Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Message

I just posted this on my usual blog, but in case someone comes here and needs to read it:

It's three days before Christmas and I've just learned of the suicide this past week of another young man in his early 20s. I just want to say . . . it's hard. So impossibly hard. I am not sure that there is a more searing form of pain in this life. Although I was able to write of hope in my blog tonight, we are leaving town tomorrow for the third Christmas in a row, and I expect to be be scattering ashes into the Atlantic on Christmas Day. I am writing this so that you know, if you are a parent or other loved one reading this because your Christmas season has just been ripped away, along with the rest of your life, that there are others who accompany you. We may grow into hope, and into lives we never expected or wanted, but we remain heartbroken, and we know, as you do, about things no one wants to know. There is a light that the darkness does not overcome, but the darkness is very dark indeed. May you know that the love to which you once gave birth still flows outward and envelops your child, and may you be surrounded by people who will hang onto to you through the darkness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

If You're Still Here . . .

and I guess you are, because I got a lovely note from someone this morning telling me so . . .

1) Please visit my Advent blog, if you haven't already, here.

2) As I responded to the person who was kind enough to write, I have finally begun to imagine a framework for a book of some/a little/most/? of this material, so I was thinking about going private while I figure that out. But if this meets a need, I can leave it open.

3) If you have any suggestions, the comments are open.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Holidays - Round Three



Others moving onward in the lives.

Numbness all worn away.

Reality is really real.

Think I need me a bottle of that good ole denial stuff.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All I Want

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be . . .

~ Joni

All I want is Josh. Not the Josh of my dreams, not the Josh of my memory, not the Josh of my imagination, not the Josh of my prayer.

I want the flesh and blood Josh of my life. I want him to go to work or grad school, I want him to marry that beautiful girl and adopt those Vietnamese children, I want to watch my tall blond son teaching his dark-haired boys and girls how to play soccer on the beach.

Why is that too much to ask?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Year Three: A Space in Which to Watch and Listen

I've realized from a couple of comments and emails that not everyone has made it over to the new place, so I thought I'd cross-post this one (which perhaps should have been posted here originally):

And so . . .

Late yesterday afternoon my son and I drove the few hours to my husband's hometown for his brother's retirement party. We stopped at nearby Chautauqua on the way so that I could purchase a gift for another party today and also the Barbara Brown Taylor CDs from the summer - a Sunday morning service, a Sunday evening Vespers service which has become a traditional time in which the preachers of the week to share some of their personal stories, and five weekday services.

BBT is one of the reasons I have just graduated from seminary. She was "introduced" to me a couple of decades ago by one of my stepsisters who was a parishoner of hers in Clarksville GA, and I've heard her preach several times at Chautauqua. I had planned to go for one of the week-day services in July, but found that that beautiful place, with its memories of summer after summer with our children and of the last time there, taking some ashes down to the lake on Thanksgiving night two years ago, was not yet possible for me. I had hoped to make one drive around the grounds yesterday, but it turns out that Chautauqua is also too much for my son.

Car rides with kids, even 26-year-old kids, are great opportunities for conversation. My son shared some of his feelings about this past week and his fears about the party toward which we were headed. I told him that my brother had called to express apprehension about my attendance at this event on this particular week-end.

As it turned out, Matt spent much of the evening settled into a couch with a cousin and some other young men he doesn't know, watching football on tv. I spent most of it sitting around a table with my husband's sisters and their husbands and one of their daughters, who's just started college. I watched the new babies and their families out of the corner of my eye, and here's what I saw:

The babies are beautiful and peaceful and never at a loss for arms in which to be held ~

The young mothers look very happy, a little tired, and at ease in their new roles ~

The grandmothers and great-grandmother are ecstatic ~

It looks (and I recall that it is) much easier to care for one newborn than two, especially when you are surrounded by extended family ~

No one shared birth stories with me, no one tried to hand babies to me, no one mentioned what it was like when there were two babies in the family 26 years ago.

Which caused me to wonder:

Do I exhibit a terrible stillness that renders me unapproachable? Are they sensitive to my feelings? Or are they just scared of the woman whose own baby grew up only to die?

Probably no one even notices. Perhaps it's only me ~ because I am so aware that if Josh were here, I wouldn't be able to get enough of those babies and their mothers.

