Dogs and me

A little different focus today. This past week a couple of vivid memories of our dogs came to mind.

My life with animals and especially dogs was important when I was growing up. We lived on a farm, so cows, dogs, and cats, occasionally pigs and chickens. I love dogs, always have. I have never met a dog that wasn’t my next new friend.

Even the very first one, a German Shepherd, was my friend, and we played together a lot. When I was 3 (1952), I moved his chow bowl, and he didn’t like that. So he bit me on the upper lip. I still remember going to the doctor in town to get my lip sown. That is also why a moustache will never work for me, it’s a bare spot on my upper lip.

Sparky was our next dog. Sparky was almost the perfect, dog, my best friend ever. Great hunting dog, but he loved to play with us boys—a lot! In November 1959, my father and brother were away deer hunting for the week. Someone gut-shot Sparky, but didn’t kill him. My mother told me I had to shoot Sparky to avoid the continuing suffering and slow death. So as a 10 year old I discovered what it was like to lose a close pet, yes, even my friend. My heart still aches when I think of that day. It has been 57 years ago this past week, and feels like yesterday. I will try to find a photo of him.

Then we found a poor little dog, just a few weeks old, abandoned in the country. Lady became the soul mate of Sparky. Not a hunting dog, but the best companion, and despite her size, the best watch dog ever. She was the first dog my father ever allowed into the house. And we were all happy about that, even my father!

This is a photo of me with Lady in 1968.
This is a photo of me with Lady in 1968.

I miss all three dogs.

Because we have moved 28 times in the last 45 years, it was not practical to have a dog. But I sure wish I could find another Sparky or Lady.

How about you? Do you have fond memories of dogs, a special dog?

Advertisements

Rare Bird — Book Review

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

I have read many books over the past 55 years, ranging from theological to history to biography to technical. Of all of them I would have put two books in the above category, until now.

Weak and Loved by Emily Cook (about her daughter’s seizures)

And She Was a Christian by Peter Preus (about his wife’s suicide)

Now, the third one, Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson (about her son’s death). This is a book about her son’s death and the family’s journey in the trail afterward. 514slwUS0PL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_

I had read her blog accounts over the past 4 years, getting bits and pieces of the story. Yet I did not have any further insights. This book covers the details of Jack’s death, and immediate reactions. But even more Anna reveals the depth of the loss and the path that she and her husband followed, and their daughter.

Anna writes in such a way that she draws the reader to want to be at the river’s edge shouting for someone to help Jack, or Anna, or Margaret, or Tim… She reveals the torment, the futility, the “what-ifs” that inevitably arise in such circumstances. The tale of tragedy and the brokenness of life was gripping, and I wanted to read it all in one sitting.

But I could not. The pain, the agony was too much. At one point I couldn’t read it for 5 days, it was too overwhelming for me. I can’t even imagine the days for Anna and the family. She couldn’t put Jack’s death and her life aside for even an hour, like I could with the book.

Anna offers insights throughout a 2-3 year process of living with this. As a pastor I have seen people respond with love for the family when a death occurs, but often the continual support begins to wane after a few weeks or months. She doesn’t give us a short snapshot of this process. Because there is no short snapshot. Instead she walks the reader through the long path of grief. Anna also describes the changing nature of her grief, letting us see the depth of grief, but also the extent of the grief. Not very often do people learn about what she went through without having gone through the experience itself. Anna provides a flashlight through her own experience so that we can walk that path, yes, in a sense with her, but more importantly with someone close to us who is walking that path.

We lost our son for many years, not through death, but through prison and then him going missing for 17 years. Many times in my own despair I thought, “If only it would end. The unknown is too difficult.” We grieved throughout that period. But after reading this book, I realize that even an end does not stop the hurting, the loss, the grieving.

In another way, though, Anna helped me to realize something of our grief based on what she experienced. There were things, events, etc. we could not participate in or go to. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries were not celebrated because the pain was too much. Sometimes people were constant reminders of what we lost. Anna describes this sense of loss so well.

I also found that I could not share with many people what I was experiencing (it took many years for me to learn how to communicate), because I realized that many people didn’t understand, and sometimes what they said was hurtful (even though not intentionally). Anna also shares with the reader the sense of gratitude for those faithful people who stood by them in the darkest days, weeks, months, and yes, years. Loving, helpful people who sometimes just allowed her to cry. We experienced Christian friendship like that, too.

When I was stationed in the Navy in 1974, my only uncle died at age 49. My grandmother was 64 at the time (two years younger than I am now). I remember standing beside the casket and she said, “No parent should ever have to bury her child.” That memory is clear to me today as it was 41 years ago. And Anna’s book is a monument to those words.

