On Death

I’ve been writing this post in my head for a long time.  There are so many things I want to say, and I can’t seem to make them fit together in a coherent package.  So maybe this will be filled with rambling bits that only I see the connection between.  Doesn’t this sound like fun?  Come with me.

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I’ve been reading a lot about death and loss over the last few months.  One of the things I have found, at last, is a language for the sadness and grief that is an ongoing part of our lives.  I’ve felt it, and tried to reason with it, but lacked the language and the recognition that this is part of all of our experience, even apart from major events.  Beatrix’s death was an Event, and it gave us permission to come to a full stop as we grieve this along with other accumulated losses and griefs.  (I am so thankful that we have a “job” that has allowed us to come to a full stop and still survive.  I heard on the radio the other day that there has just been a law passed in Alberta that says you cannot lose your job because you have lost a loved one… so if I had been working in Alberta in August, it is possible I could have been fired because I just couldn’t go back to work for a while.)

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One of the books I read has the subtitle “A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.”  I thought “Exactly.  There is so much insanity (often in the form of denial) in our culture regarding death.”  (I saw this as we planned the funeral.  One example is: often a grave is dug, and the dirt is moved away so that people don’t see it, and then brought back after people are gone.  Aren’t funerals about mourning the reality of your loss?  Besides being unnecessary work, this practice struck me as a way of sanitizing/denying the process.  But it is not clean and nice, it is ugly and painful.)

One of the reasons I think we cannot honestly acknowledge our losses is that we have no underlying Story that helps us answer the Big Questions:  Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  Where are we going?  If we can’t face those questions, it becomes much harder for us to acknowledge and prepare for a day when we might lose someone close to us, or when our loved ones might suddenly be planning our own funerals.

Over the years Mike and I have had several conversations around death and funerals.  After Mike’s dad passed away several years ago, we had many conversations.  This meant that we had a foundation of understanding and common thought with which to approach Bea’s funeral.  We knew what we valued, what we didn’t care about, and what questions to ask to get more information.  We were stunned, and our world was turned upside-down, but we weren’t also grappling with many concepts we had never thought or talked about.  (For example, by what criteria do you even start choosing a coffin?)

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The subtitle of another book I read is “Grief and Praise.”  I had never thought directly about the idea that our grief is intricately connected to our praise.  You won’t mourn the loss of something that doesn’t mean anything to you.  In actually mourning (whether it is a death, an illness, a change, etc), you are acknowledging the value of what is lost.  And when we face losses with as much honesty and courage as we can, we are able to acknowledge with gratitude the real value of what we have had and currently have – or what we are seeking.  Making space to face the things that grieve us also allows us the space to celebrate and be grateful for that which is good.

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One of the things I have continually reminded myself over the last few months is “I am the centre of the circle.”  The idea looks like this:

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My favourite explanation of this is here – she explains it with what I think is just the right amount of humour and reality.

This model has been familiar to us in other circumstances, and it has worked well.  It has given us permission not to feel responsible to comfort others (unless we are capable of it), and also to receive comfort without feeling guilty about being a useless lump.  I had had discussions about this idea with my parents, so when I told them that our MO for this season was going to be “I am the centre of the circle,” they didn’t roll their eyes or need a long explanation.  They said, “Yes, absolutely.”

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Let me try to end my wanderings with some explicit exhortations, in case you are the kind of person for whom direct works better than subtle.  It is my hope and wish that we all go through our years gently, with no trauma, loss, or grief.  But in case you haven’t considered it – you are probably going to die.  And before you get there, you will probably experience all sorts of griefs.  Read the article (or google circles of grief, and find one that fits your tone if mine is too snarky) and talk about it with those you love.  Mike and I have watched a bunch of doctor shows – which has led to all sorts of conversations about what kind of medical interventions we think are reasonable – and affirmations of our trust in each other to make good decisions should the need arise.  If you die suddenly, will your spouse still have access to finances?  Will your spouse or children wrestle with what your funeral wishes might be, or will they be able to make decisions with as much confidence and peace as is possible?

And don’t shy away from the Big Questions.  Real peace with them doesn’t come quickly, but allowing yourself to ask – to look, even peripherally – is the beginning.

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True, Beautiful, & Funny

I get much less response from these posts than others, and I know that very few of you are actually clicking on the links, but…   I want to communicate something, and after a month of moving from house to house (to house to house to house to house to house), my heart is exhausted.  I haven’t had much time for reflection, and I have had so many heart-to-hearts that I have nothing to say that would be worth listening to.  (It has really been a rich, wonderful time.)

Plus, I like writing these posts, so here we go:

I am really enjoying U2’s Songs of Experience.  (And technology/Spotify are so amazing.)  I usually have a quick response to music when I first hear it, whether I like it or not.  For some reason, each time I have heard a new U2 album, I’ve thought, “Oh well, I guess this album just isn’t that good.”  But each time, after several listens, it grows on me until I really love it.   So after initially thinking it was no good, (and then reading this Rolling Stone interview), I gave it a few listens anyway.   Some of my favourite lyrics today are “I know the world is dumb but you don’t have to be,” and “Oh Jesus if I’m still your friend / What the hell.”