And so . . .

I am thinking that two years ago I would not have gone near that party. A year ago I would have gone and been outside in tears within five minutes. Last night I made it through three hours and managed, I think, to appear quite normal. (Perhaps when my husband comes home tonight, he will offer a different impression.)

I see that this is a year in which to watch and listen, to absorb and reflect. I wonder at the randomness of it all ~ how my sister-in-law has a happy marriage, a job she enjoys, a beautiful home, three grown children, and now two beautiful grandchildren, and how she smiles and laughs. I wonder how many times I have been, in my own happiness, oblivious to the concealed pain of others. (I am not commenting on my sister-in-law or anyone else ~ only on myself.

Matt and I spent a lot of our car time talking about how much you share, how much you don't. What does he say to new acquaintances in law school? I am still stunned, he says, that my brother is dead, and by suicide. What do I say to new people, some of whom might become good friends and some not? How do I tell stories about my life?

I tell him that I have no idea. I tell him that one of my best friends is a woman I met on the first day of law school all those years ago, and that she became a person who immediately flew back from California when his brother died and accompanied me to the crematorium. But how would I have predicted any of that when we were young women studying law together? I tell him that some years ago she told me that she remembers in great detail the moment when we were getting to know each other over our morning cookie snack, a few weeks into school, and I told her that my mother had died when I was a child. It was a simple statement of fact for me, a stunning revelation for her. I don't remember the conversation at all; it is burned into her mind. What effect do our words have on people? I am a preacher: I should know the answer to that one. I find that I have no idea.

I tell him that I do not know what to tell, what not.

(This blog, form instance, is probably too much sharing. But in truth it reveals little of the depth of this experience.)

And so . . . watching and listening, and trying to figure out how to live. What to share because it helps me. What to offer because it might help others. What to keep to myself.

Year Three begins.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Suicide and Faith (Part III)

I think that it would be fair to say that one of the basic threads of discussion which I have pursued with my spiritual director for the past two years goes something like this:

Where was God?

Not exactly an original question in the wake of catastrophe. But then, originality is not a requirement.

My daughter is driving from North Carolina to Ohio as I write this. I have spent the past 26 years waging a battle against terror whenever any of my children are out of my sight. Having lost a mother, brother, stepmother, and aunt all to sudden deaths at young ages, I have no particular sense of assurance about human safety or well-being. Actually, I have none at all. But I did pretty well for 24 years, and managed to conceal most of my fears and not convey them to my children. And then one night something I wasn't even afraid of came true.

So where was God? I have asked tearfully and furiously and tiredly, over and over and over. Not with respect to myself. I couldn't have cared less about that. With respect to my child.

After about a year, I had reached the point at which I could at least acknowledge the promise Jesus makes in Matthew 28:20: "Lo, I am with you always." And hope that it might be true.

And then it was completely ruined for me by a sermon preached at seminary. It happens that that verse is preceded by one in which Jesus says "Go and make disciples of all people." The sermon was an energetic call to mission, and an argument that making disciples of all people is a predicatory requirement for Jesus' continued presence with us. "No 'Lo' without the 'Go!' " said the pastor,

I was completely devastated. I had just barely, gingerly, come to a tentative and fragile confidence that Jesus might have been with and fully present to my son when he died, and this preacher essentially told me: No.

It was months before I set foot in the seminary chapel again.

Now another year has gone by.

And I have slowly and tentatively reached the point at which I can barely grasp the hope that the Jesus who is always present to people at their lowest and most helpless was surely with my child; that the Jesus who always extends healing and wholeness to the sick and broken did the same for him.

I am able to say that largely out of my own experience, out of my gradual waking to the recognition that Jesus has been present to me in so many ways through other people since Josh died. And I am not nearly as broken as Josh was. So my only conclusion can be that Jesus is even more interested in him.


I know that some folks are wondering why I am writing this. I sometimes wonder myself. Shouldn't I, as a spiritual director and almost-pastor, be offering emphatic assurance in the hope of the Resurrected Christ?

I think it's important, even if only in this little-read blog, to witness to the genuine experience of the most horrific kinds of loss. The path to a renewed and confident faith is a steep and rocky one, with many slides backward over rough gravel and gnarly roots. Pretending otherwise is of no help to anyone.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Suicide and Faith (Part II)

Part II because you have to read the post below to get this one fully.

