Category Archives: Grief and loss

Apocalypse and the Stuffed Giraffe

During a long, often frightening 2016 whose results only intensify the dynamics, a nation argues over whether to name its presidential candidates crooks, fascists, or worse.

At a lunch with a denomination’s representatives, talk turns to ways the polities of two denominations to which many seminary students belong are shifting. Just in pondering almost idly the effects, we find the conversation eddying across the many seminaries we personally know to be in crisis.

Terror strikes. Walls are breached or threatened. Police shoot away lives that matter and sometimes are shot. Temperatures hit constant global records while floods ravage Louisiana, fires burn across California’s Interstate 15, and Zillow.com projects nearly a trillion dollars worth of real estate possibly under coastal waters in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Fear stalks the land. Will we survive? I believe yes; here we are after millennia of catastrophes. But will our lives, communities, institutions, structures, countries, planet be recognizable?

Amid such questions my mother-in-law Mildred died of surgery complications after breaking a femur. The intensities, sorrows, and sometimes grace-filled moments of her final days unfolded as four family units scattered across the country had been scheduled to arrive for vacation in Maine by plane and car. Instead we kept vigil as she died. Now to get from her funeral in western New York to our remaining time in Maine we added a rented SUV to family cars.

After lunch that three-car, three-generational caravan of lacerated souls headed across 600 miles through hauntingly pastoral New York and New England landscapes as the sun faded hour by hour into the west and into late-afternoon sweet light. At a chaotic, crowded truck stop a rumpled man pestered us. So many disrupted days and nights and feelings had left us all shot. We didn’t want to talk. He wouldn’t stop.

Finally out of no sense of mission but hoping he’d then shut up, I engaged him. He launched into his story. He was a trucker from Las Vegas—where his wife with stage-4 cancer might, he’d just learned, be in her final hours. From the truck stop he’d try to drive straight to Vegas without pausing except for catnaps. Soon he left.

Then, enroute to his truck, he was back: with gifts of stuffed animals and candy for the children in our caravan. Weeks later came a photo of one reading books with her new giraffe snuggled beside her.

Across the under-maintained infrastructure of interstates, across an America at risk of apocalypse if we define it as the unraveling of stabilities and communal compassions as we’ve known them, an ordinary man, even a wearisomely intrusive man, races to say good-bye to his dying wife.

But in that liminal space between earth and Beyond, souls reach for each other. And amid all the anguishes of the era, as 2016 turns toward 2017, the images leap from the photo: A girl sitting on a rocker has swaddled a stuffed giraffe then tucked it in beside her. She sits with her picture books. The pages she’s focused on include an apple, a sippy cup, sneakers, a tractor, a boy on a toy car, an orange, a teddy bear, and much more. Her gaze shows that she is learning—even in these times—about the magic of the world she has been both cursed and blessed to be born into.

—Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University seminary (where he drew on some of the materials in this column in a presentation) and graduate programs. He writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post.

Body Fading, Essence Soaring, by Miriam Blank

KCGuestPostMiriamBlank300x300x72This morning, kneeling beside my mother on the deck, I was gripped by the fleeting treasure of her fragile resilient life.  The process of dying, I believe, is a holy space, just as is birth.

This morning, like every morning, I went over to ask her how her night was. Dad had her out on the deck surrounded by bird song and five flowering baskets from mother’s day.

She sat quietly, a little queen in her corner. I asked her how she slept and she got a mischievous smile. She had a dream, she said, that she was pregnant. She was a little worried that people might think, “Crazy old lady, what is she doing pregnant?”

But in her dream she was happy to be pregnant.  She said, “It was my baby.”

I thought of the days my mother was young. There is a photo of Mom at about 31, holding my oldest brother Nelson while pregnant with her next child.  No one can doubt how full of new life she is, standing quietly holding it all.

MaryLouBlank
Mary Lou Blank, mother of author Miriam, holding her first child and pregnant with her fourth in this photo taken during the Blank family’s missionary years in Mexico. Mary Lou went on to bear six children over nine years.

I told her, “Maybe it is a sign that even in this season of things breaking down, you are full of new life.”

We talked about how she is experiencing great joy, peace and love each day. She said she liked my interpretation of her dream; that it fit. Mom is more expressive of her love for everyone than she has ever been. She seems at relative peace with her losses in this season of endings. “Everyone has to die,” she has said, with a little smile.  She laughs often.  Her body so frail is spilling over with beauty.

I know others might not see it as I do, and I don’t always see it this way either. But I am bending over her being each day and am taking in each moment with new eyes, knowing more than ever that each day with her is a gift. Like parents who can’t stop talking about their little child, and can’t get over the miracle growing in their arms, I can’t get over her growing beauty.

