Has Your Heart Ever Died?

If you came here looking for an answer or insight for how to deal with broken heartedness, I will state out the gate that I will make no such attempt at an answer. In fact, I’m not even certain if anything I write and share publicly today is real, true or right.

This is for the one, two or handful of people who have experienced a hope so adequately destroyed that their imagination, their very heart has suffered a deafening silence, a death and is left asking “is what has killed this part of me a result of love or a hatred confused as love? What has caused the death of my heart?”

Since this post will be mostly sad, I will offer at the outset a word of hope from Scripture paraphrased, “every seed must die in order to grow.” It is possible something can grow from death. It’s also possible something may not.

I should also mention: most deaths are not pretty. Maybe that’s not even right. All deaths are not pretty.

In order to demonstrate this I will describe what the death of a heart feels like:

It feels like spending a fair amount of time convulsing because there is a pain in the form of a straight line running seemingly down the center of your heart, like it has been perfectly impaled by something thin and small. Like the death itself was placed there gently, almost in stealth to where you can lie down to rest but can no longer dream. I had dreamed and imagined hundreds of things it seemed before the death only to now feel silence. In a way, the pain is not intolerable. It is not excruciating, in a sense it is not even pain because it is death, it is the absence of life; pain being an unfortunate or perhaps generous aspect of life is no longer present. It also feels like I have no energy to verbally speak, that audible words mean almost nothing during death, which is why it is strange that I feel I could write about this feeling and experience forever.

I am distinguishing here between heart death and heartbreak. It is moving past pain almost immediately to the nothing/numb that I think distinguishes the two. Heart death is categorized by its inability to dream.

Yet, the death of my heart is still being grieved by the rest of my body. The rest of my body is aware that the seat of my imagination (the heart) and the place where love was professed is no longer in operation. It is quiet, and somehow that makes sense since scripture declares that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. When it was alive, love could declare itself; in death one can’t articulate verbally what to even think or do or be or how it all exactly happened.

Also, heart death is impossible to anticipate when there is still lingering hope.

What makes heart death even more deceptive and harmful is that the memory is still active.  I still have my thoughts and now those are left unguarded by the heart who at least when it was alive could color the thoughts hopefully or reframe them in love. The heart is the thing that scripture tells us to guard, “Guard your heart with all diligence for from it flows the springs of life.” Another potential translation of that verse could be: the reason to guard the heart is that from it can escape all that is living. In other words if you don’t guard the heart diligently, life, who you are, your grasp over your identity will escape you and you’ll succumb to death. So be careful how you share it.

I will admit I was not careful. I knew to be careful. My mind knew, but I chose not to be. And in choosing not to be, death came, which brings me to my next interesting tidbit.

The last 4 years I have encountered much external death. It almost feels I invited it when I decided to do a residency as a chaplain. It was as if I literally said to myself, you know what I should begin to experience in my 30’s that will help my pastoral ministry pursuit: death. So I encountered it, and ironically enough I was so unfamiliar with it or what to do with it that the first time I was called into a room where a patient was dying I assumed they were already dead and attempted to console the family even though the patient was barely alive. Now I feel so familiar with it, when it has come I have resolved that there is nothing left to do. Nothing carries the same meaning after someone or something dies. Everything that you do without the person you’ve lost is somehow different, less interesting.

It was helpful though, because you can choose to prepare for facing death or you can choose not to, and I can honestly say, whichever you choose I am not certain it helps much either way. That’s confusing though isn’t it. The preparation can’t prepare you so why prepare? The preparation we do is in allowing ourselves to feel, and in allowing ourselves to feel, we find we are carried through. I don’t think anyone can really know how they will respond to loss, and I don’t know if we ever actually accept loss before the loss occurs. Now we can decide how we will grieve loss, but when we are the ones dying, once death comes you no longer grieve, which is why again I don’t think my heart is grieving. I think it is dead, and my body may be grieving its loss and some of my body is angry, some of it sad, and some of it doesn’t know what happened.

My body is feeling feelings, yet my heart is numb or more accurately not alive. It is now buried like a seed waiting again to grow. In a sense it has arrived at a place it is most comfortable. It has been granted a reset, yet my body and my memory remembers. And in that memory and the way my body responds comes with a new opportunity to guard.

Think Groot in the Guardians of Galaxy. He becomes replanted. The fear in that is one wonders: what does a new heart actually entail? Do I have to mature my love all over again? Do I trust my heart or my body with someone else in the future? Or do I sit in death and continue to live life absent of imagination? If you sit with a dead heart, you have less work to do but perhaps less life to live. Unfortunately, you can’t escape your memory, you can hope it doesn’t color your future, but your memory may cause pain in the rest of your body and you may be confronted with how to then cope.