My argument is that suicide is in a realm of its own when it comes to the survival of the religious faith of those left behind. I would not presume to suggest comparisons in other ways to other losses, particularly where children are concerned.

The challenge emerges out of what suicide is ~ a decision (not, I would say, a choice) against life, against one's OWN gift of life. If you are are Jewish or Christian, your Scriptures are replete with the exhortation to "Choose life!" If you have spent any time at all with someone who is dying, or whose illness or injury makes dying a very real possibility, you know that the impulse to choose life ~ this life, the earthly one ~ is difficult indeed to counteract. Most people, regardless of their beliefs about whatever comes next, will undergo tremendous suffering for the purpose of hanging onto this life. Their reasons are varied, but underneath them all lies a fundamental conviction that life is of value, and a deep, deep desire to continue to participate in it.

Not so for the person who dies by suicide. At least not in that last irreversible moment.

Many years after my mother and brother died, probably when I was in my twenties, my surviving brother told me that our grandmother, our father's mother, had once told him that after that car accident she was finished with God. She wanted nothing whatever to do with a God who would let such a thing happen. "But the Holocaust?" I said ~ by which I meant: the world is full of suffering and death, much of it on a vast scale. And yet the Jewish people are among God's biggest champions. "I dunno," shrugged my brother. "That's what she said."

My grandmother's response has not been mine. Although, like my brother, I grew up in a family in which the general theological stance was Too Much Senseless Suffering = No God, I came out in a different place. And I have been extraordinarily graced by God in many ways in the past two years. I have, after all, had an entire Presbyterian seminary at my disposal, and I have had the friendship and help of Catholic priests who are able to hear anything and everything with complete aplomb, and I have had the companionship of friends of every religious persuasion and non-persuasion.

But the question remains.

What about my child?

Like any halfway decent parent, I would without a glance backward trade every gift I have been given for him to enjoy them instead of me.

It is all one of the greatest of conundrums, and one of the greatest challenges to a parent's faith.

Suicide (Not for the Faint of Heart)

I could be wrong (wouldn't THAT be surprising?) but I have about concluded that the suicide of a child is the ultimate challenge to any understanding of faith. As is the suicide of a sibling or parent, although the reasons would be somewhat different.

Maybe I'll start thinking about how to articulate that. For now all I can do is mumble something along the lines of: no matter what the articulation of faith in the face of suffering -- like this for instance -- my brilliant comeback is always, "Yes, but . . .".

The suicide of a child is in its own category.

Let me try this:

I went to the eye doctor several months ago. She has cared for all of my children all of their lives. In the context of our conversation about Josh, she told me about another patient family in which the son died last year in a motorcyle crash on the day he graduated from college. The mother and daughter have become speakers promoting organ donation. Brave, heroic women. No question about it.

Do you see the problem?

Suicide: No organ donation. No heroics ~ which is to say, no salvific sense of purposefulness in courage or in helping others ~ not for the person who has died and not for the survivors. Death, brutal and violent - and alone. The knowledge that someone you loved far more than your own life suffered so terribly, and that one aspect of that suffering was an inability to seek help. No good-byes. No conversation at all. And an action that so violates every tenet of life, an action taken by someone whose own life was a process and product of your own love, at conception and for every moment thereafter. Even if you are confident, as I am, that suicide in most cases (including this one) is not the act of a rational person (which is another conclusion that causes only anguish), it is still different than, say, being run over by a train, or cornered by an illness.

The summer right before Josh died, I spent 11 weeks doing my clinical pastoral education in a hopsital in which almost all of the patients are critically ill. Dozens of my patients died. I poured my very being into offering spiritual care to all of those people and their families, most of them complete strangers to me. I could not do that for my own child.

On Sunday I will be preaching on God's all-encompassing love. That's what I believe in; that's all I can believe in.

But some days it's a real stretch to find any point of contact between faith and experience.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Clothes, Books, Mysteries

I decided that today I would empty the three big suitcases and sort through whatever they held.

Clothes, mostly. Well-worn t-shirts and jeans. Casual business clothes, pants and shirts and shoes which I helped him purchase as he made the transition from college to work. He had no idea what to buy, and we had a lot of fun figuring it out together. Most of them will go to a shelter. Although he and his brother are twins, he was six inches taller and weighed about 30 pounds more.

