Sep 22 2009

A Black Square (Death): Part 3

Published by at 2:16 am 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.

One response so far

One Response to “A Black Square (Death): Part 3”

  1. Jessicaon 22 Sep 2009 at 11:44 am

    I am still in awe of how well you *get* it. Thank you for writing this.

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