Friday, June 22, 2012

Lossology 101

Loss comes in all shapes and sizes. We lose our keys. We lose our data. We lose our minds. We lose our tempers. We lose our innocence. We lose our money. We lose our jobs. We lose our security. We lose our loved ones.

I remember as a kid coming into my own realization that death seemed to come in threes. I’ve since learned that this is some kind of cultural phenomenon—more than folklore or an old wives’ tale. In fact, Google “death comes in threes” and you’ll see over 100,000 entries. Take away the quote marks and you’ll get over 1 million. It seems to hold true…unless it comes in MULTIPLES of three, as it seems to have been doing in my little circle lately.

Within a few short months I’ve lost a neighbor, a childhood friend, his mom, a cousin, a dear family friend, a colleague in youth ministry, and just this week, a fellow breast cancer fighter. All of this, of course, is layered onto the loss of Dana.

So I thought I’d use this rash of recent loss to dust off my blogger keyboard and get back to sharing some observations on the journey. My apologies for the dry spell. (It was never my intention to go such a long stretch; I'll blame it on lots of life transition.)

This brings me to tell you about Weezie, the dear family friend mentioned above, who passed away on April 1.

Weezie was my “second mom.” And my “second grandma.” And my “second aunt.” And as you would guess, my “first spoiler.” And she was my dear friend. She and her husband Arnold (whom I called Arkie, and still do to this day), having no kids of their own, “adopted” my sister Becky (whom I called Beck, and still do to this day) and me as their own, especially on Sunday mornings when Beck and I were church orphans while Mom played the piano and Dad directed the music and choir at the East Park Church of God where my grandpa (whom I called Grandpa, and still do to this day) was the pastor. We needed somebody to tend to us in the pew.

My folks and “WeezeAndArkie” were already dear friends (they took monster trips out west before us kids came along). We did Christmas’s together. They were Mom and Dad’s go-to overnight baby sitters. There were lots of outings, French fries after Sunday-night church, late-night ice cream runs, Thanksgivings, sing-alongs around the piano, and so much more.

And then Arkie, who had hardly been sick a day in his life, suddenly passed away from a heart attack.

On April 1, in fact, 37 years to the day, before Weezie passed.

Other than unexpectedly losing our dearly loved collie, Lassie (I know, I was not a creative “namer” as a kid) Arkie’s death was one of my first “aware” losses—a loss that I actually felt. My grandma (Dad’s mom) had passed away a few years earlier, when I was 8. I remember seeing Dad cry and thinking “this must be big.” My dad’s brother Paul passed away when I was in early high school, and that was probably the first death that scared me. If it could happen to Uncle Paul, who was the father of close cousins my age, it could happen to anybody. Including my dad. Or my mom.

I reached out to Weezie at the time of Arkie’s death with a letter, trying desperately to connect with her through the pain I felt from losing Lassie. From my current adult perch this action seems a bit precocious. But the consensus of adults in my life at the time was that the letter showed me to be wise beyond my years. I spoke of heaven, and the fun Arkie was having chatting it up with the Apostle Paul, and I invoked wisdom from one of my junior high teachers that we’re all dying, some just get there sooner. (I recently read the letter and I must admit, it was pretty good!). I think, though, without knowing it, I was tapping into something that God built into us: the ability and desire to comfort others out of our own pain.

My mom has long said, and I agree, that we were not wired for loss. With loss not being a part of the plan at the beginning, the ability to cope with loss was not hard-wired into our DNA. That’s why it’s so brutal. And it hasn’t seemed to have come any easier over the centuries. If I were to make a point against evolution here, I’d note that dealing with loss is something that we have not adapted to. Mankind has never gotten used to the pain of loss. So it seems that if the brain had any say at all as to what needs to adapt, it would be doing something about the pain of loss, even before it developed, say, toes.

