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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

Grief Outside the Bounds of Normal

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“Maybe now you will pay attention to me,” read the suicide note.

Grief never goes away. Significant losses come to mind throughout a lifetime.

I have often said we all grieve in different ways. Some may cry a lot after the death of their person, others very little. Some can’t part with the clothes of the departed, others clean out the house within weeks of the death. Grief expresses itself in a wide range of actions, thoughts, and feelings that would be considered “normal grieving.”

I had a brother who died a week after being born when I was six years old. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I asked my mother about Randy’s death. When I did, she burst into tears and said, “My father wouldn’t let me go to his graveside burial service.” I never knew she kept such grief just below the surface. I told this story in more detail in a previous blog.

Although my mother carried that grief all those years, she functioned fully engaged in our family’s life. She had found a new normal as a mother who lost a child. She was in this range of “normal grieving.”

But there are ways of grieving that could be considered abnormal – check out the podcast titled, “Prolonged Grief Disorder.” You can listen to it or read the transcript at In the podcast Holly Prigerson, Ph.D., describes prolonged grief disorder:

Photo by Meruyert Gonullu:

“So those symptoms were symptoms of yearning after 12 months post-loss and or preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, but it’s really yearning.… You feel like you don’t know who you are anymore, where you fit in to the world. You feel disbelief. You feel a sense of meaninglessness. You feel extreme loneliness. You feel bitter and pangs of sorrow, emotional pain is how they they’ve phrased it.… It’s mostly meaninglessness, purposelessness, disbelief, yearning, loneliness. These symptoms in and of themselves are very distressing. They feel detached from others. The only person they felt they really could connect with is the dead.… So, they have to have these distressing symptoms and they have to be significantly impaired by those symptoms. So, by definition, their dysfunctional symptoms, this isn’t normal level grief.”

I’ve witnessed this type of grief firsthand. I was a nursing home chaplain; a co-worker lost a teenage son to a hit-and-run accident. She believed it was murder, but the driver was acquitted at trial. She, understandably, became obsessed with this loss. She even bought a house next to the cemetery so she could always look out on her son’s grave.

Tragically, after some time passed, her younger teenage son died by suicide. He left a note, “Maybe now you will pay attention to me.”


Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at or on Amazon.

Alone into the Alone — “A Grief Observed” Revisited

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Why, late in his career, would an internationally famous Christian author publish a personal memoir under a pseudonym? He hid both his identity and that of his beloved wife. Why?

I was leaving on one of my daily bike rides recently and needed to pick a new book to listen to. I selected a reread — A Grief Observed (1961). But, the author was identified as N.W. Clerk in the original rendering. Only after his death in 1963, was it published as by C.S. Lewis.

So, I am peddling the hills of Oxford, Mississippi, and I am being reminded just how good this book is. Between 1940 and his marriage in 1956, this confirmed bachelor wrote his greatest works including The Screwtape Letters (1942), The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), and Mere Christianity (1952). His brief four-year marriage to the terminally ill Joy led to A Grief Observed.

Lewis traced his wife’s life with cancer, then death and then his grief in this very thin volume (my copy has 53 pages of text.) Only, she is not “Joy,” who became his wife when he was 57 and she 41. In A Grief she is “H.” Her full name was Helen Joy Davidman, thus the “H.” They were actually married in the hospital where she was receiving treatment.

Here is a sampling of this grief journal by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and Christian apologists.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”

Years ago, I had memorized this first line of the book. C.S. Lewis starts his journaling describing how grief feels to him. He keeps this up on every page.

“For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.”… “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

How many times have I heard this? I have to remind grievers “you never ‘get over’ grieving.” Lewis sees it as a series of emerging phases always recurring. He likens it to a hike through a valley.

“Meanwhile, where is God?… But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” 

This might come as a surprise to those who found Lewis’ writings on Christianity so helpful. He had doubts. He didn’t doubt the existence of God but that his beliefs did not take away the pain of grief. He had no time for the “trust God and all will be good” line of thinking. Perhaps, this is why he wrote under a pseudonym. Doubt was so far from the assured Lewis.

“It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone.” 

Here seems to be a great contradiction. In the midst of no hope for cure, Lewis and his wife had great happiness. There is a scene in Shadowlands, the biopic about their life together and her death. Lewis tells Joy not to talk about her impending death. He doesn’t want to spoil their good time together. She says, “It doesn’t spoil it, it makes it real.… I’m going to die and I want to be with you.… The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”

“She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.” 

