When Your Childhood Dies

I still remember listening to Purple Rain on cassette tape. When Doves Cry will always be one of my favorite songs. When Stevie Nicks sang a tribute to Prince at her recent concert in Dallas, I was surprised at how much I was moved. (And for those of you who know me, I realize me being moved to tears should come as no surprise.)

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I also remember having a childhood crush on Carrie Fisher. Well, the crush was more realistically on Princess Leia, but Carrie brought her to life. Although as an adult I have appreciated her advocacy regarding mental health and addiction issues, I always thought of her first as a strong female character.

One night during high school, I was falling asleep with the radio on. I heard the words, “Ground control to Major Tom,” for the hundredth time, but really listened and paid attention for the first time. I was amazed at the way David Bowie was able to tell such a gripping and telling story in such a short time.

When a celebrity dies, a little piece of us dies with them. As humans, we seem to have this impression that the memories, and memory-makers, of our youth are somehow immortal. Each loss is a reminder of our own mortality. Each loss is a reminder that we are no longer that 8 year child going to theater to see Return of the Jedi; we are no longer that middle schooler dancing to Careless Whisper; we are no longer that young adult who appreciates the old musicals and still dances along to all the songs in Singing in the Rain.

As the shining stars of our youth go dim, a little piece of us darkens along with them.

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Two people from my church family passed away this past week. They were both kind and gentle people. I was not particularly close to either one, but have many mutual friends. One of them is a grandfather to some of the children in the youth group I volunteer with. As those families gather for funerals on the same week most of us celebrated Christmas, there is a hurt, a loss, that will forever change those who mourn.

When people that we know die, it creates an emptiness. Something, someone, we are familiar with is no longer physically present. Even simple things like regular greetings at church or occasionally bumping into one another at the grocery store aren’t going to happen anymore. Those events we took for granted because we always banked on “next time” now take on a new meaning.

As the people we know die, a little piece of us is lost and we are forever different.

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When it comes to celebrity deaths, 2016 has been a terrible year. Just this week has seen three stars (two of them mother and daughter) pass away. People have been mourning the loss of their childhood heroes from Severus Snape to Carol Brady; their sports idols from Muhammad Ali to Arnold Palmer; their musical angels from Merle Haggard to Leonard Cohen; their historical giants from Elie Wiesel to John Glenn.

It seems that each week has brought a new spotlight to one of those childhood memories; those thoughts of days gone by. And now, the person associated with the memory is gone. And we mourn. Maybe not so much because we knew them, most of us never get a chance to meet the celebrities we adore, but because of what they unknowingly meant to us.

At the same time, all of us have endured the loss of loved ones throughout the year. And we are navigating through the pain that brings.

In addition to that, there are thousands of others who have died this year that we know nothing about. We never knew them. They never made the news. They passed on and our lives kept moving as if nothing happened.

And all of that is okay. Because each loss—whether of a close friend or a person associated with a memory—brings an end to part of ourselves. This isn’t selfish. This is a gift we have received. We have been granted…something: a token of kindness, a refuge through song or stage, inspiration to face insurmountable odds, a relationship. Because we have been given these gifts, when the giver leaves, we mourn.

So as this calendar year draws to a close, mourn. Be sad for the parts of your younger days that you have lost. But also be grateful. Be grateful that you were the recipient of a gift that only you can fully understand.

Tomorrow, I will gather with other mourners and extend my sympathies to a husband who is burying his wife; a daughter who is burying her mother. I will mourn. Yet I will also be grateful as I continue reading stories of this person’s students who remember her fondly; whose lives have forever been shaped by the love she poured into them.

We lost bits of ourselves throughout this year, but we are who we are because of the gifts we have been given. So let us grieve. But let us also be thankful that we have reason to grieve.

On Funerals, Grief, and Sobriety

My youngest son and I had a great conversation over the weekend. We had just left a funeral and one of the songs played was “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” That song was sung at my brother’s funeral. I still cannot hear it without breaking down.

My son asked, “Dad, is it bad that I don’t cry at stuff like that?”

You see, my daughter and I are the cry-ers of the family. The two of us are emotional and break down at things like sorrow and grief and Hallmark commercials. My wife and two sons are very compassionate, caring people; they just don’t cry a lot.

So we talked for several minutes about the gift of tears. When people are crying, it is good for others to come and cry with them. It lets them know people care and that crying is okay. It lets them know that they are not suffering alone.

Yet, even when the tears are coming, there are still questions to be answered. There are still things to be done. So when a compassionate person comes along who still has use of their voice, they can speak on behalf of the person who is unable to speak. And it does the same thing: It lets them know people care and that crying is okay. It lets them know that they are not suffering alone.

So the ability to cry and the ability to not cry are both gifts that are needed in times of grief.

