I Never Knew His Name

I lived the first ten years of my life in Scotland, the country of my birth. When I was a boy one of the daily rituals was to cross the street to buy some fresh baked bread or rolls. The corner bakery did a booming business. In the evening the fish and chip shop, Marino’s, enticed you with the delicious smells teasing one’s nostrils. From about eight in the morning to six at night the corner convenience store was open for business. Each store seemed to do well.

Our neighbourhood was interesting. One street in particular was known to be inhabited by Protestants and the one up the road was the “Catholic street.” It didn’t seem to make a difference at school. We kids all got along except for the frequent fist fights that would break out when one kid insulted or bullied another. So many kids in one school from different backgrounds.

As a boy of about seven or eight it wasn’t unusual for my mother to send me across the street to pick up some fresh rolls or fish and chips. I especially liked going for the fish and chips. After a few times I became pretty skilled at having my nimble fingers find their way through the wrapping to sample a chip or two before taking them home. Ah, what a wonderful memory! I still love fish and chips.

I liked living in our neighbourhood. It was big and it was busy. I knew a lot of people, kids and adults. Usually I met them in one of the stores and listened to them chat to each other while waiting for their purchases.

It was at this time of my young life where something happened that has stayed with me to this day. My thoughts that the people I met would always be there were shattered. There was an old man who frequented the stores I mentioned. He was like anyone else and needed to buy things in his life. I remember seeing him quite often. He was always on his own. I never knew his name. I can even remember my mom saying hello to him now and again. It seemed a lot of the neighbours knew him. They were friendly toward each other. I kind of enjoyed it when the adults doing their shopping would say hi to me. I guess, as a child, it was my introduction of what a caring community could be like.

I remember one morning I went across the street with my mother when the bakery and corner store opened. When we went into the store I sense something wasn’t quite right. People were more hushed than usual. My mother talked to someone about something. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. My curiosity peaked when one woman exclaimed “that’s awfy”, meaning “that’s awful.” I heard someone else say how sad it was. Although this memory goes back decades ago, I still remember the following words of explanation. “He turned on his gas stove and put his head in the oven.” As the story goes, his daughter went to visit him and found him dead. He had taken his own life.

As we were crossing the street to go home my mind was reeling. I was full of questions. I was sad. I remember asking my mom, “how can someone kill themselves?” “Did it hurt?” Mom didn’t answer. I asked her another question. Why did the old man kill himself? The answer found its way into my brain at that moment and has never left. My mother answered, “He was lonely, the poor old man.” When we got home life became normal again. We ate our fish and chips and settled in for the night.

I couldn’t get what I had heard and what mom had said out of my head. I had never heard of someone killing himself before. I couldn’t understand that. What caused him to do it. He took his own life. He killed himself. He killed himself! He was lonely. From that time on I have associated being lonely with being sad. It made me sad. I missed seeing the old man. He was now forever missing from our community. If he had a daughter how could he be lonely?  Perhaps there was something else. Maybe he was also suffering from an illness. I will never know.

As the years have gone by I have thought about that old man often. I have met many lonely people since then. The decades have taught me that loneliness is common. The old man taught me that being lonely can kill a person. Perhaps seeing our community once a day wasn’t enough for the old man. Perhaps what he needed was companionship. Perhaps he would have loved a pal to hang out with, a buddy to help make life more enjoyable and fulfilling. Instead, he died on his own with his head in the oven.

I wonder who hears lonely people? I wonder if the old man ever told anyone he was lonely? Did he cry at his dinner table. I wonder if he wailed into the night heard only by God? I wonder if anyone really cared?

He made a lasting impact on my life. I still remember him. I never knew his name!

 

The Crying of Men!

Please know that ScarredJoy posts are not all about having people agreeing with me. At times you may think I missed the mark on something. I do, however, want to have us journey together through things in life that may be uncomfortable, have us think and be real.

Such characteristics as being real with ourselves and others take time. Being real with our emotions, especially our expressions of sadness, is something we may have to learn as life confronts us with pain, brutality and life changing grief. This post encourages especially men to be real with their emotions.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting online with a Facebook “friend.”  As a woman, my friend thought a consideration of how men process or express grief would be interesting to post. I got to thinking about my emotions as a man. A result of the chat led to this post. Specifically I am writing about men and crying.

