I Lost a Friend Yesterday

My friend and colleague Bishop Jerry Roy passed away unexpectedly yesterday. He was quite likely the most interesting man I have ever known, with a diverse background that created a man who was kind, but not weak; strong yet gentle, and he an instinctive compassion that seemed to arise from the core of his being at the slightest hint of someone in pain or need. Such men are often forged in lives of service and sacrifice that are not always easy, but you seldom hear them complain about it. I suspect, but do not know, that the Jerry I knew was a very different man than the young Jerry. I suppose that’s true of most of us.

Unexpected death is always shocking, of course. I have noticed, however, that no matter the circumstances of someone’s passing those left behind tend to express a desire that it was otherwise. I suspect that is a very natural resistance to the whole idea of the passing of someone who is loved. Even when death is slow and drawn out, it still comes as a shock to those who care about the person. Our clergy group had our regular biweekly zoom call on Saturday and Jerry was in attendance, full of vigor and stories – including one in which he shared with us that his neighbor, through acts of kindness after finding out that Jerry was seventy-two years old, had decided Jerry was frail and so extended acts of kindness such as shoveling Jerry’s sidewalk. Jerry chuckled as he told us he wasn’t sure how he felt about being treated like an old man. If there was one thing Jerry was not, it was decrepit.

I spoke much of the day yesterday with other friends and colleagues about our loss. Some of the most poignant comments began, “I wish I had told him…” On the one hand, such comments should serve as reminders to not leave important things unsaid. Even if we are young and healthy, there may be a city bus outside with our names written on it. With that being said, I think Jerry was aware of everything that was left unsaid – not because we become omniscient at death, though we might. I believe Jerry knew because he had a way of knowing what the people around him felt and experienced. That compassion of his that ran so deeply placed him in an equally deep communion with the people he encountered, their struggles, and their feelings.

For me, Jerry’s legacy will be that compassion and his patience. When I was (not much) younger, I suffered from a profound lack patience. It often amazed me how patient Jerry was. He had the gift of making people feel as if he always had time for them, even when I found myself in the corner muttering in frustration. Jerry understood that the greatest gift was time. I know in my life it is easy to feel as if there isn’t enough time, but I am learning that is a misperception rooted in our own sense of self importance. When I grow up, I want to be like Jerry. We all should.

Pissing from Beyond the Grave

How we go out matters. The last thing we do in life actually happens after we are gone, when the will is read. For most of us, it’s our only postmortem message to the world. Many people seem to think that their will is their last chance to shit on people, to let them know how little regard they had for people in life but they lacked the courage to say so until after death. We sometimes hear about these things in movies, books, or television programs. Old rich guy #1 dies having known that his wife had been sleeping with his brother for years. Having chosen never to confront them in life, he cuts them out of the will to strike back at them after death. At their heart, such actions are passive-aggressive in the extreme. They do accomplish one thing. They cement your death.

My Nana and Grandpa Schroeder both passed away in the last century, but they live on. They live on because they truly are the only members of my family who gave the tiniest little damn about me. They provided refuge from a home environment that was toxic in the extreme. Since they only lived two blocks away it was easy to hop on my bike and go over there where I was always welcome and they both listened to me. Nana was always in the kitchen, it seemed, wearing what used to be called a house dress. Grandpa was often in the den, which was on the other side of a kitchen wall. When I arrived Nana would call to him or knock on the wall to let him know someone was there. He would stop what he was doing, come in the kitchen and sit on his stool. Until I left, we would all sit there and visit. In a very real way, they saw me. I don’t know if anyone else did, I certainly can’t think of anyone. The result is that I have stories, memories of time spent together, that I still share today. They live on.

On the other hand, my parents were toxic addicts who couldn’t care about anyone but themselves and never saw their way clear to try to change that. When I first read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA it was like reading a family history. On my eighteenth birthday my father came home (he was working out of state) to take me out for a beer and tell me he was never coming back. What should have been a memorable rite of passage became memorable for the wrong reasons. The next morning he told me that he most valued the travelling he had done for work, the places he had seen, the people he had met. He said he wouldn’t trade that for anything. When I asked if that included his family, if the travelling meant more to him than us, he replied, “yes.” To this day, I can forgive him for feeling that way – my mother was the closest thing to pure evil I have encountered. What I cannot forgive was that he said it to me, even after I asked for clarification and gave him a way out.

Whenever I hear the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” I think of how I grew up and how, for quite a while, I was a lot like my father. It has taken a very long time to step away from that, to not allow externals to define me and to trust enough to have real relationships. God knows, I am still not perfect and never will be. One thing I can promise my kids they will never experience is the pain I have experienced in knowing that not only was my father never interested in doing the work of maintaining a relationship with me or anyone else, but he also chose to kick at me from beyond the grave. It’s not completely surprising that he did that. He was always a spineless weasel who avoided confrontation at all costs and preferred to whimper in a cesspool of self-pity, passive aggressively striking out when he was sure he had bitchy women around him to protect him.

