Dad, Dreams, and Death: An Anniversary Reflection

(Dad, caught having too much fun in the Dominican Republic, building a church with the Nazarene Work & Witness Program, circa 2016)

My dead father used to come to me in my dreams.

I had never been visited by the dead before, so naturally these visits caught me off guard. I desperately anticipated them, yet I recoiled all the same.

“Hello, hate to see you, but I’m glad you’re here.”  

Prior to my own living dead visits, I had only been told about these ancestral migrations by others or read about them in books. It is altogether different when the dead appear to us from the depth of our unconscious, visiting us when we least expect it and pressing into us when the only defense against their visit is the wakefulness of the mind at the expense of our body’s nightly hibernation.

These visitations are unlike anything I have ever experienced. They are the soul and mind trying to sew reality back together into a semblance of the fabric that kept my insides in place rather than feeling as if they were spilling out everywhere, all the time. The sky had fallen, and the mind was hurriedly patching its roof before that glorious blue consumed me whole.

Those early visits were an oasis in the desert of grief, full of hugs, affirmations and, of course, all the things I wish I had said to him before he was taken from me suddenly that fateful Monday evening, February 27. This was the tragic burden of sudden loss. In wishing for our loved ones a good, quick, silent death, we sometimes suffer the fate of unexpected loss and the goodbye that is never said.

If hell is an emotion, this is it.

Yes, we would all be so lucky as to die in the blink of an eye, without pain or too much thought. Yet, as luck would have it, we are unlucky to be the ones left to consider it. We can shake our heads attempting to clear the event and all we accomplish is a headache that throbs in the soul.

As with all visits, however, they end. Even when we go home for the holidays, our arrival is the harbinger of our departure. Every hello has an inherent goodbye.

“It is so good to see you, and in any case, I really must be going.”  

The dream visitations exacerbate the chasm between us and the dead. They are far away. They are in a “land” not of our making and in a place that does not take our calls. I would go to sleep hoping I would see him, perchance run into him as I was going about my day. Whenever I was looking, I would often see nothing. When I desired to sleep, he would knock on my mind’s door.

Not every interruption is a welcome one.

The notable commonality with all those visits, and the raw days of early grief, is that the dead feel far far away. They are with us, pleasantly tormenting our senses, hourly, daily. They occupy our minds even when we are engaging in such mundane activities as brushing our teeth or feeding the dog, the clanking of dog food against the aluminum bowl being the sound of hail on the tin roof of the soul.

“Yes! You are there! I see you!” But we know they are not.

The immediacy of the pain is excruciating because of the distance that we know exists between us and them. Greif is at its best not because we feel close to the dead but because we know they are so far away, even if our mind tricks us into otherwise. The very thing that happens to us (grief) because of their passing is the very thing that keeps them from us.

I will never forget the second to last final dream I had of/with my dead father. I wrote of the dream on May 26, 2017:

“The dream had the feeling of closure. Like he was about to cross over, like his spirit had been hovering with us, but now he was ready to go, he knew we’d be ok. I remember hugging him, telling him I loved him, missed him and was sorry. He told me he loved me too. Then he told me he had to go, that he was ready to go, and we released our embrace and I watched as he walked off…his back turned to me. I very much had the sense that he was leaving and would not be back.”

I did “see” him again, on June 28. Thereafter, dead silence.

After that, 18 months of demons having carnival in the dark caverns that comprise my bones.

Not only did my father feel far away, grief removing him indefinitely from me, but I was also removed from myself. It is one thing to lose a father; its another when you die with him. Three days in the belly of the whale turns into months and years that seem like eons.

