What Gets Lost (4)


Somewhere, in one of his books, Stanley Hauerwas asks why it is that we experience the death of a child as tragic and the death of an old person as not tragic.  As I recall, part of his answer was that the death of a child, as opposed to the death of an older person,  seems tragic because the child’s life ended before the child’s story did. 

I call this kind of loss the loss of prospects and by that I mean the prospects for the future with the loved one who has died. 

We imagine the future of our children.  We see them growing up, going to college, getting married, having babies for us to spoil. We imagine a future as a home movie not yet made. We create a story.

Ah, even out there in the future, God is in his heaven and all is…

“How could this have happened?”

“We had so much we looked forward to.”

“ I wanted to see her finish college, get married, have a family…” 

A friend of mine whose 40-year-old brother had died told me about how full of life his brother had been. 

“The guy could make anything with his hands,” he said. “He was building these beautiful bookshelves for his den and just keeled over and died.   You would have thought that God would have let him at least finish those damned bookshelves.”

The sawdust on the floor.  The hammer against the wall.  The bag of nails. The stacks of wood.  The cold silence. 

Indeed, you would have thought…

Everybody dies in the midst of some project they’d hoped to see through and that we’d hoped to see through with them.

Not long ago, I pondered the words of James (and I paraphrase) , “Listen, do not say ‘Today or tomorrow I will go to such and such a place, and there I will do business, and there I will make money.’   Who are you to say such a thing?  Why you do not even know that tomorrow will come!  After all, what is your life if not a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes?   Instead, you might consider saying this: ‘If the Lord wills, I will do thus and such.’  Anything more than that comes from the evil one.”  

Strong words there at the end. Why is that statement ‘evil?’  I think it is because it suggests that we as mere mortals not only think we have all the time in the world but that we act as if we have all the time in the world. and that we control time AND outcomes.

We think the same about our loved ones.

Creating projects for ourselves or planning to do thus and such with this kind of wonderful outcome may, at some deep level, be one way we stave off death.  

Surely the reaper will not show before I get my own grass cut!  Surely, I will not be taken to the curb before I get the garage cleaned out.

“Ah, now I will take mine ease,” quipped Mr. Bigger Barns as he kicked back in his Lazy Boy.

“He looked so peaceful,” said his wife who found him the next morning.  “We had so looked forward to…” 

I riff on a proverb that someone told me is a bit of AA wisdom: “Expectations are the mother of disappointment, the father of resentment.”

It is not uncommon for the grieving to feel disappointed, resentful, angry.  “How could such a thing have happened? We had plans!”  

I see myself getting up from this computer and walking the wee hounds in a few minutes. I’m waiting for the rain to let up. Then I have to take the garbage to the curb and get to work on a syllabus on the Gospel of Matthew. (How does anyone teach that in one semester?)

I can’t not do it. Neither can you.

I think of that good old .38 Special song:

“Hold on loosely
But don’t let go;
If you cling too tightly,
You’re going to lose control.”

Envisioning a future together is inevitable, maybe even necessary…Maybe it is a good thing.   But hold on loosely…It is risky business.

The future we see so clearly may not be the future we hoped for.

And being the one who is left behind hurts like hell.

And we who are left behind with them, we who are called alongside, may find that we listen to them but only hear ourselves. 

*If anyone knows the Hauerwas reference, I’ll be happy to supply it. I gave a lot of books away and now all I have is my memories of them!

What Gets Lost (3)

I stood on the beach in Panama City, Florida and gazed at the great expanse of water before me.   I watched the waves roll in.  I was six. My first time at the beach.   I did that for several days. I noticed that while the great expanse never changed, the movement of the waves did.  One day the waves rolled in and other days the Gulf was as flat as a kitchen floor.

I remember thinking, “I wonder where the men are who turn the wheel that makes the waves bigger or smaller.”  I envisioned this big brick building where burly men in hard hats regulated the tides.

I knew my dad would know.  My dad was a god.  He knew everything.   And how reassured I felt when I realized that he not only knew everything, he pretty much controlled everything…well, especially as it pertained to me.  Nothing bad could happen to me as long as my dad was around. 

Well, that was at the age of 6.  But, at the age of 7 or 8, something happened and I realized that my dad was not a god.  My dad was a man!   How disappointing!

“How could my own father do this to me?  How could my father turn out to be a man?”