And yet… my grandmother continued to live through that. And Anna has lived through this loss. This book is a book of loss, despair, anger, frustration, courage, and strength, all because of God. As Anna explored aspects of death and coming to grips with it, she shows to the reader, the winding path she is on, but ultimately the path which Jesus walked with her. This is a book of help and hope for everyone. It is memoir of loss and love, and the God who is present through it all.

Looking back now, because the sense of loss was so close to me, yet nowhere near the loss that Anna and her family experienced, I don’t think I could re-read it right now. It is too emotional for me. I marvel that Anna could even write what she did. And I am very grateful for what she did. It truly is…

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

Thanks, Anna, for opening your heart on such a personal, deep level.

Loss and Loneliness

Loss and Loneliness in the Church

Loss is part of life, in some cases a significant part of life. But how does the Church play into this life of loss?

I think a fair assumption is that most pastors and most Christians recognize when someone experiences loss; and they offer help. Death, unemployment, job transfers, family separations, divorce, etc. Many times our fellow Christians come to our side, walk with us in the stages of loss. But how long does that last?

This is where loneliness follows on the heels of loss, and may not even be recognized by the Church as an added burden. This kind of loneliness is subtle, creeping into a person’s life slowly, silently.

Consider the death of a spouse. The shock and grief begin, usually mapped out in five stages. Of course, the stages can be mixed up and not in order. But the issue of loneliness is not even addressed in the stages of grief, often because no one thinks it’s an issue.

Loneliness

After the visits, hot dishes for the family, after family leaves, then a loneliness settles in as an unexpected and uninvited guest. The room feels empty, the bed stark, the morning conversations are only an echo of past times. Sometimes the phone call is a distant memory.

Obviously no one else can fill that void left by someone. The shared knowing moments, the slight smile, the hand slowly caressing the hand, never to be no more. And loneliness becomes more real.

What can the Church do?

We in the church can recognize the loneliness. Take a moment to speak with the person who has experienced loss. Share some thoughts, that may only apply to you, but you want to share with someone. Expand the circle of friends.

Obviously there is so much that can be done. If this is all new to you, then take halting steps in one way to be with the lonely person. The more you know this person, the more you will be able to tell what is helpful and what is not. Even if you “make a mistake” you can still care for someone. A mistake is that, not the end, but a turning point as the other person experiences your willingness to each out.

And don’t forget pastors. They, too, can be lonely, experiencing not only the the same losses as the rest of the congregation but their losses accumulate. They may not open up, but they need your love and support as well.

Personal loss and Loneliness

In the past six months four significant people in my life have died. The birth mother of our sons died two years ago, but we just found out at the end of April. Although we had never met her (being in Korea), she was very much part of our lives through our sons. My wife’s younger brother died in June. My mother died in August. And one of the most influential guitar players in my life died in October. Each played a major factor in my life (and my wife’s), and each was cumulative in understanding loss and loneliness.

For me my mother’s death was especially hard. She is the last of her generation. We were very close over the years, sharing memories and stories, many from her early life. I was so glad we spent time with her in June of this year celebrating her 88th birthday.Mother’s 88h birthday

But now the loneliness is setting in. I reach for the phone 2-3 times each week to call her, to remember a detail of some event or story. And that is now gone. The loneliness has begun in real. So many questions to ask, and now of my father who died in 1991.

This also changed the dynamics of my role in the story. Now I am in the older generation with the family stories. My younger brother was sorting through my mother’s photo albums recently. He described one photo and commented that it must be [name], who he knew through fishing trips. I realized that the man in the photo was not alive when he was describing the photo. The man in the photo was actually the father of the man he identified. And so I passed along another bit of family history.

Thus, I find these odd memories, photos, conversations are the things that increase the loneliness, and yet change the loneliness and my perspective. At the same time I am helping carry on memories, photos, and conversations to my brother, my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

My mother began hand-writing a partial biography in the late 1990s. Her purpose was pass on to her descendants elements of her life. I began putting that into the computer (writing, editing, page layout, etc.) in the early 2000s. Ultimately we published it in 2006, with enough copies for her family/descendants and her brother’s family/descendants (her brother died in 1974). We eventually published two more runs as people in the area (northern Minnesota) became aware of it and wanted their own copy.Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 10.32.45

Am I still lonely? Yep, and I suspect for a while. But I also realize that her stories in person and the selected glimpses in her book will be part of my life from now on.

And I am a little less lonely. But I still want to pick up the phone one more time…