A Vote For An Angel

People are not taught how to deal with the death of a baby. Friends and family often don’t know what to say. Most people expect the parents, especially the father, to return to work within a few days and be ‘back to normal’ within a matter of months, but the death of a baby changes parents forever . . .

_7903271As I finished a call and cradled the phone, an unfamiliar woman entered and then quickly exited my co-worker Lori’s office. The woman had been carrying a rectangular object. I knew Lori* had left for hospital visit and wouldn’t return for several hours. What had been delivered in her absence? Curious, I eased across the hallway and stopped at the door’s threshold to peer inside.

I gulped. Now I knew what had been brought for my colleague:  a coffin the size of two back-to-back shoeboxes, its exterior elegantly wrapped with soft, padded fabric.

For the last few years, I’ve worked part-time at Hinds Hospice as a so-called Bereavement Support Specialist. Trust me, I’m not much of a specialist in anything, but my employers had to concoct a title for my duties. The part of Hinds where I’m employed is The Center for Grief and Healing and Angel Babies. The diminutive coffin had been brought to Lori’s office by the person who had built it because of the final two words in The Center’s name . . . Angel Babies.

My bereavement work is exclusively with adults. I make follow-up calls to those who have experienced the death of a loved one. When a sister or grandparent or father or aunt has died under Hinds Hospice’s care, we make sure those who are grieving know they’re not alone. Not only do we call folks, but we also send monthly letters and sponsor various workshops and conferences throughout the year. Additionally, I lead grief support groups and do a variety of “this” and “that” for The Center.

But I don’t work with the ones who’ll use the handmade coffin waiting in my colleague’s office; I don’t deal with the parents who have, or will soon, experience their baby’s final breaths. I like to think my work with adults struggling with loss allows my colleagues to have more time to care for parents grieving the death of a precious infant. Continue reading →

No Answers

Matthew 2:1-12 – The Epiphany of the Lord – for January 6, 2013

“…wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matthew 2:1)

Seven years ago, I wondered if the priest burned frankincense or myrrh for the incense.

I didn’t wonder why I was there watching that priest. There being a place I did not want to be. There being a time of grief with unfathomable sorrow. There being an infant’s memorial service, occurring only two days after Christmas.

A parent experiencing the death of a child is as unfair as it gets and few can stand with them and say, “I understand what you are going through.”

The memorial service was held in the Catholic Church where the child’s parents were members. I was not there to help lead the service, but to support the grieving family with my presence. The grandparents were my friends and I couldn’t not be with them.

And so I watched, and so I also felt disoriented.

Now, 500 and more years after Martin Luther’s reformation, and the separation between the Catholic and the protesting—or Protestant—church, clear differences remain in how the two branches of Christianity worship.

The use of incense is one small difference.

At a key point in the mass, the priest lighted a censer (the metal container where the incense is burned) to ritualistically disperse the scent.

How strange for this Protestant nose to be filled with the distinctive, room-filling odor. The smell stays with you. And that, I assume, is part of its purpose, part of its sensual, inexplicable power.

In all of our inadequate ways to discern where the Holy One fits in the human times of tremendous hope or terrible sorrow, using the sense of smell has its role.

We humans are sensual creatures. We respond to what we see, hear, feel and smell. Yes, we Protestants may shake our heads in amusement about the Catholics’ peculiar use of “bells and smells” in their worship, but those ancient rituals can connect to some of our needs. Continue reading →

With a Whisper or a Shout

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12 – The 5th Sunday of Lent  – for March 25, 2012

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

Why doesn’t God heal my friend?

Why does God seem distant, absent or capricious?

This week I read the stunning words of the Old Testament prophet: Jeremiah claimed the Lord will “put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Alleluia! The God who bequeathed the rock hard tablets of law to Moses preferred to touch the vulnerable heart of the human creation, and will forever forgive them of their sins. How compassionate! Soon after I read the tender words of the Psalms . . . “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Alleluia! The ancient psalmist gifted, from generation to generation, the joy of trusting God’s saving grace. How compassionate!

Then, why do we so often feel abandoned? Why has a person won the lottery, or had their sick child made whole and happy, or married the perfect soul mate while another experienced financial struggle, illness and fractured relationships?

Why is God distant? Absent! Capricious!

In the same week I read Jeremiah’s stunning declaration and the Psalmist’s tender requests, I met with Cathy*, the director of a local hospice’s Center for Grief & Healing. I volunteer at this hospice and needed information about one of their programs. Once my “business” was finished, Cathy asked a question. She knows I’m a pastor and sought my feedback about a struggle she sometimes experiences with grieving clients.

It’s easy to guess what she asked. I’ve already posed the questions alongside thoughts about God writing laws on the heart and placing a “new and right spirit” into humans.

Not always, but too often, Cathy counsels clients angry with God or church or both. They’ve read scripture or heard sermons that promised God would hear their anguished requests. Heal my child. Mend my broken soul. Ease my spouse’s suffering. And yet nothing changed . . . the child died, their soul splintered further, pain wracked and wrecked a loving partner to the bitter end.

They sit in Cathy’s office and, with a whisper or a shout, wonder, “Why is God _______?” Distant? Absent? Capricious?

“How can I help them answer that?” Cathy asked. Continue reading →