Finding courage and hope in tragedy, then sharing it

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[Nelba Marquez-Greene], the mother of one of the 26 victims of last year’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has written a powerful letter to the teachers of America. Nelba Marquez-Green had two children attending Sandy Hook Elementary that day. Her daughter, 6-year-old Ana Grace was killed in the massacre, her son was uninjured in the attack.

A teacher friend shared the letter with me as it was reposted. I agree with those who reposted the letter:

[Nelba’s] letter, which was posted on the Education Week website is powerful, and gut-wrenching, and encouraging all in one.

Take the time to read this mother’s letter to teachers (and to all who have ears to hear and hearts to love). Here are the words that leapt out at me. For each of us dealing with loss and grief (even if pale in comparison to this mother’s grief) these words are filled with light and hope:

When my son returned to school in January, I thought I was going to lose my mind. Imagine the difficulty in sending your surviving child into a classroom when you lost your baby in a school shooting. We sent him because we didn’t want him to be afraid.

We sent him because we wanted him to understand that while our lives would never be the same, our lives still needed to move forward.

No matter our sorrows and griefs, let us move forward in courage and hope.

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Talking to children about tragedy and disaster

After the tornado in Moore, OK. Photo by Sue Ogrocki via thesilverpen.com

Talking with children about tragedy, especially if there is death and destruction, is a moment fraught with both possibility and danger. What follows is counsel from Hollye Jacobs (a mother, breast cancer survivor, nurse, and social worker) on her blog “The Silver Pen.” Hollye writes,

Begin-quotex7152In the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado tragedy if you’re wondering how to talk to children about tragedy and natural disasters, you’re not alone. It’s totally normal to be bamboozled by such catastrophe. The key, however, is including children in the dialogue.

Many of you already know how important it is to me that adults talk with children and keep lines of communication open. Silence is NOT golden especially when television and other media are depicting graphic scenes of devastation. Children are being exposed to stories and photos of dislocated families, destroyed homes and a rising death toll. UGH. We MUST talk with children about natural disasters.

The thing of it is: when children are left alone with information, they have the capacity to imagine far worse than reality (even when reality is awful!). For example, young children often confuse facts with fantasy and may not realize that the same images are shown over and over again on television. Rather they may think that the disasters are happening over and over again. Yup. How awful is that?

Read the entire post: How to talk to children about tragedy and disaster

Hollye then goes on to detail 10 ‘simple’ concepts to put into action if you are called upon, or if you volunteer, to speak to a child or children about the tornado. She offers sound advice, good counsel, and counsel filled with hope. In her post she expands upon an earlier summary of how to speak with children after a disaster.

Infographic: Helping children cope with a natural disaster by Hollye Jacobs

More from Hollye Jacobs on speaking with children

  • Helping children cope with a natural disaster } a precursor to the post cited here about Oklahoma
  • Discussing cancer with children | addresses the broader topic of talking with children, especially Preschool children, in the context of Hollye and her husband talking to their daughter about Hollye’s breast cancer
  • The Silver Pen. Hollye’s website (which includes her blog posts). In her own words, ” The Silver Pen began as a way for me to document the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and oftentimes hilarious journey through, with, over and around breast cancer. One year later I’m still in recovery but now on a journey to find Silver Linings in all aspects of life.”

Image source. “A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma on Monday, May 20, 2013.”

Cold Comfort: a poem

Looking up into the sky through branches

One of the bloggers I follow, Diane Walker, posted this on April 18:

The kind words said,
The tender hands
Rest briefly on mahogany,
The hard men come
In their t-shirts and their caps
To drop you here
To rest beside the ashes
Of your love.
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The die is cast,
The dirt and flowers
Thrown into the pit,
The carpet rolled away.
The wailing imprecations
Of the lost and the bereft resound,
Awakening responses in my heart
Too harsh to bear.
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How does Diane end her poem?
Find out: Cold Comfort on her blog Contemplative Photography.
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Image: Diane Walker on Contemplative Photography

How important is community when a child dies?

As I write this I am aware that some of you have had to bury a child. Of all the things a parent is called upon to do this is the most unthinkable, a tragedy on many levels for parents and grandparents and the extended family. Even when the “child” is an adult the death is no less a tragedy. As parents we never expect to outlive our children.

My friend, Brian Prior, is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. His latest post—The blessing of community in difficult times—needs to be shared. We are part of the community he calls upon for sustenance, prayer, and understanding. His post was prompted by the death of Nicky, a 6-year old Kindergartner who was at an end-of-school party: “this last Friday [6/1/12] a kindergartner from Breck drowned at a pool party he was attending with school friends.” Even though we have never met Nicky or his parents, we know the excruciating pain of such a loss.

In his post Brian reflects on the role of community in helping everyone, especially the parents, to grieve and find both comfort and hope to meet the days ahead. Brian well understands the power of community: He was only 13 when his father died. Brian remembers, even now, who was present to help him and the entire family move forward after their tremendous loss.

Brian writes, “As I talked to Nicky’s parents, grandparents and others who came out to be with them, over and over again the question was asked, how would someone make it through such a tragedy without a supportive faith community?” His answer is profoundly true, “I have no idea.”

