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October 1, 2017 / Jon Ericson

Teaching Grief

After my brother died a few years ago, I decided I’d learn how to grieve well. A year or two later I decided to teach about grief in my church’s Sunday school. Tomorrow is my first class. This morning for the first time in nearly 5 years of doing jail ministry I was able to offer comfort to a grieving inmate. My friend Brian Blazer and I sat down with a man who had just learned his mother had died. We had nothing to offer but prayer and human contact. All he wanted was to go home. (I pray his judge will allow that.)

There have been a few people I know who have experienced the death of a parent, child or spouse. Mostly I can only offer distant words of pat condolences. Every once in awhile at work I contact users who are in serious despair. We have a pre-written email for just this situation. And, of course, there have been lesser griefs experienced by people close to me. Yet, I feel singularly unprepared to teach about grieving.

My plan for week #1 is simple enough: tell my brother’s story and teach about the book of Job. The ancient text tells an exaggerated tale of loss. One servant after another report to Job the loss of his property and finally his children. The events are unrelated catastrophes that leave Job destitute all in a moment.

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.—Job 1:21-22
(ESV)

What Job doesn’t know, but the reader does, is that these calamities were the result of a bet between God and Satan. It’s a bet that God wins because Job did not abandon his respect for (or “fear of” in many translations) of God. And so Satan ups the ante by asking to strike the man’s body. Again, Job passed the test. But he is left with a life in shambles and no particular hope to recover. So his three friends come and comfort him as well as they can.

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.—Job 2:11-13 (ESV)

“There are no words” was the most comforting thing people said when the grief of my brother’s death was raw. I didn’t want words of comfort or explanations. All I wanted, like the inmate I met this morning, was to go home so I could be with my family. But there comes a time when grief turns to questioning. Thus begins an epic dialogue between Job and each of his friends plus a mysterious young man named Elihu asking who is to blame. Is Job’s suffering the result of some wicked actions? But Job denies that hypothesis.

Finally God answers from a whirlwind. But rather than explain that Job isn’t suffering because of his evil deeds, God proclaims that His ways are inscrutable by mortals. In fact, God might have explained what we know from the narrator’s words that Job is suffering because he’s the very model of righteousness. It’s the final irony in a poem packed with it. And then Job passes his final test.

Then Job answered the LORD and said:

“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

—Job 42:1-6 (ESV)

Job’s friends are rebuked and his life is restored twice over. One imagines this is intended to be a satisfying ending, but it never satisfied me. Only after experiencing my own grief have I been able to appreciate the artistry of the text. Next week, if I write about it, I’ll talk about how Jesus himself grieved with an equally unsatisfying conclusion. Grief, it seems, is inescapable.

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April 4, 2015 / Jon Ericson

Lament

Why are you silent, Oh Lord?
  Where are the words of comfort?
You have taken away my father's son.
  You snatched away my mother's gift.
Before the time of harvest,
  While the fruit was still green,
  You pulled it off the tree.
Why do give and take with the same hand?
  Was Bob ready when death led him away?

His line was cut off,
   And my children will never know his.
Photographs of joy are drenched with tears.
   Our memories are too few and fading.

Yet you know what it is to lose a Son.
   All of eternity broken in three sorrowful days.
If I have any hope, if my parents have any comfort,
   If we will see my brother again, if we will rejoice,
   It will be because of your sacrifice and grief.
Therefore I will fight through my despair,
   And I sing praises to you.
August 15, 2014 / Jon Ericson

A death in the family

The first I heard of Robin Williams death it was from someone who thought it might be a hoax. While poking around the internet (and eventually finding the press release), I was reminded of what I did on Good Friday: searching for answers I didn’t want to find. What I feared most last April as a brother was to find evidence of drugs or suicide. Not because there was any reason to fear that, but when a person dies suddenly and alone in this day and age, we are conditioned to expect those things.

