Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Goodbye Miss Kitty

I had to do that thing that most pet owners dread. I had to have one of our kitties put to sleep. She had feline leukemia and was so anemic the vet was shocked that she was even still alive. She was also about two weeks shy of having her first litter of kittens.

This was a stray that I rescued from a busy street in town because I couldn't stand the thought of her getting killed and I just had a sense that she would. Not that we needed another cat. We already have three, also the products of someone dumping a pregnant cat.

We only had Miss Kitty for about four weeks, but somehow I got really attached in that short time. She was a sweet little gray and white tabby that purred every time I touched her and never offered to scratch or bite even when I was cleaning out the mites in her ears. I have scars from doing that with other cats.

Even so, I was still surprised at how emotional I got when the vet gave the fatal injection and I cried off and on most of the day yesterday after I buried her. I know we grieve for animals, even though there are some who think that is silly, but I really didn't expect the depth of grief I felt, and am feeling as I write this.

I guess this is just another example of what I have come to believe is true about grief. There are no rules. No timelines. No reasonable explanations for how it happens. It just is. The important thing is to acknowledge it and move through it.

So I will shed another tear as I think of Miss Kitty and her babies.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


One of the questions frequently asked in the grief support groups I facilitated was, “When is it time to clear out a loved one’s belongings?”

What a loaded question, and it never failed to generate a myriad of responses.

Truth is, there is no “right” time. Or I should rephrase that and say there is a right time for every individual, and that person’s right time may never be the right time for anyone else.

Many people theorize that it is not healthy to keep clothes and other items as they are just daily reminders of the loss. Because of that, they are quick to encourage “clearing things out and getting on with life.” But that is not what a grieving person needs. A grieving person may need those things to touch and reconnect and remember for as long as it takes until they are ready to let go.

When a couple we know lost their five year old son in a tragic accident, some other friends cleared out the boy’s room while the parents were at the funeral and took everything away, including furniture. They meant well and thought they were doing the right thing by sparing the parents from the painful experience of sorting through his room, but they had no idea that facing the empty room was harder than facing all the boy’s treasures.

The parents were too kind, and maybe still to numb, to express anger at the friends’ misguided help, but later they told me how devastated they were at the time. There was not one thing left of their son except some pictures, and they wished they had something that belonged to the boy to hold on to.

Several months later, the father told me that he found a matchbox car in a far corner of his closet. He figured his son must have left it there one day while he was playing and watching Dad get ready for work. That became the father’s most treasured possession.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Maggie's Legacy

When Hal called me to tell me Maggie had died, he also asked if I would officiate at her funeral. I was honored to be asked, and because Maggie and I had read a lot of Scripture together, I knew some of the readings that were meaningful to her. I also knew that she would want her funeral to be a celebration of her life, so that is what I focused on in planning the service.

I worked with Hal and Katie in the preparations to make sure that anything that they wanted would be included, and Katie arranged for someone to sing a couple of her mother’s favorite hymns.

Because of Hal’s professed atheism, I wasn’t sure how all this religious stuff was going to go down with him, but he said it was okay. “This is for Maggie. This is what she wanted.”

So the service started with “Amazing Grace” and a prayer. Then some readings. Then I gave the eulogy and a reflection on the past three years of knowing Maggie and how her life had blessed my life. I reminded her sons and daughters how much she loved them and how we prayed frequently for their well being. I asked them to honor her and her memory by finding a way to be at peace with each other, and with Hal, because no matter what they thought of him, he did love their mother intensely.

Following my talk, I invited people to come up to share memories and reflections. After a few people spoke, Hal stepped up to the lectern. He briefly addressed some of the problems the family had been experiencing, and asked the children to take my words to heart.

Then he talked about how important prayer had been to Maggie and how he had always respected that, even though he was not a man of prayer himself. Then he turned to where I was seated behind him and said, “What do you think, Chaplain? Should we say one more prayer for Maggie?”

He took me by the hand and led me over to the casket. We stood there for a moment, and I couldn’t speak over the lump in my throat. Then Hal took a deep breath and said the most beautiful prayer

Ah, Maggie, I thought, this is your reason why.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

More About Maggie

The dynamics of Maggie’s family were most unusual. There were four adult children, two men and two women, who all had problems of one sort or another, and Maggie freely admitted that her lifestyle and lack of skills as a mother contributed in large part to the dysfunction. That and an alcoholic ex-husband who was the father of the four.

But in these later years, Maggie had tried to make peace with her family, and with God, after finally finding a second husband who was life-giving instead of life-destroying. She was particularly close to one daughter, “Katie,” who had forgiven Maggie for past mistakes and accepted the new husband. This particular daughter was more emotionally stable than the others, and had gone through some counseling to come to terms with her past and how it affected her. The other three seemed immersed in their dysfunction, and were not open to forgiving Maggie or accepting her new husband, “Hal.”

That made visiting times at the hospital a bit of a challenge when more than one showed up at a time, and it wasn’t a huge surprise to me that the people most willing to step aside for the demands of the others were Katie and Hal.

In an attempt to find some reason for “God not taking me,” Maggie wondered if she needed to stay to bring some peace to her family. Since that seemed to be important to her, I told her it was quite possible, and every time we prayed, she prayed that God would open the hearts of her children so they could all accept “Hal” and make peace with each other.

Hal, who was a professed atheist, would leave the room when we prayed. At first, I wondered if he was offended by the prayer, but one day he told me that he wasn’t offended at all. He knew that was important to Maggie, and respected her for her faith, and he felt like it was somehow disrespectful for an atheist to remain in the room during a prayer.

Even today I still find that most interesting and profound.

Maggie lived for three more years, but was in and out of the hospital several times for complications of diabetes and respiratory problems. Each time she was admitted, I would visit her and ask how the “family peace plan” was going. She would just shake her head, so we would pray some more.

Finally, the last time she was in the hospital, she told me that maybe the reason she was still hanging in had nothing to do with helping her children, as they all seemed to have the same problems they always had. I told her that these questions of “why” often have elusive answers, and if she has had any joys in the past few years, perhaps that was reason enough to be alive.

A few months later, Maggie died suddenly at home. Then she got her answer, but more about that next time.