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Mike & I laughed and laughed at this video, “How to Care for your Introvert.”  Very educational.

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I received some thought-provoking books for Advent &41NFrsI6CXL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_ Christmas.  I devoured Gabor Maté’s book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.  I really appreciate the way his writing combines his own stories and insights with scientific studies.  It was surprising to me to see many of the same ideas and studies I have been reading about over the last few years in parenting books.  WhenTheBodySaysNo(Obviously from a slightly different angle.)

I’m working on another book by the same author, called When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.  I already believe most of what he is saying in this book, but it has been good to read more about scientific studies, and to hear a doctor’s angle.

 

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There is a blog written about missions by a group of people who are or have been involved in missions. I’ve spent the morning reading some posts, and have laughed and cried.  I don’t know if this article about clickbait headlines for expats is funny for people who aren’t living overseas, but it will give you a taste for how humour can help one cope with some of these things.  And this article about Fundamental Sadness and Deeper Magic seemed to be speaking directly about the emotional journey Mike and I are on.

 

 

 

Gotta Go Through It

I heard a story about someone close to us.  She went back to work shortly after Beatrix’s death, unhappily, and was accosted by one of her co-workers.  The woman was shouting at her, “People say they know, but they don’t know what its like.  I know!”  I think, from the story, that this woman was trying to comfort her, trying to express compassion, but our friend was just left bewildered and unsure of what to say.

I laughed when I heard this story.  Imagining our friend’s uncertainty at how to respond to this odd attempt at comfort, I am amused.  But I am also horrified.

This woman has obviously been carrying around a loss for several decades, unable to process it, and is (obviously) unable to reach out to others who are hurting.

Recently while on the road, we listened to a podcast by Rob Bell.  I listened to one of his teachings many years ago that has been formative in my thinking about how to be with people who are grieving and suffering.  (And I hope has helped me to do so in a better way).  The one we listened to recently was so encouraging to the spot we are in right now.  It’s called “Making Room for the Immensities.”  It is largely about going through suffering and grief.   (I know we have people from a wide variety of belief backgrounds here, but I would recommend this one to all of you.  Skip the first 2 minutes of announcements and such.)

It also helped as I looked at our plans for the next year or so, some of which don’t seem to make a lot of logical sense.  However, this is what it is largely about – going through our grief, so that we can get to the other side.  I want our pain to make us kinder, more compassionate – I don’t want to be yelling at people in 20 years because I haven’t gone through the grief.

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We bought tickets.

Standard advice when you experience the death of an immediate family member goes something like this, “Go home, go back to work, and don’t make any major life decisions for at least a year.”

Given the difficulty of our daily life in Rwanda, the standard advice didn’t really apply to us.  In many ways, we have been struggling the last couple of years, and Beatrix’s death has made it impossible for us to consider returning immediately.

And we don’t know what we might decide to do next, after this season of grieving.

However, there are some practicalities that need to be taken care of: we need to make provisions for our house to be empty and protected for a longer period, we need to make sure our dog is taken care of, and thatP1060267 the utility bills will get paid.  We need to look at our ministry responsibilities and see what can be done.  We have to sort through Beatrix’s stuff, and decide what we might want to keep, and what we might give away.  (Most will probably go into the latter category, partly because I can’t imagine dressing another child in her clothes, for example, but also because I know all toys and clothes will go to children who really need them.)

We need to grieve with our community there.  For many of them, Beatrix’s death won’t seem real until they see us without her.  And for us, going back to the house where we spent most of her life…

 

 

I don’t want to do this, because I know that it will be unimaginably hard, but I know that at a certain point, the longer we put it off, the harder it will be.  I want to have done it – but I can’t just arrive at that point without going through it.

We are so thankful that a friend (who is the one of the kindest, gentlest, most patient, & most capable women I know) is going to accompany us for the first couple of weeks to help support us.  We arrive in Rwanda at the end of January, and will be there for about 2 months.

I’ll keep you posted as best I can on how that goes.

Advent Continues

We have traveled many kilometers in the last week, changing “homes,” time zones, and garbage disposal instructions.

We have been able to light our advent candles most nights, trying to explain our unconventional advent rituals to the various people we are sharing them with.  The term advent “wreath” doesn’t quite apply: last year we had an advent raft due to the overflow of bugs in the greenery we tried to build our wreath with.  This year we have an advent tray, so we aren’t leaving bits of the wreath all over as we move with it.

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We are appreciating our advent calendar so much.  I’ve spoken a few times about how having others grieve with us mysteriously eases the burden for us.  When Elizabeth put together the calendar, she spoke of how hard it was for her emotionally.  Working on it, and receiving (e)mail kept our loss in front of her in a more constant way than it had been.  She said that she realized that this was what our days are like.  Her willingness to prepare this despite the immediacy of the grief has allowed us to look forward with anticipation to some unknown good surprise each day.  Some ways of carrying this grief with us are tangible.