It’s been a rough week for many Americans since we lost the man who breathed life into Mork, Popeye, Peter Pan, and the rest. Robin Williams gave us more happiness than we could ever give back. In the face of this death, we are all powerless. But this post isn’t about Robin Williams. Truth is few people knew the demons he fought. Our efforts to dig inside his mind are wasteful. The one thing I venture to suggest is that he very likely did not know, in those final moments, that God loved him.

Yesterday my oldest son, who is about to enter middle school, was working on his God and Family award for scouting. One of the exercises was write a litany like Psalm 136 where he was supposed to fill in a line about a time he felt unloved followed by the phrase, “God loves me no matter what!” And he couldn’t do it because he always feels loved by God. As a parent, I have never felt so proud; nothing could be more important that raising a child who always feels securely loved.

Of course our job is not done. The world overflows with reasons for feeling unloved and he hasn’t experienced a fraction of what conspires to destroy him. Many parents have lost their children to drugs, depression, suicide, and other evils after good starts. And we stand on the brink of adolescence where many parents have shipwrecked their children via unreasonable boundaries and nonexistent boundaries. Looking back on my own life, I don’t know if I felt unloved very often before junior high either.

What makes Robin Williams’ suicide so hard to accept is that the love and admiration of millions of people just isn’t enough. My hope for people I love who struggle with depression is that the love of God just might be.

June 25, 2014 / Jon Ericson

Closure

For the most part, I’ve moved on with my life. I rebel against myself for saying it, but I hardly think about Bob any more than I did 6 months ago. The occasional reminder, such as LinkedIn emailing me about his anniversary at a summer internship, jerks me back into reality. Today is his burial, which pretty much marks the end of the formal grieving process. From now on, we will have fewer and fewer opportunities to remember thrust upon us. I’m left dissatisfied.

Bob and his namesake

Yesterday, I talked with my parents about closure and what it takes to get it. Being settled, having an explanation of what happened, knowing where Bob stands, wrapping up logistical details, and so on seem to be part of what needs to happen. I guess. I really don’t know since it hasn’t happened yet.

After Father’s Day, it rolled into my mind that we’ll never see Bob’s children. Before the twins were born, I remember morning for my future children, who I imagined would never be born. There will be no miracles for Bob. Not even the Resurrection will restore that lost future, as far as I know. I can only trust his joy will be complete even so.

Bob will be buried at Arlington in the plot that eventually my parents will share with him. It’s not often that you can see into the future, but I can envision our visits to Virginia, which will likely now include a pilgrimage to the National Cemetery. Will that be good for closure? I don’t rightly know.

Lately, I’ve been even more irrationally worried about death than usual. It’s a sort of accessibility bias: an example easily comes to mind of a sudden, unexplained death, so it’s easy for me to imagine people in my life dying unexpectedly. I’d like that habit to stop; I don’t like being at the mercy of things out of my control.

May 18, 2014 / Jon Ericson

Affection

Recently, the twins learned about affection. Or rather, they learned to imitate it. If I say the word “kiss”, Kathryn will turn to peck me on the lips (complete with a wet “smooch” sound). Isaac, meanwhile, has adopted dozens of babies, which is to say, everything that he enjoys hugging he now calls “baby”. Anything he enjoys holding and/or throwing is a “ball”. Somehow his vocabulary (and development in general) advances more quickly than his sister’s. They take turns with separation anxiety, however. This is Isaac’s moment to throw fits when we hand him to strangers.

Easter 2014

Kathryn, however, remains our world-class snuggler. She clutches most anything with gusto: blankets, stuffed animals, Duplos, shoes (especially Joy’s), her bottle, and, most gratifyingly, people. Joshua and I have tested how long she will cling to us without support. (We haven’t timed her, but it’s got to be close to a minute.) Our male twin can be convinced to snuggle too, if he’s tired and nothing more exciting is happening. Yesterday, all five of us had a few moments of quiet together. Joy and I had brought the twins back to bed and Joshua flopped down between us. Very quickly, we devolved from that pastoral scene to a broiling bed of zerberts and laughter.

