Caregivers to Those Who Grieve

Like ocean waves that ebb and flow, we desire to show compassion and care to those who, in deep anguish, flounder in seas of grief that often, unexpectedly, knock them over. Their grief sends crashing waves over them, while we who desire to help, press forward and pull back like storm swells erratically pounding the shoreline.

At the time of a death, the funeral, or a memorial service, I’ve often noticed what I call “holy anesthesia.” By this I mean that God allows us to simply function, or do the next thing as Elisabeth Elliot often counseled.

The grieving family may feel pressure to have an open casket so friends, family, neighbors can see the deceased. In 1975, my mom felt that pressure, and though the body lying in the casket, felled at 59 by brain cancer, little resembled my dad, she reversed her earlier decision for a closed casket. Such viewings, often brutal on the family, may be waning. My father-in-law pastored for over 60 years and encouraged families to celebrate a life and present the Gospel through a memorial service.

I think back to a college comedy show when a fellow student’s monologue poked fun at thoughtless comments voiced at funerals, such as,”He looks so good,” or “She looks so much like herself.” Tragically, this young man died of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after. How incongruous to see a hearse on our college campus, a place of young people just beginning life’s journey! Stark death had struck where and when we least expected it. At 18, I got a first-hand experience that put a young face to the word death. My faith held, but I remember the awkwardness of student conversations about Paul’s death. This incident happened over 50 years ago.

Today, folks can Google the 10 or 12 or any number of things not to say to grieving people or to do for them. And the perspective runs from Psychology Today to Christian, with many variations in between.

But really, how can we reach out– or pull back — to offer genuine help? I find the key often lies in the face-to-face bond you have with the person. Hitting the crying emoji on Facebook simply because you know someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows that person, rarely registers. If you personally know an extended family member, seek their advice regarding whether the grieving person is ready to deal with other people yet.

While I am extremely thankful for the resources of EMTs, policemen, clergy, and other professionals, I honor those who offer long-term, specific acts of mercy and encouragement to those who grieve long after the services and casseroles end.

Just one small example: In the mid 80s, I was privileged to teach a beautiful, brilliant, and vibrant young woman. A rare form of cancer attacked her body when she was in her early 40s, and took her life in about six weeks. Each year, on the day of her death, I write her mom an email. I try to include a specific I remember about Lisa’ high school years. Lisa’s mom responds, telling me about her son-in-law and the two granddaughters. And she thanks me for remembering the daughter she’ll never forget.

Please consider how you will care for those who grieve beyond their initial pain.


Caregivers to Those in Pain

One of our grandchildren took this deer-in-headlights photo of grandpa today. And while he doesn’t usually look like this, he exemplifies the feelings of almost all caregivers at one time or another! I should mention that we’ve been married almost 50 years.My professional caregivers, except for the one doctor who called me Brat when I was 4, provided great care, even when weary and sleep deprived. But I want to honor the family and friends who minister to us when we hurt or grieve. So here’s a tribute, along with deep thankfulness, to you all!

My parents cared for me as a polio patient in 1950. They saw me through a 6-month hospitalization when I was 4. For the next 10 years they had to oversee my exercises, clinic appointments, and home care visits. And I admit that I detested the painful stretching exercises and gave my mom a fit!

By 1960, my weakened core muscles led to the need for my spinal fusion of T-1-12 through L-1. The same hospital where I’d spent 6 months a decade before now became home for a year. I was schooled and cared for there, but my parents managed to get me, totally encased in a 60+ pound cast, home for Christmas and Easter vacations. From a borrowed station wagon for the trips, to a special mattress, to bedpans, my folks managed it all. When I look back on their sacrifices for me, I know I never thanked them enough.

While we dated, I told Dave my story, including this caveat: one thing I didn’t ever want was pity. He took me at my word through the years! And if I had a hard day, his jokingly saying, “Ah, poor, poor…” was all it took to get me out of bed and moving. It became a joke until one day after a 1992 back surgery. I caved and said, “OK, you could extend a little sympathy today.”

This servant-minded man gets my battery-operated scooter in and out of the car numerous times each week, and hauls the two-pack battery in and out of the car to recharge it inside the house. Today, at my physical therapy appointment, he had ordered the two recommended walking sticks from Amazon before my therapist had time to adjusted a practice pair for me.

He quietly deals with my sulks, silences, and snivelings, and has never once reminded me of Philippians 2:14. “Do all things without grumbling or complaining.” How do I know when he’s frustrated with me? He’ll stop me and say, “Flo, what’s really the matter?” When totally bewildered with my mood or behavior, he reminds me, “I can’t read your mind, Flo.” And so we back up and try to share fears and frustrations, returning to the truth of God’s sovereignty in all of life.

The discussion we sometimes have now involves wanting to keep the husband and wife relationship solid, even as the caregiving role increases.

