses a loved one, do not hesitate to plant yourself close to them. These are sacred days. You will not regret one second you spend by their side. However imperfect or ill-equipped you may feel, imperfectly be their help. Just be there.

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Sep 22 2009

A Black Square (Death): Part 3

Published by under Death

The Factory
For two summers in college, I worked at a Ford truck factory in Wayne, Michigan building Expeditions and Navigators. The first day I started, they had me pair up with someone who was going to teach me my job. It seemed fairly straightforward. I worked in Trim. This is where the trucks come right after they’re out of paint. So they’re just a chassis. They weren’t even on a frame. No wheels, no engine, no transmission. Just the raw metal chassis.

My job was to take two wiring harnesses and clip them into a plastic bracket. Take a pneumatic air gun and shoot four screws into the bracket so it was bolted on the inside door. Then, I got out of the truck, picked up a brake booster (don’t worry about what it is –  it’s not important to my story) and rubberbanded it inside the engine bay so it could be bolted to the chassis further down the line. Nothing too complicated, right? Except all of it had to be done in about 55 seconds. That’s how fast the line moved at Michigan Truck.

I worked with my trainer for three days before I was finally able to keep up with the line by myself. He would patiently teach me little tricks about how to clip the wiring harnesses, how to quickly bolt things, the best way to minimize the number of steps I took during the night – which was important because we built about 550 trucks in a 10-hour shift. This was back 1998-1999 when SUVs were really the rage.

I had training because I needed to be efficient on my own.

This Isn’t a Factory
There’s no such guidebook to grieving. No one becomes proficient at mourning people who die. Death is profoundly different from anything else we experience in life.

Our days are marked by routine and patterns. From the moment we wake up, we begin “building” our day. Prayer and coffee are the first pillars of the building. The first floor might be exercise and a good breakfast. More support pillars from a shower and picking out clothes. Up and up it goes. But someone close to us dies and the whole foundation cracks. The days become so tough because we’re not building on solid ground. Our core is reeling.

And because death is so disorienting, well-intentioned people who observe the grieving don’t know what to do. Say something? Call? Write? Flowers? What? It seems so awkward. And it is. But it’s awkward for everyone.

Play the Game
When I was in Chicago, I heard so many people say to Alex’s family, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” It’s a very well-meaning thing and everyone who said that would undoubtedly do something if called upon. My advice to those near grieving: don’t offer help in such an open-ended way. Just do something. The last thing most grieving people want to do is expend energy. They won’t remember to call people back.

The Playbook
Whether you visit them, send them flowers, bake them food, call and arrange meals, buy iTunes gift cards, or write them a note, you get the feeling of insignificance. Here they’ve lost a family member and you’re sending food and flowers. That’s not the point. No, gifts can’t heal them, but they make their lives easier. And your presence, either in their home or at the funeral, means so much to them.

The home of the grieving should be a greenhouse. Alex’s house had maybe 20 flower arrangements. His house smelled more incredible than any garden I can recall.

The home of the grieving should be a bakery. The kitchen table was stacked with 15-20 tupperware containers filled with baked goods.

The home of the grieving should be a restaurant where they’re the guests. The refrigerator and freezer were packed with food. Restaurants were called to bring over meals others paid for.

The home of the grieving should be a revolving door of faces. Get to them. Even if it’s only a walk from next door, they need to see their friends. They won’t call you. Call on them. The farther away you travel, the more it means. Something about grief allows the grieving to calculate how much effort it took you to get to them. They appreciate every mile. Another tip…they WILL get tired, so recognize that and don’t linger if they seem like they need to rest.

If it’s in your power, get to the funeral. I know it seems inconvenient and awkward. It may even mean you need to take days off from work. Visitation hours for Chase were so packed that not everyone got in. The memorial service – in a not-small church – was standing-room only.

Pray to the Lord on their behalf. Ask Him to give comfort, strength, and wisdom to your grieving friends. Pray for anything else that comes to mind.

The Why
When Alex’s family wasn’t telling stories about Chase, they were commenting on how beautiful the flowers were, how good the brownies tasted, how nice it was to have meals without cooking, how their friends came in from Utah just for the funeral, and how many people came to the house and memorial service.

And while none of this brings the deceased back, it gives the grieving a back to lean on. The foundation they’ve lost is partly stabilized by the outpouring of people’s presence and presents. They need you and me and everyone else they know to show them with actions, “I see you. I love you.” Don’t imagine they have too much of anything. If you count up all the miles traveled, hours and dollars spent visiting with, baking for, and helping the grieving, you realize it’s the collective effort of everyone that comforts them so. It takes thousands of people to build a car. Let it be a thousand people to actively love the grieving.