These are the last words in A Grief Observed. He was able to witness the exchange between his dying wife and a chaplain. She was at peace. He closed with a Latin line from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In English, “Then she returned to the eternal source.”


Cover Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at or on Amazon.

The Lonely, Difficult Journey of COVID Grievers

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“Oh my god, they are going to blame overweight people for their own deaths.” This was my first thought in the winter or spring of 2020 when I initially heard about the risk factors leading to death by COVID. The list included obesity, diabetes, old age, compromised immune systems, and being Black.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

My mind revisited those first weeks of the pandemic as I saw an interview with Ed Yong of The Atlantic on the PBS News Hour. For two years, he has been talking to COVID grievers. You can read his most recent article, “The Final Pandemic Betrayal,” here or watch the seven-minute PBS interview here.

I wrote blogs about the grief rituals after the death of my mother-in-law during COVID and public displays of remembrance of those who died. Now Ed Yong has written and talked in the most moving fashion about the more than 9 million fellow Americans who have lost a close relative to the virus.

COVID Grievers Face an Unprecedented Time to Grieve

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

We who have NOT lost someone to COVID have little concept of the unique, profound, and enduring grief now being visited upon these grievers. Here is the story of a mother who watched her son die on her phone:

“Teresita Horne had spent more than a week on a breathing machine when her 13-year-old son, Donovan, died in a different hospital; she watched him die on her phone. ‘I remember screaming,’ she told me. ‘When your kids are sick, they need you, but I couldn’t be there to comfort him. I couldn’t hold his hand one last time.’”

Don’t ask, “Were they vaccinated?”

Then there was the tone in our questions to those who lost a loved one to COVID. “Did they get the vaccine?” What does that have to do with our attempt to reach out to someone caught up in grief? The mere question implies that there was something the dead person should have done or, worse yet, the griever should have done to prevent the death. Aside from appeasing our curiosity about if they got the vaccine, how does that question comfort the bereaved?

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Again, Yong writes, “Many grievers end up blaming themselves. Should I have pulled them out of that nursing home? Should I have pushed them harder to get vaccinated? And worst of all: Did I give them COVID?“

He concludes: In her book, The Myth of Closure, Pauline Boss, a therapist and pioneer in the study of ambiguous loss, offers some advice for pandemic grievers: ‘It is not closure you need but certainty that your loved one is gone, that they understood why you could not be there to comfort them, that they loved you and forgave you in their last moments of life,’ she wrote. Instead of waiting for a clean but mythical endpoint to one’s loss, it is better to search for ‘meaning and purpose in our lives after this horrific time in history,’” she said.

Do yourself a favor. Read Yong’s article or listen to the short interview. I was moved by the stories of these COVID grievers


Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at or on Amazon.


Cover Photo by Shane on Unsplash

The Brutal Truth of Growing Through Grief…It’s Normal

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Barbara Lazear Ascher’s husband gave her the news in the most straightforward way. “Looks like pancreatic cancer,” he told her matter-of-factly after the test results came back.

 She and their friends gave him a wonderful death. They had theme parties with matching drinks. “Dying was intimate, and I drew close,” Ascher writes in her moving memoir, “Ghosting,” “We were single-minded, welded together in the process of this long leave-taking.”

This is how David Brooks starts a recent piece in The New York Times, “Some People Turn Suffering Into Wisdom.” I might as well borrow from one of the best. Brooks often writes about living life — its goodness and the difficulties. In this one, he covers the landscape of grief and trauma and moving on.

 This kind of disorientation is brutal … and normal. Grief and suffering often shatter our assumptions about who we are and how life works. The social psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman notes that many people assume that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable, and that we are basically good people who deserve good things. Suffering and loss can blast that to smithereens.

My few (and relatively small) hard knocks in life taught me years ago about the lesson of impermanence. That is — all things change. The grief that follows loss bumps up to this piece of wisdom. This is normal. I have written before about my habit of journaling. I didn’t say then that I tend to journal more and with more passion when things are not going so well in my life. Brooks introduced an exercise to use journaling to tell our stories differently.

 Gradually the process of re-storying begins. This is taking a now fragmented life and slowly cohering it into a new narrative. The social psychologist James Pennebaker has people do free expressive writing, sometimes for just 20 minutes a day for four days. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, he advises; just let it flow — for yourself. In the beginning, people who take part in expressive writing exercises sometimes have different voices and handwriting styles. Their stories are raw and disjointed. But their narratives grow more coherent and self-aware as the days go by. They try on different perspectives. Some studies show that people who go through this process emerge with lower blood pressure and healthier immune systems.