Mary Lou, Lester, and Miriam Blank
Mary Lou and Lester Blank with author Miriam Blank

Others may see her listing to one side of the wheelchair, stuttering over a word, drooling, or looking distantly across the room and wonder at my delight in this season.  I don’t deny the sadness.  It is there, and I take my turn with tears. Her tiny body seems to be shriveling up and disappearing. She is so small now in her recliner; it seems to fold in and hide her away. She sleeps more, eats less, forgets more, and words are harder to say.

But as her body fades and fails, her essence soars. Her spirit flames. She shakes with the fullness of her life and the rich stories of love layered within.  She can’t get over the flowers and the blue sky. To her they are a new wonder every morning. She is full of new life. She is quietly holding it all.

–Miriam Blank, Gap, Pennsylvania, is a professional counselor, spiritual director, and certified life coach.  In the past Miriam worked 15 years as a registered nurse and certified nurse-midwife.

Losing Seth, Part 2: In the Heart of God, by Larry Dunn

KinsgviewCoGuestPostSethLarryDunnAs I shared in “Forever,” Part 1 of “Losing Seth,” the death of our son Seth four years ago raised many questions for me. Most remain unanswered. Foremost has been the question of God’s presence in this experience of immeasurable loss and suffering.

In his well-known book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on the death of his own son Eric, noting the connection between suffering and love. I shared some of his thoughts along with those of my own at a memorial service at Bethel College in Kansas, where Seth was set to return for his senior year:

To the why of suffering the Christian gospel gives us no answer. It eludes us. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it. For some unknown reason love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony.

When I called one of my closest friends that day to give him the news, he simply repeated, “No! No! No!” Suffering is the shout of no by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers—the shout of no by gut and gland and heart to pain, to death.

Thank you for your no. Thank you for your suffering—alongside us, alongside one another, alongside God. And thank you for your love—your love for God, your love for one another, your love for us, and your love for Seth.

In a chapter I wrote for the book A Road Too Short for the Long Journey potentially to be published by a colleague on grief, I tried making sense of the “mysterious presence” of God which I had experienced largely as absence. There I wrote,

Where is God in all of this? My youngest son Isaac said, “God was the first one to cry when Seth died.” Such an idea, if thought about too carefully, might throw many into a crisis of faith. But without another explanation, I need this to be true. How else to understand God’s silence? How else to account for God’s absence?

Sometime later, during Lent, the solidarity I had felt with God was wearing thin. The God I thought I knew had been completely, delinquently, irresponsibly absent. I desperately wanted to give God a chance to break the silence, and decided there was only one thing left: to match God’s silence with my own. To listen. To sit quietly and wait. After some weeks, I spent two days at a Catholic retreat center to continue my vigil. The spiritual director there, a compassionate and wise nun, suggested that I write this Absent God a letter. Through anguish and tears and nearly an entire box of tissues, my soul groaned:

God, I’m tired. I’m tired of the pain and the sorrow. I’m tired of walking down this path alone. Tired of the grieving. Where have you been? You’ve been absent since that day, that day I prayed like I’ve never prayed: “Please God. Please.” And what difference did it make? None. I have a lot of questions and you have a lot of explaining to do.

About a year after Seth’s death a friend and his family were involved in a terrible car accident in which a passenger in another vehicle was killed. Later, as he spoke to some others about this traumatic experience, he referred to God’s provision of safety for his family.

Still unable to find anything of God in my own tragedy, I became sensitive to the inadequacy of talk about God. Knowing he would understand and not take offense, I wrote a long email inviting my friend into a conversation:

I have wondered why—if God can and does act in such ways—he chose not to (or was not able to) in Seth’s case. I have yet to come up with an answer that is satisfactory or even makes much sense. Other than the fact that God allowed it and would no doubt desire good to come from it, I can see no other part for God in what happened to Seth. I have prayed often for my sons’ well-being and can imagine a dozen, a hundred, a thousand good reasons why God might want each of them to live long lives.

But if God desires such good, and indeed acts in the world in the way your comment implied, then why would God not protect Seth (or, for that matter, the person in the other car of your accident whose family was also praying at the side of the road) in the same way as he protected your family?

Not everything happens as God would wish it to. I believe that God was indeed happy that no greater harm came to your family. But certainly God found no joy or purpose in the death of the other person or in Seth’s death as some like to suggest about such tragedies. I’m beginning to think that God is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful as we like to think. Perhaps God experiences and responds to what happens in the world just as we do.

What I had previously accepted as reasonable was becoming problematic in light of Seth’s death, and as a seminary graduate I felt foolish that I had not questioned it sooner; that God’s relationship to the evil and injustice of the world—what theologians like to call the problem of theodicy—had to become personal before I more seriously considered what John Caputo refers to as the weakness of God.

Old, inadequate notions of God were being discarded. New ones would take more time. Faith reconsidered. I was reminded of something that C. S. Lewis had written following the death of his wife:

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

There is no danger in saying no to the dreadful belief in a magical deity who arbitrarily intervenes on behalf of some and abandons others. That is not a mystery but a misconception about the Divine. There is no reward, no gain, no redemptive outcome, no compensation or justification, no sacrificial exchange for some higher good, no rationale or explanation—theological or otherwise—for an irreparable loss such as ours.