I will never forget the sound. It has left an indelible picture in my mind. The wailing, the deep crying of a man standing by the headstone of someone he loved. He was on his own. Perhaps grieving the death of this loved one he felt even more alone. Grief can do that to a person. Grief can take the strongest of men and crush his spirit, at least for a while. Crying, unashamedly may help express the depth of emotional pain inside.

When I was a boy the culture of the time frowned upon crying in the case of boys and men. For a boy to cry, at least in front of people, was to act like a “lassie.” If a man cried he was supposed to calm it down as soon as possible.

As a Christian I admit, at least until recent years, much of the church community has contributed to minimizing the need to openly express our emotions and especially sad emotions. Perhaps in expressing the emotion Jesus expressed (John 11: 11:35–“Jesus wept.”) the church would have avoided the “suck it up” attitude of our culture. Weeping is raw emotion. Weeping is honest.

I’m thankful things are changing. Somewhere along the journey of life men began to know it’s okay to cry. We can now shake off the shackles of cultural or religious dictates that hampered emotions and feel free to be real, to cry.

I’m not saying, of course, that if men don’t cry they arent’s manly. I don’t mean that men must cry. I’m simply saying it’s okay to weep, to feel deep sadness, to cry, even in front of other people if need be. We don’t have to hide our tears in a corner!

If I cry I don’t like people drawing attention to me. It makes me feel I’m doing something wrong. The emotional ghosts of my cultural and church past can still haunt me. Perhaps other guys feel the same way.

To my female readers, if we guys cry please allow us to express ourselves in this way. Please don’t see our tears as a sign of weakness. We are feeling something deep that has caused us deep sorrow.

To cry is human.

I’m thinking a lot of this stuff through myself. This post even after I have rewritten it and reviewed it myself is giving me cause to ponder my own reality. There is still more to say on this.

What are your thoughts about men crying?

 

Hello Silence My Old Friend!

This post may be more for myself than anyone else. Readers you may think it is long but please allow me to get this out okay?

Years ago the singing duo, Simon and Garfunkel came out with a song entited “The Sound of Silence.” I love that song. I especially loved the first line, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again.” I’m not going to go into the context of the day when the song was written or became popular or mention how some have interpreted this song. I do, however, want to highlight how at times there is a need for silence.

There are times I visit an old friend of mine. Silence is the name. Silence isn’t always quiet and sometimes darkness is close by. Let me explain a bit of what I mean. My personality type tends toward a need to analyze thoughts and emotions that come my way. I gravitate toward being more introverted than anything else. I enjoy being around certain people yet I also enjoy silence and solitude. I can be a team player but I love doing things on my own.

Allow me to talk a bit about my past forty years of working or ministering or being with people. These forty years have primarily been in the context of being with people who are hurting in some way. Somehow people gravitate toward me. I don’t know why and I don’t know how this happens, it just does. For instance, I can be sitting in a hospital lobby waiting to go into a meeting and someone will sit by me and start talking to me. Has that kind of thing happened to you?

In the context of my work this somewhat natural ability with people has been a blessing. I have been able to sit patiently with hurting people and given them a safe place to pour out their life stories. It is a privilege to be there for them.

I have to say, on the other hand, there are times I want to be on my own. I sometimes allow the hurts of other people to almost haunt me. It is these times especially when I welcome my old friend silence.

Those involved in people helping professions or careers are advised not to become emotionally attached to those you try to help. I totally get that. I know what it means. I also accept that in order to be useful to others I have to be aware of who I am as a person. I have to be a friend of silence. I need silence.

At times in my work or even in my personal life I resonate with the situation of some people more than others. I find it somewhat easier to be emotionally distant with people in my professional context. Sometimes, however, there are those who stay in your mind.

Here is one instance in particular. I remember a colleague telling me a certain patient had requested to speak with me about some personal matter. It was my first day back after the weekend. I was looking forward to seeing him. I know he had been having spiritual and emotional struggles. I went to his room and he wasn’t there. I finally asked another colleague if she had seen him but she had not. I then asked the person who who had told me of his request to speak with me. She had just received news that, I must say, shocked me. He died during the evening from a fall. I never saw him again.

This news actually stunned me. I remember not knowing what to say. I just walked away from my colleague and sat in my office for a while. I then went for a walk on my own. I wanted to be with my old friend silence. For a while my silence was stalked by darkness. They aren’t a great combination.