I am keeping the fleece jackets. They fit me; I plan to snuggle into the memories when autumn comes.

Bedding. Some of it flannel sheets for twin beds, which we can use in this house for guest beds. Some of it the last sheets and quilt he used -- I don't want them.

Socks. Lots of perfectly good socks. I ask his brother whether he wants them. Does one want to wear the socks of one's dead brother? I don't know.

Boxers. You can't really give those away, can you? I recognize a number of them; I've often purchased packets of brightly patterned underwear as Christmas stocking gifts.

Some workbooks and craft items that may have belonged to his girlfriend. Another pile. I'll have to contact her when I'm finished.

Some artwork; some prints he purchased toward the end of his life. I like them very much; into a pile they go, for a someday pastor's study.

"They belonged to my son," I'll say when someone asks. I won't elaborate.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Day

During the growing-up years, there were three children in our house and four next door. They all played together during endless summer days, and for many years our Lovely Daughter and the youngest girl next door were inseparable friends.

The father next door is German, their family frequently goes back and forth to and from Germany, and the oldest daughter is married to a German man and lives there. Three years ago she gave birth to boy-girl twins. There was much excitement all around during her pregnancy as we all remembered the days when I had baby boys.

When she became pregnant with twins again (another boy-girl pair), her mother delayed telling me, and she did not announce their arrival a week or so ago for a month's stay. I heard the older children playing outside one morning, and called across the fence to find out whether their mom was here with all four children. But I didn't go over.

The next day I was working at my desk, in front of a window which overlooks the street, when mom and grandma walked by, each pushing a double stroller. I called out my congratulations, but I didn't go down. Breathe in, breathe out. One step at a time. Just adjust to the babies being here before trying to meet them.

Today we needed to borrow their pick-up truck, and the dad-now-grandpa brought the keys over. We were moving all of Josh's belongings out of storage, since some of them are going to his sister's apartment. (After we emptied his apartment in Chicago, we simply rented a storage locker, put everything in there, and did not look back. But now, 22 months and $3,000 later, it's time. A lot of his stuff is now in our front hall, but I am determined to be done with it by the end of the week.)

At any rate, I had to take the keys back, which meant that I met the new babies. The little boy, as I had thought from Facebook photos, looks much as Josh did at that age, and has the same easygoing temperament. I didn't ask to pick him up. Breathe in, breathe out.

Some high schools friends of the young mother were over with their own baby, and that young lady chattered happily about how wonderful it would be for the two sets of twins growing up. "Automatic best friends," she said.

I suppose that, after I left, she learned that it doesn't always last.

I'm writing this just to get it out of my system. This is why, I suppose, it is so hard to maintain normal friendships.

Other people are, I think, at the pool today and planning barbecues for tonight.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mothering and Mystery

I heard a Mother's Day sermon this year that has stayed with me primarily because of the anguish it caused me. The preacher related, at length, a touching personal story of mother-child engagement and bonding over a challenging difference between the two of them. It was a story of great and loving generosity on the part of the mother, one of those stories that is entirely inappropriate for a day on which many in the congregation are acutely aware that . . .

Their own loving and generous mothers have died ~

Their own mothers were never either loving or generous ~

They themselves would have been wonderful mothers, but that opportunity was denied them ~

They have been exemplary mothers, but are nevertheless estranged from a child ~

Their own love could not save a child from illness, from injury, from self-destructive behavior, from death ~

This morning I read a beautiful sermon on comprehending the love of God as we understand the love of a mother. (Magdalene, its author, is one of my favorite preachers; I have threatened to copy and plagiarize all her sermons, seeing little reason to bother with my own when hers are so eloquent.) At one point, she inserts the caveat that would have made the above-described Mother's Day sermon so much more palatable:

"Every metaphor has its limits, and this one is no exception. There are wonderful mothers who cannot save their children from unendurable pain, and there are dreadful mothers whose children overcome and thrive."

That is, I told her, the great mystery of my life. (Well, one of them, anyway.)

It's been almost 50 years since my mother died, and the first stepmother I acquired was of the Cinderella variety. And yet I am a strong and loving and (when I am not consumed by myself) reasonably generous person. As I told the grief counselor whom I saw for awhile after Josh died, I have enough resiliency for ten people ~ and yet . . .