I never took my blood pressure and can’t quantify how much, if at all, journaling helped me. I would have to go back through the losses in my life and do it over WITHOUT journaling — no, thank you. But I do agree with Brooks. Some people take grief and loss and make a new life.

Gradually, for some people, a new core narrative emerges answering the question, “What am I to do with this unexpected life?” It’s not that the facts are different, but a person can step back and see them differently. New frameworks are imposed, which reorganize the relationship between the events of a life. Spatial metaphors are helpful here: I was in a dark wood. This train is not turning around. I’m climbing a second mountain.

David Brooks’ most recent book is The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.


Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at or on Amazon.

“God has a lot of explaining to do.”

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The daughter started her eulogy, “I am so angry. God has a lot of explaining to do….” I sat there, stunned, now wondering how in the world I could follow such a performance.

I’ve had the opportunity to officiate many funerals over the years. This was supposed to be one of the “easy” ones. The dead man’s family had a relative who once was a member of my church in Vienna, Virginia, back in the day. None of the family attended that church now — or any church. So, when the man died suddenly of a heart attack at 64, they turned to us for a minister to conduct the service — kind of a rent-a-preacher.

Our pastor was out of town, and it fell to me to fill in. It sounded straightforward enough. They just needed me to be an emcee, so to speak. The daughter would do a eulogy, and we would open the floor for others to give tribute to the recently departed.

As I met with the daughter and granddaughter to plan the funeral, they made it clear that this family was not religious and did not want a lot of God-talk. They agreed to a prayer and Psalm 23. That was that. No sermon. Little religion. I would just show up at the funeral home, conduct the service, get paid, and go home.

I walked into a whole new world

When I entered the funeral home before the service, I walked into a whole new world (for me, at least). At the front of the chapel, a NASCAR flag draped the casket. The deceased’s helmet sat on top — a tribute to his years as a driver on the small-town racing circuit. Scores of people milled around, some laughed, some cried.

Vince Gill

Overhead speakers pumped in country music. Vince Gill sang, “I know your life on earth was troubled / And only you could know the pain… Go rest high on that mountain / Son, your work on earth is done.”

People took their seats in the pews, and I started the service with a few opening remarks. Then it was the daughter’s turn. “I am so angry. God has a lot of explaining to do. My father was a good man. He had no enemies. He loved his children and grandkids. He worked hard and provided for us. God has a lot of explaining to do.”

This was no time for theological argument

As she spoke, I sat there running through my mind things to say to offer another view of her father’s sudden, unexpected death. I thought about referencing Rabbi Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner believed some things, including some deaths of people we love, just happen at random — a belief I share. But obviously, this was not the time nor place to get in a theological argument.

Then the wisdom of Fr. Seamus O’Reilly came to mind. As he talked to his parishioners about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which some Catholics believed was punishment for sin, the wise priest said:

“God always forgives.
“Humans sometimes forgive.
“Nature never forgives.”

The man had died from a malfunction of his heart. Nature requires that our hearts pump life-giving blood in our veins. This man died of natural causes. “Nature never forgives”? No, that wouldn’t do.

Bless her heart — she was deeply grieving

The daughter’s angry tone did soften partway through her speech. It was clear she was an adoring daughter. She gave a touching and loving tribute to her father, as good a eulogy as I had ever heard from a family member. But she ended where she began, “God has a lot of explaining to do.”

When my turn came, I know I started with, “Death is always a mystery…” and kept it brief. I was speechless after witnessing this woman’s pain. I think everyone else was speechless, too, because few spoke when I opened the floor.

I’m always amazed when those who claim not to be religious will often blame God for tragedy. The funeral could have been a wonderful opportunity to be thankful for the great gift of the time she had with her father. But, bless her heart, she was deeply grieving the loss of her beloved father. I felt so sorry for her that her hurt had turned to anger.


Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at or on Amazon.

Curious After Seven Decades Above Ground

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Hank and his sister Janice with their brother Dennis two weeks before he died

My birthday passed last week. Number 74. Now, a bitter-sweet day.

