My Mourning Bench

…we all suffer.
For we all prize and love;
and in this present existence of ours,
prizing and loving yield suffering.
Love in our world is suffering love.
Some do not suffer much, though,
for they do not love much.
Suffering is for the loving.
This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.

Over there, you are of no help.
What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.
I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.
To comfort me, you have to come close.
Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff from Lament for a Son

Spring 1980

I wondered if 8:30 AM was too early to call my friend and mentor Margy. As a sleep-deprived fourth year medical student, I selfishly needed to hear her voice. I wanted to know how she was doing; she was not sleeping well either these days. She was wearing a new halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from metastatic breast cancer growth in her bones. When she was fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her frontal skull her “Frankenstein bolts”.  I had reassured her that with a proper white veil draped around the metal halo, she would be more suited to be Frankenstein’s bride.

Each patient I had seen the previous 24 hours while working in the Emergency Room benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught each one of us medical students. She reminded us that each patient had an important story to tell, and no matter how pressured our time, we needed to ask questions that gave permission for that story to be told. As a former nun now married with two teenage children, Margy had become our de facto counselor, and insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken and hurting body.

“Just let the patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by sitting beside them and caring enough to listen…”

Now with her recent diagnosis of metastatic cancer, Margy herself had become the broken vessel who needed the glue of a good listener.   She continued to teach, often from her bed at home and I regularly visited, in need of her wisdom and she still needed her students.

That night I had felt uneasy about her all during my ER shift and felt compelled to visit her and her husband and daughter that day, maybe help out by cleaning their house, fixing them a meal or taking her for a drive as a diversion.

Her phone rang only once after I dialed her number. There was a long pause; I could hear a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?” Something was deeply wrong.

Her voice shattered like glass into fragments, strangling on words that struggled to form. She sobbed out the words that their college son, Gordon, was dead. Earlier that morning, a police officer had knocked loudly on their door, awakening her and her husband with the news of a tragic highway accident.

I sat in stunned silence, listening to her sobs, completely unequipped to know how to respond. None of this made sense although I knew her son was on college spring break, heading to Mexico for a missions trip.

She paused and took in a shuddering breath.

“Gordy died as they were driving through the night. He was sleeping in the camper as they drove. They think he sleepwalked right out of the back of the moving camper, fell onto the highway and was hit by another car.“

I felt strangled by her words and could only imagine how difficult it was for her to keep breathing enough to say them.

“They’ll bring him home to us, won’t they? I need to know I can see him again. I need to tell him how much I love him.”

I assured Margy she would see him again, both in his broken body and, some day yet to be determined, whole.

Up until then, I knew in my head this life was full of sorrow, but I had been spared the full heart impact of grief until I witnessed such intensity of an acute unbelievable loss – how loving one so deeply meant suffering immeasurably.

I understood, for the first but surely not the last time, how it is the only way to love.

During the remaining few months of Margy’s life as she waited to join her son, she continued to teach me about how to come close in to the suffering and grief of others, and also how to sit together, even in silence, on that too-often lonesome mourning bench.

…for the Jude Veltkamp family who lost their teenage son, grandson, nephew, brother this week to a relentless cancer.

But our God is even more relentless in His love and comfort for His mourning children…

I knew this life was full of sorrow
But still I believed
That good times would follow
That the evil would falter
And true hearts would rise
True hearts would rise
That simple dream ended
On the night that you died

And even the sound of a whistle fading
Brings back the longing
And stirs up the aching
Peaceful companion that grounded my soul
You grounded my soul
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone

Sometimes I still think
I will see you in New York
And we will meet on the platform of the train
And with your great leaning stride
You’ll cross back to my side
And my old life
Will be my life again

You were quiet as a winter sky
Where planets turn
And the North Star rides
My sweet brother, so reasoned, so calm
My brother, my own
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone
~Fernando Ortega

A Benediction of Mourning

The waning October moon reluctantly rose,
pulling back from the full globe of a few nights before.

I drive a night darkened country road, white lines sweeping past,
aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
anxious to return home to fireplace light.

Nearing a familiar corner, a stop sign loomed,
to the right, a rural cemetery sits silently expectant.

Open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
in the middle path, incongruous, a car’s headlights beam bright.
I slowed, thinking: lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night.

Instead, these lights illuminate a lone figure, kneeling graveside,
one hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.

A stark moment of solitary sorrow,
invisible grieving of the heart
focused by twin beams.

A benediction of mourning; light piercing their blackness,
as gentle fingertips trace the engraved letters of a beloved name.

An uneasy witness, I withdraw as if touched myself
and drive on into the night, struggling to see
through the thickening mist of my eyes and the road.