For me, the temptation becomes replace pain with more pain and the desire to cause more pain as a form of vengeance. (What is vengeance? Not violence in this case, but emotionally tearing someone down to the point in which their entirely reality and perception of themselves is blurred) But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord. All we can really do is hope the Lord exposes the darkness and that He will grant light to help what is dead.

And this is where perhaps the last reminder I have is helpful, though equally as sad. There are things worse than death. When suffering is prolonged, when you can no longer eat, your body stops healing itself, and you become no longer recognizable, when the cancer takes its toll and all your energy is sapped and you can no longer find help or comfort, I do believe death becomes a mercy for all involved. Eventually the body agrees with everything else and says to itself I can no longer handle this and the burden on others is too heavy to bear the extent of suffering it is enduring, and then death becomes a release.

This also is heart death. At some point, the only way forward through the persistent choices and emotional harm, distortion of reality and condemnation from those around you has to be death even if it is not your choice. It may feel like murder, but if that is what people want, if that is what the crowd demands and there is no intercessor, the only way forward is death.

(I should emphasize here since all this talk of death could be triggering and concerning and since we are coming off of national suicide prevention week, the utmost importance is that you find the courage, support, and self-love in order to endeavor to keep on living in the most literal sense, to not un-life ourselves even it feels like it has been done to us)

And the way through death must be more life or at least, the hope for life on the other side. But where does the hope come from if not from the heart. It resides in the heart but it always comes from the one Who creates it. God in Christ, the author of Hope, finisher of Faith, entirely encompassed as Love. And God Himself can do it because God Himself incarnated Himself in flesh to die so that we all may live even though we suffer.

You might find it intriguing. God did not prevent the death of my heart. Even though He was asked to protect it, asked to change it, to transform it, to redirect all love and affection, He still watched the death happen, the crushing and by people who the very heart that was crushed, formerly loved. God, the Father allowed, stood by and watched and seemingly turned His face away, perhaps not in disgust of the person suffering but turned His face away from the affliction as it also grieved His very heart. As it was too painful for you, it was painful for Him to watch, and while He let it happen, He also being God must have had a way to make it work together for good in love otherwise He would just be cruel and as disconnected from His creation as His creation is disconnected from themselves and inflicts harm and hatred on each other. But He cannot be cruel or disconnected based on what He says about Himself.

While I can describe a theological prescription as to how God deals with heart death and death itself, we might still ask, well what are we to do? What is my part in dealing with a dead heart?

And here is my solution:

Do nothing.

At least do nothing differently.

If you feel like you loved well at one point, now, in the absence of your heart, keep doing what you were doing before. Don’t change your routine, or start thinking the worst of yourself, blaming or embracing a condemnation that wasn’t true. Little can hurt you anymore, so don’t begin to hurt yourself. Now you are free again to love who you are becoming. Do nothing but tolerate love as it comes. You don’t need to force something to happen.

You can’t hard work yourself back to life.

I don’t know if your heart has ever died, but if you’re reading this, you are still alive and something worth loving is still left.

It Took A Long Time To Recover

How long will you keep me here

walking on this line

I’m outside your house and home

and I can’t remember mine

Everything is so foreign now

I thought I had you with me

And then you came out crying

And I knew it never would be

We were walking in circles

and it felt like quite the time

I guess I never felt your love

I just kept on feeling mine

….

Yeah I know it happened

Yeah I know I stumbled

I stumbled through the summer

tried to find another lover

tried to chase another lover

but I also know it took a long time to recover

Every year, the cycle of my life seems to carry so much wait (and weight) in August. Maybe it is the last push of summer. Maybe it is because so many of the cycles of my life have revolved around education or some new endeavor. Or maybe I got stuck in a loop.

The lyrics above are to a song I wrote back in 2016. You can see a rare video of me singing it back when I recorded it here. Then you can evaluate my singing voice and come to new conclusions. Regardless, those lyrics came from a place 3 years prior at the beginning of August which wound up being the final page of a complex relationship.

Since then, the month of August has been a month in which I started grad school, started a chaplaincy residency, ended a chaplaincy residency, started teaching. It has fallen in seasons of transition. Life transitions are usually challenging in themselves, but when transitions are accompanied by grief and loss and perceived abandonment they can feel impossible to get through.

This August is no different. I have felt nauseous for 2 weeks straight. Sometimes my body feels like its trembling, like I’m going through some kind of withdrawal. I have been searching for a name for what’s happened. It’s not grief. It’s something more intense. It’s whatever the emotional pain someone heaps on you as your grieving that makes you question reality is called.

