Category: regrets

In my mid-20s, I was part of a small Bible study group which was, truth be told, probably more of a ‘find your spouse’ study group than anything else.  We had a lot of fun and spent ridiculous amounts of time together as a group.  Church functions, discovering new restaurants, pool parties, bowling, Christmas decorating, weekend trips, shopping, football, Spades tournaments that lasted for days, New Year’s eve parties, and more than a few late night races between those of us who had fast cars (and yes, I was one of them). One particular weekend, very late on a Saturday night, we were exploring how we felt about the serious topic of life.  Everyone had to write on a piece of paper one word to describe how they felt about death. We scribbled on our papers and folded them up, laid them in a basket, and one person began reading all the words out loud.  “Scared”, “dark”, “alone”, “final”, and “trapped” were just a few of the sentiments.  Then our self-imposed leader read mine: “peace”. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I love being alive and want to squeeze every moment I have out of it. A friend said to me recently (in her elegant, slow Southern drawl), “Dawn, I hope when you reach the end of your life, there’s no more dance left in you.”  Her simple statement hit me deeply as someone who has faced a terminal illness and, praise God, lived to tell about it. I truly don’t have a death wish. But as far back as I can remember, I’ve never been afraid of it.  Death has always seemed to me a warm blanket of rest. And letting go. And peace.

For the past several years, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be part of a volunteer ministry at my church whose primary focus is caring for families as they navigate the dark waters of a loved one’s terminal illness.  As one of the leaders, I am often the first point of contact for a family after they have been advised by their doctor that it’s time to ‘call in hospice’. Our small band of volunteers serve as a sort of liaison between the family and hospice care. Many of them have never heard of hospice and don’t fully understand what it is, so we help them understand the language of ‘end of life’ care.  We also help with the daily tasks of life: housecleaning, yard maintenance, preparing meals, laundry, grocery shopping, and day-to-day errands, so that family members are able to focus on caring for their loved one.

There is no time or energy for hiding behind masks here. Grieving before a loved one draws their last breath takes on many faces, and we have learned that no one has the right to dictate how another walks down the path to good-bye. Sometimes they need to laugh so they don’t fall apart.  Sometimes they need to vent – and there are no rules about language here. Sometimes they need to weep. Bitterly. Sometimes they need to ask questions and try to answer what is destined to remain unknown.  Sometimes they need to sit and embrace the silence. But they don’t want to be silent by themselves. There is an unspoken comfort that comes from simply having a warm body close enough to reach out and touch. Even if they don’t

People often ask why we do what we do – especially when they hear about us for the first time.  “You mean you go into a stranger’s house and clean their toilets?” Yes.  “Why on earth would you practically move in with someone who’s dying?” Because they need us.  “Wow – you guys are weird.”  The families we care for would disagree.  There are many answers, and we all respond in our own way. But for me, the answer is two-fold: meeting people at the point of their need is what Jesus does. Not to over-spiritualize or set ourselves up on some kind of pedestal, but for me it is truly that simple. However, a very strong secondary driving force, and probably what drew me to this in the first place, is that I feel very much at home with people who are broken.  Whether they are broken because of their own choices or choices that were made for them or choices that were forced on them, I am drawn to them.

After being unemployed for almost a year (three days shy of one year to be exact) I’ve been incredibly blessed to begin working with an organization whose focus is providing a safe haven for ministers and their families in crisis. It is a comprehensive, intense program (on average from 12-15 months in duration) which offers relocation, housing, counseling, and childcare when necessary in an effort to provide healing and restoration to ministers and their families who have had to walk away from their calling – as a result of their own actions, or the actions of their home church.  I was initially thrilled about this opportunity because it meant I would be writing – and getting paid for it!  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that once again, I’m submerged in an environment where people’s lives have been shattered.  Men questioning their failures. Women questioning their marriage. Children questioning their future. 

The vast majority of the time, I will not personally interact with these families. Most of them I will probably never even meet.  But what we are doing is helping them put their lives back together. The ‘safe haven’ we provide is guiding them to an honest and authentic relationship with God, themselves, their families, and their church. It is a painful process. Peeling back years of unresolved or unexplored issues to face the core of their own souls.  And then to slowly, gently provide the balm of restoration. To help them stand again, scarred from the battle, but equipped with tools to win the war. I can’t say I love my job because it doesn’t feel like a job. I love what I am a part of. I love knowing that families have a place for hope.

And I feel very much at home.

Who doesn’t enjoy receiving a handwritten note or card in the mail?  Amidst all the junk mail, bills, and ‘free’ offers – which require you to buy something to get something ‘free’ – landing in our mailbox each day, my heart always quickens a bit when I see something hand addressed to anyone in our family.  It means that just beyond two thin pieces of paper held together by a light strip of glue is something personal, something specifically written to me or one of my precious loved ones.  I fear letter writing is becoming a thing of the past; something I will tell my grandchildren about some day.  Can’t you hear it now? “When I was younger we didn’t have text messaging, email, and e-vites.  We had to actually pick up a pen or pencil, write something on a card or piece of paper, address an envelope, put a stamp on it, place it in the mailbox, then wait for the other person to receive it.  And then wait again for the response to come back by the same process.”  It sounds laborious to me even as I write.
Not so fast.  There is much to be said for the art of expressing ourselves through real words – taking the time to actually think about what we want to say and expending the energy to physically write it.  Not LOL or BRB or TTYL.  (For those of you who are not 21st century savvy, the above internet slang means Laughing Out Loud, Be Right Back, and Talk To You Later.)  Some of the greatest books ever written are simply collections of letters written down through the ages…expressions of love, heartbreak, struggle, death, joy, childbirth, marriage, and war.
I made a lot of mistakes and bad choices as a young adult.  Some were the stupid kind: not finishing college, spending more money than I earned, and staying out too late on work nights.  Others were the serious kind: and before I divulge too many secrets let me just say they were serious.  Enough said.  For many years I struggled with the memories of those bad decisions.  So one morning a few years ago, I sat down at our kitchen table and wrote letters – with a real pen on real paper – to some of the people who bore the consequences of my bad choices.  I didn’t really think much of it other than a way to finally get out of my heart and head what I had been feeling and thinking for years.  I didn’t even mail these letters; I simply wrote them.  The results were astounding.  Literally, within 24 hours there was a sense of relief and calm.  I actually felt forgiveness.  And release from some of those painful memories.
I was pleasantly surprised by how therapeutic it was for me to simply pour out my heart to those who would never read the words I wrote.  Wanna’ try some cheap – and I mean really cheap – therapy?  Pick up a pen and paper, find a quiet place to sit, and write a letter.  What you gain in return might just surprise you.
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