Darkness insisted on being given attention. Darkness said that if I had paid more attention to the gentleman who died perhaps his struggles would have been diminished. Darkness goaded me into finding a mirror and looking into the face of a failure who lets people down. Darkness turned from being a friend into a demon! Silence itself isn’t always quiet. My thoughts clamoured for me to listen to them but all I wanted was silent silence. I hear enough noise. I don’t want my silence to be noisy.

Then I heard silence, my old friend! Silence in time, showed it really was my friend. Silence soothed me and encouraged me to ignore the sound of darkness. To survive in a world, a culture that is all too noisy, I need silence. In order to remain in touch with other people I must have the soothing embrace of silence.

“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.”–Mother Teresa

Beware of Garbage Language

Hello my friends! I have encountered a lot of memorable experiences in my journey through life. Some like the following stay in my mind and heart.

A few years ago I was asked to conduct the funeral for a pastor colleague’s mother. We had met during the time his mother was declining due to her illness. When she died he didn’t hesitate to ask me to conduct her memorial service. he said he was too emotional to lead it himself. We talked a bit about his love for his mother. Our conversation went on to include his reluctance regarding leading funerals. He told me the following experience he had when he was a younger minister.

He was asked to meet with a young couple whose baby had died. Needless to say, the couple was devastated. The mother especially was overcome with her grief. My friend told me that once the funeral was arranged he was extremely anxious about it. Having done a number of funerals and memorial services I empathized with his anxiety. His story continued and gripped my heart.

The day of the baby’s funeral was a perfect storm for making it a sorrowful event for all involved. The weather was terrible. The minister had very little experience with grieving pople. He had never encountered the death of a child. The baby was the young couple’s first child. My friend would later recall that day was one he wished never happened.

After the funeral service in a local church the minister accompanied the funeral director in a hearse. The young couple and family members were in another hearse. When they arrive at the cemetary it was pouring rain and chilly. As the minister said some words trying to comfort the family as the baby was laid to rest he uttered an unintentioned but inappropriate statement. It is a statement I term “garbage language.”  As the final words by the minister were concluded the young mom fell to her knees in the muddy grass. She was sobbing deep from in her soul. Not knowing what else to do or so say, my friend reached over to the young grieving mother and said, “I understand!” Without missing a beat the mother looked up at hime and said, “How can you understand? Did your child die too?”

As everyone was leaving the cemetary my friend recalls how emotinally empty he felt inside. He could never undo his garbage language statement to the young mom. It seered into his mind and heart, however, that he would be careful of what he said to people in grief. It was a hard and bitter lesson for him.

Garbage language is unfortunately common in western culture. Many people still have not learned the etiquette of grief language. Many still stumble along in a supposedly well-meaning way in their efforts to comfort grieving people. I forget the number of times people have said to me regarding a grieving loved one, “I don’t know what to say.” It seems to be a challenge for many when I simply say something like, “Perhaps, if anything, just listen to the person.” Many of us seem to think that we have to say something to those who grieve. In most situations the non-verbal communication may be the most effective and caring. This includes a hug, an arm across the person’s shoulder or sitting quietly and allowing the person to cry. Perhaps the only talking needed is the sound of the grieving person’s voice.

I hope we can learn to throw off the shackles of garbage language. Please don’t be offended when I give some examples of garbage language now. If you are offended there is still hope for you. In the context of grief how often have you used or heard this statement or something like it? “If you need anything just let me know!” That, my friends, is garbage language. There are other horrific statements that remind us garbage language is unfortunately alive and well. Here are some other common forms of words that miss the mark and therefore are garbage language. “I thought you would be over your grief by now.” “You can always have another baby!” “Well, at least your mother lived a long life.” “He’s at peace now!” “Wow, that’s sad, but your not the only one who has grieved.”

Hopefully you get my point!

My friends, I’ve said it before. Listen! Avoid turning to your own perceived wisdom in thinking you have to say something. Listen! If you love people and want to sincerely be present for those who grieve then listen! Be there for people after the funeral is a memory. Remember special dates the grieving person may spend on her or his own. Cut the lawn for them. Drive them if they need to go out somewhere. Perhaps in their grief they aren’t really fit to drive on their own. Affirm their pain. Recognize your ability to be silent with those who grieve is a gift to them. Just “be.”

Beware of garbage language!

Reclaiming Our Grief from the “Experts”

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This post is a result of something that has been going through my head for a while. In fact, this morning I had insomnia that was driving me crazy until I decided to get up and write. Here goes. Keep in mind this won’t be lengthy. I just want to have you think about something. We can then explore it together later.