We cannot live and escape loss. So why do we think that it shouldn’t happen to us? Loss will happen. This may not sound like much fun, but my firm grasp on that reality had a lot to do with staying upright in dealing with the loss of Dana, both in fearing that loss and in experiencing it. And here’s how, but it’s not a quick answer:

I’ve long been intrigued by a scene in the book of Acts. Acts records the exciting events that took place in the life of the church within a few decades of Jesus’ ministry. It laid the groundwork for how the church can model itself and it gave God’s people a great “heads up” on what to expect as they seek to be God’s people in a fallen world (and here’s a hint, it isn’t going to be easy). The events noted in this book were hand-picked by God for our learning pleasure. And right smack in the middle of all of this is a scene that seems to be one of the most unfair situations of all time. Check this out (and I tried to shorten it, but it’s just not possible):

Acts 12:1-11
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.  When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”

Did you notice that Peter was set free but James was killed?

Ponder that for a moment. Two men doing great work for God. Both men thrown into prison. Both men  undoubtedly on every church’s prayer chain. An angel delivers Peter, the kind of miracle we expect and pray for when things look impossible. But James is killed. Same prayers. Same God. Way different outcomes.

So the question I have to ask is, not so much, “why did James get killed?” But “why did God hand-pick this scene for us to see?” He must have wanted us to see that things are not always going to turn out like we’d planned. Or hoped. Or dreamed.

Maybe that’s why God has given a provision to help with loss. It’s like an escape hatch when things go wrong. It’s the same type of mechanism available to a forest devastated by fire—the seeds that germinate after intense heat. This helps replenish the forest. It’s depicted in movies when you see someone listening to a tape that says “if you’re listening to my voice something must have gone terribly wrong.” For us, the “terribly wrong” happened in the Fall in the Garden of Eden.  The escape hatch is the ability to share loss with each other. Sounds simple, I know; but stick with me. I think it gets more profound as we go.

First, we have this from 2 Corinthians 1:3-5.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.

This passage tells us of a few things we can count on. First: troubles and suffering. But secondly: comfort from God, which propels us to comfort others.

Jessica and I (editor’s note: if the phrase “Jessica and I” is throwing you, check out the last few posts) were recently talking about the different shapes of loss, in particular, the losses she had experienced in her life—not simply loss of life necessarily but loss of other things: scars, pain and hurt collected from paths taken and not taken, decisions made and not made.

Jessica shared that the night before she had spent a good amount of time with the pictures linked to this blog (the Shutterfly link). It contains a couple photo albums, mainly from buzzin-in-law Aaron—some photos from Dane’s visitation and some photos from “happier times” such as a couple beach vacations. Jessica said that she had seen the pictures before but this time she let herself study them and enter into the scenes.

As we talked and shared about our mutual losses we realized something had been happening in our relationship…something rather miraculous. We were actually both a little perplexed with the conversation in that we were chatting on subjects we had already talked on deeply—ground already covered, grace dispensed. But there was a different vibe and a new, surprising reason why we were covering the ground.

We were absorbing each others’ losses.

As you might expect, this doesn’t come easy. There is pain to share. There is grace to dispense and support to give. But it’s beautiful and I think it’s as close to heaven on earth as we can get. It takes sacrifice and love. And, of course, when you put these two things together, you get the best product from heaven that we get to enjoy on earth: sacrificial love.

This brings me back to the thing that has kept me upright in my journey: embracing the reality that loss will happen.  There is absolutely no reason why I should expect to be exempt from loss. And the sooner I embrace that, the closer I am to allowing someone, or Someone, to absorb that loss with me.

And I think this gets at the heart of why we are on this earth with each other: to absorb each others’ losses, no matter the shape or size of the loss. This action probably gets us as close to being like Jesus as anything else we can do. (By the way, if you’ve never read “The Ragman” by Walter Wangerin, Google it now and read it.) 

I don’t know about you, but I could use all the help I can get in being like Jesus. I figure absorbing loss of the people around me is as good a place to start as any.

When I was in the epicenter of my own grief, my good friend Bill said to me, “You know, we believers do not have a good theology on loss.” Maybe this little post can be an installment in Lossology 101.

If so, Day One in the syllabus might go something like this:
Day 1: Either find someone, or Someone, to help absorb your loss or be the one to absorb the loss of someone around you.

More soon. And I promise, it won’t be so long in timeframe, nor in length.

Thank you,