Friday, November 13, 2015

What Not to Say: < awkward silence >

A.Hanson, Boulder, 2010
Today's phrase in the "What Not to Say" series is not saying anything at all.  I think we have all had the experience of not wanting to say the wrong thing.  So perhaps we think that the best thing is not to say anything at all.

One of the most hurtful things that compounds bereavement is when one's friends drop off the face of the earth.  Sometimes we don't want to exacerbate someone's pain unintentionally, by saying something wrong.  Or perhaps we are afraid of unintentionally unleashing a tsunami of grief by asking the wrong question. Or perhaps we just can't deal with other people's tears or pain.

I know from my own personal experience and from the people that I accompany through their own grief, saying nothing at all is painful.  There is a fear that if you should ask about someone's recently deceased loved one, you will cause them increased pain.  The pain exists whether or not you mention their loved one and one of the few things that can be balm to a grieving soul is talking about the person they love and miss and have lost. Telling stories of your wife or father or sister or son is a way of preserving their memory for just a bit. Talking about the loved one that has been lost is a way to make sure that they are not forgotten, which is one of the greatest pains for those who are left behind.

It is not likely that a kind and compassionate conversation will unleash a torrent of grief that cannot be stopped.  People who are in grief are already living in a place that is overwhelming.  Your reaching out might be a life raft.

I have almost nonexistent patience for people who cannot stand to witness others' grief. This is one place where it is really difficult for me to summon compassion.  You do not have to say anything profound, because honestly, there are sometimes just not words.  But showing up and showing that you care goes a long way, so try to get over your discomfort about tears and runny noses and pain, and meet your friend in your humanity. Because one day you are going to need the support of your friends too.

Here are a few things to say instead of saying nothing…

"I just don't know what to say, but I am here for you."
"I cannot imagine what you are feeling, how much pain you are in, but I love you."
"I wish I knew what to say. Would it be helpful if I walked your dog/babysat your kids/brought you dinner?"

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Not to Say: "They are not suffering anymore"

A.Hanson, Boulder, CO. 2009
This is one of the trite platitudes that I have mixed feelings about.  It is not factually incorrect, but it is still not one of the better things that you can say to a grieving family.  When someone dies, after a prolonged illness, it is indeed true, their suffering is over. But the suffering of those they leave behind continues and intensifies.

This saying in particular is well-intentioned and comes from a place of wanting to offer care, but it is still one of those "What not to say" phrases. Saying, "they are not suffering anymore" is an attempt to erase the very real (and raw) pain and suffering that precipitated this death.  Death is hard work.  We all hope for a peaceful death, but in reality, that is only one potential outcome among many possibilities. To say, "they are not suffering anymore" denies the intensity and the rawness of what just occurred.

Death does not occur in a vacuum.  When someone that we love dies, that has ripple effects on everyone around them. A family system is disrupted. A way of life is over. There is suddenly an absence instead of a presence. A whole life of stories and experiences is just gone. And the suffering for those who grieve is just beginning.

So please, don't say, "they are not suffering anymore" when you mean "I cannot imagine how painful these last weeks have been while you watched your loved one slip away."

Say instead….

"I see your pain."
"I am willing to listen."
"Tell me about what hurts."
"Do you want to talk about it?"

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What not to say: "You can have other children"

A. Hanson Denver, 2014. Blue Christmas. 
Today's post in the series, What Not to Say is particularly heartbreaking.  I have encountered well-meaning people saying "You can have other children" to those who have recently experienced a miscarriage or to those parents who lost a child or children just before birth, during birth, or in infancy.

It is so heartbreaking because in saying this to grieving parents, you have completely ignored the reality of an already-loved and cherished child who is very real and a part of this world.

One of the most heartbreaking spaces where I find myself as a chaplain is the birthing room with parents whose child died in the womb, during birth, or shortly thereafter.  It is a liminal space in which life and death are so intricately intertwined, that it is impossible to distinguish one from other. The crushing reality of not leaving the hospital with a newborn is suspended for a short time. Parents will hold and kiss and snuggle their baby and say the things they need to say.  As hospital staff, we do our best to create memories with footprints and handprints and locks of hair. This space of honoring all the lost possibilities and potential of this child, THIS child, is so very necessary.