“His head was ‘gold, his chest and arms were silver, his waist was bronze, his legs were iron, and his feet and his toes were iron mixed with clay.”  (Daniel 2:32&33) 


I was 27 and in Clinical Pastoral Education and told my supervisor about my dad.  I was angry and unkind.  He did this.  He didn’t do that.  He was….  And, do you know what my supervisor said to me?

He said, “So?”

So?  Didn’t you hear me?

“Can you think of ways in which you are like your dad?”

Like how?  Like…like..that I am not the son of a god?

“Is it possible that you are a man too?”


I stood by the casket of a great 87-year-old man.
His best friend, another great man,  stood beside me.
We looked down at him together.
His friend said, “Do you know what he thought the first few seconds after he died?”
I turned to look at him.   “No.  What?”
“How could such a thing have happened to ME?”


We sometimes cannot bear the thought that those upon whom we most depend are ordinary people.  Oh, people greatly loved, for sure!  People greatly valued, created in the image and likeness of God, oh yes, but..you know… people nonetheless. 

And, as we learn soon enough, we are just like them.  Ordinary people feeling our way forward listening, listening, listening for guidance, for assurance, the Voice that makes all things well…at least not as bad as we think.

As anthropologist Gregory Bateson once wrote:

Grass dies.
Men die.
Men are grass.

“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Yet we need some people to be more than they are!  Someone!  And, if they can’t be that for us anymore, we enlist ourselves.

“I am the Master of my fate! I am the captain of my soul!

But, here we all are, relentlessly human.


We project upon certain of our loved ones that ‘more than they are‘ bit.  And, when they die,  we are stunned: “how could such a thing have happened to him?”  And, when they die, we have to admit:  indeed, he was,.. she was…after all….mortal.


I looked down at my dad.  Dressed in his Sunday suit, he lay still and quiet as stone. I touched his hand.  Cold leather.  Brittle…like a 200-year-old-shoe.

Only the Sunday before, or so my mother told me, he had dressed in that suit for church. He walked into the living room where she waited to leave. He said, “I sure look purdy, don’t I?”


We rode with him out to the city cemetery.    We passed through town.  Cars pulled to the curb out of respect but people walked oblivious on the sidewalks.   They entered and exited stores that walled the town streets.  They sauntered as if it were just another Tuesday. 

Apart from the curbed cars, nothing stopped.  No one stopped.  Business went on as usual.  Money exchanged hands.   People gabbed.  Some had the audacity to laugh.  One man slapped another man on the back.  He threw back his head and he-hawed.

I wanted to roll down the window of the car.  I wanted to shout out the window,  “What’s wrong with you people?  Don’t you know what has happened?  Don’t you know who this is?  Show some respect! 

My dad..my dad is passing by.”

What Gets Lost (2)

We ran circles around each other, Amber and I. We played in the front yard of the house we had rented in East Tennessee. Amber was four. I was older and starting to feel it.

“James, your mom is on the phone,” Linda called from the open front door.

I walked into the house, picked up the phone, and said, “Hello.”

“James, I have some bad news. Your father is dead.”

It was October, 19th, 1982. He was 71. Milligan College, where I had just begun teaching, was on Fall Break, I had just returned from visiting my parents in Georgia. The ’82 Chevette we had driven down to Georgia was still half-packed.

Only a day or two before, he had handed me a check for $100. “Take this and buy yourself some tires,” he said. He always checked my tires and my oil whenever I visited. “Don’t tell your mother, She’s funny about money, you know.”

A few minutes later we drove away. I glanced back and saw him standing in the driveway waving then….”James, your father is dead.”


“He was under your aunt’s house fixing a water pipe and just died.”

Sudden cardiac arrest.

She found him one his knees under the house. Some pipe tape dangled from the leaky pipe he was fixing. He had slipped away so suddenly that he didn’t bother to fall over.

I told my mother that I’d call her back and hung up. I sat down on the edge of the bed and cried.

After a bit, I got up, told Linda what had happened. Amber overheard me.

“We have to go back but I can’t stand the thought of riding in that tin can again,” I said.

I sat down at the kitchen table, the phone in hand, and called the airlines.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” Amber stood by my side

“I’m calling to see what it would cost to fly,” I said.

Her eyes widened and she said, “Are we going to heaven?”

We drove.

I dropped Linda off at her parents’ house in Atlanta and went on to my parents’ house in Carrollton. It was a tiny house. Built in 1950. I was born in July of 1950. We moved into that house in October that year.

