grief Archives - Chaplain | JM Faith at Work

You Have a Right to Your Disappointment

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Pastor Jim Melvin

All around me I hear people voicing their disappointments and sense of loss due to the sacrifices we are being required to make because of the coronavirus outbreak. The disappointments are large and small. People are disappointed because they won’t be able to watch March Madness or the Masters Golf Tournament this year. Millions of high school and college seniors will miss the experience of walking across a stage to receive their diplomas. On a more personal level, the thirty eager people who I intended to lead on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land will be deprived of the trip of a lifetime.

My daughter recently had a research trip to Mexico canceled, her master’s degree presentation held virtually, and will likely have her graduation canceled. Of course, she is disappointed. Some have attempted to minimize her disappointment because, after all, she’s traveled widely and has enjoyed graduation ceremonies from high school, college and law school. That kind of thinking misses the point. We each have a right to our own disappointments. Your disappointment, no matter how large or small, does not compete with my disappointment or anybody else’s.

I think it would be healthy for us each to get in touch with our own disappointments. Name them. Own them. Then we can mourn them and move on. Also, getting in touch with our own disappointments can make us more sensitive to those of other people. Just as we name our own disappointments, we can encourage others to name theirs. Then we can mourn, encourage one another, and move forward together.

We may be able to find some more modest ways that we can partially compensate for our losses. We can hold smaller more intimate celebrations of our graduate’s accomplishments. We can start to dream of a new trip next year. But it’s not the same.

There will be time for expressing gratitude for our many blessings and hope for the future later. But for right now, I officially give you permission to be sad. I give you permission to bawl your eyes out and bury your head in the pillow. Your grieving is real; and nobody has the right to take it from you.

When Someone You Love is Dying

By | Blog

When Someone You Love is Dying
Pastor Jim Melvin

All of us will face a time when we know that someone we love is in the active process of dying. They are sick, and they are not going to get better. Many of us are dealing with the reality right now. How we face that reality will determine how well we can accompany the person we love on their journey and how we will experience that journey ourselves. As a former hospice caregiver and pastor, I have been blessed to walk this road with many people and I thought it might be helpful to share what I have learned.

Yes, I used the term blessed. I know that most people in the caring professions, nursing assistants, nurses, doctors, hospice professionals, pastors, rabbis, counselors, etc., would share the sentiment because they have also had the opportunity to learn from those in the final phase of life. They too have been schooled in the wisdom of the dying. (Note: I am not including here untimely or violent death which requires a different set of sensibilities and spiritual understanding.)

So, let’s look at some behaviors and attitudes that may serve as food for the journey. It will not be easy. Along the way you are going to be forced to get in touch with your own mortality. We don’t like to think or talk about death in our culture; but it is essential during this time that we do so. As a side “benefit” we are doing our own spiritual work as we are helping others.

Be Honest – Be Humble
Here’s my honest truth: After forty years in a vocation that deals directly in helping people prepare spiritually and physically for dying, I know less than I did at the beginning. I have learned that the canned wisdom that I have at times used to comfort people, including the deepest wisdom of scripture, falls flat at the bedside of somebody struggling for one more breath. I have no answers.

I’ve drawn comfort from the fact that I’m in good company. One of my favorite Bible stories is in the Gospel of John where Jesus arrives to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead. As Jesus approaches the wailing mourners and Lazarus’ family outside the tomb, Jesus does something really surprising. He breaks down and cries. And John says that he was torn up inside.

I don’t know the reason for this emotional display. Did Jesus have a moment of doubt about whether or not he could pull this off? Was he just overwhelmed by the pain and suffering of the mourners regardless of the fact that he knew he was going to raise their friend? Either way, Jesus sheds honest tears that show everybody his humility in the face of death.

Don’t be afraid to be honest. Don’t be afraid to be humble. When asked a question to which you don’t have an answer confess, “I don’t know.” Nine times out of ten, the questions you will be asked aren’t really questions at all. The questions are just probes for assurance that there is somebody else there who is as uncertain and vulnerable as they are. Someone who cares.
In my first hospice training session, someone asked the instructor what you say to someone who is dying. She said, “As little as possible.” Profound advice, particularly when you don’t have anything of value to say. There is nothing wrong with silence. Quite to the contrary. Silence is to be treasured. Silence can be Holy. Psalm 46 says in the midst of trouble, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Silence can go against our grain personally or against the norms of our culture. There is a trend in modern restaurants to decorate with reflective surfaces that raise the level of background noise (to the point that people my age with diminished hearing can’t engage in a conversation). Casinos pipe noise into the room to get gamblers’ adrenaline flowing to keep pulling that slot machine handle. Even many churches feel a need to fill every pause with music or liturgy so that worshippers don’t get uncomfortable. Ironically, I want to shout, “Be quiet!!!”