Saying, "You can have other children" ignores the child who has died. But it is also cruel because there is no guarantee that there will be other children.  Conception may have been difficult, there may have been complications that make future pregnancies difficult or impossible, or perhaps the grieving parents just cannot bear the pain of infant loss again.

The most painful thing is to pretend as if the child never existed, that a miscarriage or other infant loss is merely something to get over.  To be so scared and uncomfortable with someone else's pain that we cannot even bear to talk with them.  Please never say, "You can have other children" because those potential future children are not what we are talking about now.  We are talking about the beloved one who has been lost.

Try saying this instead…

I am here for you in whatever way is helpful.
I would like to hear your baby's story, if you want to tell me more, I am willing to listen.
I love you.

Or the ever helpful,
Here is a casserole.  Please bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sabbath Coffee Tour: J & S Bean Factory, St Paul, Randolph Street

Today's stop on the Sabbath Coffee Tour is J & S Bean Factory in St Paul.  This is one of my long-standing favorite roasters in the Twin Cities.  My friend Jodi introduced me to their delicious coffee a few years ago.  The Bean Factory roasts their coffee on site, just on the other side of a window, where you can watch what they are up to, as well as come home smelling like coffee. They roast to order and provide beans for retail and wholesale purchase.

Each day they have two roasts and one decaf roast as the coffee of the day, and they can make a cup of just about anything for you at their coffee bar. They have 30 different roasts!  I had the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, an organic medium roast with a bright flavor. I put a little milk into it, no sweetener necessary.

There are pastries and other small snacks available. There is free wifi, but not that many outlets.  There are about a dozen tables and chairs, but it is clear that the Bean Factory is devoted to roasting beans, not necessarily providing a quiet work space, which is great.  I love that this place is an independent roaster who does all their roasting on site. They also provide space for local artists and space for community gathering.

The J & S Bean Factory is located on a mostly quiet residential street, with street parking.  It is a great place for enjoying great coffee.  The Bean Factory is part of my regular rotation of coffee shops.

What not to say: "This is God's will"

I put a picture of my bobble-head Jesus reading a Greek Bible as the graphic for this post, because today's post in the series "What Not to Say" is just as ridiculous.

"This is God's will" is another attempt at compassion gone horribly wrong.  Along with "God needed another angel", these trite phrases are an attempt to explain the unexplainable, to make sense of something senseless, and to apply reason to something that is completely unreasonable.

Theologically speaking, we cannot, in any way ascertain God's will, whoever or whatever that god might be. People who might self-identify as "Bible believing"Christians will tell you that reading the Bible will help you ascertain God's will, but this is simply not true.  Because the Bible is a composite document, there is not one cohesive picture of God or of God's will.  Furthermore, there is not a way to provide an answer in advance for every single contingency that might arise. The best thing that the Bible has for us to figure out God's will is a very rough algorithm.  We hear over and over again about justice and compassion and care for others as being God's will, so let's go with that.

Which is why this particular platitude is so very asinine. Because telling people that their loved one's suffering or death is "God's will" is just about the opposite of justice and compassion and care for others. Like most of these sayings, this one probably starts from a place of desiring to offer compassion, but the best intentions get lost in creating an image of a God who plucks people out of families and lives at will.

I have witnessed deaths of all sorts, those from traumas and cancer and violence as well as old age, and NO DEATH is God's will.  Death is a biological inevitability, it happens to all of us, and trying to blame a particularly tragic death on God's will just does not make sense.  It is God's will that we would love one another.

So therefore, what to say?  How about…

I love you
I care about you
I am sorry
Can I bring you dinner?
Can I watch your kids for you?
Can I walk your dog for you?

Friday, November 06, 2015

Sabbath Coffee Tour: St Paul, MN. Quixotic Coffee.