My child, to whom I tried to convey at least enough for one, and who was showered with endless gifts and resources, including the most important one ~ a family who loved and encouraged and supported him every step of the way ~ was unable to survive.

One of my friends once left a comment on one of my posts to the effect that it was so heartbreaking that Josh had died when he was loved so very much.

Of course, there is a different kind of heartbreak in the fact that many children live without love; live, in fact, embraced primarily by indifference and neglect, or even cruelty and abuse.

It is such a strange world that we inhabit.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Social Challenges

I would very much like to hear how others of you manage these things.

Example: My daughter and I attended a baby shower ~ which for me was pure agony, for a number of reasons beyond the usual. It seems to have meant a lot to the young mothers-to-be that we went, and I survived, but not without some damage.

Example: My husband and I are skipping a wedding this week-end. To do the whole thing would entail 24-plus hours away from home engaged in nonstop celebration. We have attended two weddings since Josh died, and I think we have sworn them off for awhile. But people are Not Happy with us.

Example: A conflict has emerged over a moms' week-end away and an 8-day retreat I have planned. I do need to spend time with my friends, but I also need this time away with a spiritual director who has particular gifts and training applicable to the situation in which I find myself. I think I am at a pretty critical turning point, and I would like to navigate something well rather than badly for a change.

How I see it: People have, of course, gone on with their own lives. I WANT my friends to enjoy each other and their children and grandchildren. I cannot expect them to know that, much as I want to see and talk with them, the usual, run-of-the-mill social events are painful for me and I do much better with one-on-one conversations over coffee. I have tried to hint at that, but apparently I need to wear a sign. Interestingly, I am doing much better these days at keeping up with friends who are not part of my usual "group," precisely because we do get together only occasionally and usually only in pairs.

More challenge: My husband, who was already an Introvert of the Highest Order, lost his son and father in one 18-month period. I am trying to be supportive of his needs as well as my own and our children's, and often we don't mesh. I read somewhere that a family in grief is a like a family in a pool or lake ~ when one person comes up for air, she looks around and see no one, because everyone is popping up on different timetables. It requires a whole new level of resiliency and commitment to stay in the water.

The kicker: I am no different from anyone else. I, too, find it difficult to remain attentive to and considerate of friends who have suffered big losses.

I wish that I were a brilliant conversationalist and moved with ease in the world, someone of whom people could say, "She's so strong and courageous!"

I wish that I lived all by myself in a cottage on the edge of the sea, someone whom only migrating birds would see, and of whom people could say, "Well, she just vanished."

Real life is a good deal more ~ um ~ mushy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Blogging Survivors of Suicide II

Connections are good.

Of course, it's mostly confidential.

But as one woman, four months in, raised that issue with which we all struggle, that someone we loved could have suffered so much in the last moments of life, another woman, four years in, said that she has read that people who survive suicide attempts often say that they have no memory at all of the minutes just before. Complete dissociation.

As with most things related to this subject, I think that we all wondered whether that is or is not comforting news.

As with most things, we have no way of knowing.

And I said, in connection with a wedding we are not attending this month, that I live at a generally high level of psychic pain and that, when I anticipate it spiking toward 90-100%, I feel no obligation to inflict that degree of injury upon myself.

And everyone nodded in complete agreement and understanding.

Blogging Survivors of Suicide I

I'm going to a meeting tonight. I haven't been in over a year: I've mostly been out of town on Thursdays. I tried to go two weeks ago, but it was canceled, so . . . maybe tonight.

I'm in a very different place than I was a year ago. It's been about a year since the Hebrew verb "to kill" became a central feature of one of our three-hour classes (to kill, to be killed, to have killed, to kill oneself), at the end of which I dissolved into very public tears. A few nights ago I was at a meeting at which someone eagerly shared with us the "dry bones" verses from Ezekiel, telling us that it's one of the most important passages with which she prays on her annual retreat, a time each summer during which she seeks re-creation. That's one of the passages of which I now steer clear, being as how dead bones and sinews are not, in fact, ever put back together, but I found that I had no need to say anything. I just let her have the pleasure of sharing a piece of Scripture that has life-giving meaning for her. No commentary from me required or desired.

