For me, there are certain things that are a part of my Southern heritage. Things that I do without even thinking:
1. Saying “y’all”
2. Adding “bless your heart” to the end of sentence when something is tragic, unthinkable,
or you view the person who has shared information with you as crazy
3. Writing thank-you notes
4. Not wearing white after Labor Day or before Easter
5. Understanding that you never schedule a wedding during college football season
6. Baking a casserole for a friend in need, and when delivering the homemade meal, always adding,
“If you need anything, let me know…”
I understand these things aren’t necessarily indigenous to the South (except for maybe “bless your heart,” and “y’all”) but they are things that I have had drilled into my head from a very young age. Maybe it’s a part of growing up in the church, or being raised by a mother who had a degree in Home Economics, or just knowing and understanding how important it is to show people you care during times of grief; during those moments when they feel as if they can’t breathe, or will never take a breath without thinking of the extreme loss, and absence that the death of their loved one brings.
I can think of countless times when upon hearing of a person’s passing, I kicked it into high gear, and began cooking and baking. It was automatic. As I reflect on these times, I am beginning to see and understand that this is a reflex for me. It’s not only something that I do to make others feel better. I do it because it makes me feel better. It’s one way I deal with grief.
I remember twenty years ago, when a friend of mine, and the mother of three sons, died suddenly. Her oldest child had just graduated from High School, and was one of my husband’s basketball players. This family wholeheartedly supported everything and everyone who remotely was a part of their family’s lives. It was summer, and I was at school, where I had been re-painting my classroom. My husband and I received the news, and my first response, after my initial shock of the news was, “I’ve got to get home and bake a pound cake.”
In my quest to hurriedly get this accomplished and get to the house in a timely manner, I made a HUGE mistake. I didn’t put the eggs in the pound cake. Even women whose only baking experiences come from an Easy-Bake Oven know that eggs are essential when baking–they create structure and stability.
The cake came out of the pan just fine. It was a little wobbly, but I thought that was because it was still warm, and had been dumped out of the pan too soon. As we drove to our friends’ house, I realized that something wasn’t right, even though it tasted just fine. I knew this because I had sampled a small morsel from the top of the cake. You know, the crispy part of a pound cake that is so yummy!
When we arrived to the house, a couple of other friends were there straightening up, and organizing the food that had already arrived. I was so embarrassed with my cake. The one thing I brought. The one thing I had to offer. I knew that in these first moments of shock and gut-wrenching sadness, I needed more than words. I needed a pound cake that was stable and structurally sound. Because a pound cake with those characteristics, strength and stability, were things that my friends needed.
One of my sweet friends, (who is an excellent cook by the way) said, “Well, it tastes good and these boys won’t care a thing in the world what it looks like.” So, I left my pound cake, which at this point had completely caved in and fallen apart. As I stared at this catastrophe, I thought of my friend, Ann, and how my pitiful pound cake would have made her laugh and brought her joy. Because she was that kind of person. She always looked at life with her glass not only half full, but overflowing.
After Ann’s funeral, I jotted down some preferences that I wanted to have included at my funeral when I died. Songs I wanted to have sung (and people who I wanted to sing them). I knew that Amy Grant probably wouldn’t be able to attend, so I cited that the CD version of her song “I’m Gonna Fly,” should be played. I also noted, for my husband, which funeral home to avoid, and gave specific instructions of friends who were to be on hand to give me a “once over” before the visitation to make sure that my makeup wasn’t too clownish and that my hair was appropriately coiffed. I’m not sure what has happened to that list, but it definitely needs to be updated and/or completely re-done.
Over the years I have found myself doing things I never imagined in times of grief and sorrow. When I was an elementary counselor, I was asked to design the funeral program for the very young grandson of the Director of Food Services. I’ll never forget that day. It was a Friday, and it was raining. She caught me after our morning Jumpstart program and followed me to my office. She very stoically gave me a photo and the information and asked if I would do this for her. And she asked that I not tell a soul.