Bitter-sweet because I miss my younger brother, Dennis. He died on my birthday five years ago. When his wife called my sister to tell her Dennis had died, she said, “Don’t tell Hank. It will ruin his birthday.” She was right. My sister immediately called me, and it ruined my birthday.

The day now brings the appropriate mix of gratitude for another year of life and grief that my brother is no longer here to call me with birthday wishes. Bitter-sweet.

I find I’m getting more curious about myself as I settle into over seven decades above ground.  What am I curious about? About me. My thinking. My spiritual beliefs. I’m curious how can I still find new ways of thinking about and experiencing things spiritual. Curious how I find new ways of verbalizing these experiences.

An old man listening to books

Hank’s 74-year-old self

Last week, I told the story of an old man at the nursing home where I was the chaplain. I was in my 30s and he was in his 90s. The story was about his loveless marriage (according to his wife), but I mentioned that he listened to recorded books.

Every day, he’d be bent over in his wheelchair, leaning down, straining to hear history books being read on a record player. As a young man, I thought, “What is he doing? What is this 90-year-old man going to do with this new knowledge?” He talked very little. He was years past teaching children, or anyone for that matter. He just sat in his room and listened as the day crept slowly by. Now, I think, “I am the old man!”

You start dying slowly

Late last year I was introduced to the poem “You Start Dying Slowly” by Martha Medeiros. In Portuguese it is A Morte Devagar — “A slow death”. This poem meant so much to me that I printed it out and glued it to the inside of the journal I just started in November.

Here are a few lines:

You start dying slowly…
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice…

Referring to the poem, I wrote in the journal on November 21, 2021, “I am profoundly moved by this piece. I still marvel that, at my age, I am still wanting to make something of my life. I still struggle with taking risks.” Weeks later, on January 4th I wrote, “‘Who are you God and who am I?’ St. Francis said and I BOTH say. I am almost 74 and have not settled this.”

My 24-year-old self meets my 74-year-old self — it is not pretty

Hank’s 24-year-old self

Fifty years ago, if my 24-year-old self met my now 74-year-old self, he would have called me a heretic. I was so certain about things at 24. Now, being “right” is less important. Rather, following the teaching of Jesus, right action is more important that right theology.

Now, questions are more important than answers. Curiosity feels better than certainty. I am the old man listening to books. I listen not to know more but to be comfortable with not knowing. The mystics are my favorite guides. Thomas Merton summed up, for me, the mystery of knowing and not knowing God:


Thomas Merton

“Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. The darkness is enough.”



Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at or on Amazon.

Just Plain “Thank You” Period

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[NOTE: This is an update of a blog first published in 2013.]

Can we be overwhelmed with gratitude but have no need to thank anyone or anything?

This question came to me as I finished the last pages of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. This 2012 memoir was reviewed in The New York Times and made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon in 2014.

She took her grief on a 1,100-mile backpacking trip

The story is about loss and backpacking, two abiding interests in my life. I’d probably write favorably of anyone who takes their grief on a 1,100-mile backpacking trip. Cheryl Strayed did and wrote about it.

Strayed has an abusive father, her beloved mother dies prematurely, and her stepfather and siblings later drift away. After Strayed’s destructive behavior ends her marriage and leads her to addiction, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, inexperienced and alone. She encounters the elements, animals, people, and her own demons and angels on her months-long journey.

I have never attempted long-distance backpacking. The most I have ever lasted was four nights. So, I only have a hint of what Strayed went through on her arduous journey. I met many through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail within a half-hour of my home in Virginia. The people I met on the AT had completed one thousand miles on their way to Maine, another thousand miles to the north. Strayed’s stories of the people she hikes with for a few days at a time ring true.

In the end, GRATITUDE was the feeling at her core

At bottom, Strayed’s story is about her spiritual journey to emotional wholeness from what was once the wreck of her life. She never portrayed herself as a religious person in any sense of the word. But, in the end, gratitude was the feeling at her core.

There are many moving passages in the book, but I was caught by one line on the next-to-last page of the book. Cheryl touches the bridge on the Columbia River, the site at the end of her journey. She walks back to an ice cream stand to buy herself a treat with the last two dollars she has to her name. She enjoys her ice cream, chatting with a lawyer from Portland who stops for ice cream, too. She says goodbye to him and

“I leaned my head back and closed my eyes against the sun as the tears I’d expected earlier at the bridge began to seep from my eyes. Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me.”