Angel of Grief–Stanford University

A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here:

Go Out and Help Your Dad


It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.


Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself


to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took


so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him


home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—


all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,


help your father, but this
was work we could not do.


He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Twenty-six years ago today
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.


This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying,
and returning home forgiven.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what was yet undone was up to us
to finish for you.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:


Because They Are No More…

A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,

Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people|
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,|
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word

 …as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.

Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.

As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful.
~Paul Tripp

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind–
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could terrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us,
so easily washed away
as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.

Lord, You are long expected.
You are needed
You are wanted.

Your heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took Your
and our breath
away.

You shine through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
Your tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

You hear our cries
as You cry too.
You know our tears
as You weep too.
You know our mourning
as You mourned too.
You know our dying
as You died too.

God weeps
as tragedy happens.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

The Long Road of Weariness and Want

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

…as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.

Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.

As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful.
~Paul Tripp

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could terrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us,
so easily washed away
as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.

Lord, You are long expected.
You are needed
You are wanted.

Your heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took Your
and our breath
away.

You shine through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
Your tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

You hear our cries
as You cry too.
You know our tears
as You weep too.
You know our mourning
as You mourned too.
You know our dying
as You died too.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

I Am Not Resigned

anna

 

homepristinerose

 

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Dirge Without Music”
weepingrose
bayviewanacortes
Each Memorial Day weekend without fail,
we gather with family, have lunch, reminisce,
and trek to a cemetery high above Puget Sound
to catch up with our relatives who lie there still.
Some for over 100 years, some for less than a decade,
some we knew and loved and miss every day,
others not so much, unknown to us
except on genealogy charts,
their names and dates and these stones
all that is left of them.
Yet we know each
(as we know for ourselves and others)
was tender and kind, though flawed and broken,
was beautiful and strong, though wrinkled and frail,
was hopeful and faithful, though too soon in the ground.

We know this about them
as we know it about ourselves:
someday we too will feed roses,
the light in our eyes transformed into elegant swirls
emitting the fragrant scent of heaven.

No one asks if we approve.
Nor am I resigned to this but only know:
So it is,  so it has been, so it will be.

 

roseonblack

 

peonyevening

 

 

Coming to the End of Things

marshmallows51116

marshmallowglow2

And by and by Christopher Robin came to the end of things,
and he was silent,
and he sat there, looking out over the world,
just wishing it wouldn’t stop.

~A.A. Milne from The House at Pooh Corner

dandydew2

dandydew3

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

…These things happen … the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses …

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.
~Jane Kenyon from “Twilight: After Haying”

lettinggo9

Bliss and suffering are bound together like the grasses; we are like the grasses withered and ravaged by time, released reluctant to the wind.

Tears flow today as they must, wetting the stubble left behind,  clinging and sparkling like dew.

We weep in sorrow for those we have lost;
we weep for joy each time we’re able to wake to another day.

For what else can a soul do but weep at parting and weep at welcoming?

These things happen, oh yes, they happen. I just wish it wouldn’t cut us so.

tothenorthfield

Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
~Psalm 103: 15

dandysunset8

Preparing the Heart: In the Shadow of Death

hi-dali
Rachel weeping by Salvador Dali

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping;
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are not…
Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18

brokenvessel2

And the slaughters continue…

There is no consolation for the families of the lost.
Their arms aching with emptiness,
beds and pillows lying cold and unused,
laughter and smiles and hugs
that never come again.

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could horrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
so easily washed away
as unwanted.

His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept
as this happens.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind continues to embrace it.
Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

winterrose

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

 

Grief Illuminated

fulmoon2

A waning November moon reluctantly rose,
dimming from the full globe of the night before.
I drive a darkening country road, white lines sweeping past,
aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
anxious to return home to familiar warmth and light.

Nearing a county road corner, slowing to a stop,
I glanced aside where
a lonely rural cemetery sits expectant.

Through open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
there in the middle path, incongruous,
car’s headlights beamed bright.

I puzzled, thinking:
lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night.

Instead, these lights focused on one soul alone,
kneeling graveside,
a hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.

This stark moment of solitary sorrow,
a visible grieving of a heart

illuminated by twin beams.

This benediction of mourning
as light pierced the blackness;

gentle fingertips traced
the engraved letters of a beloved name.

Feeling touched
as uneasy witness, I pull away

to drive deeper into the night,
struggling to see despite
my eyes’ thickening mist.

a full moon in Ireland

fullmoon

 

Angel of Grief--Stanford University

Angel of Grief, Stanford University Mausoleum

Worlds of Wanwood Leafmeal

blueberryleaf

noaanya

dande11149

 

~to a young child~

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Spring and Fall”
mapleleftovers
pondyard
sunsetkids