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.

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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.

 

“People Come, People Go”: The meaningful simplicity of a monk’s life and death

I’ve been going on retreat to Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the wilderness of Southern Missouri just south of Ava, for about seventeen years. Four years ago I became a Family Brother. I write about that process in our upcoming book released on November 14th. And as a Family Brother  when I’m there I no longer stay in the Guest House but behind the cloister with the monks following their work routine and prayer schedule. Upon arrival each time I stop by Brother Francis’s office and inquire which room – the actual word in monastery speak is “cell” – I am assigned to live in. They’re very small and sparse. My visit two years ago in December was a little different. This time I asked which cell but I prefaced my question with a request. I asked if it would be possible that I not have Brother Boniface’s room. I told Brother Francis that I knew he’d just left to live out his days in a nearby nursing home. I explained that I was close to Bonnie, his nickname, and I would not feel right in his room. Thankfully, Francis acquiesced and gave me an empty cell down the hall from Bonnie’s old room.

Brother Boniface died this week, almost two years after he left for the nursing home, and we committed his body to the earth on Wednesday. Here’s what Bonnie taught me about death and life. I need to begin this story by backing up a bit.

Boniface, the Abbey’s long time  bread baker, cook, tailor and keeper of hiking trails was declining in health after Brother Dominic died. Finally, his dementia got the better of him and for his safety he was moved to a nearby nursing in the little town of Ava. He was originally from Illinois and entered the Trappist life as a monk in 1950. Always a smile and quick wit. I came to know him really well after Brother Dominic’s cancer diagnosis. It progressed and he had to move to a nursing home in Springfield in order to receive hospice care. Dominic was expected to die fairly soon and Boniface was his caregiver. Since the nursing home was so close to my house (and not that close to the Abbey) I visited Dominic and Bonnie almost weekly when I was in town. Outliving the short prognosis Dominic survived almost one full year.

Here is the stunning thing: Brother Boniface lived at the nursing home with Dominic. Not figuratively. He only went home to the Abbey every two weeks for a couple of days to bake bread for his brothers. Somehow the Abbey arranged for Boniface to sleep in the bed next to Dominic in the same room. I remember marveling at the time that I don’t know many spouses who would live in a nursing home with their loved one. Visiting daily for sure, but to live day by day, hour by hour with a sick person, who is totally mentally intact is a gift of service that is beyond compare. Jesus talked of laying down our lives for our friends. “There is no greater love” He said. That was Boniface. He was a simple humble monk who served his friend, his brother, even though it may have hastened his own death.

The story does not stop here.

When Bonnie declined in health and mind he moved to a nursing home and a few weeks after he left I visited the Abbey. Brother Francis kindly did not assign me to his room. It would have been too sad for me to sleep there and he seemed to understand that. I will pick up the story as written in my journal the day after I arrived.

December 29, 2015. Journal Entry:

I searched the work assignments on the bulletin board this morning after Terse for my name. Found it. My work for today: “Shawn – clean Brother Boniface’s room.” I could not believe what I was seeing. I gulped and said nothing. I knew that I had to clean it from top to bottom and get it ready for a new occupant whether I liked that assignment or not.

The year [with Dominic] took it’s toll on [Bonnie]. By the end he seemed more frail, less sharp, tired. He went back to his routine of bread making, cooking and life in the Abbey but mentally he declined rapidly. I’m not sure if he has Alzheimer’s but it would not surprise me. The monks visit him daily, perform mass and check on his condition.    

So, today my work assignment meant clearing the last vestiges of Boniface’s personal things out of his room and clean it up for the next monk or family brother.  A small box of Reader’s Digest magazines dating from the 70s, a few medical items, and one small box of personal effects. One box of “things” that signify, at least externally, that Brother Boniface was here. A 50th anniversary high school graduation program, some pictures from much younger days here at the Abbey that I couldn’t not look through. One great picture caught my eye. The photographer captured the Abbey dog of the time, Dires, licking Bonnie’s face. And Boniface seemed to love the dog (other pictures of the dog were in the box).

Father Robert was passing by in the hallway as I was cleaning the room. Father Robert is 91, became a monk in 1949 when he was 23 years old and now has a long white beard and always a smile. He is the man who taught me Lectio Divina (a kind of praying the sacred scripture) years ago. I showed him the picture of Brother Boniface with Dires. I told him I felt strange cleaning out Bonnie’s room, with him in a nursing home, knowing he’s never coming back here. I expected some kind of shared empathetic reply that might comfort me. Father Robert, off to complete his own morning chores not wanting to chit-chat I could tell, looked up from the picture, smiled at me and said “Well, people come, people go.” And he walked on. To myself: What?! “People come, people go”! That’s it! Five words! That’s all you have to say about your brother of more than 50 years?