But I am terribly, terribly sad. I am sorting and clearing through our house and it's taking a very long time, because I find things, and memories pour through me and I am immobilized for the next few days. I've actually spent most of today doing the denial thing by reading a very good mystery, after a little meltdown last night. But this evening, as I started to get ready to go out, I found myself imagining early summer evenings in this kind of heat 20 years ago: bringing the kids home from the pool, no one changing out of already-dry swim suits, making sandwiches for dinner, my children running around with those from next door in the waning light, popsicles for all, an hour of stories, settling my daughter into her bed with a cat picture book and listening outside the door as the boys chattered to each other in the dark.

Another person's life?

There's no predicting what will happen at this meeting. But I am feeling the need for some connection.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cremation Liturgy

This is my first try at this. I drafted this as a liturgy for a crematorium, with the idea that it is for the family and friends who might gather there for a cremation before or after a full funeral or memorial service.

Obviously it emerges from Christian faith, but it could easily be modified. (OK, maybe not all that easily. But somewhat. ) Also, names and pronouns could easily be inserted where I've used the phrase "our beloved."

What I am trying to do is express some of the realities of cremation, and I have taken much from the wisdom in the comments to the previous post.

All comments welcome. I am going to go ahead and hit "Publish," because I have already done so accidentally several times today as I've worked on this.

May God be with us all.

With us all, both here and there.
May God be with us all.
With us all, those we can see and hear and touch, and those we cannot.
May God be with us all.
With us all, those who live and those who have died

A reading from Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.

A Prayer:

We are not where we want to be.
We are in a strange land.
We are in a foreign land, far from comfort and familiarity.
We are in a land of fire.

A Reading from Psalm 139:

Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

A Prayer:

Our hearts are broken.
Our bodies are bent.
We are doing one of the hardest things.
We are giving up the body of our beloved one.
A body formed most wonderfully and intricately.
A body woven in secret.
A body that walked and ran and spoke and cried.
A body that loved and is loved.
A body that will be transformed by fire.
A body whose ashes we will carry to other places.

A Prayer (Based on Exodus 3):

We stand on holy ground.
We know that fire consumes and we know that it does not.
It consumes the precious body of our beloved.
It destroys the harm, the damage, the pain our beloved suffered.
But it does not consume the love we share.
It does not destroy the bonds that link us together.

A Prayer

Holy and Gracious God,
Creator of All,
You created the body for which we care today.
We confess that we do not know what to do,
That we are limited in knowledge and understanding,
And that we can only commit this body to your care and love,
Knowing that our beloved whose absence tears at our hearts
Lives with you forever,
And that the love we share
Cannot be consumed by fire, cannot be buried in the ground,
Cannot float away in the water, cannot vanish into the air,
But can only live into eternity
Because love is stronger than death.

Benediction (Contextualized from The Book of Common Prayer):

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our beloved, and we commit this body to the fire. May God bless and keep our beloved and may the face of God shine upon our beloved. May God be gracious unto us all and give us peace.

Ashes to Ashes

Over at my new place, I described a bit of my experience a couple of weeks ago in scattering some of my son's ashes in places meaningful to us in North Carolina. I left out most of what I was thinking and some of where we went ~ private property where we received permission along with the words, "We are honored" ~ but private property, nevertheless. So you can get a glimmer, but not much beyond that, from those posts.

Meanwhile, this week one of my blogging friends is attending a workshop in Living with Loss/Grieving and I raised the question, as I guess I have before, of cremation liturgies. I am thinking specifically of situations like ours, common in the United States, where there is a funeral or memorial service in a house of worship with the cremation happening at a separate facility before or after. In most cases in this country, family and friends do not go to the crematorium. I did, with a friend, but in the trauma of that week, it did not occur to me that perhaps a short but intentional service there would have been a good thing.

Diana asked me about my thoughts on cremation liturgies. Perhaps I will write one over the next few days. My very beginning thoughts(which I left in comments to one of her posts) go something like this:

"I think that cremation forces us to confront the end of an embodied existence in a way that burial may not. I think that fire is a very different element than earth and its connotations are quite different. And when all is done, you have not a mound of earth but a container of ash -- no place to visit, but material to deal with, and that's something that people handle in a variety of ways."