C. S. Lewis observes this very thing in his book A Grief Observed, that grief divides the living and the dead. They feel close, but grief declares to us they are not. In reflecting on the pain of loss, and its accompanying grief, he observes:

We shall still ache. But we are not at all – if we understand ourselves – seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better…and the more joy there can be in the marriage between dead and living, the better. For, as I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. This become clearer and clearer. It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow…that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality. Not, as in my worst moments, all foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by my miseries, but as she is in her own right. This is good and tonic. (54-55)

Today is the four-year anniversary of my father’s sudden passing. It is still hard to believe that I write a sentence in which my father is the possessive object of passing, yet it is also hard to imagine it otherwise. Standing at this precipice, however, I am acutely aware of what Lewis describes.

Immediate grief, which succumbs to no time limit, is paralyzing precisely because the great love that connected us to the deceased gives way to a deep grief that pushes them even further into their grave. Indeed, in grief the dead die over and over again. It cannot be otherwise. The deeper the realization of death (permanent rupture), the starker the pain, the more intense the grief.

They enter our dreams, and then they leave, forever, backs turned, walking into the great night.

This is to not say we should not grieve. I have spilled many words trying to describe my own. There is a season for mourning, and I encourage any of those in this season to mourn well and mourn deeply. The deep bellowing of the soul is from a place only death can retrieve.

Yet, Lewis notes what slowly happens when sorrow and grief mistakenly leaves a gap for the light to get in. The gloomy season of a rainy winter being surprised by the sunrise. The pottery of our mind may be cracked, but all the better, we are ruined vessels.

I hear antiques are worth more anyhow.

As visitations of the dead are unbidden, so too are the slow reliefs of the soul, that find us making breakfast muffins for our children and happily noting that we are no longer separated in our grief but joined in our story, doing the very things the dead did when they were living. I reach for the mixing bowl and notice his hands in the cupboard.  

The dead are once again given back their bodies. In a word, they have ceased being a corpse.

Staring at a dead body, touching a lifeless corpse, begets grief. It divides the living and the dead. Yet, Lewis describes what happens in mundane activities, such as when he pours his bath, his minds defenses lowered. There, the deceased can surprise us, coming to us as they are, rather than objects of our mourning. The trick is letting the dead be what they were, and not what they have become in death. Only then will we see them again, at least with what we know as our “mind’s eye.”

As with Lewis’ reflections on losing his wife, many of our dead loved ones would perhaps be appalled at what they have become for us, especially if it is not remotely close to what they were to us in their living. Were they meant to by idols of depression or landmarks of joy?

When I go about my day, and embrace my children, my father comes back to me in all that he fully was: a man that loved his family, a father that gave hugs, an emotional man that would weep when the springs of love burst from his eyes.  He was a man that loved God, and marked up many a holy book, including his Bible, that remain as traces for me of a life lived. Lest I be too romantic, he was also a sinner saved by Grace. I recall many of his sins. I recall my own.

Dead humans are meant to be more than sadistic memories that hold our minds hostage, indulging our own death drive. They are meant to help us live because they taught us to hurt. I have hated all the lessons I learned from his death. I have hated them because I would have rather applied them to him. There is great irony, however: only his death could have taught me so well. The curse is also the gift.

I have now entered the phase of loss that allows me to see him, his imperfections, and his glories. He is no longer dead. He is himself, as is everyone else, in my memory. He is gone, but his name is not death. He is my dad, but you might have called him Mitch.

I can see his smile. I can hear his voice.

Grief has given way to Epiphany.

Last Fall Festival (2016) my Dad would celebrate, with my son and not quite 2 year old daughter

Thinking Death, Suicide, Life

marcusaurelius1-2x

Imaging myself climbing into the casket and being buried with it was the last thing I had ever conceived. But there it was, the casket, my lifeless father, and suddenly an intimate closeness with death. After all, my father had just experienced death, how hard could it be? How bad could it be? Is it easier to die than to live? What did it feel like? What was his final thought? Did it hurt? Where was he now? Have you ever felt so much pain that you can’t scream loud enough, wail long enough, or shed enough tears to give purpose and sense to the rage of sudden loss? I never knew sudden loss before but I now know I hate it. I hate what it is, what it does, and its unshakable results!