Religious types thank God. Others thank a “higher power” or “the universe.” Strayed felt no need to tell us who the “you” was in her “thank you.” In my life-long quest to understand the spiritual journey, I have never encountered a simpler yet profound expression of gratitude for being a recipient of the graciousness of life. Most of the dying people I met in my 30 years as a chaplain had that same humility and gratitude.

Thank you.

Just “thank you,” period.

Cheryl Strayed ends her book acknowledging the truth I try to capture in my poem “Giving Up, Letting Go, and Letting Be” with the words,

“How wild it was, to let it be.”

Thank you,



Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at or on Amazon.


My Life At 100

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I made it to one hundred! 100. The Big One-Oh-Oh.

This is my 100th blog post. It took a while. I started blogging in 2011 and made six blog posts that year. For the first nine years, I only published 51.

From my very first blog post, May 11, 2011: “How to start a blog about end-of-life decisions? I have been professionally dealing with these issues for 27 years.… One thing for certain . . . the fact that patients and families often struggle with decisions about medical treatment at the end of life will not go away.”

(BTW, shout out to Kelly Brachle, of Quality of Life Publishing Co., who edits my ramblings into a coherent thought. And while I am shouting out, nothing leaves our home without the approval of my wife as she stands in for the “average reader” [when I showed her this post, she reminded me she is “above average”]. More than once, her suggestions have saved me some embarrassment.)

It’s all about the stories — family, friends, wilderness

Although I often stick to the theme of making end-of-life decisions, other topics get some attention. I share my own family’s experience with death and dying, like with my mom’s decline and death in “How did your mom feel about her dementia?” Grief is a repeated theme, like my recent post on the funeral ritual for my brother 42 years after he died.

I really try to tell stories, like the post about my friend who died with dementia. I wrote about our friendship since junior high and how we fished together in the years before his death. Occasionally, I share my adventures in the wilderness, like the one about my love of swamps.

I have been writing my whole adult life – before the days of the blog. A few of those older writings made it into the collection. I reprinted a story about riding my bicycle the length of the Outer Banks from a 1993 newsletter published by the nursing home where I was chaplain. For several years following a difficult time in my life, I sent letters (essays, really) to family and friends. In a 2014 post, I shared a piece I did in 1998 about my friend, mentor, and author, Elizabeth O’Connor.

Writing and videos for short attention spans

We have become a people with short attention spans, so I try to limit each post to about 500 words. I have even ventured into producing two-minute videos on various topics. Sometimes I’ll tell the same story in both formats. I did a blog about the lesson my father taught me about letting go in the blog “How to get to ‘It doesn’t Matter!’” I then did a YouTube video about the same story.

By the way, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel and look through my “Hank’s Deep Thoughts” playlist.

I have found that writing for others helps me think things through. I can clarify thoughts in my mind when I have to explain things in a way others can understand. So even if no one else reads these, I will keep on writing these blog posts.

Oops! I just passed 500 words. Bye!

Grief Upon Grief, Upon Grief — A Funeral, FINALLY, 42 Years Later

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Can you have a funeral for someone who died 42 years ago? Last week, I wrote about having to delay the burial of my mother-in-law’s ashes for ten months because of COVID. Why not 42 years? In 1996, I officiated this long-delayed funeral, choking back tears.

The summer of 1996 turned out to be a terrible one for me. I went through an unspeakable loss that involved a major betrayal and abandonment. By August, I couldn’t get my dead brother, Randy, out of my mind amidst my grief and sadness. By that time, he had been gone over 41 years.

Randy only lived a week, and never left the hospital. He was born without functioning intestines. It was clear that he would die within days. This was back when children were not permitted to visit hospitals, and I was just six years old. I never saw Randy. I never held him. I did not know what it was like to look upon his face.

And yet, during that summer, I missed him. Fresh grief has a way of bringing up old grief you didn’t even know you had.

The backstory

Mom and Dad were visiting for our son’s high school graduation in 1993. After dinner one evening, Randy somehow came up in conversation. I said to my parents, “Tell me about Randy’s death.”

Instantly, Mom burst into tears. Once she could speak, she said, “My father would not let me go to Randy’s funeral.”

My grandfather was a funeral director and arranged to remove my brother’s body quickly from the hospital. Mom had already been sent home, leaving her newborn son behind to die alone. Dad attended the graveside service, but my grieving mother was not allowed. My controlling, alcoholic grandfather decided it would be better for Mom to avoid the pain of putting her child in the ground.