Is there a word for that?

Is it gaslighting?

Maybe but not entirely.

It is fear but not the reverential good kind. It’s the kind that has you on high alert that makes you kind of wary of many interactions. And that creates a fight to capture an accurate identity instead of one being crafted through false accusation.

And so in these conditions we recover. People who have endured much worse and the loss of much more find a way to recover. Sometimes it takes a very very long time and the only way they recover is to find new hope.

So I’m preparing to newly hope. And if hope can no longer be found here, it is time to go. And if time to go means a quicker recovery then there is a good in the goodbye.

I hope you too can recover from your wounds and losses in this season friends.

The Disappearance of Most Familiar

I’ve lost my keys for what feels like every day for a month except it’s not my keys I’ve lost.

I don’t know what your pattern in dealing with grief is, but my seemingly unavoidable pattern is to delay it until the last possible moment. It is hard for me to accept that things are gone. My theology feeds this thought in its claim that no person is definitely gone if they confess Christ. Absence in theory is temporary.

Humanity does not do well with accepting the permanence of death, and the leap that we cease to exist seems to run contrary to the hope instilled in us by the Spirit and breath of God. How could God’s breath be anything less than eternal?

But the nature of missing things does not suggest that things evaporate or lose their mass or matter. Though, I don’t know how the concept of life as vapor jives with the thought of object permanence, things don’t cease to exist when they are not seen or heard.

But if things or people did cease to exist wouldn’t we just adapt to life through the lens that nothing lasts unless it is present? Would that spare us or cause us more pain? Is it more painful to accept each time someone leaves or dies that they might never come back?

But that is not how life is. When we lose, we still wish we had or had won. We still want who we want to be here. We would rather have what we have been looking for than lose it for good or even for a little while. Because when all we are left with is memory, it can feel like our memories are taunting us as reminders of what we had but have no longer. They exist as if to say, “good luck going on without.”

Then we are left with the choice to forget or leave behind or move on. We are left to give up clinging to the past, and in a sense, it feels like we are asked to give up hope for the future. We become confronted with the reality that this person is not there in quite the same capacity or potentially any capacity for what we still hope to do or achieve or find encouragement for along the way. Everything becomes a matter of faith or fiction or fairy tale. Am I carried by the memory of the one lost or some mystical coexisting presence and intercessor?

And what of the other disappearances? What about the one who leaves not life itself but just your or my life. They exit from you and you alone. What about that person, who very much alive decides, “I want little or nothing to do with you? How do we navigate that rejection or hatred?” Because if we carry that, what we carry could be catastrophic at most and confining at least.

The finality of death or seeming finality is not fooled by the question of “how can I fix this?” I simply cannot. The relationship has seen its end. They are gone. Most or maybe all regrets have no help.

But the lack of finality of relational abandonment, neglect, or disconnection is a much different challenge. There is more forgiveness required due to the risk of continual hurt, the risk of unanswered questions that still beg an answer, the deception and misperception of peoples opinions and thoughts. All these and the seeming fruitlessness of trying to restore a relationship that lacks mutual desire can be wraught with distress. Even more, when the fruitless attempts don’t seem to be grounded in any tangible, rational reason, we can be tempted to fight for the familiar.

But love holds loosely. I don’t know if that is truth, but it seems true. My favorite blogger said it was true a decade ago, and it has felt true. In other words, all any of us can really do in any of our relationships is to let go, not with the thought that we or the person we hold will fall off a cliff or into a deep cold ocean after our ship has wrecked on an inceberg, but to let go with both our feet on solid ground and hope that whether this person is standing across from us or next to us that they will choose to stay when we let go.

And if they don’t, then it is their loss. And that at the end of the day, maybe that person was not who you thought they were, or maybe that person or persons was not worthy of your space, and maybe they aren’t as familiar or necessary as you thought. And we will accept, with some measure of difficulty, in some strange, cruel or even unimaginable way, that their disappearance at least now, is for the best.

James Passaro has been blogging for the better part of a deacade around themes pertaining to Christian theology, love and loss, coming of age, coming to death, poetry, vocational identity or lack there of. He still belongs to Jesus, still steady in pursuit of a meaningful calling, a desire to be of use to the Church, still finding ways to genuinely love, still faithful to His Lord, still willing to listen to your story. He still thanks you for reading.

