A couple months ago, I wrote about my struggles with burnout and depression in a post called, “I Need Help.” This past week – in connection with May being Mental Health Month — that same post was reposted on “Q Ideas” website. The first time I posted on my own website, I received a lot of concern and encouragement from my friends and readers; when I reposed it, I received the same.
I so appreciate all the love and concern that’s been expressed, and I wanted to give an update on how I’ve sought for help.
We like to think of ourselves as autonomous creatures. And in many cases, we are able to make our own choices and will those choices into reality. Our autonomy can deceive us into thinking we can do this alone. That we are gods, able to control our own destiny and do “anything we put our minds to”.
For many though – like me – we’ve acknowledged a weakness in ourselves so deep that it’s not only caused us to redefine “human autonomy” but question its very existence. We’ve shed our pursuit of being “like god” and accept our humanity.
Most of us will acknowledge the fact that we are indeed limited and finite. But few will take those facts to their end admit that in many, many ways we are powerless. We are stuck in a hole that we can’t get out of. The walls are too high, too slick, the climb too difficult. We … can’t … get … out … on … our … own.
In order to get out, we admit that we’re powerless, that we are stuck and call for help.
Some of us don’t make that call. Some of dwell in the hole of our hidden problems and our closet depression.
A couple months ago, I was stuck in a dark hole. I needed help. I recognized that I was not the autonomous creature I thought I was. At this point, many become theonomous, acknowledging our need for a transcendent reality to come and save us. Others become synergistic, recognizing that our freedom from the pit can only be found when someone lowers the rope and you grab onto it.
Perhaps, though, we need to recognize both: we need something/One higher than ourselves and we need others when confronted with the reality of our incapability.
Since posting the “I Need Help” article on my website a few months ago (it was also a guest post at “Q Ideas” this past Friday), I’ve made a number of changes in lifestyle and it’s helped me.
One. I recognized my humanity and stopped trying to live like a god. Humanity has been trying to be gods for a long time. It’s a curse. So, I now have some time off. In fact, I was forced to take some time off. I’m usually on call for seven days a week. Now, I’m only on call for five days.
Two. I’ve taken that time to seek some help from others. I’m seeing a therapist. He’s smarter than me. Walked life longer than me. He’s helping me better than I can help me.
Three. Self-care. For caregivers – as some funeral directors attempt to be — the idea of self-care is heretical. Our creed is to PUT ASIDE OUR OWN NEEDS FOR THE NEEDS OF OTHERS. And we do this willingly, as it’s not only our creed … it’s who we are. We enjoying serving you. Until we reach a point when we have given all we have and are left empty … burnt out … depressed.
It’s at this point that our ideal creed is amended to read, “we put aside our own needs for the needs of others, and we care for ourselves so that we can continue to care for others.”
Self-care means different things for different people. For me, it means time off work, it means sleep, it means a whole lot more reading, it means going to the gym more often.
And in that self-care, we can serve longer and better.
Ironically, if’s through admitting our powerlessness that we gain power. We have the most potential autonomy when we find our dependence on God and others.
This past week we had a funeral for a 23 year old whose alcohol problems caused an untimely death*. During the funeral — which was one of the more powerful funerals I’ve ever worked — the mother of this young man somehow mustered the strength to read the following poem. I don’t know who wrote the poem, and neither did the mother; and, honestly, it’s doesn’t even come close to having great poetic structure.
What it does manage to do is capture the honest, grieving soul of a mother who had to bury her child in a way that I’ve never heard enunciated.
Don’t Tell Me
Please don’t tell me you know how I feel,
Unless you have lost your child too.
Please don’t tell me my broken heart will heal,
Because that is just not true.
Please don’t tell me my son is in a better place,
Though it is true, I want him here with me.
Don’t tell me someday I’ll hear his voice, see his face,
Beyond today I cannot see.
Dont tell me it is time to move on,
Because I cannot.
Dont tell me to face the fact he is gone,
Because denial is something I can’t stop.
Don’t tell me to be thankful for the time I had,
Because I wanted more.
Don’t tell me when I am my old self you will be glad,
I’ll never be as I was before.
What you can tell me is you will be here for me,
That you will listen when I talk of my child.
You can share with me my precious memories,
You can even cry with me for a while.
And please don’t hesitate to say his name,
Because it is something I long to hear everyday.
Friend please realize that I can never be the same,
But if you stand by me,
You may like the new person I become someday.
*I’ve changed some of the details of the funeral I mentioned above in order to protect the family’s privacy. If you know which funeral I’m referring to, please continue to comfort them and pray for them.
