A Prosecutor and A School Counselor Walk Into A Bar . . .

I write today in commemoration of Children’s Grief Awareness Month.

I met Ron Carrier in law school on the first day of orientation of our first year at the University of Missouri. When we met he told me that his parents and my grandparents were friends, that he’d grown up in the same area as my grandparent’s farm in rural Southwest Missouri. We quickly formed a study group and spent nearly every waking moment together that first year. I was in his wedding and he was without a doubt one of my very best friends. I am not sure I would have made it through law school without him and our other study partners.

The Study Group Circa 1986: Dan Conlisk, Ron Carrier, David Mercer, Bob Waters and me

After graduation and a few years practicing law with a big firm in Texas I moved back home to Springfield, Missouri. I threw myself headlong into my passion of criminal defense work and Ron was a rising star prosecutor. We kept in touch but grew apart after law school. You know where this is heading, right? We were both warriors hell bent on winning. Over the ensuing years we tried to keep our friendship going but it was not working. I let my intensity and drive overcome the remaining threads of our friendship. I am sure it was one murder case too many. I was very aggressive (mean) and justified it by telling myself that it was for the greater cause of fighting for the underdog, the hunted, the accused. It culminated in him hanging up on me during an intense conversation about polygraph evidence in a stealing case. “Oh well”, I thought, “there goes another friendship sacrificed on the altar of ‘win at all cost.’” Ron was a fierce competitor, outstanding advocate, well prepared and perhaps one of only two prosecutors I feared. Our friendship was just starting to mend bit by bit because he was now an assistant attorney general no longer a front line prosecutor so our face offs were few and far between.

He called me one cold December afternoon as I was on my way home from work. He had cancer he said. It was in his brain. They will operate soon. The context for this bolt of lightning was that it was at the beginning phase of my search for something else. Something was stirring but I didn’t know what. When Ron said those words I did not know what to say. I was helpless. I asked questions but did not listen. I wanted him to know that I cared but did not know how to let him know that. In a word, I was “lost.”

I wanted to help Ron somehow but I was stuck. I was fresh off of Tuesdays With Morrie. That book changed my life. I have written about it extensively. I told my long time friend Dr. Karen Scott about it. At the time she was the Director of School Counselors for our public school system and already recognized as an expert in adolescent grief. Of course she’d already read the book. When we talked about the book at our local Panera Bread one day after church she told me that she wished there had been a grief center in our community when my father died when I was fourteen. I said that we need one now and she told me her dream of having one. We began work right away. And it started from that conversation at Panera. Within days of Ron’s call I called Karen and said I needed help with what I could say or do to help Ron. I went to her office at the school administration building. I did not pay her money but she was probably violating rules seeing me almost as a patient. She could, I think, sense my desperation.

During our first meeting she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Shawn, you cannot help Ron until you help yourself.” That was not what I wanted to hear. “Can’t you just give me some things to say or do to help Ron?” She instructed me to go home and find a picture of myself from the 8th grade, the age I was when my dad died of lung cancer. She wanted me to meditate on that picture and recall how tender I was at that age. She took it a step further. She wanted me to notice the next time I saw a young man of that age and really observe. It was career day at a local middle school where I got my full dose of 8th grade boys. It was hard to look and think back to those years of my father’s pain and my own. Karen was bringing me to a place of peace with my middle school self. Her final assignment: write a “goodbye” letter to my dad. This. Was. So. Hard. Then, she wanted me to read it to her in person in her office. Then I went to my dad’s grave at National Cemetery and read the letter out loud to him. Tears upon tears.

Karen’s work with me did three things. First, she helped me release some of the pain and set me me on a long and winding path of learning the language of grief. The language of broken hearts. Now 18 years later I’ve gained some fluency in this language that nobody wants to learn to speak. Second, she was right about being there for my friend Ron. I was imperfectly present for him in a way that would not have been possible without Karen’s intervention in my life. We met with our friend David Mercer (another friend from our law school study group) and we prayed for Ron in the evening at my office a couple of days before surgery. It was real. We were at the hospital for his surgery and after. I never accepted another case that might result in him on the other side. He’s now a judge. And I am happy to say that Ron is doing great all these later and so is our friendship.

Finally, Karen’s work with me pushed the urgency button on our work co-founding Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield. I had to do it. No other choice. Our first group met on the 3rd floor of my law office building in January 2001. In the past 19 years we’ve served thousands of children and families suffering the death of a loved one in a 23 county area in Southwest Missouri. All at no charge. I am still a volunteer facilitator in a teen group. Over and over the kids teach me what it means to be human. I would not have the chance to speak and learn the language of grief and heartbreak with these teenagers but for Dr. Karen Scott. I don’t have pearls of wisdom to share (and that’s not what we do anyway) with them but I am present in a way that I think they can sense. It would be impossible for me to express the amount of gratitude I have for this experience every other week. Karen is the driving force behind the healing of so many people, including me. Make no mistake: there would be no Lost & Found without Karen. For nearly 10 years Karen did all of this work as a volunteer until she retired early from the school system to lead the organization full time. She’s trained hundreds of volunteer facilitators, recruited group coordinators, and written all of our curriculum. And she helps people in our community with individual grief counseling. And for most of the years of our existence she raised the money to make it all possible.

Thank you Karen Scott. Thank you Ron Carrier. I am not sure where I would be without you both.

Digging deeper: Where does our pain go? Where do we put our broken hearts? I write about this in great detail in Chapter 1 of our book Meaningful Work. One answer to this question is that it goes everywhere. Our broken hearts go into our bodies physically, into our words, our thoughts, our friends and families. Is it possible for us to consider that the sorrow will one day be joy? That unimaginable pain and darkness can eventually put us on top of the highest mountain? That we might even glimpse heaven from that place on clear days? A prayer that I believe will always be answered in all cases 100% of the time is this: “Dear God, please open my heart and a door today for me to restore my friendship with____.” Try it and let me know.