I’ve been involved in direct service, work, ministry, etc. with people for forty years. It doesn’t make me an expert. Much of my work has been in the context of grief related situations. Primarily this has been death related grief.

Grief has become a huge marketable part of our culture. There are loads of books written on grief. I have quite a number of them myself. There are all sorts of theories or explanations of “the process of grief” all trying to help people make some sense of grief. You might say they give you an idea of “how to” grieve. Perhaps the one who led the way in this was Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross back in the 1960’s with her “stages of grief.” Others have used such terms as “tasks of mourning,” or “dimensions of grief,” etc.

There are all sorts of people involved in the profession of “therapists” or couselors. Many religious type leaders or professionals may also make efforts at helping people in their grief. Some of them may be effective but many miss the mark.

I think it’s time for the average person to reclaim their grief from the so-called “experts.” This may sound simlistic or perhaps even outrageous. Yeah, I get it! The “experts” have spent years studying grief and how it impacts the lives of people they are trying to help. I get that too.

Listen, you are the expert in your grief. You are the “coach.” You help guide your own process of grief. We may benefit in some way in visits to “therapists” or “counselors” and the like but realize you are the expert of your grief. Everyone else who may want to help you will do well to really listen to you. They can’t say anything worthwhile until they listen to you. Your journey of finding your way through your grief will become more clear as someone walks with you, so to speak on this journey.

I say all this to hopefully stimulate discussion. Try not to hide your grief. Please honour your grief by finding people to walk with you on the journey. You talk about your grief and your companion listens. Don’t leave your grief up to the “experts.”

Listen!

I originally posted the following on Facebook in something I call Coffee Shop Ponderings. Comments are appreciated.

Listen! Listen again! Listen some more! If I sum up what I have learned through the years in being with people it all comes down to one essential skill. Listening. If we neglect to listen we neglect true care of people. To listen means to do more than hear what people are saying. In listening I lay aside preconceived notions I may have. In listening I am being present with another person’s soul. Does this sound too lofty an idea? Well, it is not lofty, it is a need. I say to listen is a skill.

Most people can use skill development when it comes to listening. To listen certainly does not come easy. Just because we may say, “I’m listening” does not mean we are.

When I am with people in a professional role this is how I listen. To listen means the words someone may be sharing with me penetrates my heart and mind. I receive the words in such a way I discern not only the thought but the accompanying feelings of the person. I hear their words and see perhaps a quiver of the lips or a smile. I hear in the tone of the person’s voice the feelings that come from within. Their smile causes me to smile. Their cries cause me to feel with the person but I do not become overwhelmed. I listen and feel with. I may respond by saying something like, “You sound so happy” or “This is hard for you.” Often people will say, ” I haven’t talked about that for years. I’ve kept it inside. Thank you for listening!” That thank you is a gift from one listened to.

In a personal context when with family and friends. Even with family members or dear friends it is important to really listen. Many times family members may not listen to each other. It is oftem more about getting one’s point across than it is coming to an understanding between each other. It is not about always having to be right as much as it is knowing you love each other. To listen is to care and love. To not listen results in the opposite.

Do you want people to know you really love and care for them? Learn to listen.

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Not Always Pleasant, Yet Real

I have come alongside many people who were dying in my work over the past forty years. I want to mention a few things about caring for people who are actively dying in a hospital or long term care setting. Sitting at the bedside of a dying person may not always be pleasant. The things I am going to mentions are real.

Some people I converse with, especially after they know the kind of work I do, have a romanticized view of the reality of dying. Family members may sit at the bedside and hope relief will come for their loved one by death. They can be fighting their own tiredness due to the long hours of sitting and waiting. Waiting for the “end.” When death finally comes some family members immediately burst into tears. Some just sit as if in shock. Others talk to the loved one as if trying to rouse him or her from sleep.The finality of death brings many emotions to the front that people express. Dying and death are no joke!

I have sat with dying people during times where not so pleasant things happen physically. I remember sitting with someone who lingered.The person was not comfortable much of the time. She consistently issued a form of sputum from her mouth. The room had the smell of coming death. It was not pleasant sitting close to her. Her hands were curled up as if like a claw.She remained in a fetal position.

The situation this lady experienced was at the end stage of her life. Now and again she spoke but she was difficult to hear. When death finally came she passed quietly.

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