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One of the hardest lessons for me to learn in recovery was that it is okay to feel. I have always been a somewhat emotional person. But when I began drinking, I learned that I could hide most of the intense feelings if I just drank enough. And if I covered up enough of my feelings, I would appear even stronger to those around me.

My faulty thinking led me to believe that emotion was weak; stoicism was strong. But little in this life is that cut-and-dried.

When I began sobering up, emotions started rising up within me. They started coming to the surface and bubbling over and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

And although it took a while, I came to realize that all of that was okay! There was no need to stop the emotions from coming out. In fact, my sobriety in many ways relied on me allowing my emotion to no longer be bottled up. The more honest I was with how I was feeling (to myself and others), the more I healed.

Also, I learned that not everyone responds to every stimulus the same way I do. Some people process emotion privately and quickly and that is healthy. Others wear their hearts on their sleeves. Some talk through them, some spend time in silence. Some cry, others feel compassion in other ways.

In other words, there was no single solution to the question of dealing with emotion. The important thing was to learn to actually deal with it.

I cry. You may or may not. I like to think and process events mentally before talking through them with people. You may or may not.

But today, when I am healthy, I am acknowledging and dealing with all those things that come my way.

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After our conversation ended, my son and I drove past the church building at the time a funeral for an 11 year old boy was taking place. This community had been praying for this young child as he bravely faced leukemia. Unfortunately, the battle was too much and he passed away a little over a week ago.

The parking lot at the church building was packed. Some funeral goers were parked in the shopping plaza across the street. Others parked on the grass surrounding the building. It was a large crowd.

I said, “Wow. Just seeing that makes me want to cry.”

My son’s response? “Actually, it makes me happy. I am glad that so many people showed up for him and his family.”

I might have cried a little bit more.

I Am Sick of Being Fine

I originally shared this post 3 years ago. It is still true. But at least I use the word “fine” a lot less. I would like to inspire all of us to be more honest when we ask and answer “How are you?”

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I suffer from a chronic illness. It’s called “Being Fine.” I have been fine a lot. Many days I tell people I am fine. In fact, a common response when asked how I am is, “Fine.”

What a crock.

Now don’t get me wrong: most of the time I am feeling pretty good. Most days I am able to cope with all that life throws at me. The majority of the time I am a well-adjusted man approaching middle age.

But when I say, “I’m fine”, chances are pretty good I’m lying through my teeth.

So why do I do it? Why do I tell people I’m fine? I blame two people: me and you.

I blame myself for obvious reasons. If I am struggling I should reach out for help. If I am hurting I should ask for relief. If I am in need I should ask people who have plenty.
But I don’t. I don’t want you to know that I am struggling, or hurting, or in need. I want you to think I am completely self-sufficient all the time. So I blame myself.

But I also blame you. Because when you ask me how I feel, you don’t want to know. You want to hear that I’m doing fine. Because if I tell you that I am fine you can tell me you are fine and we can both go on our separate ways. You see, if I dare tell you I’m hurting, you may just have to open up and talk about your hurts, too.

How much of our hurting could be lessened if we would all be honest? I’m not suggesting we all turn into a bunch of whiners and complainers, but when we are truly hurting perhaps we should admit it. Maybe if we stop thinking we need to put on a mask of invincibility we could avoid the pain that comes from isolating ourselves. And telling people we are fine is indeed a form of isolation.

So how do we overcome this vicious illness?

Be honest with your question. Only ask someone how they are doing when you are ready and willing to hear the answer. Don’t let people give you some brush off answer and get away with it. Look them in the eye and say, “How are you?”

Be honest with your answer. You don’t have to go into great detail. You don’t have to give your entire life story. But you can simply say, “I’m hurting right now,” or, “I just need a little encouragement.”

It amazes and saddens me to know that when I assemble with 2000+ people at church on Sunday morning, almost all of them will say they are fine. And maybe for the majority of them, that is probably true.

But how many people are hurting and putting on a mask for everyone to see? Am I paying attention? Am I missing the signs, the words, the clues that something else is going on? Am I too busy to concern myself with someone else’s life? Are my eyes set on where I am going instead of the person right in front of me? Am I one of the ones pretending to be fine when in truth I need someone to hear me, encourage me, cry with me, pray with me?

I suffer from being fine. I would venture to guess that you do, too. How about we make a promise to ourselves, to each other, and to God to start being honest with each other—it’s the only cure I know.

Go Sit With It

One year ago, I went through a funk. It was a mild case of depression. Nothing was satisfying. I quit doing the things I do to bring joy to my life. I was not sleeping. I had little to no energy. I was going through the motions of work, church, and family obligations.

I can name the events that occurred that led to this. One Sunday in January, I had the unsettling honor of being in the birthing room with a mother whose child died during childbirth. I was able to hold the lifeless child and look on his face. The next week, my cousin was killed in a car accident. After traveling from Maryland to Texas for the funeral, my mother suffered a stroke.