For Ernest Becker, the idea of transference is central to understanding the human condition. We are fallible and finite, destined to death and our works are destined to destruction. In order to escape these bleak, nihilistic feelings, humanity much find a person or object to which we can transfer our fear of death. A parent, so to speak, who can quell our fears by the might of their power. Once we have this person or object in place, we can find stability in knowing that our life can live on through them.
God, for instance, is an object/person where humanity places their fears, believing that He can enable meaning for life, rendering death meaningless. So, we ignore the harsh reality of death and dying through our conception of God. God enables our defense mechanism of transference. Which, I might add, isn’t an evil per se, but — like everything — can have unintended and hurtful consequences.
The other factor, says Becker, in understanding the human condition is repression. Repression, in the context of death denial, means the attempt to gain power as an immortality project, thus repressing our weakness in mortality. We can repress our fears, our insecurities, our finitude by finding building our own everlasting kingdom or symbol. And once our kingdom is established, we can live on, albeit, through our legacy of might, thus repressing the mortality reality.
Repression and transference are opposites: one seeks power for oneself (Becker and others call this “Eros”), while the other seeks to embed oneself in another (Becker calls this “Agape”). But, the two come together in perfect unison when we greet the bereaved family at a viewing and say something that both attempts to repress the reality of death and make it all better through religious verbiage.
The reason comfort clichés can be so offensive is that those who are experiencing grief have had their walls of repression and transference broken. They are sensitive to the reality of the human condition and the loneliness that comes with it. And here you come, attempting to minimalize their fears and pain with a cliché that’s meant more so to help you feel good than give real encouragement to the family.
When people use comfort cliches, they are often more concerned with comforting themselves than comforting the bereaved.
And when you’re throwing clichés around as a defense mechanism, the bereaved will often know … and this, my friends, is what they hear:
I don’t want to hear your story. I don’t want your pains to become a part of my life. My life is painful enough. It doesn’t need to be disturbed by your story.
Man, I can’t imagine your pain. In fact, I might be able to imagine your pain. Honestly, I don’t want to imagine your pain.
Your grief is your grief; it’s not mine. I can’t walk this dark path with you. Honestly, though, when I think about it, I could walk this path with you, I just don’t want to. My life is good right now. I like my view and I don’t like yours.
Here, instead of hearing you out and walking with you, I’m going to make myself feel good. It’s important that I still see myself as a good person. I’m not heartless, so let me make you a cake and leave it at your door.
Let me send you a card.
Let give you a Bible verse.
I think I read something about how time heals grief. Let me tell you that.
Let me tell you how God has plans in this death.
I need to tell you something, give you something so that I can feel good about myself. I can’t feel guilty, so I’ll half-ass comfort you so that I can feel good while you feel like shit.
“God is love.”
“Time will heal your wounds.”
“You can get through this.”
“You are still young … you can have more children.”
Defense mechanisms. All. In the Spector of death, we use them too much.
If we want to be good communicators with those experiencing death and dying, we need to recognize both the repression and transference in our own lives and silence them for the sake of the bereaved. Instead of denying the reality of death, accept it and listen to the grieving who are walking through it. Instead of trivializing death as something “God has overcome”, be willing to enter the loneliness that comes with grief. Enter the holy space of holy Saturday, and – at the risk of your faith – accept doubt and silence as real possibilities.
If you can’t do this … if you’re unwilling to do this, if you’re set on denying the reality of death, then do yourself and the bereaved a favor, and just stay away from it and those it’s touching.
I’m a funeral director. Have been for the past 10 years. And during those ten years, I’ve helped numerous families memorialize miscarriages and still born babies.
As a male who often finds himself in that “insensitive” category, I used to secretly wonder why there’s a desire to memorialize those not yet born.
After all, what’s to memorialize?
When I first became a funeral director, I struggled to understand how I could write an obituary for one who has no biography. After a year or so, I developed this three sentence template:
_____________ the stillborn son/daughter of ___________ and ____________ passed away on ____________________ at “so and so” hospital. Left to grieve this loss is the maternal and paternal grandparents, as well as the uncles and aunts. A memorial service will be held on ____________ at the __________ Funeral Home.
That’s it. No job occupations to write. No hobbies, memberships or significant others to be included in the obituary. In place of the age, the obituary will suffice to say, “infant”, or “stillborn”.
Being both insensitive and hardheaded, it took a pretty intense situation for me to see and feel the “what” and the “why” of memorializing those who weren’t afforded a chance to live.
I used to think that one of the most in house controversial topics for Christians related to the “eternal security” and/or “perseverance of the saints” discussions. I’ve seen artery popping, fist clenching, impassioned arguments over whether or not you can walk away from God and lose your entrance ticket for passage through the Pearly Gates.