I would very much appreciate hearing from others about their thoughts, experiences, and ideas.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


When I read many of the posts written by other mothers who have lost children, I am often blown away: by their energy, their generosity, their ability to "get out there" and be with family and friends and colleagues. Usually these readings and reactions occur when I am sitting in bed, either wrapped in a quilt or (more likely, these days) sprawled in front of a fan, and contemplating tasks which have suddenly become overwhelming, like making a sandwich for lunch or putting in a load of laundry.

Then one of those amazing women writes a note or leaves a comment to the effect that "life is very hard today," and I am reminded that they, too, have their moments ~ or days, or weeks. Or life.

A couple of months ago I raised the "I can't imagine" issue with my two pastors. (You all know how much I hate that phrase. ) "You know," responded one of them, "I can imagine; I don't have that much trouble imagining something happening to one of my children, because it's a genuine nightmare of mine. What I can't imagine is this: how are you doing this, sitting fully dressed and having a conversation in a coffee shop? How are you going onward day by day, doing ordinary things?"

I've been thinking about that question, and I realize that I am split in two, most of the time. There's the public me, the me that looks and walks and talks pretty normally, the me that can go to school and meetings and events and about whom people probably say, "She's doing well." That me is getting stronger and more capable each day, and will probably be able to do some good things in ministry.

Then there's the private me, the me that feels as if I am walking across a vast terrain of broken glass all the time, any piece of which may suddenly pierce the calloused bottom of my foot and cause a silent yelp of pain and an unseen limp. Sometimes those jagged pieces protrude into my feet and life five or six times a day; sometimes, pretty much every minute, all day long.

I am so grateful to have made and now recovered this fairly private blog space, where I can say all of that. I do feel that I have sisters and brothers who walk with me, most especially sisters who have lost children and sisters in ministry, among whom I can say, when I need to, that regardless of what you see on the surface, at the moment I'm crunching broken glass under my bare feet.

I think that maybe the suffering God whom I've been wondering about, the Silent One, is in the space between the two of me, making a tenuous whole possible. I'm not sure, but maybe.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Does God Suffer?

One of my great privileges over the past year has been to study with a brilliant new member of the seminary faculty. He appeared for the last quarter of my second year to teach a class on Christology. I'd already taken the course, but a friend mentioned one night that I might want to visit the new guy's class which I ended up doing almost every week following. He was teaching not only the subject at hand, but also how to evaluate various theological approaches. Finally! ~ I felt that I was getting that for which I had gone to seminary: the opportunity to begin to learn to think like a theologian.

I did an independent study with this professor the next (this past winter) quarter on the subjects of sin, grace, and freedom. I'm sure that I was a consistent disappointment to him, in that my complete lack of background in philosophy meant that the readings were virtually incomprehensible to me, but I did struggle through them. And then I audited his course on Stanley Hauerwas and took his course on Miroslav Volf. In the end, I was able to graduate with the sense that I had learned a tiny bit about Reformation and contemporary theology and a tiny bit about how to approach my own future study, and had found a friend with whom I could continue the conversation.

I had a question for him last week, and in response he sent me a paper he'd written in grad school. The overall question has to do with God's emotional life, but I thought we'd start with the question within the question: Does God suffer? It's been a topic of significant debate during the past century, and is for obvious reasons of great interest to me.

What do you think? Does God suffer? Does it matter to you whether or not God does? Are you comforted or reassured one way or the other? Does the question bother you? Go for it ~

Monday, June 14, 2010


Well. It seems that people are out there. Who knew?

I started wondering a few days ago whether I should re-open and rename this blog: Desert Year and A Summer Later. I suppose that's too much of a hassle; besides, at the moment, I like how the title looks. I think that we can just accept that the first year or so of grief does not much resemble a calendar year.

I have a whole jumble of things to explore over the next whatever time. Maybe some of them, here or there, will be meaningful to someone else. I know that a number of the names I see in the comments to the last post represent people reeling from unfathomable losses. Let's see . . .