The canopy of the sky caved in and the earth swallowed me whole. Surely anything must be better than feeling as if the entire world had just imploded; the once sturdy structure of certainty interrupted by the true fragility of human existence. Sitting in a room while people come and gaze at the corpse of your father, paying respects but confirming hell, makes one question their existence. Nothing has made me want to throw my strength to the wind quite like death and death has literally stolen most of my strength.

All my striving, all my love, all my work, all my energy, will one day find itself in the same situation: lifeless, cold, alone, and buried.

God that’s a depressing thought but its also the human condition.

Three days earlier I could not even pick out the casket, and today, I can imagine getting in it myself and having loved ones stand 4 feet above me on the earth that covers me. When I go to the cemetery to visit my father I no longer simply pay respects, but I also speak to the ground near him, the ground that will one day hold my lifeless body, and I wonder what sort of earth this is that will only be moved when I move my last, staring at the space in which I will lie much longer than I have lived.

Speaking of death, I had always wondered how a person could commit suicide, how depressed, lost, lonely or mentally jaded one must be to perform the ultimate act. I have often thought to myself that I could never kill myself no matter how bad life got, yet life is full of seasons and seasons bring forth change in people that what was once unimaginable becomes imagined.

Many suicides are done in the dark days of melancholy or in moments of utter despair. As a society we have accepted that depression leads to suicide and many secular thinkers even argue for the virtue of self-annihilation (I am not begrudging anyone who has been tempted with suicide for a myriad of reasons, from bullying, to sexuality, to mental disease). I begrudge no suicidal for doing the deed, but I can’t help but believe some people, for whatever reason, have become comfortable with death and have thought through what killing themselves would mean.

History is full of melancholic or depressive suicides, but it is also full of suicides that happen by fully cognizant folks. Comfort with death doesn’t happen in a moment, but it happens. There are moments of lucidity wherein someone decided this act, this final act, was friendlier to their being than being a person could be any longer. Surely not every single suicide that happens is the act of malady, madness or despair (though surely one that decides to finally kill themselves is steeped in despair). There must be someone out there for which suicide was a logical alternative to living. It may not make sense to many, but it made sense to that person, at that moment.

When my father died I think I slowly saw behind the curtain of suicide, what makes it possible.

Suicide becomes imaginable when staying is more difficult than dying, when the idea of death becomes more comforting than the idea of living, and death has the allure of a comfort life refuses us. What had once been a distant association was now close and personal, inviting and strangely warm. If one can imagine their own dying, their own nullification and non-existence, then one is 1 step closer to the reality. All that is left is the act. People who Stay alive do so because they can imagine no other, but those that peer into the darkness of life can sometimes find in death a friend that will never leave; it will hold them forever. If we can imagine it we are that much closer to doing it.

Not that my father’s death tempted me with suicide, BUT it did make suicide imaginable and imagination is the first step to actualization. I had never imagined it as a possibility, not even remotely, but there is nothing that makes death seem friendlier than having someone you love so deeply enter its corridor and not return. There is nothing that makes death seem closer than one’s invitation into its foyer, peering around its house without entering any of the rooms…all of which are only a few feet (or heartbeats) away.

I had never imagined dying or what it must be like to die. I never had to. I had never met death in any significant way. I had lost grandparents, cousins, people I loved, but I had never had death impolitely intrude into my life, not asking permission, just shoving its way in the door and turning me into an instantaneous nihilist. Sometimes imagination happens without our approval…

And this, THIS, is the problem with death: it is itself. It ends. It forces a new reality onto us.

This has been the biggest challenge in grief: finding meaning after coming face to face with that which crushes all meaning, and eventually crushes all of us and our attempts at meaning. Death is so stark, so deep, so dark. It is so intrusive when it isn’t welcome that it has the power to place meaning in its hand and crumble it like a Ritz cracker: what constituted the whole becomes bits and pieces of something now unrecognizable.

