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.

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.

Please, Complain Some More

A funny thing happened over on facebook the other day.

I posted a status that was somewhat serious, but also a little playful.

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I ended with, “Asking for a friend,” because I was wanting to use humor as an outlet for the stress and anxiety I was experiencing.

Because life is funny. I know I am not in control. I know I have a large group of people to go to when I am feeling afraid or sad or stressed. I have a good prayer life. My wife and I (usually) talk about things when we are feeling overwhelmed.

Yet in spite of all of that, I still feel the stress and fear that everyday life can bring. And although one facebook post to my friends does not qualify as a scientific study, I think I can safely say you do, too.

I was blown away at the response my status received. Not because I was surprised at the number of people who were encouraging me and praying for me. But I was mostly surprised at how many people acknowledged feeling the same way.

Added to that was the wide variety of people commenting on my status. We have lived in three states over the past 10 years. People from all of those places commented. Some are friends from childhood. Some are past co-workers of my wife. Some are my past co-workers. Some are friends I was in college with. Some are family members. Some are friends I have known for less than a year. Some attend the same church we do. Some are shepherds (elders) of that church. Some have had similar experiences. Some have had similar emotional experiences but triggered by different life circumstances.

We all know what it is like to deal with difficulty. With stress. With anxiety. With fear. We all know the inner turmoil of wanting to give up completely while at the same time wanting to fix every single problem.

Yet still I was astounded at the response my simple little facebook status received.

And then my friend, Sean (read his great blog here), posted a facebook status: “Many churches I know have a praise band. No church I know has a lament band…and the world is worse for it.”

And then it clicked. Most people have the experience that I described in my post. But most people have been trained to suck it up. We have been told not to complain. We believe we need to get over it.

We think lamenting is wrong.

But it’s not. I lamented and received strength. I cried out and was heard. I groaned and others groaned with me; and gave me the opportunity to groan with them.

So today, I give you permission:

Complain. Groan. Whine. Bitch. Moan. Let it out. Do not get over it. Do not keep it to yourself until you feel better.

Let’s hear it. What’s going on? What do you need to lament about?

You can even tell me you’re asking for a friend.