SusanEliLarryIsaacDunn
Susan, Eli, Larry, and Isaac Dunn

 My no to that event four years ago is a yes to a future hope, one still unimaginable in Seth’s absence. But God is nothing if not the possibility of the impossible. I do not yet know what the promise of God offers for me, or for Seth. But for now, perhaps Ann Weems, in her book, Psalms of Lament, describes that hope best:

O God, in your mysterious power
you make the oceans roar
and the starfish
wash upon the shore.
And my son lives
in the heart of heaven,
and I live
in the heart of earth,
but we live together
in the heart of God.
(From Psalms of Lament by Ann Weems. © 1999. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press)

—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at larry.dunn@fresno.edu.

Losing Seth, Part 1: Forever, by Larry Dunn

KinsgviewCoGuestPostSethLarryDunn

August 1, 2011. The axis of our world shifted that day, our lives forever changed in unimaginable ways. Two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, our oldest son Seth died in a tragic accident while we were together on family vacation.

As an academic, I write. It is one of the things we academics do. How such writing relates to our personal lives, however, particularly in relation to difficult matters, is seldom discussed. Though I have read much about grief, I did not set out to write about it. Yet somewhere along the way I came to realize that I had written a great deal: an obituary and eulogy, some reflections for a memorial gathering, a brief baccalaureate address, emails to colleagues, a devotional, an invited chapter—all related to Seth.

My many years of education have trained me to turn almost anything into an academic exercise, to be philosophical. To the extent that academics has to do with learning, I’d have to say that the experience of losing our son has been a miserable failure. I have learned so much more from Seth’s life than his death. Perhaps that’s because I have experienced grief not primarily as an intellectual process but as an emotional and spiritual one. So I offer here an awkward attempt by the head to make sense of the aching of the heart and soul.

I am struck by how much August 1, 2011, has become the point in time around which everything now revolves. First one week gone by and then another; a memorial service in between that now seems like a distant dream. September 1. October 1. Birthdays and holidays. A year and then two, and now, unbelievably, four years without him. Without hearing his voice. Without feeling his embrace. “Hey Pop!” he used to say, and I would reach up to hug him as he towered above me.

Seth Play photo

This marking of time brings past, present, and future together, each point a painful reminder of life without him. A text message that remains on my cell phone from that morning . . . just hours before. A photo of Seth at work . . . one month before. An event remembered from when our three boys were small, at the time just another moment in our life together . . . now marked as ten years before.

Time before that day becomes a countdown of the time remaining in his life. The innocence of not knowing what could not be known can now be seen in everything we did before that day, seen in our eyes in pictures even before he was born. Innocence no more.

Grief involves not only what was but what might have been and now will never be. Seth was in the prime of his life, on the cusp of his senior college year, ready to launch into the world, full of potential for so much good. Now graduations and weddings and baby showers become reminders of what we and others will miss out on in a future without Seth.

Some recognize the difficulty involved with joining in the celebration of these events and the sadness they can bring on, understanding this aspect of our loss. A few, mostly those who have suffered a loss of their own, gently enter into grief with us. But much of the painful inner reality of our experience goes unrecognized by others, or so it seems. As C. S. Lewis noted following the death of his wife Joy, “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

How long will this grieving go on? How much more time will I need? Will there continue to be moments and days that feel like that first moment, that first day? Why does the pain return with such force when weeks or even months go by that seem to reflect some healing? Why does the head keep pressing for progress, the gaining of insight, the making of sense, the redemption of death’s injustice, when my heart mends ever so slowly? When will sorrow be replaced by gratitude? Where is God in all of this?

Perhaps anticipating these questions, playwright Margaret Edson, in whose play “Wit” Seth had performed at Bethel College, put it this way upon learning of his death: “What doesn’t crumble? Our love. Where do we keep it? Safe inside. How long does it last? Forever.” Our good friend Jean Janzen echoed these thoughts in a beautiful poem she wrote for Seth (used by permission):

Original Blessing

Child in the burning,
stopped heart in August,
this valley ripe
with peaches and heat.
What are the words
of original blessing?

Child become ashes,
the heaving and sobbing.
Body from body
into the blaze
of original blessing.

Child in the wind,
its current now lifting
into the arms
of original blessing.
Arms of the Maker,
arms of First Lover,
“Mine” the first word,
and the second, “Forever.”

A space filled with grief and sorrow, suffering and pain, mystery and questions with no answers is not an easy place to dwell. And yet I must enter into to get out of, go through to get past. I don’t seek healing that is free of tears and sorrow since my wound reflects some measure of my love for Seth and his worth to his family and friends and mother and brothers and me.

For now there seems no other way. This is not hopelessness, but the reality of his absence and my grief. It is what makes possible my solidarity with others who endure suffering and loss. Including God.

—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at larry.dunn@fresno.edu.