What this last act of my father has done is ensure that he is dead and will not live on. Who will tell stories of their great times with him? There will be a short time, perhaps, when the handful of people he deigned to pay off in the end, may speak of him. Beyond that, there are no stories, no remembrances of time spent together because there wasn’t any time spent together. His time was at the office, working, avoiding personal relationship, and at social engagements at country club like settings where he unwittingly played a pathetically un-funny version of Rodney Dangerfield’s character in the movie Caddyshack. How we go out matters. Using our last act to lash out speaks volumes about us even if we believe it is we who are making the statement. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to be remembered poorly in exchange for a satisfaction obtained through spite that we can’t even feel after we are dead. We all deserve better, for ourselves and our survivors.

What if you died and nobody cared?

My father died a couple of weeks ago. I found out last Thursday, but he died the Friday before that. The only reason I found out is that my brother’s ex-wife lives in Florida a few doors away from someone who used to live in the same town outside Milwaukee where my father and his current wife lived. Somehow this woman heard, and expressed her sympathy to my ex-sister-in-law, who then got in touch with my brother, who told me. As if that wasn’t convoluted enough, my father’s wife died two hospital rooms away from his and within eight hours of his death, but we aren’t sure if he knew she was in the hospital with him.

You might be thinking how sad and tragic this story is, but it isn’t. At least, that’s not why it is sad. It’s sad because, with the possible exception of my father’s sister-in-law, nobody cares.

You can’t live your life running away from every conflict and being concerned only with your addictions to work, booze, cigarettes, and money and expect people to be broken up when you pass away. I have been estranged from my father since I was eighteen years old. On my eighteenth birthday he flew into town, took me out for a drink, and told me he was never coming back. The next morning he told me he wouldn’t trade his travels for work for anything, even his family and children. Since that time I have had less than a dozen interactions with him. The last was especially egregious, but that isn’t really my story to tell. When people I met would occasionally ask if my father was alive, I would honestly say that he might have died and I wouldn’t know. It turns out that was prophetic. If my ex-sister-in-law hadn’t moved to that particular city in Florida, we might still not know.

My father was born to parents in their late thirties at a time when people didn’t have babies that late in life. It’s fair to say they didn’t plan to get pregnant. His mother was domineering and his father was a great man everywhere but at home, where he acquiesced to his wife’s demands at every turn. His father was a football coach and he was not a football player, setting up a dynamic where disappointment was a recurring theme. Not surprisingly, my father married a domineering woman. As they sunk deeper and deeper into addiction, she would verbally batter him every night and he would take the beating passively. Finally, he got up the courage to leave and never looked back – at any of us.

He was a man who could be wonderfully social, likely because his career required it, but the moment he left the party he forgot about everyone there. As he got older he developed a slightly paranoid bent, convinced that people were after his money. Perhaps he sensed that was all he really had to offer since he couldn’t feel, relate to others, or allow himself to become vulnerable. He is proof of the hole in the American Dream. He worked hard, made a lot of money, had a lot of toys, and found all of his validation doing those things. In the end, he died alone in a hospital room with nobody knowing he was there. Fitting, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder how many others there are just like him. I suspect there are more than a few.

How Things Work

At one point in my life, I was very concerned with how things work. I very much wanted explanations for things both knowable and unknowable. I didn’t so much care about why they worked, that was a question that I found much less interesting and at times frankly irritating. Why something works doesn’t really tell us much about how to fix it should it break. How it works is what we need. I suppose I developed that interest in my twenties when I was a field service engineer in the medical field.

windbagWhen I moved on to working in healthcare the question was still how. How was this person’s body or mind supposed to function was the knowledge that would help us to alleviate discomfort. Why it worked that way was in large part irrelevant, a great question for philosophers (perhaps) but an exercise in missing the point to those who wanted to alleviate suffering. Moving to religion and spirituality, my focus was the same. How does the universe work? Why it works as it does was something I found to be above my pay grade.

Now, as I approach sixty, my priorities have shifted. I find most people who like to carry on about how things work – even people I generally like – to be little more than giant wind bags. That’s especially true in spirituality, where the biggest mistake we can make is assuming that we know how things work. What hubris! Just shut up already! What I see now is that neither the how nor the why are all that important. What is important is that things work. Beyond that, I believe we are here to experience them rather than solve them as if they were a problem. Life isn’t a problem! It certainly contains problems, but life is an experience. What’s more, we can’t solve life by explaining it away! The time we spend off in our heads trying to rationalize everything is time we miss out on living. Don’t let fear win the day, and don’t die without having lived!

Selective Social Distancing

I know these people, really nice people, but dumb as a box of rocks. They are really concerned about keeping their toddler, who they still take to daycare despite not really needing to, away from other people. Except the daycare people and kids, and various members of pregnant couples they have had over to the house to give away some of their baby stuff they no longer need. Then there are his fishing trips in a canoe with his buddy. Oh, and Healthcare provider caring for intubated patient in intensive care unit.don’t forget the occasional friend that drops by “just because.”

That’s not social distancing, people. That’s the kind of stupidity that will delay the curve on this virus from flattening and put other people who are at risk in danger. That’s the kind of stupid shit you would expect from younger adults who haven’t figured out they aren’t invincible yet, but would hope they could see that this is serious. That’s the behavior that will kill your toddler’s grandmother just as surely as if you put a gun to her head and pull the trigger.

Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.