It is just pure shock: that one moment you can love someone so deeply and the next moment they can be gone without a goodbye, not only leaving you behind, but everything they loved and enjoyed remains, remnants of their life. I stared at me, at the stuff he left behind, at my dead father.

It reminded me of what Jesus says in Luke 12, “You fool! This very night your soul will be required of you and now who will own what you have prepared?”

Nothing matters if all that matters quits mattering. In an instant, your loves and your hobbies become pointless distractions of our ultimate end: death. Work becomes something to do till you die. Eating becomes something you do to stay alive, the opposite of death, but its meaning is found in its juxtaposition.

Death becomes animative and omnipresent, a day not going by without considering your own demise. How tiring to constantly be aware that you will die, to think this thought tens of times through the day, and to hate that this thought is not only a thought but a future reality.

To live, then, is to contemplate death. To face it, be aware of it, live with it. One is not truly living if their life is one not comprehending death. To live absent the comprehension of death is to be caught up in frivolities and to be angered by the waitress that brings you a Coke, when you wanted Sprite! What foolish things upset us and portend to be our ultimate concern.

Much of life melts away at the face of death and certainly most of what people bitch about pale in comparison to the unimagined tragedy of the death of their spouse, their parent, their child, themselves. These are things that cannot be imagined; they can only happen. I pity the fool whose last act on earth was getting pissed off at a cashier, acting a fool and throwing their cheeseburger over the counter, only to storm out of the restaurant and be killed in a car accident.

Who wants to be that guy? How foolish!

Surely this has happened to someone and their final act on earth was bitching about the first world problems of no mayo, add mustard.

Thinking death makes you rethink everything else because everything else is now done in the context of when you will die…and honestly, that kinda sucks.

Imagine being aware, constantly, that every breath your take, every heartbeat you experience, brings you closer to your last. Imagine how omnipresent those feelings are and imagine the life you would live if you really believed this was the case.

Before I lived through death I too had participated in stupid conversations and complaints about life. Facebook rants, complaints about others, complaints about the weather, complaints of homework, complaints of work, complaints ad infinitum. Now, when I hear someone complain or bitch about something, I often think “seriously, does this person not know life is fleeting? We are complaining, essentially, about being alive…” I can no longer take much human dialogue seriously because too many humans do not consider the fact that they are alive seriously.

Sure, lets complain how hot it is, in the summer, in July.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and not feeling the heat?

Sure, lets complain about our spouse or our kids or our job.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and having none of these worries? Can you not be thankful that you are alive and able to experience life?!? As Camus says, there is no replacement for 20 years of life!

Sure, lets complain about Donald Trump or Socialists.

Would you rather be dead and have no concern of either? Do you want your final act in life to be a Facebook post, politically ranting, only to find your car wrapped around a tree? Was it worth the rage?

Can we not be thankful we are alive and find meaning in living rather than locating meaning in what we are against or dislike??

A question that often animates my actions now is “if this were the last act of my life would I act in this way?” or “if this were the last post I made on social media would I post this?” or “If these are the last words I spoke, last time I saw this person, would I say/be this way”

It is living toward death because whether we like it or not we are.

Death is a nearby attendant, one that shuffles its feet behind us as we stroll about through life oblivious to its caring arms waiting to catch us when we fall out of life. Yet the irony is that unless we can hear the shuffling of its feet and feel the breeze of its cloak brush up against our beings, we are doomed to be stuck in the eternal now and living like it is an eternal present… a condition that is much worse than death or suicide because it is a condition that could not ponder either because it is not even aware of its own life.

This is the magic of death: it can make everything you think matters cease to matter instantaneously. I cannot describe it. I cannot help you see it. This can only be experienced…but it is real.

There is at least one thing the resurrection stories of Jesus teach us: one cannot find life if one has not found their death.

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.