Saturday, February 5, 2011


A few more thoughts on context:
What do you think of your god now? a friend asked me, the summer that Dan was ill. This god, he implied, who had attacked the brain of a smart, witty, person, who had rendered motionless a man who had skittered up and down the pyramids at Chichen Itza while I watched from the ground. 
Put on the defensive, I was too weary, too wary, to talk about God’s plan or to point out that even garden-variety Episcopalianism says of course you are grieved by the illness of your loved one, of course you miss him or her profoundly when they die. But faith, and a spiritual practice and history, also allow you to see your little life in a larger context . . . part of a continuum. 
While Dan was in hospice at the hospital I was told that a counselor would meet with me there at a certain time. Let’s call her Irene. She was at least my age, with a cap of salt-and-pepper hair and a no-nonsense attitude. 
She sat down with me and began our conversation by saying, “You’re probably wondering why this happened to you.”
Dan was just hours from death, but I, at least, didn’t know that then. All I knew was that after four months of being plucky, of dealing politely with people who were clueless about us, I was losing patience. I didn’t snap at Irene, but it was close. 
“No,” I said, “I’m not wondering that. Dan and I have lost four friends to cancer in the last five years. Three of them were in their forties and one was in his mid-fifties, just a year older than we were.” 
Cemetery, Zen Mountain Monastery
I didn’t describe the two couples we knew, both of whom had lost a young child—still in the single digits—under tragic circumstances. I didn’t explain to Irene, that was when I learned that being middle class didn’t keep you safe. 
Nor did I mention to her a friend who lost his only son and his only brother in a small-plane accident. Or discuss with her my high school years, when two boys I knew died, at different times. No drugs, no alcohol, just tragic accidents. My first funerals. I can still see their mothers: one could keep her chin up; the other had to be helped from the church.
I didn’t want Irene to think I was obsessed with death, but all of these are part of my backstory. 
“I feel many things,” I told Irene, “but I don’t feel singled out.” 


  1. Thanks for this.

  2. Oops...Being in a Clinical Pastoral Education residency at AMC, we are taught to avoid statements that could get us thrown out of the room and out of the pastoral encounter. Saying,"You’re probably wondering why this happened to you.”
    is an example. Others include: for young children, "God must have needed another angel in heaven." I prefer to listen more, speak less. I might have opened this encounter with, "Tell me about Dan." I usually find this opener to the pastoral encounter eventually fleshes out the big, existential questions of "why." Sometimes there is no reason for what happens to us. I know there are at least two responses: the theological and the human. Most often I find the grieved want the human answer, "I don't know why..." The theological may have had touches of what a creation that has strayed from perfection looks like to a creation that is in the throes of regaining its primordial perfectness. Or as my theology professor says, "Our creation, our lives are in a state of 'not yetness'."

  3. Feeling singled out -- Deb, you raise an issue that's at the heart of our experience of religion. We know that the human mind is easily able to detect subtle patterns, but that ability can also extract patterns from random noise.

    It's easy to wonder about: is this or that set of experiences a coincidence or part of a plan? e.g. your blog post happens on the day that my Great Books dvd gets to the Book of Job?

    My sister Peg loses her daughter and husband to cancer and her mobility to an undiagnosable neuropathy -- is she simply unlucky or the reincarnation of some official of the Third Reich or the Gulag?

    And then there's second-order bad luck. My impression is that far more of my close friends -- Dan included -- have died than could be explained by actuarial tables. It's not like God is trying to get my attention, because it happens to folks I haven't connected-to in decades. E.g. when the high school reunion packet comes around, a higher percentage of my good buds are marked deceased, compared to the class at large...

  4. So beautifully written and honest. The comments are just so insightful and offer a way, in those awkward moments, when I want to connect with someone grieving...but not be an unhelpful "dope." Also, the conversation here offers a way to respond when one is the grieving soul approached by someone who wants to be the helpful dope! Honest conversation...and doorways..."so tell me about so & so." Nice.

  5. Gosh D, as a hospice volunteer myself, I cringed at your story--definitely something that wouldn't have happened (or so I believe) at VNS hospice.

    sometime let's talk about theology and God's plan... I am a believing Christian, but I am not sure about God having "plans" at all. And I don't agree that "things happen for a reason," meaning such plans....

    As always I really enjoyed your post.

  6. “I feel many things,” I told Irene, “but I don’t feel singled out.”

    Thank you - absolutely well put.