To you whose loved one has died, I write to encourage you to let the community carry you as necessary. To you who walk with the dying and the bereaved, I write to encourage your compassionate and consistent presence—it means more than you can know. When death comes our words are inadequate, but our presence is eloquent.

Do you have a story to share? Do you have wisdom—gained “the hard way”—to share? I encourage you to read Brian’s post, and share a comment with him as he and the larger community minister to Nicky’s parents and to those touched by the life of this little boy.

Do I have to talk about it?

As you may know I grew up Roman Catholic. I can’t tell you how many rosaries I prayed growing up. As you work your way around the beads (for those of you not Roman Catholic) you pray the “Hail Mary.” This prayer concludes: “…pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The “Hail Mary” is spoken 50 times as you work your way around the rosary beads. How easily the word “death” rolls off the tongue when saying a prayer from memory, when you have the distractions of a child, when you are clueless. The older you are, the more experiences you have, the word has a different (compelling) power.

As a pastor I have often spoken  about the benefit of discussing end-of-life needs, wishes, and issues with those you love because one thing is certain, you will have to talk about them or deal with them at some time and if they can be approached in a time of calm and strength rather than a time of crisis and weakness, all the better. As a pastor I am also aware of the discomfort such a suggestion can create. But wait (as the commercials love to say) there’s more.

As one who nearly died, as one who humbly confesses laziness, arrogance, and ultimately, stupidity, I did not heed my own (very good) pastoral advice. Carol and I vaguely talked about what we would or would not like in terms of medical treatment in the event of a life-threatening illness or accident; we were in the process of completing a Will and setting up a Trust and establishing powers of attorney; I thought, I’ll have time to take care of this later, “I’ll get to it;” and then, quicker than I could have imagined, I was unconscious and on a ventilator and Carol and our kids were dealing with all of this in a moment of crisis and exhaustion. I do not wish their/my experience on anyone. Keep going.

I share this because every year Rabbi Richard Zionts and I (with the exception of the years I was unconscious or unable I say with sadness and remorse) present a session on End-of-Life issues. Though the notice is late, the invitation is heartfelt.

YOU ARE INVITED

You are invited to join us for this year’s series on Friday mornings–October 28, November 11, and November 18–at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert, CA (probably in a room [yet to be determined] on the lower level of the church). Each session will begin at 10am and end by 11:45am. The series is free and open to everyone.

One additional note as you consider the invitation: like many of you, my parents are still alive (and aging right along with me). They have been better than me in having things “in order” and communicated to us, their children. I pray that you can say the same about you and your parents. If not, come join us this Friday.

Thank you for reading to the end. I pray that you will be able to join us on Friday, October 28th.

Encourage one another

As we have chosen to follow Christ we have accepted the testimony and witness of those who have gone before us. We live in the belief that the truth has been told from the very first. We have hope as we face death. We have been asked to encourage one another with our belief and with our hope.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, 18 TNIV

My family shared this reading as we gathered to bury our sister. We believe the truth of these words. I believe the truth of these words. We have continued to encourage each other with these words. Today I share them with you who have encountered the death of a loved one; I encourage you to believe and hope.

Holy Innocents

A compelling truth of the biblical writings handed on to us is this: there is no flinching when facing truths that are painful, revealing of human weakness and wickedness, and even violent. So it is that every year the church remembers the events recorded in Matthew 2:13-18 in which we are told “[Herod] … killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (v. 16)

This day (usually remembered on December 28th) is called the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Collect of the Day remembers and intercedes in Christ’s name: “We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace;”

It is in stories such as this one, it is in Feast Days like this one, that I find the weakness of the “Prosperity Gospel” and find the flaw with those who see Christianity as a way to escape suffering and pain or, worse still, as being uncaring about the suffering and pain that surrounds all of humanity. From the time before Jesus, in his own day, and in every day since and yet to come, the faithful are acquainted with pain and suffering. And yet, in every age, including our own day, women and men of faith have not been defeated by evil, by pain, or by suffering. There continues to be a hope expressed by the Psalmist that “Our help is in the Name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 124:8 (the Psalm appointed for today).

For all who have had to bury a child, for all who have had to bury a grandchild, my heart goes out to you. Earlier today I tried to express my gratitude to those men and women who have touched my life while having to face this terrifying pain and walk through this dark valley. I tried to tell them, as I tell you now, how much I have learned from them about life, about living, about faith in the face of death, even the death of a child.

I do not know the depth of their pain nor the depth of the threatening darkness, I can only imagine what it must be. However, I am well aware of their faith; I am well aware that they have not been defeated by even so great a loss. I am in awe of their faith and their ability to go through the pain (for I have learned from them that though it lessens in intensity over time there is really no end point to the pain and it still can surprise and stun a person years, even decades, later). I am humbled by the faith I have witnessed. I am indeed grateful for the teaching of these remarkable women and men.

I pray that, even in the threatening darkness of death, especially the death of a child, we will find each other and together confront the darkness with the faith that says in death life changes it does not end. I pray we will find the truth of the presence of God to comfort and heal and give us light enough to find our way while finding those companions on the way who will walk with us in our moment of need.May  God bless us all.