Tony

My dad Anthony (Tony) Louis Passaro Jr. was born on August 23, 1950 over a month premature. He was the only child of my grandmother Mary and grandfather Anthony L Passaro Sr. My grandma had several prior miscarriages before the birth of her only child. From the little I know of his birth, I know he was small. I don’t know if there were any additional complications or considerations. What I do know from his stories is his childhood did not get easier.

He always spoke fondly of his friendships with the guys he played baseball with growing up. Myron and Louie were friends for life growing up together in Jersey City. They remained close throughout my own childhood as my family frequented the Jersey Shore and spent time with their families as well as with my Godfaher Jimi Beam and his wife Bernie.

My dad loved telling stories of his childhood on Poplar Street and remembering good times in Jersey City. I also remember the other stories, of a very difficult childhood, one in which he was physically abused by his father, an alcoholic, for being left-handed, seeing the way my grandfather harshly treated my grandmother, and my dads own difficulty with how the nuns treated him growing up in Catholic School.

Sometimes it is hard to know if it was this environment that shaped his personality as an adult or if he was already a mischievous child in Catholic school that warranted being hit with rulers and kneeling on rice. The stories from his Catholic schooling to me never sounded awful in comparison to my father’s home life, yet his journey within the context of Catholocism seems to be one that was not filled with thoughts of God as a loving Father and forgiving advocate. It could just be that a place meant to be full of solace and salvation brought more confused pain to my dad who as a child was probably just scared. My grandmother though, found a sense of peace and purpose serving the Catholic Church despite them not approving her eventual divorce from my grandfather when my father was well into adulthood.

It was not until recently I heard more of the stories about my dad’s college years and his early to mid 20’s and his first marriage to Holly. Maybe it was because St. Peter’s made their run in the March Madness tournament, that I was reminded he could not pass an accounting class in his college in Massachusetts so he transferred to St. Peter’s and attended classes in the evening for several years while working during the day, I think for the Jonathan Logan.

My dad worked most of his life in government social services settings, the Hudson County Welfare Board and then The State Child Support Office of New Jersey. While I do believe it made him a diligent public servant, I don’t know how much bureacratic government work did for his perspective on humanity. My dad was not politically correct nor would waste an opportunity to make an inappropriate joke. It is good he retired when he did because while I have never felt my dad was a malicious person, I don’t think he would thrive in the current cultural climate.

I know little of my dad’s first marriage; I know there was a slight age gap and they enjoyed watching hockey. Until I was an adult I often did not comprehend that my dad had lived a life before me. I was not born until he was 37, only 3 years older than I am now. As far as his second marriage to my mother, there is both much and little I could write about that, but it hardly seems necessary now. I think my parents would agree that the best thing that came of their marriage was me and my brother (which is what I imagine even couples who are happily in love might also say of their children).

In many ways, my reflection of my dad as a father has much more substance in the years that he raised me and my brother alone beginning in a third floor, two bedroom apartment in Briarwood when I was in 5th grade, roughly 1999. I shared a room with my brother and at that time myself being 10/11, my brother 16/17; I have fond memories of that living arrangement.

Thankfully, we lived down the street from my grandmother who fed us twice a week and who I often spent time with on the weekends. As a single father, I cannot imagine what he thought or felt during that time. I remember distinctly the things that felt normal, our weekly routine of meals that consisted of either tuna and tomato soup or ramen noodles, our medley of pizza rolls, potato skins, taquitos, and other frozen delicacies, and a weekly order from Vito’s pizza of either pizza or subs, always paid for with a coupon.

What I remember most though in those years was going to his softball games behind Pullens, a gas station that was right down the street from Taco Bell. Sometimes I would watch my dad with admiration playing the outfield. Other times I would disinterestedly play with GI Joes in his van. Either way I remember often going to Taco Bell after those games which truth be told is where my love for Taco Bell began. That Taco Bell on Sloan avenue is probably the place I have eaten more meals at than many places I’ve lived.

Dad moved us into a condo still in Briarwood around the time when my brother went off to college at Penn State. Then, it was just me and my dad throughout my teenage years. Sure he had girlfriends during various seasons, Barbara, whose children were my great friends and who I spent much time backyard wrestling with, and then Linda who was quite eccentric but showed kindness to me and my friend Ben. But many days it was just me and dad with our routine, school/work (him smoking on my way to school always having to ride there with the window down no matter what season), being picked up from a baby sitters, homework or going to softball games, watching tv on the couch or going to sports practices. My dad was great about normalizing our home life and never making me feel like we were struggling to get by.