May 10, 2014 / Jon Ericson

We really need both parents

It’s been so wonderful to be back home; I had more important things to do than write. But this weekend Joy flew to Virginia for Bob’s graduation and Mother’s Day. So there’s going to be an important person missing from this picture:

Double changing table.

Now I don’t need Joy for diaper changes (thanks Bob!), feedings, bedtime, or playtime. In a pinch, I can even pick out matching clothes. But I can’t replace her nurturing qualities. She had to remind me that the twin’s blankets were in the drier after a restless night without them. Joshua and I dropped the twins off at the nursery for choir practice without their diaper bag. I don’t know how, but I bet if their mom had been here, this wouldn’t have happened:

Nursery mess

This isn’t to say I couldn’t learn to pay attention to such things. But I don’t have the instinct for them. Mothers do. From an early age, it’s easy to spot women who are unfit parents: their children lack basic necessities. The nurturing parent tends to be better at remembering to do things like bring a snack for their toddlers.

Dads are important too. We take out the trash. Men also serve an increasingly important need as a child matures. The ultimate goal of parenting is to create an adult who represents an asset to society. Fathers pack a metaphorical suitcase of necessities when a son or daughter heads off to live on their own. We include lessons on individuality, self-sacrifice, competence, confidence, and so on. (Mothers pack the actual suitcase.) It’s not that one parent can’t take on both roles and do it well. It’s that there’s a constant struggle between wanting your child to be safe and wanting her to be independant.

Last night, I wrestled my boys. After she sized up the situation, Kathryn joined in too. Joshua is getting too strong for me to handle all three easily, but he was so gentle with the twins. They were having the sort of fun you and I have on a rollercoaster: a little bit of fear without a sense of real danger. Isaac in particular enjoyed testing his strength against an adult. It reminded me of the times I wrestled with Dad and Bob when he was a boy.

May 5, 2014 / Jon Ericson

Anger

I’m sitting near the gate at Dulles that will take me to Long Beach and all I can think about is that I miss my family on both coasts. That and the free airport WiFi has hijacked all of my tabs and why would they do that?!? Next to simple sadness, the most prevalent and enduring emotion of my grief has been anger. I’ve been angry with God, of course. But also with complete strangers going about their day oblivious to the fleetingness of life. And with the reporter who initially wrote that the circumstances around Bob’s death were “unsuspicious” which is as suspicious a way to word the sentiment as can be conceived. And with the commenter who pointed out that odd fact. And with Bob for dying. And his doctor for letting it happen.

And I’ve been angry with nearly all of my family for reasons that are entirely obscure. I’ve nothing against them and a far as I know, they aren’t angry with me. I’m at least irritated with just about everyone who wants to console me. And plain old outraged by those who don’t. I’m even annoyed with people who surprise me with just the right word of comfort. Not to pull a pop psychology trick or anything, but I suddenly discovered this morning that I’m mostly angry with myself.

Bob’s death is the very definition of an “act of God” and the only two people who warrant being angry with in this situation are Him and me. When I think of what I failed to do in life and what I’ve been tempted to do, I’m disappointed in myself. How could I have forgotten to give Bob one more hug before we last parted? How could I get excited that so many people started reading this backwater blog because I started writing about his death? Why don’t I start writing about life while I can? And why didn’t God give me more time with Bob? Just one more year would have made all the difference.

And now it’s so tempting to add shame to my troubles. At moments like this, I praise God that in His mercy He gave us a model like King David:

Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.

(Psalm 55:22 ESV)

He didn’t say “Cast your burden on the LORD, unless it happens to be anger with God”. He said that the LORD with sustain you if you cast whatever burden you have on Him. This is the real reason I continue to write about my brother’ death—as long as I write I’m putting my burdens out of my hands and into God’s.