Lincoln and Embracing Grief

Men of power sat around him. . . all struggling with their tears — great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother.” Nathan Parker Willis on the Death of Lincoln


On February 20, 1862, William Wallace Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of President and Mrs. Lincoln, died of typhoid fever.  The openly mourning president would become a symbol of our nation’s grief as the Civil War began to take the lives of 620,000 soldiers over what remains the bloodiest four years in U.S. history. 

Upon first seeing his dead son, President Lincoln murmured, “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”  Willie was interred in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. 

His coffin would accompany the president’s on a funeral train to Springfield, Illinois in 1865.  This is a story of such profound grief that we can still feel the pain and suffering upon hearing it. Lincoln continues to teach us how to cope with tragic loss…not with a stiff upper lip, but with an unashamed embrace.

According to the United Nations World Population Prospects report, approximately 7,452 people die every day in the United States. Annually, some 37,000 people are killed in automobile accidents, another 45,000 commit suicide and 17,250 more are victims of homicide. There is no doubt that each of us will encounter, and deal with death on a fairly regular basis. 

For Chaplains and First Responders, the chance of frequently facing such tragedy is imminent.  It is so important for all of us to open ourselves to the reality that we will be called upon as intimate comforters for family, friends and others. 

And it all starts with notifying loved ones.  In order to be of any help to those who grieve we must be able to be with them without offering advice. In his book Compassion; A Reflection on the Christian LifeHenri Nouwen called for us to be first and foremost, people of compassion saying;

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

If we are to abandon the stages of denial and impatience in the process of grieving, we must also be able to embrace the darkness of loss.  This is not supposed to be easy.  It requires a listening ear open to suffering with those in pain. It also requires sharing and experiencing personal sadness when grief comes to our own door.


Resource For Chaplains Continuing Education:

The Association for Death Education and Counseling is an organization dedicated to the study of death and dying.  They provide a place for professionals from diverse backgrounds to advance knowledge and promote practical applications to research and theory. Their 41st annual conference will be held in Atlanta this April. Continuing Education Credits are available.  This would be a great opportunity for Chaplains and others. Here is a pdf link to the conference overview. An online webinar, Working with Continuing Bonds in Grief Therapy and Counselling is coming up on Wednesday, March 13, 2019 (12:00-1: 30 pm EDT).

5 Things Lincoln Can Teach Us About Grief

Saying Things are Fine When They are Not

It seems to me that we might have lost our ability to grieve and mourn.  Most people spend a lot of time trying to get over tragic or difficult things that have happened. 

Common counsel from friends and family who have tired of our grieving and sadness is to ‘get over it and move on’.  There is a real problem with this notion.  Getting over a significant loss connotes forgetting. 

It means that we should go on with life as if nothing was wrong, shoving our anguish and broken hearts into the dark night, and burying it in denial. This inability to allow grief to process is a powerful force playing a major role in much of the depression and chemical dependence that surrounds us. It lies at the bottom of unresolved emotions and unfulfilled expectations that have been repressed in a desire to make people believe that everything is okay.

“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.” William Shakespeare (on the death of his son)

It is impossible for wounds to heal by saying that things are fine when they are not.  Sometimes we have to be allowed to wail. The harsh reality of pain, loss, and suffering must be experienced. Lincoln understood this as he gave his address at Gettysburg. Whitman grasped it as he wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” 

Embracing sadness and loss, becoming acquainted with the night, and understanding that life will never be the same are the means for moving through grief toward acceptance.  And the goal is acceptance.


Discover more about coping with grief.

One of the most powerful little resources is a book named Good Grief, A Companion for Every Loss by Granger E. Westberg.  A cousin of mine sent it to me after my mother’s death in 1988.  

I have relied on it ever since and passed it on to dozens of my clients and associates.  It helped me understand that, in time, grief will soften.  We will recognize that life goes on. Almost unbelievably we move through the sadness into a glimmer of light.  Hope will return as surely as dawn gives way to a new day.


A Quick Guide to Rx for Grief and Depression

Both have similar symptoms. With new changes in psychiatric diagnosis definitions, the two will increasingly overlap.

Did you choose “plastics”? Living authentically

There are many people in our lives who have good intentions and sage advice for us.  A famous scene in the 1967 movie The Graduate plays out this dynamic well.  Benjamin Braddock, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is at a party after his graduation from college.  Everyone is fascinated by what he might do next in life.  A friend of the family, Mr. McGuire, corners Benjamin and the following exchange occurs;

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Mr. McGuire was probably right.  Benjamin would have made a fortune in the plastic business.  The problem was that Ben had another idea.  He tells his father that he just wants to be different.

We do not have to follow a path that has been prescribed for us by well-meaning family members, friends, and mentors.  Their expectations, experiences, and visions for our path are barely relevant to the one that we must forge on our own.  We can be led to the crossroad but, in the final analysis, must travel on alone. 