One of my fondest memories that I had as a child was a trip we took to visit my Godfather Jimi when we went to Manhattan. My Godfather made me and many others laugh harder than anyone I knew and I felt like the luckiest boy in the world going to the city with my dad and godfather and hanging out for the whole day. I remember driving home and telling my dad we have to do that again. That was the only time we ever did something like that, but I can still vividly remember standing between them laughing on some street in Manhattan completely delighted.

We always had a vacation, usually to Wildwood where I got to bring a friend or was with friends, Scott Francis or Ben to the Poconos, unless it was with Barbara and her kids Billy and Timmy. We had plenty of daytrips to Lavalette to see Louie and Nancy and Myron and Debbie and their families. I could write a blog just of all the memories I have from those daytrips to the beach. Holidays had routines; every thanksgiving we spent with Patty Ann, Aunt Francis and Joey. Christmas and birthdays always had a consisted of a ton of gifts. Well into adulthood, my dad was still buying me wrestling figures and DVD’s even as I was selling a lot of childhood toys and trying to declutter. Dad liked the idea of getting stuff.

Whether or not my dad was intentional about it, he provided me with so many opportunites for memories and enjoyment even though I have some lingering echo of hearing him say I was never satisfied. I think in part because there was an emotional disconnect with him throughout my teenager years. I think being a father was not easy for him in every aspect because of his own childhood. I don’t know if he ever desired or tried or felt like working through his own trauma with his father would be helpful. I know before I was born, there were several years in which my dad was having to come to the rescue of his own his father because of alcoholism and debt which eventually led to his death. I imagine it was very difficult for my father to balance caring for his own father who had caused him so much pain.

As such, I don’t know if he ever entirely knew how to help me process life with the strong degree of emotions I felt. I don’t recall any conversations as a teenager that were particularly filled with wise fatherly advice. He did not talk to me about girls or my hopes or dream or vocation aside from perhaps listening when I said I wanted to be a professional wrestler. He allowed me to be largely indpendent in the process of applying to colleges. He certainly took me to visit schools and as I have mentioned made sure I had no substantial debt after college, but I felt very lost throughout my teenage years.

I have no memories of being disciplined by my dad. I never was punished, never had a curfew, would often stay out past midnight on the weekends before I could drive. He often would say, “He’s never given me a reason not to trust him.” And for the most part I believe that holds entirely true. I believe there was a grace on my life that kept me entirely disinterested in drugs, alcohol, being promiscuous or anything that could have led to getting into serious trouble. But I don’t know if he saw or recognized the things that actually troubled me because of maybe his own emotional threshold. I talked to a teddy bear into my teenage years. I played with GI Joes for hours some weekend nights up until I was 18, and I don’t think my dad saw or noticed that as being worrisome.

Largely because my dad liked to tinker with toys, his pinball machine, his records, his collectibles, his stuff. If anyone knows my dad, they know that his basement is enshrined with collectibles and things that entertained himself. Every night for over a decade he would lie on the basement floor listening to one of his 13,000 album. When we had cats, our cat Dwarf would sit on my dads back resting with him as they listened together to classic rock albums. My dad was good about routine and ritual and actually was pretty easily contented in some areas. Maybe that was how he coped.

In other areas, usually in regards to his health he could be stubborn. He never really quit smoking. He kept active playing softball all the way up to the day after his leukemia diagnosis. He loved softball. He has a shrine of softballs with his batting averages from each season written on them dating back to 70’s. He enjoyed inuendo and cursing which I shared with him up until the end of high school.

My senior year, which was an emotionally dark time, gave way to a season in college when my faith grew and potentially changed the way me and my dad related. I became immersed in my faith and dad might have found it hard to reconcile it with the Catholicism he endured growing up. It probably was even more of a challenge when I began pursuing ministry as a vocation. I remember trying to bridge the gap post college. I would regularly have him edit things I was writing, because he majored in English in college, a fiction story about a cheese delivery boy modeled after the life of King David and a nonfiction autobiography of my pastor hoping we would have points of reference for my faith.

At some point in time, probably when I started wrestling in New Jersey, our relationship began to form into something more simple and familiar. I think we both accepted the people we each were. By this point my dad was retired and married to Lorraine, still loving the beach still playing softball and now that I was living in the same state working and wrestling, I think our visits and time together did not diverge much. I loved seeing him at my wrestling events and playing pool in the basement and catching up.

Life in general for him was more routine until August of 2018. About a week before I was about to move to Charleston to work as a hospital chaplain in my first full time job in a ministry context, dad was diagnosed with acute myleoid leukemia. And for the 3 days before I was about to move and work in a hospital every day, I spent it with him in the hospital preparing to get his first round of chemo.

