Talking to Stan

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Stan, my wonderful father-in-law, just put his garden to bed for the winter. There is nothing he loved more than driving his tractor around the farm on a fall day in Michigan. So it was both fitting and beautiful that he took his last breath doing just that. In fact, he died between sentences, while talking with a close friend.

This good man was the nearest thing I had to a father in my adult life. He was a man of integrity who loved God, a patriot in the best sense, a warrior who shed tears when his grandchildren left after a visit. He loved and cared for his wife of 65 years, a spry and feisty centenarian who can no longer live on her own. She and I are puttering around the house together now, waiting for a room to open in a nearby assisted-living facility. As I search for missing items, calm repeated fears and welcome a parade of visitors, I find myself talking to Stan.

Sometimes I ask his advice obliquely (what would Stan have done about this?) and sometimes directly (Stan, please help me figure this out). I tell him how grateful I am for the plans he made, the family he raised and the legacy he left. I grumble at him for his packrat ways and for hiding his wife’s driver license too well. I’m a bit astonished at myself for doing this. I don’t know whether he hears me, and so far, he hasn’t answered back.

Many otherwise sane people have talked to their dead throughout history. Some have institutionalized the practice as prayer or ancestor worship. I understand the impulse. My love and my frustrations are real. They want a target to aim at. Someone who cares deeply about me now sees further than I can. Someone in heaven has the wisdom I need. Stan, as I knew him, was both strong and tender. I trusted him. He could understand my situation as no one else could. So I talk to him.

I realize I should be talking to God like this all the time. My love and even my frustrations have been invited by the King of Everything. Someone Who cares deeply about me sees further than I can. Someone in heaven has the wisdom I need. The Lord God is both strong and tender, and I can trust Him. He understands this and every situation as no one else could. So why am I talking to Stan?

It’s easier to feel warm about a physical person you have hugged and laughed with than a Spirit you’ve never heard or touched or seen, I suppose. But I don’t want my memory of Stan to be a substitute for the reality of God. Instead, I want to understand God better through my love for Stan. I want to know my Jesus as the warm, wise, ready heart on the other end of my conversations.

I don’t think it’s wrong to talk to Stan even though he’s dead (as long as he’s not talking to me), but it is more effective and more real to speak with the living Christ. It is not Stan who has what I need, loves me the most or intercedes for me with God. His death cannot yield those benefits. But his life is still pointing me to the One whose death ensures that Stan and I will sit down together again. There are so many things I look forward to in heaven, but one of the best will surely be talking to Stan.

“Christ is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)

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Grieving Many Losses

Dear Christian Counselor:

How do multiple deaths of loved ones impact the length of time grieving expands?  My mom is 73 and over the last 21 years she lost her father-in-law, mother, husband, brother-in-law, step-mother-in-law and niece.  The first three left us in the first four years.  As she never really had time to fully grieve each loss before the next one arrived, could her grief be compounded for a seemingly never-ending process?  I’m asking because I don’t want to “require” things from her which she isn’t able to produce because she is still grieving.

Years of Tears

Dear Years:

Grief is like a man walking away from home who turns to look back, and finding the sight so achingly beautiful, he cannot make himself return to the path.  A person who has experienced the kind of grief your mother has will always carry it with her, but if it is still the constant focus of her gaze after 21 years, then she is missing the life God has for her today.  In addition to the five “stages of grief” which Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified back in the 1960’s, a sixth step called hope is a key marker for recovery.  (We have a handout on this topic if you’d like to read more.)  Hope can be difficult to achieve for older adults who already feel that there is little ahead for them in this life.  And yet, every day has its own purpose for all God’s children.

Grieving is such an individual process that it is impossible to say what period of time is appropriate, but 21 years is certainly too long.  Your mother may be experiencing depression or something called “complicated grief.”  She probably needs some help and support to move forward.  Fortunately, there are many types of support available, such as social groups, support groups, short-term studies like GriefShare, and counselors who specialize in grief and bereavement.  Gently requiring more of her could be the catalyst your mother needs to see that something is wrong in her life and spirit.  Acknowledging that problem is the first step toward healing it. 

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