My latest stop on the Sabbath Coffee tour is Quixotic Coffee in the Highland Park neighborhood of St Paul. I joined my good friends Heather and Jess here for some delicious coffee. Quixotic Coffee serves Blackeye Roasting  and Bootstrap roasters coffees, with a specialty of cold brews on tap.   Cold brew coffee is one of my favorites, and when served on tap, infused with nitrogen, it has a smooth and velvety texture, almost like a stout beer. Incredibly delicious. I would have normally stuck with my standard, dark roast with room for cream, but the novelty of cold brew on tap was too sweet to pass up.  It is not to be missed.  Quixotic also has pastries for sale, although I was there late enough in the day that the selection was limited.

Quixotic Coffee is warm and inviting.  There are plenty of tables, including booths, and a back room that can be reserved for meetings for a small hourly fee. There are plenty of outlets for working as well. Parking is on the street, and has an hour limit. There is parking enforcement on Cleveland, so be careful, as St Paul is serious about parking tickets. I have found this out the hard way a few times.  I parked two blocks away, on Highland Parkway, and did not have a time limit nor any issues with finding parking.

I will most definitely be making my way back to Quixotic Coffee!  Delicious nitro cold brew, inviting atmosphere, and friendly people.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

What Not to Say: "God needed another angel/heaven needed them more than we do/God called them home"

A.Hanson, Minnesota, 2014
Today's post in the series of "What Not to Say" looks at the phrase, "God needed another Angel" and many similar phrases including, "heaven needed them more than we do", "God called them home", "Jesus needed them."  This phrase is often used in the moments and days after a death, particularly a death that is unexpected or exceptionally tragic, like the death of a child or of a young adult.

In my work, I have found that parents who grieve the death of a child sometimes express comfort in thinking of their child nestled into the loving arms of a God in heaven. I support them in finding whatever means can bring them comfort in unimaginable moments of pain.

But linking the death of a beloved person to the activity of God by anyone else is problematic.  It places blame on on God for the death, and creates a god who takes people from their loved ones at will.  This particular platitude can absolutely ruin any sort of comfort that someone can find in their belief system in the arduous days, weeks and months to come. It opens a crack of disbelief in an already fragile grasp of meaning-making, and makes room for the intrusive thoughts of, "What is wrong with me that I don't belief God actually needed my child/sister/father?"

Saying, "God needed another angel" denies the very human needs of love, care, nurture, and relationship.  It implies that God's need for something (which to be brutally honest, we can never actually know, although God never NEEDS anything, that is why God is God) is greater than ours and that our needs should always be subservient to those of a temperamental deity off in the sky. This is crap theology.  Every single major world religion has precedent in their holy texts for arguing with their deities and for lamenting pain and suffering.

Finally this platitude ignores the experience of those who do not ascribe to theological systems that have a deity and an understanding of life after death. Or who are atheist or agnostic or have belief systems that are outside a very specific expression of Christianity.

Instead of saying, "Heaven needed them more than we do", say, "I can see how much you love them.  Tell me about your child/partner/parent."  Or share a story of why their life matters to you.

Or bring a damn casserole over and say, "bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes."  That's infinitely more comforting than claiming God swooped in like some vulture and took someone's beloved.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

What not to say: "Everything happens for a reason"

A.Hanson, Denver, 2011
I stumbled across this really excellent article the other day, ""Everything Doesn't Happen For a Reason" by Tim Lawrence. It articulates the philosophy behind my care in chaplaincy.  I spend nearly all of my work hours walking alongside people who are living the very worst days of their lives. There really are not words for these moments, so most of the time I just stand or sit quietly. My ministry is one of presence.

But there are things that well-meaning people say that cause more harm than good.  I should preface that my patients guide their own care.  If someone expresses the belief that their illness or suffering, or that of their loved ones, fits into a plan that is meaningful or provides hope, I would explore that system with them.  I would never dismantle structures of meaning for someone.  This series of posts, "what not to say" is directed towards those who wish to support those who are suffering.

Platitudes like "everything happens for a reason" are misguided attempts at support that are much more like self-soothing on the part of those who seek to assuage their own discomfort.

Placing suffering into some greater plan is an attempt to push back the deep paralyzing fear that a crisis could happen entirely randomly. If we admit that someone experienced an entirely undeserved and random event, the unspoken corollary is, "It could happen to me too."