Our personal passions and dreams are unique unto us.  When we take the road that was traveled by others and fail to follow ours, life will not be satisfying.  As Joseph Campbell would say, ‘follow your bliss’. It might be scary but your own adventure is perfectly fit just for you.

Finding God; Where to Start Looking

Where is God? This is the universal question of our minds, hearts, and souls.  We look for God in all the right places, but often come up without a sense of true encounter.  Emptiness, loneliness, and feeling of abandonment follows us as we search and search.  I am reminded of the haunting, sad song “Where is Love” from the musical Oliver.  But maybe all the right places are not so right after all.  Perhaps we will meet God most authentically in the faces of those who suffer. After all, this is just where Jesus points us.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta found and recognized God best in the faces of every orphan, invalid, leper, and impoverished sufferer.  It was from them that her infectious joy and boundless compassion came.  Mother Teresa was following the directive of Jesus who said; “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

My own search took me from church to church, and from tradition to tradition.  But I best found God in the boys, girls, and adults who came to me suffering from horrible abuse, often with chronic substance use disorders.  They were at the end of their ropes. The people closest to them usually had given up all hope.  And sure enough, there was God in disguise.  The pain in their eyes reflected the pain of Jesus. They carried the weight of a cross I never had to carry. It soon became clear that those I had come to serve were actually serving me.

In answer to the question posed at the beginning of this journal; God is hiding in plain sight.  If we are open to becoming vulnerable and are willing to risk suffering with those in pain, we will find God and Jesus everywhere.

God’s Dream Come True

Verna J. Dozier was a leading African American theologian and prophet who touched countless lives and transformed hearts. Her work and service were prolific.  As a teacher and Board Member of Examining Chaplains, she often spoke and wrote about the dream of God.

She believed that we have the capacity to bring forth the realization of Howard Thurman’s vision of ‘a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky’.  She believed that God wants all creation to live together in peace, harmony, and fulfillment.  She believed that we are called to restore that dream together. I believe she was right.  In truth, how could it be otherwise?

The wounds and struggles of the past have the power to separate and destroy us.  But they also have the power to move us forward to new life, a new identity, and universal oneness.

Our suffering is what we all have in common.  It’s not single-mindedness and strength that will overcome, but acceptance and shared vulnerability.  The Dream of God is attainable if we are willing to let go of our chokehold on yesterday by engaging in healing here and now.  We can start by loving where we once hated.

I think this is about the best starting point for building up the Dream of God;  A boy named Camden asked New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady at a press Q&A in Atlanta what we should do about haters.  “What do we do about the haters? We love ‘em,” said Brady. “We love them back because we don’t hate back.”  There it is…a glimmer of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.

The Roadmap to Compassionate Action

“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become”

St. Clare of Assisi

Self-help teachers have been floating the clichés that we need to ‘love ourselves first’ and ‘take care of ourselves first’ before we can love or help others. This easy wisdom is just too easy. And perhaps it is more a symptom of our tendency to narcissism rather than a guide to furthering compassionate action. 

St. Clare and St. Francis might guide us to the mirror for a closer yet wider second look.  In so doing, we could possibly discover that Self-help and helping-the-Other are inseparable.

The false self would like for us to follow trendy wisdom of taking care of ourselves first.  It seems to make so much sense.  But the false self is never really interested in extending compassion to anybody other than number one. 

It shuns a deep look into the mirror because it will lead us to the discovery that we are one with our true self, with everyone else, with God and all of creation. The false self begins to dissolve when we take that risk of accepting and embracing our absolute vulnerability and inseparable unity.

You are totally loved and totally accepted just the way you are. So am I and so is everyone else.  Two great commandments are retold in the gospels of Matthew and Mark which record Jesus as telling us to love God, neighbor, and self equally with our whole hearts, souls and minds. 

Likewise, the beautiful song “Let There Be Peace on Earth” gives us a simple directive to walk with each other in perfect harmony. The roadmap to compassionate action is clear.  Take the risk.  Look in the mirror. Then, let it begin with me.

How to Crack the Negativity Code

It is so easy to slip into the doldrums.  This seems easy to understand when cabin fever sets in during bleak midwinter, but can also happen for most people on a sunny summer day. 

Negative thoughts are seductive. In fact, scientific research tells us that the brain has an automatic survival default to negative over positive.  We have a kind of bad news bias built into our DNA that keeps us out of harm’s way.

Studies show that we need almost a five-to-one ratio of positive over negative in order to hang onto joy. With the easily accessible barrage of negativity available, it seems like a long-shot that we would be able to resist the depressive lure of distressing and grim conditions. But perhaps our powerlessness holds the key to joy after all.

In order to crack the five-to-one negativity code, we must accept that we are emotionally powerless over the way our brain is constructed and let go of trying to out-think it. 

Like the folks who practice 12 Step Recovery, we must come to believe that a power greater than ourselves will hold us in loving arms regardless of our shortcomings.  Then we have to engage in the work of changing our bad news bias into something positive. 