Truth be told I can’t describe his experience in detail because I don’t entirely know it because I was not there. I know his wife Lorraine was there every step of the way, and my brother saw the effects of the chemo. We did not tell my grandmother while she was living of dads condition so as not to distress her. I was spared of some of that distress by living far away for 13 months. He was in remission for a bit and then it came back and so did I, moving back to New Jersey, hoping I could be helpful. But a delayed bone marrow transplant in the midst of a pandemic, eventually led to him having to be in the hospital for 6 weeks without a visitor. I have no idea how he had the mental capacity to endure that.

But my dad did endure a very hard almost 4 years with leukemia. He sought aggressive treatment and it gave him what I hope was meaningful extra time, but it was a fight the whole way. When he went into remission again after the bone marrow transplant I moved again, back to Charleston perhaps naive or just perhaps hopeful that dad would have a lot more time. Though he managed to never get Covid, he had a couple of other complications before the lieukemia came back this past April.

Even with the diagnosis my dad remained hopeful and optimistic and felt he had no choice but to prepare for more aggressive treatment. Another round of chemo that did nothing other than leading to 4 lengthy hospital stays over the course of 7 weeks eventually led to the decision to stop pursuing treatment and come home with hospice. I will not write about those details but I will say, it was difficult to see my dad suffer but not difficult to care for him in the stritctest sense of dealing with him or his body failing. The difficulty lay in seeing my once and at times still vibrant aspects of his personality become dimmer.

That is the difficulty, the choice between the end of suffering and the hope for more out of life and how little power over that choice it actually ends up feeling like we have, like he had. And now as a I write this he is gone. It hits me in waves; I will not hear him again, hear him tell me he loves me, except for his voicemails that I have saved, to visit, to play pool with, to talk about the Rangers with, to listen to music with. I won’t hear is laugh or see his wide smile or the big nose we share.

If I had not at this point been clear because this reflection is too somber, my dad did enjoy laughter and having a good time. He was not a particularly serious person, though he felt things strongly. My large emotions likely come from him, my temper, my humor, my love for storytelling. He did not travel much, largely remaing in Jersey, never lived elsewhere, never waivered in his accent, always found a way to be inappropriate. He was always a breath or two away from a sex joke. Again if you knew my grandmother, it would hardly seem like they could have been mother and son. But I don’t know how much each person is exactly like there parents.

There is much I don’t know. I know I love him, and I will miss him and I know in a lot of ways I am the spitting image of my dad. I know that today. and I will know that tomorrow, and in the days to come, as the grief continues to come. I know it will be hard to think about the things he will have missed or rather I will have missed to share with him.

Our second to last phone conversation on Saturday July 9th, he was more awake and alert for over an hour and half, talking to my brother, and then to me on the phone where he kept commenting on the birds he heard coming through my end of the phone. I was reminded again that our last name Passaro means little bird, particularly a sparrow.

I’m reminded now of this verse from Matthew 10:29-31

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

I am comforted that in my dad raising me, and for the brief time I was able to care for him that ultimately, there is a Heavenly Father responsible for all of our ultimate care. I’m thankful for the dad I was given to enjoy and love even if it has too short of a time.

The Purpose of Our Collective Tears

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting.

Ecclesiastes 7:2

I don’t know how prepared you are to give of your tears or how familiar you might be with what that entails. I’m going to write a bit about mourning this morning. Grief, loss, and death, I know are not necessarily fun topics to read about. I don’t know a lot about pandemics, the spread of viruses or the long term effects of these things, but I am  fairly confident that if political leaders and people are willing to show any hint of prioritizing stimulating the economy and bailing out large financially irresponsible big businesses at the risk of spreading a deadly virus, it’s safe to say that some compassionate folks may have to take up the business of empathy and grieving.

*Scroll to the bottom if you just like practicals*

And that person might be you or me. So here’s how:

Tears are beautiful. One day, in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more use for them. But here, now, tears of the emotional variety are a visual display of our pain and our stress and our empathy. As they are released chemicals are typically released in our body that calm our mind and relieve us of physical pain. In this way they are chemically associated with doing good for the inside.

It is important to keep in mind that the capacity for tears or crying is more important than volume. So like anything crying too much or persistent crying amidst a depressive episode could yield little to no benefit. It’s important to discern and distinguish between the two.

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For instance:

Yesterday, my mom put her cat Tabitha down who was 19 years old and had kidney failure. I cried a bit on my drive to her house thinking about my mom during this season of quarantine, thinking a little about Tabitha and how interesting of a cat she was. Those tears were in some ways helpful because I was prepared to empathize with my mom and imagined what it was like to lose a pet but also adjust in a season when being home a lot and perhaps for a extended season is necessary.

