Guest blogger Justin Stets: Out of Darkness

We at Locally Grown HQ have been talking about inviting guest bloggers to author occasional posts here. And then I noticed that Justin Stets was the guest Faith columnist in last weekend’s Northfield News, writing about his struggles after his sister took her life last year. (A tip-of-the-blog hat to the paper for giving a lay person access to that space.)

Obituary notices had been on my mind already (no link necessary) so his column got me thinking about the local public conversations that happen or don’t happen when someone dies… and whether the local online world could be helpful.

brendaandrew.jpgNorthfield teachers Brenda and Andrew Gilbertson contributed to a public Caringbridge site for a couple of years until Brenda died last spring. I didn’t know either of them but I do remember hoping Andrew would continue writing publicly after Brenda died. I thought the visible community conversation after her death could be as important for healing as that which occurred online while she was sick.

don_tarr.jpgDon Tarr died suddenly in June last year, a week after we’d interviewed him for our podcast. In retrospect, I wish I’d started a public conversation online about him and his contributions to the community.

05toursdenickposter.jpgEach August, the Northfield Bicycle Club hosts Tours de Nick, the annual bicycle tour in memory of young Nick Sansome who took his life five years ago. Each year, I find myself wanting to click my way to a website about Nick, as my memory of him is fading.

Justin’s sister didn’t live here so this is a bit different than the examples above. But Justin does live here and he’s gone public with his reflections so maybe it’s as good a place as any to start talking about death in community and what role, if any, the local online world/blogosphere could play beyond posting the same obituaries that appear in the paper.

I asked Justin for permission to post his column and he emailed me the text of it. I couldn’t find a link to it on the News’ website. Also, I didn’t ask for his commitment to participate in a conversation thread here, as I didn’t want to be presumptuous. This might be a good idea or a lousy idea and he shouldn’t be the one to make something happen. That’s up to the rest of us.

Out of Darkness by Justin Stets

Justin.jpgA little over a year ago, my sister took her life. This loss of one I loved deeply intensified my existing fear of death. It also required me to face my anxieties straight on, and that is what I have been doing for the past year.

The fear of death grips me fiercely. I have always struggled with the concept of my mortality. For a person of my age, I have spun and analyzed death too many times over. Almost half way through life and I have yet to come to terms with the fact that one day biology stops working, cells stop reproducing and the heart stops beating. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t much wish to leave my children. Spiritually, I feel like when I am 70 or so, that that is the time I will begin to understand what life is all about. Life, for me, is really worth living and the more I live, the more I want to live, and learn and love and change the world.

My monologues about death are prolific, but dialogues are harder to come by. Death is a real conversation-stopper among us mortals; even more so, when a suicide is involved, for death by choice represents the darker side of an earthly departure.

This summer, a well-grounded Northfield minister described the passage beyond earth in these words: Like a natural rhythm, as we take our last breath on earth, the very next breath comes in the world of eternity. Over the last year, as I have sat in darkness and despair, I thought intently about the sound of my breath. In my reflections, I have discovered two new perspectives about death. Each provides me a measure of comfort.

A very wise woman recently asked me to read and reflect on John 11:35. Though perhaps famous for being one of the Bible’s shortest verses, she asked me to consider it as the longest verse in the Bible. Jesus wept. And he wept. And he wept. He kept on weeping for the loss of his friend. Since the dawn of human existence, the passage of death I surmise has not changed. In death, we are most vulnerable. We have no control. We have no leverage. We have nothing. We have no protectorate, no angles, no defenses and no choice. By experiencing the death of someone close to us, we weep as Christ wept for Lazarus, raising our hands and our hearts to God in anguish, perhaps despair. The image of Christ’s body shaking and his hands covering his face with tears flowing is comforting to me. The comfort is in knowing that Christ was as emotionally attached to humanity as you and me.