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. My incredulity has turned into a version of Lectio from living life. Life Lectio. Father Robert’s reply is perfect. The picture, the room, the one box; those are not who Boniface is as a human being created in the image of God. Father Robert knows that deep, deep, deep, down in his heart. He also has peace that God’s will be done. I guess it seemed a little… abrupt. OK it was but it was also perfect!

End Journal Entry

Bonnie Dires

During Bonnie’s funeral mass this week I pondered this layered story and treasured it in my heart. Father Alberic, the Abbot, asked me to be one of the pallbearers at the last minute, literally, and helped carry Boniface’s body a short walk to the monastic cemetery. It was my humble honor. After the mass and burial I asked Father Paul why we shoveled dirt directly onto his body clothed in his white robe and habit, laid in the grave without a casket on only a wooden board. He said, “Because we committed his body to the earth and the dirt you shoveled on it was our expression of the reality that Bonnie is dead. He’s not ‘out there’ somewhere, he’s with God and his old body is dead.” I drove the winding roads back home in silence reflecting, in gratitude, on my friend Brother Boniface who taught me these things.

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Be Present, Be Present, Be Present

Thinking, talking and writing about dying, death and pain comes natural to me. I guess because I’ve seen it up close in my family as a teenager and later as a volunteer at a local hospital and grief center. I am burdened by it. Sometimes the weight is existential (what is the meaning?) and at others it’s practical (what can I do for this person in pain?). I pray for people in the mornings right after I wake up because it’s the most undistracted time of the day when my intercessory meditations are primed and ready to go. I’ve found that praying for people at night makes it hard for me to sleep. At the moment I have several friends with children who are suffering life threatening illnesses. They each have a spot I wish they did not have on my prayer list. I write about dying, death, and pain in our book coming out this November. And you thought the book was only about chocolate?

I think about these suffering children enduring painful treatments, hoping for more time and a cure. They may very well die and leave a grieving family behind. During these times my faith is not so much tested as it is worn. I remember when my father’s former-Marine-Corp-hard-body was riddled and deteriorating with metastatic lung cancer. I was 13 and 14 during his illness. The church prayer group came over at all hours of the day and night. They told me to never speak of death because it was doubt and that Jesus would not heal him if I had doubt. The problem was that he kept getting sicker and I recall praying, “God, where are you? Please hurry up because he’s not going to make it much longer. Please!” It was my fervent prayer. I prayed so very hard, full of desperation. He died and then my faith hung by a thin thread. A thread that I did not look at, tend to, or care about for many years.

Now I have years of paying attention to the thread of faith in my life holding it together with real life experiences, searching, talking, asking tough questions, reading, meditating and lots of prayer. But when my friend’s little child might die from bone cancer there simply are no answers. None. There’s nothing to hide behind. There is no “help”. All of the religions of the world have methods of resolving this kind of suffering. The ones I am most familiar with are Christianity and Buddhism. My proclamation that there are no answers is itself a “method.” We want something we can hold on to, something, anything. And if there’s nothing to hold on to then can we at least uncover some modicum of meaning? I am sorry to say this but probably not. Can we, after the fact, make meaning from it? You bet we can! But for those in the middle of the storm there is no meaning and not much to hold on to as we slide down the side of the cliff grabbing for everything in site. Will this branch stop me? Will this rock hold me? No and no.

That sounds pretty depressing. Well, it is. So if there are no answers what are we to do? It depends on who you are in this equation? If you are the friend of the parent with a possibly dying child then I am writing this to you. What can we do?

  1. Be present, be present, be present. Call your friend and tell her you are thinking of her. See if she can meet you for coffee.
  2. Listen. I am not good at this but a work in progress.
  3. Social media is nice but not a substitute for #1. Our fear and intimidation sometimes prevents us from #1 because the situation is so horrible . . . we’re afraid we will say the wrong thing. This is why #2 is critical.  Meeting for coffee, giving your friend a hug and listening is never the wrong thing.
  4. Drop the platitudes and answers. It’s our nature to normalize everything but it really does not help.
  5. Remember that this is not about you or me and our tested faith. It’s about your friend only and what they need.
  6. Treasure your friend in your heart at certain times of the day. Maybe it’s the morning when you wake up or a first drink of tea. If you’re a praying person then please do that.

When my faith is worn, my prayers seemingly unheard, I am guilty of picking up my old trusty tools that give me comfort. My safe harbors. I’ll read my old stand-by books, talk to my friends, and search for answers just as in years past. But now I rely on my years of practice knowing that much of the fortress I’ve built can crumble away but I will always have my thread. I know it. Your thread will support you and the friends you love.