Still dealing with the, ummmmm (how can I put this charitably?) . . . oblivious I mean unformed among us:

Those reading my new, non-anonymous blog, know that I took a class on theologian Miroslav Volf this past spring. One evening before our weekly meeting, I emailed my professor, described the specific ways in which the reading assignment for the next day had tormented me, and asked him to please leave me alone if I had nothing to say in class. He responded with a compassionate email of his own. As it happened, the class the next afternoon moved along without incident until about the last twenty minutes. At that point, one of the young men began to talk about the issues to which I had referred in my email the previous night, and proceeded to pontificate about God opening a window whenever God closes a door, and about our obligation to help those who are suffering to focus on the window rather than the door. It was quite a lengthy soliloquy, going on for several minutes. Obviously this young man has not experienced God's slamming, bolting, and gluing a door shut with no window distributor in sight. The professor stole a look a me, but I was absolutely silent ~ mostly because the only response I could think of was to knock the guy out cold. Since our primary class topic was reconciliation, I thought that I should restrain myself.

I am working on this matter of how to teach people to respond appropriately to the pain of others without being too pathetic myself. It's a challenge.

Yet another transition:

This business of having finished my M.Div. is tough. Lots of questions. I have been wondering a lot whether I went back to school too soon. I still think that it will be years before I understand what it might have meant to be in seminary during this period. I continued to pile up the As, but I certainly could not appreciate what I was learning as I might have had I been in another frame of mind. Does that mean I appreciated it differently, and will use it differently, in ways that are meaningful? Or should I just have stayed in bed? That's where I am right now, and it seems like a good place to be.

And now what? Given the Presbyterian call system, no one is pushing me into the next thing. As far as I can tell, despite all of the time, energy, effort, and money that have been invested in my theological education, I could simply drop off the radar screen without anyone uttering a sound. We have committees that are supposed to keep track of us, but the initiative is entirely with those of us moving from one hoop to another. It's a bizarre process and a surreal situation.

The challenge of a child's death by suicide:

I have read and been the recipient of an awful lot of advice to the effect that God is always present, God strengthens you through suffering, God can transform even the worst into . . . something, blah blah blah. I could believe all of that about most things, at least if I were the only person concerned. Although I have at least two good friends who have had cancer whose response, and I believe I am being accurate and precise here, would be, "Bullshit." And even if I am correct, the cost is too high. As I said in one of my classes one day in which the discussion centered on what we gain through suffering, I probably became a far stronger and more independent and resilient person because of the early death of my mother than I would have otherwise. But ~ and leaving my mother's own well-being out of the equation entirely ~ I would be glad to have been able to trade the aforesaid strength and independence and resiliency for the chance to grow up with a mother.

All of the above, however, fades into complete irrelevance when one is faced with the death of a child by suicide. Where was God, or God's strengthening or transforming power? I am actually coming, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, to some thoughts about that, but they are not obvious or easily digested. We'll see.

Finding meaning anyway (finding God in all things):

Finally ~ sigh ~ perhaps this will be the main topic of the summer. It's a hallmark of Ignatian spirituality, this finding of God in all things. But, as that 80-year-old Jesuit friend of mine says, "First you have to find God in some things." Working on it.

It's that matter of trading, again. (Would it surprise you to know that I once made a good friend cry during a game of Monopoly, when I ruthlessly traded my way up to all hotels on the Boardwalk and Park Place side?) The truth is, I can see God in many things these days. And I would trade almost every single one of them, including relationships which are precious to me, for my son's life. The whole board, all the properties, all the cash, all the houses and hotels ~ you could have every last one of them.

It is very hard to get used to seeing God in things you would willingly trade away and trying to figure out if God is in other things that you cannot see or grasp.


I wonder how this is done ~ this survival thing. It seems that, 21 months into it, I have no idea at all.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I am going to re-open this blog for the summer.

Anyone still out there?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

20 Months and 2 Days

No, it doesn't ease.

It changes, that's all.

There are always new events, new encounters, new tasks ~ and each one brings with it a new facet of pain, or sadness, or longing.

This morning I found myself thinking, "OK, it's been long enough; it's time for you to come home so we can get on with our lives."

I will graduate from seminary in a few weeks. (Assuming that I ever finish The Big Huge Paper about which I have no thoughts whatever.) I wish that that particular event could mean to me what I once anticipated it would. I have no idea what it means now, to me or to anyone else, other than yet another milestone which my family is unable to acknowledge or celebrate together.

I imagine my son saying to me, "Mom, I am so sorry. I love you so much and I did not imagine that I would be transferring my pain to you forever."

But that's only in my imagination.