Grieving and the Casserole Ladies

Several years ago, a colleague at my work place lost her father to a tragic accident. It was right after Thanksgiving and the family was paralyzed with grief. Tragedies during holidays are a degree more painful as shock mixes with holiday expectation, creating a numb disconnect. A couple of day’s after the tragedy, my colleague’s roommate, a dear friend of mine, called me and said “I don’t know what to do! There are no church ladies. No church ladies means no casserole ladies! How are we going to help this family?”

Initially I responded in stunned silence. It has been years since my friend went to church, so why the church ladies, the casserole ladies? “What do you mean?” I asked. My friend went on to say that growing up she knew that whenever there was something hard or life changing, like funerals or births, there was a guarantee that the family would not have to worry about meals. Whether they knew the family or not made no difference, the casserole church ladies would show up like fairy godmothers with delicious and plentiful food. With everything else that a grieving family or community was going through, at least they wouldn’t have to wonder how to feed people. Like magic, casseroles, brownies, cookies, seven-layer salads, jello salads, rolls, bread, and Robert Redford cake would appear at their doorways. There was no expectation of conversation and no expectation of reciprocity. It was a “We are so sad. We are so sorry. Here! Have a brownie!” It wasn’t to minimize the grief, rather it was tangible support in the form of food.

I knew in that moment exactly what she was talking about. I’ve been a recipient of the goodness of the casserole ladies and have experienced this tangible comfort many times. One time it was an entire Christmas feast, another time a week’s worth of freezable meals. Just one long year ago during a family crisis, my son opened the door to a massive lasagna and huge container of salad, enough food to feed a family of 30. Words would have been ineffective and difficult, but food? Food was perfect.

Yesterday a friend sent me the cooking newsletter that comes out of the New York Times. It was a couple of paragraphs – simple and timely, titled “Grief and Cooking.” There it was – a perfect description of the role that food plays when there is a tragedy or crisis.

Food plays a central role in our reaction to tragedy, to death and grieving. It’s why casseroles appear on the doorsteps and countertops of those experiencing it, why we feel the urge to roast chickens or assemble lasagnas when the news is grim. Food is comfort of a sort, and fuel as well, for anger and sorrow alike. We cook to provide for those we love and for ourselves. In the activity itself we strive to find relief, strength, resolve.

Sam Sifton from NYTimes newsletter: Grief and Cooking

Right now, more than anything I wish I could make a casserole for the grieving families of Uvalde, Texas. where I imagine sleepless nights barely ending as nightmare days begin, an entire community forever changed. I wish I could make them a roast chicken and stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce and finish it off with my specialty apple cake. Or maybe a delicious lasagna with fresh garlic bread, because when you are grieving, carbs are necessary. Like many of you who are miles away, unconnected to the tragedy other than the human capacity of empathy and grief recognition, I still long for concrete ways to enter into their suffering.

I can’t make a casserole and a loaf of bread for the grieving families of Uvalde. But I can make a casserole and a loaf of bread for a neighbor who is hurting. I can take the heart and warmth of my kitchen and cook it into food. I can translate love, care, and prayers for courage into bread dough, delivering a loaf packed full of empathic goodness to someone in my world who is desperate for comfort.

And as I measure and whisk, I will pour my prayers for Uvalde into the mix, praying that somehow, as impossible as it seems, comfort will come.

[Image by RitaE from Pixabay]

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.

Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway. 

My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane. 

A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon. 

Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive.

We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages. 

In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges. 

I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?

And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.

We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.

So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.

It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.

The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

Author’s Note: in my faith tradition, we are going into Holy Week with Palm Sunday this Sunday. Because I write for A Life Overseas which is a largely Protestant group, I have posted this today.

The Rhythm of Grace

I woke up to a cold house. Shivering despite being in a warm robe, I knew something was wrong. The temperature gauge showed a cold 58 and lowering. No heat came from the vents. The furnace was clearly not functioning.

“Could one more thing go wrong?” I thought. Which, of course, is a foolish thought. Yes. Absolutely. A lot more could go wrong. We could have another death. We could have another tragedy. That’s the thing about life – the horrid and tragic things that could happen are limitless. If it were not for grace, why would any of us want to get up in the morning?

And yet – there it is – the last best word one writer called it – Grace.

There is grace. There is hope. There is incredible beauty. There is laughter. There is resurrection. And there always has been.

It’s only been in the past 75 years that life became easy for so many. It wasn’t until the 1940s that wide-spread use of antibiotics became possible, helping people who would have previously died fight infection. It’s been in the last 100 years that we have seen massive advances in infant mortality and morbidity rates, changing the landscape of maternal child health. It was only 102 years ago that the last world-wide flu pandemic killed millions. But even then, there was grace. Even then people lived and loved, laughed and hoped, longed for restoration and resurrection.