The same research which identifies our default brain confirms that we can tip the scales towards happiness and override the tilt to negativity with frequent small positive acts of kindness and compassion…again with a ratio of about five-to-one.  In other words, we need to be actively engaged in being nice if we want to have a life of sustained peace, joy, and love. It sounds like we better get busy.

Awakening to Snowfall; Remember Who You Are

“As you awaken to your Divine nature, you’ll begin to appreciate beauty in everything you see, touch and experience.”  ~ Wayne Dyer

Winter snows have come with a vengeance once again to folks who live up North.  I remember how tired we used to get of scooping, scraping and being trapped inside.  My daughter and I have never been big fans, though I liked it more than she. Then there are people like my son who never weary of it.  His Michigan childhood comes back to life when it snows and just delights in it. He reminds me that there is always something magical about snow.  It has elements of surprise and beauty that we should explore rather than shun.  Within each snowfall are thousands and thousands of unique snowflakes which serve to remind us of who we are.

Our unique self, like a snowflake, will never be duplicated.  The evidence of this is everywhere.  Our DNA is comprised of markers that are arranged only for one person. It never has been and never will be again.  Only you! Even twins don’t have the same DNA. Combination of parents, grandparents and countless generations of ancestors each give us a gift of themselves in the pattern that becomes you.  It took thousands of years to come up with the design for each individual.  Our uniqueness also can be found in fingerprints. Each time we touch something we leave a stamp of our existence behind.  We are here and we are one of a kind.  The mold has been broken.

We have an individual and divine purpose in our uniqueness. The odds of your random creation are so small that it is incomprehensible.  Wayne Dyer talks about the fact that a great wind sweeping through a garbage dump, gathering up all of the pieces and setting them down as a fully assembled Boeing 747 is more likely than the exclusive collection of cells and tissue that is you.  Your importance cannot be understated.  The incredible love story of our Creator is at work here.  Such a miracle can have no other explanation. You are God’s beloved child.  Look at that beautiful snowfall and remember.

Freedom from Fear and Regret

“Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves…regret for the past and fear of the future.”  ~ Fulton Ourslear

When the end of life comes we will not regret the business deals that didn’t work out, sales that weren’t made, or final exams we didn’t ace.  We will regret the squandered opportunities.  We will suffer the most from our failure to devote enough time to our loved ones.  We will regret our lack of attention to a skinned knee.  We will long to have the moment back when our words of criticism bruised a heart.

I have found that healing begins when we take action here and now. The way to eliminate regrets from the past and to dispel the fear of the future is to fully evaluate what really matters and pay attention to it. We will put an end to the endless repetition of mistakes by unshackling ourselves from the past and freeing ourselves from the future.  We can start by putting first things first. 

The present moment is when to make that extra effort. All we have to do is more fully avail ourselves to those important people in our lives.  Another phone call, a written card, or any added gesture that proclaims our love will wash away fear and regret as we go forward.  By making time and freely giving our gifts of love, we will discover that our resources are unlimited.  This is the next right thing to do.  Nothing is more important.

Finding Joy in Tempestuous Times

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurmann

The night before he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us that violence was threatening our very existence.  If we are to confront this reality, there must come a deep joy which springs up in the face of hatred and injustice. The beauty is that this kind of joy exists within each and every one of us. Discovering it can be achieved in prayer along with contemplative practice and outreach. For it is in stillness and silence that the voice of God will direct our actions. 

Years ago, I was engaged in a whirlwind of activity with self-designed goals to have more…more of everything.  I thought that happiness could be found through obtaining lots of money and all the best material things it could provide.  I would do whatever was necessary to get it, often at the expense of anyone or anything standing in my path.  I was ‘on the way up’ and those left behind were regretfully collateral damage. 

This is not to say that I was a mean person.  On the contrary, I was jovial and popular.  And I wanted more of that too.  It was all intoxicating.  In fact, intoxication became part of the equation.  Cocaine and alcohol were perfect running mates as my personal wealth neared a million dollars just prior to my thirtieth birthday.  Then the bottom fell out and I lost all of the people and things I treasured so much. 

Surprisingly, it was during the following years of descent, desperation, and sadness that I discovered inner peace and joy. My path of personal poverty led me to a different kind of richness through centering prayer and contemplation I never imagined. Faith and hope were restored as God’s unconditional love and forgiveness washed over me. I came alive.

For the past four decades, my world has been filled with an inner joy founded in contemplation and action.  Not that there has been an absence of bumps and obstacles. I have had more than a few stumbles. But I have dedicated my life to what unceasingly makes me come alive.  My work with wounded kids and those who suffer from addiction has been my way of confronting suffering, injustice, and hatred.

We are all called to action in this chaotic world. It has never been more important for us to work for social, political, economic and environmental justice and peace. We have to come alive now. Our existence depends on it.