My second perspective formed is a clearer understanding of the good conversations surrounding funerals. I have begun to appreciate and feel at ease at a funeral. In the funeral setting, I suspend my daily routine and enter a dialogue with fellow mourners that is materially different in quality and tone from my normal day. Around the casket, we speak of relationships, impact, priorities, and ways in which someone has touched us. We remember times when we were most human with the person we loved. We speak of what we learned from the person who has passed, what we failed to say to them when they were living, and what we never needed to say because it was always understood. Funerals are like droplets of real conversations on a page mostly filled with routine, noise, fear, and busyness. At a funeral, we come together to share the one common fearful experience that connects us all – our passing from this world. And this passage is made painfully human by the bounds and bonds of relationships. Severed relationships, cut clean by death, make us cry; make us weep and make us mourn miserably.

I recall from my Catholic upbringing that a sacrament is a visible sign that conveys an inward, spiritual grace. Sacraments can be described as those moments in our existence where we are “touched by God”, times where we are lifted spiritually beyond ourselves – above ourselves – outside of ourselves. In an untraditional but similar way, the funeral ritual actually knocks me over with grace. I am transported out of myself as I approach the casket in a wake line, or when I smell the incense in the final blessing, or when I hear laughter in the church hall after a service. These images take me to a richer, fuller, more human place. A place where God is, a place where I am, and a place where my loved one is. A place, perhaps, of trinity.

When he wept so bitterly for Lazarus, I do not believe that Christ was only thinking of the loss of a dear friendship or the pain of his departure. He was also thinking of humanity unfulfilled. And it is in that precise space of unfulfillment, that is, in death, where humanity and God meet. In the pain of “what will never be” is exactly where God reaches out to human creatures. God extending and filling the space between here and there is best defined as grace. When we come together as humans to reflect on our unfulfilled relationships, I believe we abundantly receive God’s grace.

From here to there, from life to death, connected by the natural rhythm of breath, we inhale in life, and we exhale to grace beyond death.

9 thoughts on “Guest blogger Justin Stets: Out of Darkness”

  1. When I showed this post to my wife Robbie last night, we talked about how the web page that we created when her dad died in 2001 still gets considerable traffic. And then she reminded me what else she did. She contacted dozens of her dad’s friends and colleagues and asked them to write up their recollections and stories about him and send them to her. She then worked with her mom to compile them all into a scrapbook that was a big hit at the funeral and of course, continues to be a treasure to her mom.

    What if that scrapbook was online? Are funeral homes doing stuff like this these days. Links, anyone?

    Update: I did a search on the phrase “living obituary” and found a Relatives Remembered site that does some of this. They don’t seem to be conversations, though, just stand-alone comments. What Justin noted about a funeral stands out for me, and it’s this essence that makes me wonder if an online tool could help extend:

    In the funeral setting, I suspend my daily routine and enter a dialogue with fellow mourners that is materially different in quality and tone from my normal day. Around the casket, we speak of relationships, impact, priorities, and ways in which someone has touched us. We remember times when we were most human with the person we loved. We speak of what we learned from the person who has passed, what we failed to say to them when they were living, and what we never needed to say because it was always understood. Funerals are like droplets of real conversations on a page mostly filled with routine, noise, fear, and busyness.

  2. Thanks for the post, Justin. Death is not usually a comfortable topic but you made the discussion inspiring and meaningful.

    Griff, that online scrapbook idea is fabulous. Love it.

    My father used to say, “One day, all that might be left of you is a rock with your name on it.” My father was talking about what he thought was the meaning of life: “to help each other”, but that online scrapbook might be contrary to my father’s idea of what will last– and who knows what will be valuable years from now.

    Anyway– thanks.

  3. Holly, I like the idea of a memorial of some kind in a public place that serves the public — a park bench, a picnic table, a lookout, a newly planted tree. There are quite a few of those around the area. I’ve collected photos of some of them, so maybe I’ll do a blog post of them.