Growing up in Pakistan I was introduced at an early age to food rations, no running hot water, no flush toilets, diseases like malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, malnutrition, blackouts, curfews, war, tragedy, and death. While Pakistan was far more than these things, living there meant I was not isolated from many of the things that my peers in the west never experienced. I am not a stranger to the uncomfortable, irritating, and sometimes tragic things of life.

And yet, when I met with a cold house and malfunctioning furnace, I still asked “Why?” I still questioned what else could go wrong.

And then the tears came. First hesitantly and then, when they realized they met with no resistance, they rushed to the surface.

Like so many in today’s world, I don’t know what I’m doing. All that I held dear, all that I planned, all that I worked for earlier feels as though it is no longer a reality. I cried and cried and cried. I didn’t hold back worrying that someone would see or hear these tears. That’s the thing about grieving alone – you don’t will yourself to stop for fear you will be misunderstood, you don’t try to compose yourself. You let the waves of grief move over you, like waves over the sand.

I cried that my brother left us all behind. I cried for my sister-in-law. I cried for my niece and nephew. I cried for my mom, grieving the loss of a child. I cried for all of us who knew and loved this remarkable man. I cried for the suffering around the world – Italy, India, Spain, Pakistan, the United States. I cried for all the people who have become statistics on a sophisticated, computer-programmed map. I cried for morgues that are too full and hospital staff that are too stressed. I cried for the refugees and those who are displaced. I cried for the world.

I don’t know how long I cried. It really didn’t matter. After a while, my sobs subsided, my breathing slowed and I sat still, taking it all in. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.

And then I got up and did what had to be done. Shower. Emails. Meetings. Curriculum development. More meetings.

The rhythm of life in the midst of quarantine. The rhythm of grace.

This is not the end  This is not the end of this  We will open our eyes wide, wider This is not our last  This is not our last breath  We will open our mouths wide, wider And you know you’ll be alright  Oh and you know you’ll be alright This is not the end  This is not the end of us  We will shine like the stars bright, brighter

Gungor

Tears in a Bottle

I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned.

Bettie Addleton

I wake to bright sunshine, a stark contrast to a couple of days ago when it rained as if it would never stop. This is our life – one day is wet and gray, drops of rain falling down like tears on the face of a mother who has lost her child. Overnight the sky changes and I wake to sunshine and glorious colors. One day is so full of grief that one’s heart feels it can no longer beat; the next day you wake up to a heart that still beats and the laughter of children.  One day there’s a party and the next day there’s a funeral. Grief and joy, coexisting under the umbrella of grace.

Our world feels full of tears. In a news article I read of an Italian family in New Jersey who has lost three members to the coronavirus in the past week – the mother died not knowing that her son and daughter died just days before her. The death toll in Italy rises, so high that it feels like numbers instead of people.

Years ago during the SARS epidemic, my sister-in-law and I were talking and she mentioned that SARS was changing the way people were able to grieve. Isolated, unable to bring family and friends together, their grieving and mourning was trapped by physical and social distancing.

This virus is causing the same difficulty, grief trapped outside an isolated hospital room, where a loved one is being cared for by capable strangers. Trapped during that intimate and difficult moment of death, unable to reach out and touch, grieving instead through heavy glass barriers as hospital staff with masks and gowns care for the person you love as they take their last breath. A heart monitor flatlines while a family watches through a window. Death is never easy, never convenient but orders for isolation, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place make it even more difficult.

Our own family is experiencing the difficulty of grieving during the time of coronavirus as last week we had to postpone my brother’s memorial service. It was the right thing to do, but I cried deep tears of mourning. Our time in Thailand was precious as we grieved as a small group, the love, tears, and laughter evident in all our interactions. But there are more family members and friends who need to grieve this man who lived well and died too soon.

Sunshine sometimes feels incongruent to the world news, as though rain better represents life during these days. Rain collecting on city streets creates a sloppy soup of cigarette butts, paper leaflets, and garbage – a broken mess of life. Rain hides the tears falling down my cheeks, gives me grace to weep tears that I don’t want seen in public, but that I can’t hold back until I am in private. But just as I think I have cried all the tears possible, that the grief will never stop, I wake up to sunshine.

A few years ago I wrote about tears and my friend Bettie responded:

Sadness, grief, pain, disappointment, pleasure, joy, happiness, and other emotions turn on the tears. We cry at weddings and we cry at funerals. Like torrents of rain or an uncontrollable flood, and even slow and haltingly, they flow, bringing cleansing and as you say redemption. I have chronic dry eyes, a condition when the eye is unable to produce tears. It is not healthy. My vision is affected. For good eyesight, the production of tears is necessary. I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned. Bring on the tears for they have redemptive quality.

Tears in a bottle, tears redeemed. Permission to mourn. Tears that renew my vision and enable me to see the marks and manifestation of God-breathed redemption.