I was wrong. There’s another topic that’s even more sacred.
I learned my lesson in a Degree Completion Class at Lancaster Bible College. There was a large cross-section of students in that class, with ages ranging from 25 to 62 and an even broader array of experience.
The professor breached a topic that he wished he hadn’t when he said, “There’s no absolute biblical evidence that fetuses and infants go to heaven.”
That was it. He had touched some major buttons that I don’t think he even realized existed.
Without even raising their hands, two outspoken women in the class – who, as we were soon to learn, had lost children – burst in with utter defiance. “How dare you speak to something so sensitive when you’ve never lost a child!” one said. Another burst into tears, asserting how God had spoken to her, reassuring her that her lost children were indeed with Him.
I’ve felt tension in classrooms, funerals and churches, but this was a tension that was raised to a level I didn’t know existed. Without knowing it, that Prof. had tread on one of the most sacred realms of Christian doctrine … the belief that ALL lives are loved and known by our Maker … that ALL are children of God.
Mother’s day is today.
This is the time of year that many mothers carry a silent grief. This is the time of the year when mothers remember, when they memorialize lost lives that the rest of us (their friends and family … especially us men) have unintentionally forgotten. And, specifically, it’s a time when men can be exceptionally insensitive to the grief that can reemerge during this holiday.
And there’s some women who will not only carry their silent grief this mother’s day, but who also NEVER had the chance to memorialize lives that God knows … because I know that for every one woman who has memorialized the death of the unborn or still born, there are many others who have not.
Today, God remembers you and your losses. There’s a scripture that says God bottles our tears, a word picture that says, “your tears are too precious to fall to the ground” … that when a person cries, it’s such a valuable experience to God that he stops what he’s doing, bends over and carefully watches every tear flowing down our broken faces. It’s as though he keeps those tears so he can remember what you have gone through … the same way we save items of sentimental value so those things can help us remember important experiences.
I invite you to remember that God not only remembers, but he also grieves with you.
This week we’ve buried a 16 year old that died unexpectedly due to a heart problem that the doctors determined was “under control”; we buried a 32 year old who lost her three year fight with brain cancer; and, we buried two 50 year olds, one of which died in a tragic car accident, the other dying of cancer. All around Christmas.
Weeks like this make me stay up late at night.
They make me think about my own mortality.
Make me ask questions like, “Who will die first … my wife or me?”
Selfishly, I’d love to die first. But, it’s a 50/50 chance and I could be the one who closes my wife’s eye lids as she passes.
Realizing that a dying person’s hearing is the last sense to go before death, I lay in bed and think about what I’d say to her in her dying moments … I think about what she’d need to hear from me:
“I love you and want you to go rest with Jesus.”
“You’re free to go to Jesus … just know that I love you … wait for me!”
“Everybody is here with you. We all love you and we give you the freedom to go to Jesus.”
And all this assumes that I’ll have the privilege to be there when she dies. What if she dies tragically, like some of these people I’m burying this week who died alone, suddenly, without the loving words of their family being whispered to them while they pass from this world to whatever comes next?
“Damn it”, I think to myself, “I’ve been lying awake for an hour thinking about something I have very little control over.”
But I try to control it. I buy cars with a high safety rating. I push my wife to go to the doctors over the smallest ailment. I remind her to wear her seat belt … I often palpitate her breasts looking for those nightmarish lumps … and I make sure she eats well and buy her anything that promotes her health. A juicer. P90X. A Xbox Kinect that we can exercise with.
At times I feel like a tyrant with a benevolent heart.
It’s weeks like this that I’m fearful of the unknown inevitability of the necessary part of life: death.
And this fear, this benevolent tyranny, the late nights of worrying, of thinking about the different possibilities, etc. are all the occupational hazards of this business.
It’s the death that surrounds me that inhibits my living. That makes me the grumpy tyrant. The sleepless tyrant.
But … it’s also the death that surrounds me that encourages my living.
It encourages me to say “I love you” as often as I can.
It encourages me to forgive and extend grace to those I don’t think deserve it.
It encourages me to pursue my passions … to find what I love doing … and do it with all my heart … knowing that I’ll be the best person I can be when I’m doing what I love.
It encourages me to smile. To make friends. To dance even though I’m bad at dancing.
It encourages me to work less, live with less money so that I can pour more of the most precious asset called “time” into my friends and family.
Facing the mortality of my own life and of those I love is a dark reality.
But it’s a dark reality that I’m learning to lighten with every second I choose to live life to the fullest, so that when that time comes — whenever it may be — I’ll look it in the face with no regrets.