Later on that evening, I cried again while being exceedingly frustrated and uncertain even scared about what decisions to make, feeling like life is still out of my control and being frustrated and double-minded about how to live out what I feel called to in the midst of my current vocation after a season where I already felt isolated for the previous 5 months. These tears were less helpful, but still helpful. In part because these tears were more a response to an unclear uncertain emotional framework that had me stuck on myself. If I was still crying those same tears now they would not be helpful and perhaps self-indulgent.

Let’s return to loss and grief and death though for a moment. Some of you may have experienced the loss of a loved one. It was a deep loss that you may have not been prepared for and suffered or may suffer still as you learn to adapt to a new rhythm without that individual. Sometimes their loss might still illicit tears or sadness but hopefully, that loss has not kept you unable to find fullness in life.

Hopefully, you found a helpful ritual or prayer or found ways to accept the loss and have been given new eyes of appreciation for others. Hopefully, also, you will be presented with the opportunity to help others walk through their own grief and loss.

My hope is that this will not be a season that you will be called upon to do that, but there is a chance in the coming weeks even months you might know several people who lose something or someone due to this virus.

Not all loss is death, but death feels the most permanent. And in seasons where isolation is already becoming the norm if someone were to die while others are isolated and may not be able to mourn as easily communally, we will need to be diligent in helping to heal those who suffer loss.

We have power to minister and bring healing to others when we stay alert and aware in the midst of our own loss, to not checkout and isolate, but to remain available. To be reminded that others too will suffer the loss of spouse or grandparent or parent or child, that while our grief and loss is unique in the individual or thing lost, the experience of losing is not unique to us.

So a couple of practicals:

-Imagine you are in their position, in the coming weeks it might not take that much imagining (we’ll see)

-Listen more than spouting advice or cliche phrases of optimism (Scripture written in an encouraging note or a timely word spoken gently might be helpful but listen first)

-Pray for them

-Make sure they are fed and checked in on

-Affirm that they are loved, again gently

-Maybe not a reminder for the one suffering, but death is not the end of everything and it is a part of life; death might become more normalized, but Jesus has promised us eternity with Him for those who believe. So yes, a priority on the restoration to or perseverance in their most important relationship.

-Remember God is with us in our tears

Psalm 56:8

You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your book?

Last Call: On Grief and Time

              When someone my age dies, grief comes from all angles: from parents, from siblings, from friends, from children. The older ones carried the deceased as far as they could in the ways they knew how. The ones younger expected to be carried, guided, molded.

                But when someone dies of complications related to an overdose at 3 am, grief has this way of hypothesizing while moving like a wave. The family members who are awake are confronted with a reality that those asleep have no idea about. The woke ones grieve perhaps for the ones that don’t yet know (thus the hypothesis), while the wave of grief both victimizes and carries us.

                Grief is held until it overflows out of us enough times that it will hold us.

                Grief when allowed becomes our teacher. It is the writing on the wall and the writing in our hand and that which we grieve, becomes the etching on our heart. 

                Enough, metaphor speak, and on to the feeling.  Grief when held is first anticipated in our gut. It sits in our gut until we know what we are grieving. As it sits and perhaps stews in that stomach arena, we might be provoked to anger or ache or sickness. But once we know, once we are certain or convinced enough that we have lost what we loved, grief moves upward and sometimes becomes tense in our chest as a way of clutching the figment of what remains. What remains is memory, but what makes loss, as it pertains to grief, is the anticipation or assurance that we aren’t getting what’s lost back in this life.

                Sure, the memory will comingle with the grief in our minds while our hearts are about to burst. It’s as if the brain is trying to comfort or confuse the heart so as not to feel the entire weight of loss all at once. But the brain is no monster. We don’t get to just forget the one we’ve lost. The brain insists on reminding the heart, the whole body, all the senses that this now gone person has taken with them their scent, their smile, their warm touch, their laughter, even their personality and that sense of loss will pervade every person the lost one has sojourned with.

                Once the heart has dealt with this tension, it opens. With that opening comes emotions flowing with such fervor and uncertain frequency that we often weren’t aware of how much we were able to feel once we allowed ourselves to. Usually feelings don’t consume us when we allow them to be felt. They only consume us when we numb them. But even for the particularly hardened or wounded, it is an act of mercy for God to nudge those feelings out. Once the sadness or anger or pain has expressed itself, we await the comfort.