Muted Colors – Lenten Journey

There is nothing ambiguous about Lent in the Orthodox tradition. No one contemplates what to give up, or how to spend more time in prayer and repentance. Everyone pretty much knows that you’re going vegan for the next seven plus weeks. Orthodox countries pull out their “Fasting” menus and we, sometimes reluctantly, get rid of all the cheese in the house.

Church services are more frequent and we don’t need thigh masters because our thighs get such a good workout from prostrations.

Coming from a background where Lent was mentioned, but it was more about giving up chocolate or, god forbid, coffee, and sometimes signing up for a daily meditation that would arrive in my inbox reminding me of the importance of this season, it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the intentionality of this faith tradition. I have come into it slowly, but I am embracing it fully.

This year, grief is the background of Lent. It colors everything with muted shades. The sky is not as blue, the brick houses are not as brown, our house is not as red, instead all of life feels muted. I know this will not be forever – instead it is a season. I remember hearing a speaker once talk about grief. “Our churches are full of hurting people,” she said “that don’t take a season to heal.” When we don’t take a season to heal, our grief comes out in other ways. When grief is frozen in time, it can take years to thaw.

Somehow, since it is Lent, and a season of repentance and preparation, I’m feeling the relief that comes with the freedom to cry, to mourn a broken world even as I experience the incredible grace that falls down on the broken and wounded. Lent gives me that time. It invites me into self-reflection in the midst of community, lest I become too inward focused.

And even as I repent and grieve, I’m also invited into a time of preparation that ultimately leads to the Resurrection and glory of Pascha. It is a time of repentance to be sure, but it’s also a time to experience fully the joy of forgiveness and delight in the mercy of God, given so freely to all. It is a time to remember that what I see is only part of the picture.

The muted shades of my life at this moment will one day be replaced with the glorious colors of a world beyond grief, where Lent will be no more, and every color will be richer and more glorious than we’ve ever seen.

“No Such Thing as Mundane”

Photo taken by Stan Brown on February 4, 2020

“Wonderful! No such thing as mundane!” The caption is typed over a picture of a book titled Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Every Day Places. Of the many things that have struck me these past days, I keep on coming back to this caption – for it captures my brother and his view of creation and the world.

My brother Stan is my second brother of four. Growing up, Stan was the life of our family with a quick wit, a fast tongue, a quick temper, and a passion for all of life. He was a spicy child and a spicy teenager. Both of us could raise our parents’ wrath more quickly than our siblings could. We did not fear conflict; we often looked for it. The story goes that our siblings looked on at the grief that we caused our mom and dad and decided “it’s just not worth it.” So if you look at it that way, Stan and I were real gifts to the family.

When I was in junior high, Stan came to me in a rage one day. The boarding school grapevine had relayed to him that his little sister had been smoking. He didn’t come to confirm whether it was true or not. He knew, of course, that it was. He looked me in the eye and he said to me “If you don’t write and tell our parents that you’ve been smoking, then I will.” “Okay” I sniffled “I will!” And I did.

In high school, Stan’s favorite jeans got two holes in them. One on each butt. How he managed that is extraordinary, still more extraordinary was that he cut out two perfect round patches, about 4 inches in diameter made of bright Sindhi Ajrak. He sewed the patches with tiny stitches all around. To the family, it was a work of art. Not only were his jeans now wearable, but they had these bright butt patches that were incredible. His work was uniquely unappreciated by staff and he was sent to the principal’s office and told he was indecent. When our mom found out, she was mad. Why on earth didn’t they appreciate the careful stitching and ingenious patches? Indecent how? He won that round with our mom, which was good as it turned out to be a far longer lasting relationship than that of the teacher who turned him in.

Stan’s passion for justice and advocacy began early. He was quick to see injustice and to stand up for it. I benefited from this on more than one occasion, but the one I remember best was when he took my 11th grade Physics class to task one day, including the teacher. It was an all male class besides me, and usually I tolerated the teasing fairly well. But not this time. This time it sent me into tears. It was one joke more than I could handle about my body or my brain. Stan, who was volunteering at the school during a year off from college, marched up to the Physics lab and told the teacher off. Though I don’t know exactly what he said, his words packed a mighty punch. I know this because that was the point where my teacher’s treatment of me changed, and the class – ever the adolescent boys of hero worship, followed their master.

Life moved on and we both became adults. I was the first family member to meet his wife, Tami, in Chicago. Stan introduced us and then left for California. As hard it was for them, for me it was a gift. Tami became a friend before she became my sister-in-law. Stan was smitten and on a rainy day the following August, Stami was born. He had found the one who his soul loved, and his life changed.

Through the years, being able to see each other became more of a challenge as life took their family to Kenya, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Colorado and our family to Pakistan, Egypt, the US, and Iraq. Yet always when we did connect, it was the gift of being with a person fully alive and fully present.