I had no idea how to make this program, and was in absolute shock that she asked me to do it. She knew that I prepared PowerPoint presentations each day for Jumpstart, and I guess that was the qualification on my resume that landed me this job. I told her I wasn’t sure I could do it, and she said, “I know you can. And I appreciate you.”
The most shocking part of this whole situation, is that she chose me. At first, I didn’t understand. As the Director of Food Services, this woman was the recipient of a large amount of job-related grief. It was during a time of great change in school cafeterias as food choices were under tremendous scrutiny. She unfairly received much blame and criticism. She was very standoffish to begin with, and came to work to simply do her job. She didn’t seek friendships while at work. She was all business.
So why me? I guess it was simply this. I was always kind to her. I always spoke, and even tried to kid around with her. I made a point to see her every day and speak. It’s not much, but when I was one of the very few who did this, it mattered to her. And in her time of great need, she reached out to me. Never have I understood the importance of always being aware of how we treat others as I did on that rainy Friday.
After performing numerous Google searches for funeral programs, struggling most of the day, and eliciting someone to help me who I swore to secrecy, I finished the task. When the Director of Food Services came to my office that afternoon, she said, “I knew you could do it. I knew you were the only person I could trust with this. Thank you from me. And thank you from my family.”
She left my office, and I began to cry. I cried for her loss. I cried for the isolation this person must feel daily while at work. And I cried for myself and for all the people who walk through life fighting unimaginable battles alone. As Phyllis walked out of my office that heartbreaking day, she said, “Be blessed.” And I was.
This week, I have experienced a couple more losses, and my husband and I found ourselves serving in various ways. He was asked to speak at the funeral and be a pall bearer for his long-time friend and colleague.
For another friend and colleague who was dealing with a tragic loss, I prepared a meal. Brian and I went to our friend’s house and delivered the meal, along with some flowers. On our way out, we both told her, “If you need anything, let me know.” We meant what we said, but how often do we rotely recite those words with the expectation of never having to deliver on them?
We received a call later in the day, and our friend needed us. Out of respect for her family’s privacy, I won’t go into detail, but we went with her to the hospital, and stood by her side during one of the saddest and most heartbreaking moments of her life. Yes, we felt uncomfortable, and later worried that we were intrusive, but everyone who was there knew she asked us to go with her. We answered her call. We stood by her side and because of this experience, we will be forever changed.
The point I hope to make when addressing protocol for those who are in need is this: Don’t speak idle words during times of grief. If you mean you will be there for someone, then do just that–no matter the situation or how far it is out of your comfort zone. In the deepest, darkest moments of grief and despair, people need those they can count on. If you have proclaimed to be one of those people by stating, “If I can help any in way, let me know,” then be ready. Stand in the gap. Be the bridge that helps them cross the raging rivers of loss. Help them to not drown in the endless ocean of complete and utter devastation.
As a young child in Sunday school, I was introduced to the idea of “agape love.” It was during the 1970s and though I was young, I tended to equate this word with a “touchy-feely, groovy” notion. It just sounded that way. Maybe I related it to “Godspell.” Who knows? But I thought it was just a trendy phrase, and not anything biblical.
As an adult, I am humbled and embarrassed that I once believed such a thing. The term is Greek in origin, and is the Greco-Christian term meaning: “the highest form of love, charity” and “the love of God for man and of man for God.” The depth of meaning of this type of love, as well as the other types of love is far more than I could ever explain or even understand. I hope you will take some time to search out the meaning of this word, as well as the descriptions and passages in which the word is used in the Bible. From what I gather, this is the type of love we should all have. This is the type of love I hope to demonstrate to others.
As I close, I wish that each of you will experience and give agape love–brotherly love, affection, good will, and benevolence. Always say what you mean, and mean what you say. Always remember, during times of great grief, you can be the eggs–at a time of great turmoil and upheaval, you can provide structure and stability.
Grief is universal, yet no two people will deal with it in the same manner. Do whatever it is that you can do, and do it with great love. You will forever be blessed when you are a blessing to others.
Until next time my friends, I hope you’ll remember to put the pie in the fridge, warm the casserole at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, and let me know if there’s anything I can do…
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