The task of placing meaning onto a random event, to find some greater purpose in suffering, is ONLY for the person for whom the suffering belongs.

Let me repeat that, ONLY the person who is experiencing the rupture of the fibers of their world can place meaning for good onto their suffering. 

No clergy-person or well-meaning friend or family member can assign a greater purpose to suffering.  Suffering is never part of God's plan.  It is not about drawing someone closer to the divine or reminding them to trust in God or turn their lives over to a higher power.

Meaning can be found on the other side of suffering.  I know many families who have found purpose in advocating for organ donation or financial support for disease research or have indeed found that their experience of suffering encourages them to draw closer to the divine.

But I also know people and their families whose lives have been destroyed. Who never recover.  Who never find meaning in their suffering.

Not everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes shit just happens.   By saying, "Everything happens for a reason" we refuse to see the person who is suffering. We do not see the pain right in front of us, instead, we jump forward to some greater meaning at the expense of the very real person who is living that pain.

Instead of saying, "Everything happens for a reason," say, "I can't imagine what you must be feeling. Can I sit with you?" or "I see you."

Or better yet, don't say anything.  Just be.  That's what I do a lot of the time.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

What did you want to be when you grow up?

A lot of the prompts that have been put forth by NaBloPoMo for the posts this month relate to thinking about the past.  Today I am thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I was never one of those kids who had a specific idea of what I wanted to be.  I had some vague ideas, like I wanted to help people and something to do with health care.  I have been lucky to have worked in several fields that allow me to care for people: human services, case management, nursing, parish ministry, and now chaplaincy.

I think I have the best job in the world.  I get to spend time with other people for a living.  My work as a chaplain frees me to care for the souls and emotions and minds of my patients. I actually get to be a PERSON for a living. The greatest qualification for my work is to use all of the emotional intelligence and mental intelligence that I have to meet another person right where they are. I have been a master's degree, an Mdiv, and have been prepared in a variety of ways for this work, including 1600 clinical hours and approval by my judicatory.  I am currently working towards board certification in chaplaincy, a standard for any discipline in healthcare.

I think I am dangerously close to becoming a grown-up.  I am into my thirties, I have several degrees, including a graduate degree, and I am self-sufficient. I am also thrilled to say that my vocation, chaplaincy, is what I want to be when I grow up.  What a gift.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Sabbath Coffee Tour: Minneapolis. Dogwood Coffee (E. Lake Street)

For today's stop on the Sabbath Coffee Tour, I stopped at Dogwood Coffee on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. This roaster is based in Minneapolis and in Winnepeg, Manitoba.  This delicious roaster sources their beans with principles of "quality, reciprocal relationships, and balance." They advocate sustainable practices and fair trade. There are two Minneapolis locations, one on Hennepin Street in Uptown and the East Lake Street location.

I sampled the Honduras-Belen Gualcho , with a bit of cream.  This roast is described as buttery with hints of cantaloupe and malted milk balls. I tasted a rich and smooth roast (I generally dislike lighter roasts, but this one was delicious.  It did not even need sugar!

Baristas were extremely friendly, and eager to talk about my experiences touring Twin Cities coffee shops.  They were able to recommend roasts based on my tastes, which I always appreciate. This coffee shop is light and friendly, and is attached to some sort home goods boutique. There are plenty of outlets, warm wood booths, and delicious looking baked goods (although none that are gluten free).  I particularly liked that each booth had its own lamp. Parking is on Lake street (generally two hour, some one hour) or on side streets.  I was there in the middle of the day, so I am not sure what it would be like at a busier time.

Overall, this is a coffee shop that I will frequent again and again.  There is ample seating, it is warm and quiet, the coffee is delicious and the baristas are incredibly kind. Great job Dogwood!

NaBloPoMo November 2015

NaBloPoMo November 2015
A few years ago I participated in National Poetry Writing Month, and during the month of November I will be participating in National Blog Posting Month. This is a writer's discipline, and encourages me to reflect upon something each day and post it on my blog.  Additionally, I will be engaging with others who are also doing the same.