On the past couple of years, Stan has had this uncanny ability to show up and surprise us. At one point we looked out our window in Cambridge and there was Stan! Peeking in our front windows like a wanted man, except that he was grinning from ear to ear. He did the same thing three days after our daughters wedding in September. Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the home we had moved into less than a month before. It was Stan! It would be the last time I would see him on this earth.

Siblings are a precious gift, a solid geological formation* in the midst of a world that is constantly changing. Friends may come and go, but family has to be there. It’s the law. And it’s a given that we take them for granted – we just know they will always be there. Until suddenly – they’re not. Until suddenly, they are gone with a phone call. I used to think everyone got “the phone call” once in their life. But I don’t think that’s true. Most people I know have not. In my sleepless nights I wonder “Why us?” Why were we the ones to get the phone call. What I’m really saying is “Why did you leave us? We miss you so.”

And then I think of all the times I missed telling him I loved him. All the times I thought “I need to call Stan.” but I didn’t call him, because he’s a sibling, and he’s always going to be around, and I knew he’d still love me if I didn’t call. Even my call to him before he left for Thailand came after he had boarded the plane and went immediately to a voice mail message.

My last text to Stan was horribly perfect. He had sent a screen shot of the weather here in Chiang Mai. It was 79 degrees, a clear starry sky, and Valentines Day. I texted back “I love you. I hate you.” It was the day before he died.

The tears come at odd times and they flow like they will never stop. The hole he has left is enormous. The collective grief and loss without doubt, but beyond that is the deeply personal, unshareable grief and loss of his beloved wife, daughter, and son. It is too deep to grasp, and yet, the God he loved is deeper still.

My brother’s life on earth is over. His life now has a dash in it: 1956 – 2020. The most important part of our lives is in the dash between – told and untold stories, lessons learned, people loved, all of life in a single dash.

It was back in December when Stan posted the cover of the book on glory. And though it was about a book, all of his pictures, indeed his life, reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for that glory in the midst of a broken world that groans.

This was Stan. From a leaf on a tree to a beloved grandchild and everything in between, nothing was mundane. The gift of Stan was a gift indeed. A gift from God, to and for the glory of God.

Note: People around the world have stories of Stan – this is just one of the many that will come out in the months that follow his death.

*Our son Joel first used this when speaking of his brother Micah. I love this description of siblings.

Fingerprints of Grace

My friend Robynn sent me a gift today. It was a series of photos from a book, a lament and liturgy for the death of a dream.

We live in a world that loves to fill up space with stories of seemingly impossible dreams achieved. Our movies, books, and essays tell these stories in striking cinematography and poetic prose. We read these stories as people who are starving. Starving to believe that dreams do come true. Yet, for every dream achieved, there are many that die, even more that are broken.

Broken dreams don’t make for good cinema, but they are the cry of many in our world. The woman trying desperately to get pregnant; the young man dying of cancer, begging to be healed; the mom aching for her wandering child to come home; the asylum seeker desperate for safety; the child reaching out for love; and those of us with seemingly lesser dreams may watch those dreams die and are helpless to revive them. What we dream of, what we long for so deeply does not always come to pass.

What I so wanted has not come to pass…

I read the Liturgy that my friend sent me and I wept. I wept because I have witnessed lost dreams. I wept because I am a part of lost dreams. I wept because witnessing dreams die leaves you broken and vulnerable, unsure of yourself. You no longer trust your well-honed instincts, you question everything. And all too soon, you harden and what used to be dreams turns into apathy. You hate yourself for it, even as you understand how it happened.

But perhaps I wept the most because my dreams were and are too small.

I write this in the fading light of the evening. It is quiet, save the soft murmurs of voices in the next room. The sun reflects off a pine tree outside with an aching beauty.

I think about the hidden graves of broken and dead dreams. It was less than a year ago when I wrote about dreams becoming reality, when I told some of my story of longing and ultimately the fulfillment of a longing. Sadness spreads over me as I remember the joy and anticipation of last summer. Was it so recent? Can things change so quickly? Ask anyone who has watched a dream die and they will nod an emphatic “Yes!” Dreams can die in an instant.

So let me remain tender now to how you would teach me…..let me be tutored by this new disappointment. Let me listen to its holy whisper, that I might release at last these lesser dreams. That I might embrace the better dreams you dream for me, and for your people.

But this I have found in the past and now, in this present time: in the warehouse of lost dreams, in the graveyard of dead dreams, God does not abandon me. I feel his comfort all around, I see his “fingerprints of grace.”

“My history bears his fingerprints of grace…”

And I know that I can rest.

Here in the ruins of my wrecked expectation, let me make this best confession: Not my dreams O Lord, Not my dreams, but yours be done.*

Amen.

*All quotes are from A Liturgy for the Death of a Dream from Every Moment Holy.