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Sep 18 2009

A Black Square (Death): Part 2

Published by under Death

Recap
If you remember my story from part 1, I told about my time as a camp counselor during the summer of 2002 in Daytona Beach. One day, we were playing kickball. A counselor, Mitch, an offensive lineman for Eastern Tennessee State – 6’6”, 275 pounds – kicked the ball deep. Another counselor, John, ran to get it. As Mitch sprinted around third toward home, John was closing in fast. Everyone screamed in anticipation of the play. I was in the outfield and about that time, I looked at home plate. Lorena, a 10-year old oblivious to what was happening and eager for her turn to kick was standing ON home plate. And Mitch didn’t see her. I couldn’t offer any help. I could only stand and watch. Mitch plowed into Lorena. She was steamrolled to the ground as he somersaulted over the top of her.

Etched in Stone
I left for Chicago without anything to offer Alex but my presence. As one standing powerless in the outfield, scenarios ran through my head of what it would be like to see him for the first time. I walked in to a well-lit room with teal carpet and flower wallpaper. Alex was leaning against a bookcase. I hadn’t correctly envisioned the wave of emotion that washed over me. I got hot. My limbs felt heavy. Numbness seemed to swirl around my head and face. I began crying immediately. Alex walked toward me and I to him. We met in the middle and hugged.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I repeated over and again.

It felt more as though he were comforting me. I couldn’t believe it. My friend’s brother was gone and so were words. I had nothing to say.

Presence with Silence

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Namathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance…they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13)

It turns out that grieving people don’t need to hear a slew of words from everyone.

For once in my life, words failed me. Because I don’t think there ARE words. There is a time to tell stories but I learned that listening to people speak nervous, rambling words can be more annoying than comforting. They mean well, but they speak poorly. There are memories, yes. But there doesn’t need to be an endless stream of words. And that, among other reasons, is why we cry. It’s all we have. As sweat leaves the body through physical exertion, so tears leave with emotional exertion. And there is no greater emotion to be experienced than the finality of death. So we cry.

What I learned is that the grieving just need people to be with them. Presence communicates care. It was enough for Job and his friends to sit in silence for seven days after Job lost all his sons, daughters, possessions, and health. Ironically, it was later, when Job’s friends started talking, that things got ugly.

We’re All Outfielders But We Can Do Something
“…mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15). The shape mourning takes can change depending on the person and time of day. I learned to take cues from them. “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh…a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4,7). As their emotions shift from tears to silence to talking and back again, we shift with them. Cry, sit, listen, speak. Just be there.

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Sep 17 2009

A Black Square (Death): Part 1

Published by under Death

In my last post, I wrote about how my best friend’s brother died. I just got back from spending the last few days in Chicago with Alex and his family. I learned so many things and hope it honors Chase to share some of them in a series.

First, there’s a reason people wear black to funerals.

The Lineman and Lorena
In the summer of 2002, I met Alex in Daytona Beach. I worked at a day camp for kids. Every morning, we’d take the kids outside and brave the Florida sun before the day got too hot. Every so often, we played kickball. The fun thing about camp was that the counselors got to play with the kids. We loved it and so did they.

One day, we split into teams. The offensive team lined up in the order they were going to kick. We played for a while and then one of the counselors, Mitch, came up. Mitch was a beast. He was an offensive lineman for East Tennessee State. 6’6”, 275 pounds. A pitch was rolled and Mitch kicked the ball deep. It landed for a hit and one of the other counselors, John, ran to get it. Mitch was in an all-out sprint around the bases. He wanted a homerun.

John got the ball and started sprinting toward the infield. As Mitch rounded third, he looked over his shoulder and was laughing hysterically. Everyone started cheering and screaming in anticipation as John continued to close in and prepared to throw the ball. About that time, I looked at home plate. The next kicker was a 10-year old named Lorena. Oblivious to exactly what was happening and eager for her turn to kick, Lorena was standing ON home plate as Mitch barreled down the third base line. Since I was in the outfield, I couldn’t do a thing.

Mitch continued his sprint to home plate, looking over his shoulder at John. At the last second, Mitch turned forward to step on home plate. It was too late. Just 3 steps away from home plate AND Lorena, Mitch couldn’t stop. His entire 6’6”, 275-pound sprinting mass plowed into Lorena. The collision steamrolled her to the ground as Mitch somersaulted over the top of her. Lorena didn’t die, but the impact she felt with Mitch was unexpected, painful, and shook her up considerably.

Death is a Lineman
Death is always violent. We watch movies like Saving Private Ryan or see images in the news of slain soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re violent in the physical sense. But emotional violence impacts far more when someone dies. Family members and close friends are steamrolled. A place that seems to live beneath their heart collapses – even if only moments before they were laughing and having a good time.

He-Man Not So Strong
That’s what I saw this week – the unseen toll of death and what it does on the inside of the survivors. At the outset, there is only darkness. Psalm 88 is a lament and bitter cry to God from a man named Heman. His psalm concludes with great discouragement:

You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.

Knowing that, I thought it was a perfect expression of grief that Alex changed his Facebook profile picture to a black square this past week.

When someone dies, everything goes flat. In the 48 hours after death, we go through all the pictures of our loved one. And flip as we might through years of photos, even images can be too complicated. Sometimes colors communicate enough – even with our clothes. There’s a reason people wear black to funerals.

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