My mother and I sat down at the yellow Formica kitchen table in the kitchen. That’s where we had eaten every day, except Sundays, when I was growing up. (Sundays we moved into the dining room.)

We talked from the time I got there about 11 p.m. until about 4:00 a.m. the next morning.

“I’ve got to go to bed,” I said.

Just before I got up, she said something that taught me something about what gets lost when a loved one dies. She said, “You know what I’m really going to miss with him gone?”


“I’m going to miss sitting on the front porch, drinking coffee with him, talking, and waiting on the mailman.”

I thought about that comment a lot. I would have thought she would have simply said, “I’m going to miss him.” But, she didn’t. She pointed to a specific moment they shared day after day and said that that was the thing she was going to miss most!

I knew why that meant so much to her. They had both worked hard for years. Neither of them made any money to speak of. That didn’t bother them. My mother was fond of saying, “James, remember: if you have a roof over your head and clean sheets you just about have it all.”

No, they had other problems. My dad was fond of certain libations and my mother was absolutely not. It caused a lot of tension in my growing up years.

But then, one day, just out of the blue, he quit. By the time that he died, he had not had a drink in 5 years. So, to sit on the porch, drink coffee, talk, and watch for the mailman was to my mother a taste of heaven.

What gets lost when a loved one dies? The Person, yes. But, also the Patterns, those daily rituals that seem such a commonplace.

When the beloved one dies, so do the patterns, the commonplaces that constitute our existence with them.

We drink our coffee…alone.
We talk to ourselves.
We wait for the mailman…

We grieve.

What Gets Lost (1)

A friend I made 62 years ago lost her 42-year-old son on Christmas Eve. While I have not spoken to her, I can only imagine the pain that she and her husband are enduring. Since I heard the news, I have thought a lot about my friend (I haven’t had the privilege of meeting her husband) and what she must be going through.

I have also spent some time thinking about what I have learned about grief over my many years of coming alongside the grieving and stumbling along beside them. That is one of the most difficult learning processes of life: learning what to say, what not to say, when to say what you just have to say, and wondering whether in that moment you have anything of value to say at all.

One thing I have learned is that a lot gets lost when a loved one dies. That is what I want to write about over the next few posts. Grieving people have taught me much over the years about what gets lost when a loved one dies. As I thought about the things they have told me, a way of remembering them just emerged in my mind. I call that way of remember the 4 P’s of loss: (1) Person, (2) Patterns, (3) Projections, and (4) Prospects.

The Person

It doesn’t take a genius to see that when a loved one dies, your greatest loss is the loss of the person. But what is a person?

Not long ago, I spoke to a team of emergency transport pros about the experience of a heart transplant. They are an important part of the logistical train that gets an organ from the point of the donor to the point of the recipient. (You may not know this but when a transplant surgeon is notified that an organ is coming, s/he doesn’t just get up and drive to the hospital. No, the surgeon is picked up and transported via an emergency vehicle with sirens and lights flashing. Time is of the essence.)

What I wanted them to understand was that when they transport an organ they transplant much more than an organ. Given the way we think of hearts, I believe that is especially true when they transport a heart! They transport all of the loves of that heart and all of the love that was given to that heart. Culturally speaking, they transplant the essence of the person, the center of his or her loves, the center of all his/her disappointments and the many griefs they have experienced in a lifetime.

I came to that way of thinking about it after getting into a conversation with someone who objected to what transplant patients sometimes experience: “I feel like the donor is with me.” The objector argued that no one says that when what is transplanted is a kidney or a pancreas. Further, she argued that the heart is merely an organ, a collection of cells, arteries, and valves. That’s it.

At one level, she had a point. As I asked one of my cardiologists who was “taking a little piece of my heart’ in a biopsy, “Dr ____, when was the last time someone told you they love you with all their pancreas?” It’s a weird feeling for the guy who is snipping away bits of your heart to chortle…chortle…and…chortle.

So, my dialogue partner had a point. However, she was also guilty of being ‘nothing buttery.’ (C.S. Lewis) A heart is nothing but an organ.

I wanted to ask her if she regarded her child in the same way- simply a collection of cells, organs, valves, pipes, and other mechanisms.

I didn’t ask but I doubt it.

Well, just as a heart is not simply an organ, so a person is not simply an animated, mobile bag of organs. A person is an organism but a person is also a host of other things. S/he is invested with our affections but also our hopes and our memories and our dreams and our needs, etc.

So, when a beloved person is lost to us through their dying, much more than the person is lost with them.

That I will take up next time.