What about you, reader, as you think of the caregiver(s) in your life. Is there someone preparing meals to meet your dietary needs, giving a listening ear that hears even your whining, offering rides to the doctor’s office, advocating and scribing when you navigate the medical world, serving as a faithful praying friend? Would you remember to thank them?

Often. Sincerely. Lavishly.

Partnering with Pain

With the new film version of A Wrinkle in Time in theaters now, I remembered a Madeleine L’Engle poem about pain that gave me great comfort and tenacity in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, when I shared the poem with others, they were put off by it. But I get ahead of myself. By the late 1970s, I experienced increasing difficulty walking stairs in our split level home. This was accompanied by fatigue and tiredness. I simply chalked these symptoms up to raising our two sons, and involving myself in teaching and music at church. Since my six-month hospital stay as a four year old, I was reticent to see a doctor. Dave, the boys, and I did, however, move to a rancher in 1980, so I could avoid stairs.When I finally gave in to increasing pain and got an appointment, the doctor at Johns Hopkins told me I probably had what was then being called post-polio muscular atrophy. Medical research seemed to indicate that many polio patients started to display weakness and pain 30-35 years after the original onset of the virus. Was this new condition contagious? What were the implications for the future? What prescription could alleviate the weakness, fatigue and nagging pain? The doctors offered only this: Change your life style and get more rest.

Without the Google searches of today, information proved scarce, and what was available proved difficult to find. Who would fund research on Post Polio Syndrome (PPS) the name gaining acceptance? The Salk vaccine had been around for 25 years by 1980; polio in the United States was gone. Research dollars went to studies for cancer treatment, heart disease, and AIDS.

Besides, as an A personality type, I knew slowing down was not likely. And then someone gave me a tiny book of L’Engle’s poems, The Weather of the Heart.

The following poem gave me a plan, a way to work with, not against, the changes my body experienced. In whatever trials and pain you find yourself, I hope L’Engle’s poem will minister to you, help you look outside your circumstances, and with God’s grace, find joy.

Pain is a partner I did not request; This is a dance I did not ask to join; whirled in a waltz when I would stop and rest, Jolted and jerked, I ache in bone and loin. Pain strives to hold me close in his embrace; If I resist and try to pull away His grasp grows tighter; closer comes his face; hotter his breath. If he is here to stay Then must I learn to dance this painful dance, Move to its rhythm, keep my lagging feet In time with his. Thus have I a chance To work with pain, and so may pain defeat. Pain is my partner. If I dance with pain then may this wedlock be not loss but gain.

Purpose in Pain Part 2

A friend and blog reader sent a C.S. Lewis quote that prompted me to venture a few more thoughts about the purpose(s) of pain, grief and suffering.

The quote, often attributed to Lewis, actually originated with the movie Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), but does not appear in Lewis’ book of the same title. It is true that hardships can prompt some to accomplish unimaginable feats, as those I’ve watched in the Paralympics. But while many triumphs thrill us, we need to also consider those whose lives, like mine, are ordinary.

As a baby boomer, I rarely heard the word hardship. Adults spoke of life’s challenges, difficulties and ups and downs. Yes, neighbors and friends excoriated my parents for allowing me to play with their children, despite the fact that my parents had no idea I had contracted polio. My mother did not talk to me about this for almost 30 years, and even then did not call it hardship. But then, my mother did not live under the barrage of talk radio and television.

Finding an immediatepurpose or answering the “Why did this happen?” question has seldom occurred quickly in my experience.

For example, my 8th grade Sunday school teacher, Lois James, offered four tiny silver spoons to anyone willing to memorize 200 verses of scripture. It seemed like a good project for my year-long hospital stay, so I memorized passages from the King James Version from July,1960 until Easter, 1961. For that holiday my parents managed to get me, encased in 60+ pounds of plaster, home in the back of a neighbor’s station wagon, a humorous feat worthy of its own story another time. While home I said all 200 verses and references at one sitting.

Years later I participated in a Bible study of Psalm 119, and verse 71 caught my attention. “It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees.” Thinking back to 1960, the plaster cast year, the two surgeries, the loss of my freshman year with my friends, I now caught sight of at least one of God’s purposes in my suffering. What a gift He had planted in me during that year! When would I have worked diligently to commit that much scripture to memory at the beginning of high school?

If you struggle with finding a reason for the pain, grief, or suffering in your life, focus outside yourself and the circumstances. And be patient. The enemy wants to paralyze you, to stagnate you thoughts; the Savior seeks to draw you into light and hope.

Purpose in Pain?

Some of us scream, groan and pant through physical pain; others stoically squeeze our eyes shut and utter not a word, somehow attempting to swallow our suffering. When grieving, some simply cut ourselves off from people and activities while other personalities seek to touch living things like newborn animals or fledgling plants. Somewhere in or shortly after the trial, whether verbalized or not, we wonder if pain has a purpose.