In somewhat of a defense of my grandfather, this was how things were done in 1954. Avoid the pain and go on with your life as if nothing happened. At the time, funeral directors were the only grief experts. Granddaddy was doing what he thought best.

Nowadays, we encourage the parents, and even siblings, to hold their lifeless child. Some families even wash their children, preparing them for burial. These rituals are such an important part of the grief process.

Fresh grief, old grief

Although I always was aware of Randy’s short life, I can never remember him coming up in conversation until my inquiry in 1993. Just mentioning his name opened the floodgates. My mother carried that huge ocean of grief just below the surface all these years.

Did thoughts about Randy painfully arise when Granddaddy died? Randy died on November 22nd. Did Mom think about Randy when President Kennedy was killed on that same day nine years later? Did she think about Randy at my graduation from high school? I am guessing she thought of Randy all the time. I never knew.

When my father was taking his last breath in 2002, Mom’s parting words to him were, “You’re going to see Randy before me.”

Grief never goes away

Although I was not conscious of it, the loss of my brother was always a part of me, too. It didn’t occur to me until I was in the depths of despair that summer of 1996.

As Thanksgiving approached that year, I got an idea. My daughter and I were going to spend it with my parents in Florida. I decided to go to Randy’s grave and conduct a personal graveside service — a ritual. I called Mom and Dad and told them my plan, inviting them to join me. Mom said, “I would love to. You know what I told you about my father.” Indeed, I did.

So, on Thanksgiving 1996, 42 years after his death, we had a funeral for my brother. Mom, Dad in his wheelchair, my brother, his wife, my daughter, and I gathered at the grave. I read the words of committal (“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”), we said the Lord’s Prayer, and I stammered through a prayer about Randy.

We turned toward each other. We embraced. We wept deeply. Forty-two years of sorrow ran down our cheeks.

“We Were Called to Sacrifice as a Nation. We Didn’t Answer.”

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Do we care? Really? Has our overinflated sense of personal freedom condemned us to fail as a society that cares for each other?

Last year, I wrote about my first experience wearing a mask in public. I realized in the moment of walking into the post office that I was donning the mask out of concern for others. Before Christmas, the same office displayed large black ribbons in honor of a postal clerk who had died of COVID. Did we, the patrons, give him the disease?

During this pandemic, we have all been called upon to make some sacrifices for the common good. Many have made great sacrifices — retail workers, first responders, and healthcare providers, to name a few. The call was much more modest for most of us — wash our hands, wear a mask, don’t gather in large crowds, and get vaccinated.

The call to sacrifice

Contributing opinion writer, Margaret Renkl, reflected on this call to sacrifice in her piece, “We Were Called to Sacrifice as a Nation. We Didn’t Answer.” The article was published in The New York Times this past Memorial Day, a day we remember those who sacrificed all for the common good.

She likened the novel coronavirus to a deadly enemy — not unlike the fascists we confronted and defeated in World War II. My father and millions of men and women in his generation answered the call to join that fight. There was no question that he would go. It’s what that generation did. Our nation depended on those who were willing to sacrifice.

Renkl suggests this sense of national sacrifice was squandered in the Vietnam War. Not only were we misled by our government about the imagined progress of the war effort, but the sacrifice fell mainly on the poor and minorities who could not avoid the draft.

I was fortunate enough to attend college at that time and so was deferred from the draft. But I kept a constant eye on my draft status, wanting to avoid the fate of the others who died in our losing effort.

The false idol of personal freedom

Many feel the call to wear a mask or get a vaccine violates their personal freedom. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio put it this way in a congressional hearing in April, “‘Dr. Fauci, when is the time?’ Jordan kept asking. He wanted to know when it was ‘time to pull back on masking’ and ‘physical distancing.’ ‘When do Americans get their freedoms back?’” The Washington Post

Excuse me? We had (and still HAVE) the opportunity to save the lives of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens by wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Why wouldn’t we?

Many choose not to because of “freedom.” What is missed by so many who refuse these simple measures for the sake of freedom is that we do them mainly to protect others, not ourselves. To get to herd immunity, we must have enough of the herd answering the call to “sacrifice” by getting a shot or two.

Renkl’s article also touches on another huge issue of our time: climate change. The loss of a sense of the common good here has an even greater impact on our world. In this case, instead of the elderly and medically at-risk, the others we are protecting by addressing global warming are our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Are our “personal freedoms” more important than they are?

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