A memory to sustain you as you suffer

In this clip, Rabbi YY Jacobson tells a powerful story about what saved a certain man when he was forced to undergo a death march as a child after his father had just been murdered.

Here’s that story:

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Treasure Trove of Memories

And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – Rainer Maria Rilke

This quotation of Rilke’s came to my mind while I was reading Dr. Bradley Birzer’s beautiful tribute to his grandmother titled, “A Brilliant Death: My Grandmother, 2003.”

Here’s an excerpt:

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Networking in a cemetery

Almost everyone has been to cocktail receptions and networking events.

Given my interest in visiting cemeteries, it just occurred to me to contemplate networking with the dead. There is no exchange of business cards, but there can be an exchange nonetheless. A thoughtful walk through a cemetery has sometimes been as helpful as any career advice.

Networking with the dead, it would seem, demands getting out of your comfort zone, going over to the tombs with the most personality, but also seeking out the ones that are neglected or discreet. It involves being curious and interested. It involves not being intimidated to talk to people who are older than you, wiser than you.

Sometimes, on special occasions, I have visited cemeteries on guided tours which means that I have had someone else making introductions for me to the dead.

This has been most helpful for breaking the ice, especially when I do not know whether or not we have very much in common.

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“Your listening is medicine for me.”

Tomorrow, April 7th, is Genocide against the Tutsi Memorial Day.

Nine years ago, I participated in the Reflections on Rwanda program to study this genocide, especially through encountering rescuers and survivors and listening to their stories.

Some of my family and friends were not sure why I wanted to go on a genocide study a trip.

I even met a professor (of Genocide Studies, no less) who described travelling to the sites of historical genocides as voyeurism.

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“We Gradually Deserve Those Who Demand to Be Helped”

There is a little book by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry called Letter to a Hostage. In the first part, the author paints a scene of emigrants aboard a ship. Even without more context than this, this passage is remarkable:

How to construct a new self. How to remake the heavy skein of memories? That phantom ship was crowded, like Limbo, with souls unborn. The only ones who showed any semblance of reality, so much so that one would have wanted to touch them, were those who, belonging to the ship and ennobled by real duties, carried the trays, polished the brass and shoes and, slightly scornful, served the dead. That slight disregard of the staff towards the emigrants was not due to their poverty. They were not lacking in money, but destiny. They were not attached to any home, to any friend, to any responsibility. They played a part, but it was no longer true. No one wanted them, no one would call on them. What a thrill it is to receive a telegram in the middle of the night, summoning you to the station: “Hurry, I need you!” We soon discover friends to help us. We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped. Of course no one hated my ghosts, no one envied them, no one bothered them. But no one loved them with the only love that is worthwhile. I thought: as soon as they arrive they will be taken into welcome cocktail parties, consolation suppers. But who will ever knock at their doors, begging to be let in. “Open, it’s me!” A child must be fed for a long time before he can demand. A friend must be cultivated for a long time before he claims his due friendship. It is necessary to spend fortunes for generations on repairing an old ruined castle before one learns to love it.

Such realities are best explained through stories and scenes and anecdotes; they are not abstract principles, though they are tinged with the mystery and depth that prevents them from being grasped, especially all at once.

Indeed there are many emigrants passing through life like souls unborn without ties and without purpose. And among the dead of expressive individualists, what could possibly be the meaning of: “We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped”?

Yet, as usual, the clarity comes in the juxtaposition between the cocktail party versus the “Hurry, I need you!”

The human person, every human person, is ennobled by real duties and real attachments. The love that is worthwhile is not “Can I get a photo with you?” or “Here’s my card.” The love that is worthwhile is the demand of someone in need who says and who means, to someone in particular, “It’s me. I need you!”

If You Can Tell A Story

Is it really possible to blog about death in a way that is consistently uplifting and enlivening every single day of the year?

It’s certainly a challenge.

And is it possible to tell edifying stories about the difficult, messy, and painful realities of life with grit and sincerity?

Not only is it possible. It’s vitally necessary.

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Meet the People Granting Wishes to the Dying

One of this blog’s readers, Lisa Wright, reached out to me to share about the organization she co-founded called the Living Wish Foundation.

Lisa, who is an Registered Nurse specializing in palliative care, and her co-founders established the Foundation with the mission “to provide medically supervised and supported end of life wishes to patients in the region who are facing a terminal diagnosis.” They do this by granting wishes that enable patients to reframe hope so to enhance their quality of life until their death.

I was fascinated by this initiative, and delighted to interview Lisa by phone to learn more.

In particular, I wanted to hear from her about how granting wishes serves to “reframe hope.”

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What Care for the Elderly Really Costs Us

In Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, he tells this anecdote:

Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: I want to work with the elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for that task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel as if I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”

Commenting on this, Nouwen expounds, “Thus care for the elderly means, first of all, to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old.” And, in another place he asks, “How can we be fully present to the elderly when we are hiding from our own aging? How can we listen to their pains when their stories open wounds in us that we are trying to cover up?”

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