Coming Alongside…But

As I was thinking about Parkaleo (coming alongside) this morning, I remembered a famous 80’s Benneton ad. The photograph came to be known as the ‘photograph that changed the face of HIV/AIDS.’ It also became a flashpoint when people protested that Benneton employed the image of a dying man in the embrace of his grieving father to sell colorful attire.

I think it is a compelling photograph. But, I also get the complaint…it does strike me to use it to sell fashion.

In any case, for my purposes here, it is THE image of Parkaleo, that ‘coming alongside’ the suffering that is the point of this site.

Here is an article that describes the background and controversy that erupted around it.

What Gets Lost (5)

So What?

So, what difference does it make in terms of ‘coming alongside’ the grieving that we consider ‘what gets lost’ after their loved one dies? For me, the key idea is that grief is not a slab of stone with no component parts but an organic whole consisting of living parts, each with a lifespan of its own. Grief is not simply one thing that one has to ‘get over.’ It is not a stomach bug. Grief is an organic experience with a life span all its own.

By using the word lifespan, I am trying to avoid using two other words: (1) progress and (2) journey. For me, those words, though readily at hand, are overused.


The idea of progress presupposes that one moves from a worse place to a better place. That the experience of grief is something on the order of a defect and that one is somehow supposed to move toward being less defective.

However, who is to say that the experience of grief- say shortly after the death of a loved one- is somehow worse?  Worse in what way?   Grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one.   It is what it is.  It is neither better nor worse.   To say that one can progress through grief is to pronounce judgment upon grief itself.  

I know a woman who lost her son in a horrible car accident.   For all anyone can tell she has not grieved her son at all.  (Of course, who knows what she goes through in her quiet, alone times?)  She has grieved other losses, so it’s not as if the lacks a grief neuron or something.   She has shown no evidence that she is sad that her son is gone.   (I don’t know what lies behind that.) 

Now, which is ‘worse,’ if we want to go there:  a mother who grieves the death of her son or a mother who does not grieve the death of her son?  I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that something does not feel right about the latter.  I want to say to not grieve is worse than grieving.

For me, it is better to accept grief as an appropriate response to the death of a loved one than to think of it as ‘worse’ than some future state called ‘better.’   If nothing else,  thinking in that way enables the one grieving to accept the pain of loss as a natural response than simply as something to be gotten rid of or escaped right away. *

Maybe we would be better off if we honored our grief as evidence of our love rather than as an interruption to our neatly ordered, well-planned (fantasy) lives.


As difficult as it is, I think it is better when describing the grief of another to avoid referring to it as a journey- especially for a Christian. The idea of a journey is closely linked, at least in my mind, with the storyline called the Hero’s Journey.

A person (the hero) lives his life when something happens that alters his course, something that creates a problem to be solved, or a conflict to be resolved.

Along the way, the hero faces many obstacles and must find a way to overcome each. Often the hero experiences some kind of death, it’s all over for him, but then by some strange twist, he emerges at his destination a better person for it.

That’s a powerful tool in story-telling and likely sounds familiar to you.

I’ve heard many people refer to grief in precisely those terms.

But here’s the problem: the process of grief, for the believer, is more like being carried along than it is like a heroic journey. While there may be an element of the heroic in enduring, we believe that God is our comfort and that we are carried along by God’s enduring comfort and grace.


Maybe I’m a bit harsh about the ideas of progress and journey as they pertain to grief, but I do think that the idea is helpful that grief is more like an organism, with component parts that have lifespans, and a lifespan itself.

Grief is experienced by living creatures and just as living creatures have a lifespan so grief as a part of life has a lifespan too. In other words, grief is not an interruption to life, it is not a matter of progress from worse to better, and it is not a journey undertaken by a hero, who fights her own battles and endures her suffering with valor and might.

Grief is life and life is grief.

The patterns we lose when a loved one dies eventually seek other patterns- though not without sadness. The all-but-mythic projections we cast upon our all-too-human beloveds are withdrawn or cast onto others. As the finality of death sets in, the prospects of a future together in this temporal realm are exchanged for a hope that just across that gossamer veil we shall meet again.

All that is left is the memory of the beloved and the growing suspicion that the beloved is closer to us in death than they were in life.

As to those of us who are called alongside the grieving, our duty is not to guide or to cajole or to cheerlead the downcast. Our calling is to nurture their grief, to protect it so that grief may live out its life on its own terms. It is to be present, to encourage, and to remind. It is not to dampen its pain.

To nurture the grief of the grieving is to come alongside realizing that the shortest distance across the valley of the shadow of death is a straight line. It is to signify by our presence the presence of the One who is the Father of all compassion and comfort, the ultimate Thou-Art-With-Me, Emmanuel, whose mercy overshadows even the shadows of death.


* Several writers on suffering have pointed out that suffering, here in Western culture, is considered an interruption to how life ought to be. In a culture dedicated to the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ any suffering is seen as an intrusion that must be annihilated as soon as possible. That may help explain the absurdity of physicians prescribing anti-depressants for grief. Rather than endure this natural response to loss, the physician describes a technology that will speed ‘recovery’ along.

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 (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.