In 1950, the family doctor told my parents that my fever and sore throat were probably the onset of strep throat. But pain or sudden inability can be the indicators of a disease, a warning that, if heeded, can bring immediate treatment. For this warning system of our body, we can see a purpose to pain. But in other instances, we struggle to see a purpose.

C.S. Lewis’ famous quote about pain being “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world” is better known than the following quote by Samuel Rutherford., a Scotsman born to a farmer and his wife about 1600.Rutherford wrote out of his life experiences: in his first pastorate, his wife lay ill for 13 months before dying. During this same period, two children also died. Instead of choosing bitterness, Rutherford decided God had a different purpose. May we too allow our pain and grief to “sow heaven there.”

All Comfort

My brother Ken, exhausted from his work as a medical physicist, offers comfort to his little grandson until both fall asleep. Whether we struggle with pain, grief or another form of suffering, human touch conveys something worth noticing. What I love most in one of this year’s photos of trimming the Christmas tree is the protective arm Brent has around Becky. The tactile comfort, both given and received, speaks of hope, grace, and love. Each affirms trust that they will emerge renewed after a difficult year.

The apostle Paul writes giving the completeness cycle I believe is intended in comfort. God, the Father of all, comforts those in pain and grief (all affliction) that they might extend solace and consolation to others who are hurting, thoughtfully, as God has comforted them. Can we grasp the immense healing made available if we follow the cycle prescribed?

Note the alls and anys in these two verses from 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 Our Father is the God of all comfortwho meets us in all our afflictions…. so we can minister to those in any affliction as God gave in ways that comforted us.

Compassion and comfort look different in the 21st century than in the 1950s or the first century! Find out what ministers or comforts the one suffering pain or grief. Your Aunt Matilda’s chicken casserole might have received rave reviews 50 years ago, but a tomato, cheese, spicy pasta dish may not even be eaten after someone’s surgery!

Today, I see many churches sending gift cards for restaurants near a person’s home. The church creates a basket that includes theatre tickets, roller rink passes, a gift card for a massage, coupons for oil changes for the family car, tickets that give the hurting folks a night away from the house without breaking the newly reduced family budget. Teens can include free babysitting coupons. Let your imagination run toward things that have comforted you.

If you do not know the suffering or grieving person well, talk to someone who does. And plan to go beyond saying, “Just call me if you need anything.” The intention may be sincere, but try something specific.

“I can get tickets to a gymnastics meet at the nearby college for March 31. I would love to have your daughter join my daughters and me.” Then follow up with a phone call to give specific times.

Exercise your creativity and gifts as you seek to comfort others. Make sure to take the time needed to discover the things that will minister to the likes and preferences of the people you want to comfort.

As a four-year-old recovering from polio in 1950, I was comforted by the smell of my mom’s face powder, the gingerly given hugs from my dad, and the visits from my girl cousins. The Baker and Palmer girls gave up their Saturdays or Sunday afternoons to take the long drive to come sit beside me — when I couldn’t even get out of the banana cart contraption to play.

Shafts of Light

Even in the worst storms, shafts of light pierce through, even if only momentarily. I keep learning that I’d do well to watch for those moments of illumination. God may be showing me a rainbow!

Have you considered the light particles God has filtered into your dark shadows? Scriptures, cards and letters, visits, wise counsel, quiet moments, meaningful music, a clarifying comment? 2 Samuel 22:29 declares, “But you are my lamp, O LORD, and my God lightens my darkness.” Does He remove it completely? Not in my case, but there have been moments.

At my exit interview from hospitals and clinic appointments, age 21, the doctor leveled with me. Since I had been exposed to over 100 full-body x-rays as a teenager, chances were I’d never conceive. My desire to have children had convinced me to have my spinal curvature corrected at age 14.

The man I was falling in love with deserved to know. Gathering my courage, I said. “If you marry me, we may never have children .” God’s shaft of light came in Dave’s

immediate response. “Do you think I’d marry just for that?” Almost 50 years of marriage and 2 grown sons later, I still cherish his response, God’s shaft of light.

In my years of dealing with pain, I continue to learn and embrace Paul’s words. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. I Cor. 12:12.

Sabine Melchior-Bonnet writes about the history of the mirror, going clear back to times when people looked at their reflection in pools of water, used volcanic rock (obsidian), or polished copper and tin, even precious gems, to capture their image. Such surfaces, at best, gave scratchy, warped, blurry images. I did find it interesting that the Greeks tied philosophy to mirrors. “The mirror, a tool by which to ‘know thyself,’ invited man to not mistake himself for God, to avoid pride by knowing his limits, and to improve himself.”

So even with today’s mirrors, we don’t see as we are seen by our Maker. Are we watching for His shafts of light on the sufferings and griefs we experience? I’m convinced He pierces our darkness.