    As for the online scrapbook memorial idea (I was just at the Scrapped! opening at Grezzo Gallery so it’s on my brain), I’d like to see conversation be part of it somehow, esp if one or more family members/loved ones were willing to participate.

    I did another search. thjs time on “memorial weblog” + family and came up with this blog:

    http://thenewjazzthing.com/categories/dougRandallMemorialWeblog/

    It gets closer to what I’m imagining.

  4. Griff. It’s interesting that you asked me to comment being that I have also been more challenged lately in regard to facing the passing or, eventual passing of people who are close to me. First, I think posting obit’s is trite and I have not been a fan. I don’t look to Nfld.org as a place to find this info. I do think most people wonder how they will be remembered and it is up to the living to remember. The ride we organize for Nick continues because it is fun. As we ride, we do inevitably talk about Nick, which brings him back to life in a certain sense. As I now face the fact that my father will be passing soon I regret not knowing more about his life.
    The answer may be not to wait until the point of passing and having to rely on fading memories, but to start documenting certain pivitol events and histories on an ongoing basis. This may provide rich fodder for those that live on after we past, provided anyone cares. As we create our histories, the challenge for me would be trying to sort out what might be interesting to the people who are close and what might be trivial.

  5. Hey, Bill, thanks for chiming in.

    For people who might not know, Bill is the author of the bicycling book “Saturday Morning Rides.” Proceeds on sales of the book go the the Nicholas Sansome Named Memorial at SAVE, Suicide Awareness Voices for Education. More info here:
    http://northfield.org/node/801

    I really like your idea of not waiting till someone close to us dies before starting the conversation and creating the living history of their life.

    Would it work for family/friends to start the documentation/e-scrapbook and then, if possible, include comments, feedback, ideas, suggestions from their loved one?

  6. There are 2 situations. The first, where no information exists and others are now interested in knowing something before it’s to late. i.e. my dad The second, in which the subject doesn’t want to wait until someone else wants to know.
    In the first case I think your post is correct…”family/friends to start the documentation/e-scrapbook and then, if possible, include comments, feedback, ideas, suggestions from their loved one”
    In the second case, I think it would start as a personal accounting / history of a life that could, ultimately be shared and discussed with others.

  7. Bill, I think I’ll bring this up with my mother. Unlike your dad, she’s still pretty healthy in her early 80s. She’s not a computer user but has been good aobut collecting photos and other memorabilia. And she’s got a pretty sharp memory yet. We’ve recorded some of her family tree recollections on audiotape that could be converted to digital.

    I’ll alert Paul Krause to this comment thread, as he and Don Forsberg have been doing a lot in this area with their company, Story Circles International:
    http://www.storycirclesinternational.com/

  8. Hi Griff,

    this was interesting stuff. I recently lost my father and like the others, was sad to think that I had not taken more of an opportunity to learn more about him. Sometime in the past, my sons gave me a book to start filling out which has a year’s worth of questions to answer. Some as simple as “who was your best friend when you were a kid? or “Did your father ever make a special gift for you?” or “What do you remember most about your Mom?” or “Who was your favorite relative? Why?”
    It is an interesting little book called “Dad, Share your life with Me, by Kathleen Lashier. it was printed in 1993. I have to say that it still only has 5 pages out of 300+ filled out.. I guess I have my work cut out for me.
    Looking through it though, I was wishing that I had taken it to Dad and gone over a lot of the questions with him. I have an uncle who is still alive and I am going to enlist his help in answering a lot of this.
    Anyway, back to the blog…. I think this is a wonderful idea and certainly a way to keep the memories alive for loved ones. I think that it would probably give even the closest family and friends new insight about their loved one. It is always interesting to hear the stories and the impressions of others.
    By the way, the author also had a book for Mom.
    I think the blog would be much more interesting in the long run but the book is a way to open some interesting conversations with the parents before it is too late.

  9. griff
    might be an opportunity for an on-line product that a person could use to capture this type of information and then print it out.

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