                And God do we hope the comfort comes. This is where we can often get lost. The lack of comfort or the well meaning attempts of others to try to comfort in their un-comfortability can feel neglectful or destructive. Avoidance in our grieving is not desired, but just as unhelpful is the one who unwittingly rushes us through our process rather than handling our pain with patience and gentleness. lastcall-1030x576

                Grief is as fragile as the initial loss and when mishandled it can break us for an extended period often without us realizing. If grief is not permitted its proper course of expression, if not allowed to be held then poured out to its last dreg,  not let go of, we miss out on grief actually holding us.

                And what does that mean “to be held by grief”?  

                When we are held by grief, we become generous with our emotions. We become more free to give our mourning to others who need us to mourn with them. We recognize that quick consolation is cheap. Instead, we are willing to sit in our own and others pain knowing first that this is a valuable way to spend our time, and second, as we sit, the real strengthening work is being done. It is being done because we are giving opportunity to attend to the most urgent thing in front of us, our loss. Laundry is no longer important, that task can be put on hold or perhaps delegated to someone else who cares.

What takes precedence is honoring the time necessary spent grieving, to function and move forward in spite of the loss. A return to normalcy should not necessarily be the goal. Numbly stepping back into the grind as a way of escape will stifle your compassion for others and self. But giving grief it’s due time and course and withholding judgment from yourself for it, will not only help you navigate future loss, but it will adequately enable you to hold another’s loss when they call.

The pain of loss always calls somewhere. It will always eventually show up. The unfortunate aspect is it can show up and be septic because it has sit too long. It can be unleashed rather than free to feel in safety. It can manifest violence or self harm reacting as an attempt to protect or it can be given space to overflow, to animate, to be beautiful in its brokenness. Then, at the last, given time we find that grief held us and healed us. a

Jesus wept for Lazarus, at the thought of death then raised him from the dead.

Jesus wept in the garden for himself and the cup he would drink. He drank it and raised from the dead.

Jesus weeps for you, with you… the pattern will continue. 

Thanksgrieving and Believing

The eventual end of grief is an eternal promise we look forward to. In the meantime, Jesus assured us that happiness is available to those who grieve because of a present promise for comfort.  For any comfort to come, there must be a hope. Sometimes that hope is cloudy.

Sometimes grief which would love to linger is lightly carried away by the wind of the Spirit. Sometimes, God places you in circumstances that no emotion you could feel is adequate.

This week I received two phone calls virtually simultaneously to respond to, circumstances completely opposite and unfamiliar to me. One was to the West Wing of the hospital to the Labor and Delivery unit, the other call to the East Wing, the Emergency Department. Both instances had to do with babies, one joyous, one tragic.

I responded to the situation I felt I was needed least first. A family was adopting a healthy baby girl from a woman who delivered the baby, and the birth mother requested I pray a blessing over the baby and the adopting parents. So, I prayed, had no parental advice to really offer and affirmed the sense of joy in the room, despite being unaware of any dynamics as to how this situation came about. I was happy to be a part of it, but lingering in my mind, was the other call I knew I would be responding to immediately following that moment:

A one-month year old without a pulse that would not make it.

For 3 hours I offered prayer and presence and became witness to parent’s and grandparent’s grief. I offered some of my own grief but mostly I observed, stood silent, waiting on God.

Together, we’re all waiting, not always in grief, but we are all waiting.

Waiting for Life

In 2 Samuel 12:15-16, there is a Scripture that is concerning: “After Nathan returned to his home, the Lord sent a deadly illness to the child of David and Uriah’s wife. David begged God to spare the child. He went without food and lay all night on the bare ground.”

The child doesn’t make it. After 7 days, the child dies. David mourns for 7 days then stops once the child dies because David is aware that the child will not return to him. God’s grace was enough to spare David’s life but was not extended to David’s child. It seems utterly cruel, doesn’t it?

the-prophet-nathan-confronts-king-david

In Scripture, the prophet Nathan affirms that the child’s death is the result of David scorning the word of God. This theologically seems like a bad look. It would be much easier to explain the circumstances using the Devil as the scapegoat doling out punishment for David’s sin, but Scripture does not give us this luxury.

Instead, we get a God that seems willing to employ extraneous means to keep his people tender-hearted. And this, I feel, is a viable tactic of God. God will use grief and the worst of circumstances, perhaps circumstances God authors, to return humanity to the love of God.

I will by no means try to explain the why nor use this or any tragedy to try to convince us that these are demonstrations of love. Rather, they are circumstances that give us pause, cause us to reevaluate, to seek what’s preeminent, namely seek God, the Author.

There, at the end of our grief, is resurrection life and belief.