I have been around death and the various details in a number of ways for most of my life. I have been in hospital rooms and living rooms with people as they took their last breath. I have planned and preached funerals. I have talked with and counseled families and friends as they deal with grief. I have walked through the grief of losing my brother.

But there was something about those three events occurring within a 10 day stretch that shook me in a way I have not been shaken before.

And I turned inward. I isolated. I didn’t talk. I hid behind the word “fine.” I was basically entering into the Walking Dead phenomenon, only without the entertainment of the actual TV show.

And this went on for months. After a powerful sermon at the church I attend, I decided to take a chance and reach out for help. I wrote a card detailing my despair and emptiness and actually signed my name to it. It was difficult spelling out the letters in my name on that card.

Someone called me. We talked. We prayed. I decided to go speak to a trusted spiritual advisor. His name is Randy. I told him I was unsettled. He asked me why. I detailed the events of the previous weeks and months.

He responded with a simple question: “You know what I’m going to tell you, don’t you?”

My answer: “You’re going to tell me to go sit with it.”

“Yes. Go sit with it.”

“Go sit with it” ranks right up there with “Do the next right thing.”

Randy is a well-respected, educated, wise, insightful, spiritual man. He thinks before he speaks. He does not let words fall out of his mouth carelessly.

But all he had for me was, “Go sit with it.”

I wanted advice. I wanted healing. I wanted the words that formed the magic solution to cure all that ailed me. I didn’t want to go sit with it.

But that was his counsel. What does it mean?

It means that there are seasons in life when we will be unsettled. We cannot avoid it or prevent it. We also can’t pretend like it’s not happening. We can’t simply sweep it under the rug or hide it in the closet. We must go through it.

It means that there are some issues that cannot be solved simply. They must be experienced and endured.

It means that sometimes we need to be silent in order to hear God. We need to be still to be aware of God’s presence. We may not always get the answers we want, but at many points in our lives we do not need answers. We need presence.

It means that I have to accept that I cannot solve everyone’s problems. I cannot be the hero for everyone in my life. And that is not what I am supposed to be anyway.

It means that I need to recognize how I participate in the suffering of the world. And how I can partner and walk alongside others as they participate, as well.

There was no magical solution. There was no simple solution. There wasn’t even a moment when everything got back to normal.

But every morning brought a new day.

And sometimes, that is all we can hope for.

My Brother Is My Biggest Fan

My oldest brother, Robert, died 5 years ago. He never “got” recovery. But no one supported me more than he did.

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Addicts are not deficient people.

I would love to assume that statement is unnecessary, but unfortunately many addicts are viewed as weak, lacking self-control, uncaring, immature, and failures.

But this simply is not true. (At least, no more true than with any other group of people.)

I said in a previous post that addicts are not problems to be solved, they are people to be loved. When a story hits that another celebrity has died of an overdose, I always feel grief. I wonder what their journey with addiction and sobriety has been.

And then I feel anger. Anger at the people who suggest the person “got what they deserved.” Anger at people who say, “That’s what you get when you give people a lot of money.” Anger at the people who feel as if the person who died was some moral failure so let’s not waste any time shedding a tear for them.

When people make choices, they have to be ready to face the consequences of those choices. And sometimes, those consequences are fatal.

And you may want to think the person failed at life. But I don’t believe that is true. I believe they struggled and felt they had nowhere else to turn.

One of the difficulties many addicts face is the shame associated with being an addict. Even when everyone knows the person is addicted to something, that person struggles to say the words out loud. What is too often viewed as failure, or immaturity, is in actuality suffering.

And too often, it is suffering in silence.

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My brother was never able to maintain sobriety. He tried many times. For a variety of reasons, it never stuck. Ultimately, it was his addiction and its consequences that took his life at a young age.

But I will not allow you to call my brother a failure.

My brother worked hard. My brother loved hard. My brother, to quote the cliché, never met a stranger. At his funeral, Brother #4 (there are 5 of us!) acknowledged that Bob did not do a good job taking care of himself. Part of the reason for that was his view that everyone else was more important.

Bob was kind. He was funny. He was intelligent. He had his flaws. He made his mistakes. He caused his fair share of pain. He was human.

And he called me every year on my sobriety anniversary. He told me how proud he was of me. He told me he was praying for me.

He told me he looked up to me.

I hate what alcohol did to my brother. I hate the internal struggle that he dealt with that I was unable to resolve—even knowing it was not my responsibility to do so. I hate that someone so loving and funny and smart was not able to see in himself what others saw.

But he was not a failure. He was an addict. He was a Christian walking through life the best way he knew how. He was a human being with human shortcomings.

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He was everybody’s friend.