As we open our notes and gifts, most days your words, kindness, and creativity have brought tears to our eyes.  It has been another illustration to us of the way that we think and grieve differently.  For me, the hard part was thinking about it and preparing for it.  Once we were moving towards a good solution, I was content.  I was prepared to participate and enjoy it.  For Mike it was different, he wasn’t spending much time thinking ahead about it.  As we opened our packages on the first Sunday of advent, Mike collapsed into tears.  He said two very true things:

She should be here with us, opening her books.

And very shortly after that, “We have such good friends.

 

 

Your kindness, generosity, and thoughtfulness continue to give us the courage not to shrink from things that are hard – to celebrate what we had, to acknowledge what we are missing, and to remember and recognize what is good about our life.

My bad. (sorrynotreallysorry)

In my defense, I didn’t really realize what I was asking of you.

I was talking with a friend the other day, and she was trying to get an idea of what kind of gifts we might like for the advent calendar.  She is a thoughtful, articulate person, so I was confused, and told her, “no, no, we just want you to use some words, you don’t need to do anything that extravagant!”

I know that there are people who just like to give gifts, so I expected that a few people would want to send us something, but I was surprised at the number of people who did.  I thought I had asked a simple thing – that wouldn’t require any cost, or even much time.  No work beyond a few minutes thinking (less if you have foot-in-mouth syndrome like me) and a quick email.  Simple.  Nearly effortless.

But as I talked with my friend, I remembered how hard words are.

Last year, my friend’s baby died.  I did what I knew to support and love her (and talked with her about how she thought we could help), which mostly meant taking Beatrix and going to spend time with her most days.  But then I was leaving the country for nearly 2 months, and I felt like I was abandoning her in her time of need.  So I decided to make her a “calendar” of sorts, with something from me each day we were gone.  Some days it was presents (here are some minutes for your phone; today is market day, buy cheese on me this week; etc.).  Those days were easy.  I also asked some of our mutual friends to write her notes for some days, and those days were easy for me, too.  Most days I wrote notes, and those were so much harder.  Anything I tried to write that would actually be encouraging and loving, felt so trite, and I thought I had no right to say those things to her.  But anything I wrote that didn’t seem to speak to her grieving situation felt shallow and pointless.  It made me feel so vulnerable, and afraid – because I desperately wanted to encourage and love her – but it was only by doing it that I could know if it would actually be any good.

Had I remembered that, I never would have dared to ask you to contribute to our Advent.

(I’m glad I forgot, because it looks like you have responded to the occasion magnificently.)  Our friend Elizabeth put in a lot of time and emotional work into organizing it, and we are so thankful to her for doing it.

It is set up to be more practical than pretty, because we will be travelling this month – I want to show you, but it doesn’t look that impressive:

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But I did sneak a picture, without peeking, while Elizabeth was doing the final organizing, and I think that is a much better visual:P1060387

 

Thank you for your courage.  Thank you for taking this thing I was dreading it and making it something I am really excited about and looking forward to.

Winter is coming.

And so is He.

 

 

A Reminder, a Mystery Solved, and a Gift

First – if you wanted to email something for our advent calendar but forgot (or wanted to do it later after you thought about it), our friend is going to try to put it together over the weekend, so please send the email soon.  (The address again is tallonadvent@gmail.com.)

Second: There is a trail here on the island that I’ve been walking a lot.  There are some benches at the top where I have been sitting and reading.  Here is one reason why I like it:

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Here is another:

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(You might not be able to tell, but that dark spot is a humpback whale)

Another reason is the walk through the trees.  There are a lot of a certain kind of tree along the trail.  I’ve been trying to figure out what they are – since the trail is called “Oak Bluffs,” I thought they might be oaks, but as far as I could tell, there were no acorns, so that’s out.  Many of them look really strange – the bark has mostly peeled off, and they look half-dead.

 

 

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Last weekend Mike and I went to the Pender Island Yule Faire – it was a really fun market with some really amazing stuff, most of it produced by artists on the island.

Before we went, I was looking at some of the things that were going to be for sale, and I particularly loved these necklaces:

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They are made with turquoise and wood from Arbutus trees.  I had never heard of these trees before, but we spoke with the creator and found out that they only grow within a few kilometers of the coast, and that they experienced a blight here on the island a few years ago, but are coming back.  These are the trees I’ve been looking at and wondering about!

Which leads me to the third thing: I wanted one of these for myself, and there was a really good deal for two – my bargain-loving heart couldn’t resist.  The second one is for one of you.

If you like it, or know someone who might (Christmas is coming!), enter by following the Rafflecopter link below and entering your email or signing in with Facebook.  The contest is closed Tuesday, Nov. 28 at midnight (Pacific Time).  I’ll announce the winner on Wednesday morning, and will mail or deliver the pendant to the winner.

The winner is: Karen T.  Thanks for playing, everyone.

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