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.


Sorrow At Work: A Bereavement Policy

You would think since I co-founded (with Dr. Karen Scott) Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield, Missouri nearly 18 years ago, am on the board, and have facilitated a teen group on and off for many years that I would have done this before now. It’s embarrassing actually. Backing up, at Lost & Found we provide free grief support for children and teens who have experienced the death of a loved one. If you’ve read my book you know that this place is near and dear to my heart. We’ve served thousands of children and their families over the years.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, was interviewed not long after her husband died unexpectedly and said the company would be adding a bereavement policy to its benefit package. When I heard about this I had to get my hands on the new policy which was not easy but I did. They now offer 20 days paid leave in the case of the death of an immediate family member and 10 after the death of an extended family member. Of course they have great benefits, they’re Facebook, one of the most valuable companies in the world. I wanted our little company of 17 full time employees to have our own bereavement policy. We already have a maternity/paternity policy. For tiny companies these benefits can be very expensive and challenging to execute. But, as my grandma used to say “we’re makin’ it.”

There are many reasons we small business owners should follow Facebook on this idea. First, it’s the right thing to do. It sends a message of compassion that will be heard. Second, it makes financial sense as studies estimate that American companies lose tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity because employees cannot focus on work [citations omitted – google it]. Third, grief is a workplace health issue and as an educated society we need to work on this and treat it with the respect it deserves. Fourth, we don’t need the government to solve this problem because businesses can do it and lead the way together.

Ten days is not “enough” and neither is ten years because guess what? If your child dies your grief will never end. Ever. Or how about the man whose wife died and he was left with five children under ten? He needs more than 10 days. We implemented our new policy Friday. Feel free to copy and paste or use this to consider your own bereavement policy. What we’re trying to do is say “We recognize this death in your family, we see you and care about you and will pay you for this time off.” Of course we cannot “fix” the pain but we can participate in the sorrows of our coworkers as best we can.

Please consider joining us and implement your own bereavement policy. Once your employee returns then the work of learning the language of a broken heart begins in earnest. I hope your town has a grief center like Lost & Found that you can suggest to your employees who are learning to walk with their families in grief.

Thank you Sheryl Sandberg for bringing this to our collective attention in the midst of your profound sadness. Here is our policy for you to cut, copy, paste and revise:

This policy applies to employees who qualify for PTO. Non-qualifying employees should see their direct supervisor to address cases on an individual basis.

Askinosie Chocolate allows employees up to 10 paid working days on the death of an immediate family member. An immediate family member is a spouse (same/opposite sex), a domestic partner (same/opposite sex), and children (including step-, a domestic partner’s, or a foster child).

Askinosie Chocolate allows employees up to 3 paid working days on the death of an extended family member. An extended family member is a parent (including step-, in-law, and domestic partner’s), a sibling (includes step, in-law, and domestic partner’s), a grandparent (includes step, in-law, and domestic partner’s), grandchild (includes step and domestic partner’s).


Thomas Merton’s Two Step Guide To Becoming a Saint

Thomas Merton, in Seven Story Mountain, recounts a conversation with his best friend Robert Lax one evening while they’re kicking around 6th Ave in New York City in which he asked Merton what he wanted to be. Merton, after stumbling on the question, says “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.” From the book:

“What you should say”— he told me—”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”  . . . I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax, simply. “I can’t be a saint,” I said.  . . . But Lax said: “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing— and it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.

It takes 2 things: desire and consent.

This notion of everyday sainthood is close to my heart because it was the central theme in the eulogy message I gave a few weeks ago for a father figure, friend and mentor in my life who died recently. I was honored, deeply touched when his family asked me to do this. He was 82 and to me he is a saint. Not was but is.  

The story goes something like this . . . Not long after my dad’s death he invited me over to play music with his family. I was a teenager with nowhere to turn. He and his wife were friends with my parents. Not best friends but friends. He encouraged me to learn to play the banjo and guitar. He played the tenor guitar, or a mouth bow and occasionally a washtub bass he made. His wife and three daughters played other instruments and sang. Playing with a group, this family, it became clear that I really did not understand timing or keys or proper capo usage or any of it. He never ever one single time showed frustration with my incompetence. They made me feel like I was part of their family. This was off and on throughout high school. They made me think that even though I could not sing that I actually could. Do you know what that feels like?

Over the years he taught me how to use a camera, got me into CB-Radios [it was the 70s – what can I say]. This was a very difficult time in my life. I thought God had abandoned me after my dad died. Clearly He did not. He is a saint to me. As Aquinas to Lax to Merton says, he wanted to and consented to being my saint. I don’t know how or why but he did and he did it for decades. Don’t ask me to play the banjo today because all I can play is part of Foggy Mountain Breakdown but it was there when I needed it.

Have you had someone like this in your life? An everyday saint. Someone who wanted to be and consented to it time and time again. I would love to hear about it. I am not talking about a really good friend. Friends can be our heroes at times for certain. I don’t mean Mother Teresa – the actual person – because she’s not what I’d call an “everyday” saint. I mean someone, who more than once, picked you up when you’d almost given up. I don’t mean someone who literally saved your life and pulled you from a burning car. It’s more mundane than that. It’s little and almost unnoticeable until it’s not.

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.