Be silent with a purpose. Those silent moments can be a time for personal prayer. They can also be a time to listen to God speak as he spoke to Elijah, “…in a still, small voice.” When we get comfortable with silence we will feel less inclined to nervously clear our throats and say, “Well, I’ve got to be going.”

Laugh and Cry
On the other hand, while silence and solemnity are great, there is also a need for laughter, plenty of laughter. I remember Woody Allen once saying that someone told him that death was just a part of life. “Yeah…” he answered, “…the last part.” Often people who are dying display a need for humor and laughing. And it’s not because they’re just trying to avoid dealing with reality. They don’t want to always define what’s left of their life with doom and gloom.

There’s and old saying for public speaking (I couldn’t find it on Google so maybe I made it up) that says, “Get ‘em laughing then get ‘em crying.” It works. Sharing humorous stories or funny anecdotes from the past, has a way of opening up the emotions and turning on the tears. And that’s all good. Sometimes it works in reverse. I’ve noticed at funerals that the reception hall after the service is often filled with laughter. It’s all good. There’s a fine line between laughing and crying. They both leave us in tears. Remember the Lazarus story; even Jesus cried.

When you cry, you don’t need to hide our tears from others or apologize for them. This especially goes for crying in front of children. While children need to be made to feel secure, we cannot protect them from all sadness. Kids get it. What does it say to a child if we DON’T cry for someone we love when they are hurting? Tears are distilled from love.

I did not grow up in a touchy-feely home. My home was more of a no-touch zone. My brother and I didn’t share a hug until he was almost 80 years old, even though we were very close. It’s not hard to figure out why. When I was young we lived with my German immigrant Lutheran grandparents who were a hands-off sort of people. There’s a reason Northern European Lutherans are referred to as the frozen chosen. I have fond memories of grandma and grandpa, but other than sitting on grandpa’s lap while we listened to the Lone Ranger on the radio or napping with my grandma on the chenille bedspread on her bed, we just didn’t touch much.

While I seem to have escaped my low-touch childhood without debilitating emotional scars, there is plenty of evidence that shows the importance of human touch. During World War One large numbers of infants ended up in orphanages due to war casualties. These infants were “warehoused” due to their sheer numbers. Many of these infants failed to develop normally and, in some cases, died. They developed a condition which came to be known as Failure to Thrive. They were literally dying to be touched.

A similar situation developed with another group of “untouchables” in more recent history. In 1979 I began working with hospice in San Francisco at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic which struck initially in the gay community. Because of the uncertain origin of AIDS, there was great fear surrounding physical contact with sufferers. I remember going to extreme measures to disinfect myself after visits and the extreme anxiety that I had to overcome to finally kiss a dying man on the forehead. And I considered myself enlightened. (I’m not pooh poohing the importance of universal protection control policies especially considering the virulent infections circulating today.) My point, not only were these gay men dying of AIDS, they were also dying to be touched.

Christian traditions, my own Lutheran tradition included, have long practiced the laying on of hands for healing the sick. From what we know about the importance of touch, it is easy to see why. Beyond any religious or miraculous reason for these rituals, they are compassionate actions which fulfill a basic human need. Combined with prayer and spiritual insight, laying on of hands can be a powerful healing instrument.

How does this relate to you? Don’t be afraid to touch someone who is dying. Aside from the risk of infection, we tend to think of the dying as unclean. These feelings were probably biological self-protective instincts. Instead of seeing the dying as infected by death, we can intentionally picture them as they truly are, beloved children of God embarking on the most Holy of journeys. We reserve solitary confinement for the worst criminal offenders. We have it within our reach to free the dying from the prisons of their isolation. Go ahead. In the words of the old AT&T commercial, reach out and touch someone.

Take Care of Yourself
History is full of martyrs. You don’t have to be one. You can’t take care of someone else, especially in the long term, if you don’t take care of yourself. Care of the dying can be hard work. You need to take care of the basic needs of life including getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals, and, don’t forget this one, taking some personal time for relaxation and recreation.

There are a lot of ways to do this that will vary according to the family and friend support systems that you have to rely upon. I personally know of groups of friends that have supported families by scheduling meal deliveries, offering respite to spouses and family, and screening visitors so that the family is not overwhelmed by too much well-meaning support. Similar support services are available through hospices and other health-care agencies. There are also online services such as Caringbridge.org who offer help organizing your own support network. At some point it may be appropriate to consider in-patient care on a permanent or temporary basis. Evaluate your needs and stay open to all the options.

Finally On Their Own
Accompanying someone we love on their holy journey of return to the eternal mystery of God is a blessing for both the traveler and the companion. At some point along the path, however, there will come a time to part ways. The final step of the journey we must all take on our own. It is not by accident that people often take their final breath when the family has stepped out of the room for a moment. Trust the moment of letting go. As we release the hand on this side of life, God reaches out and grasps it on the other. We say goodbye. God says hello.