Grace in a Brighter Season

A new book—ANCHOR & FLARES! Was launched on Tuesday, with an excellent party thrown at Belfast’s Left Bank Books.

Friends, family and, most touchingly, a couple of folk whom I first encountered in the midst of tragedy, as the chaplain called when someone they could not bear to lose was lost to them.

A sudden loss isolates a moment from the flow of time. Though time resumes (unwelcome resumption!) the memory of that moment and all that it contained remains inscribed within ones mind, the hard bright line that separates “before” and “after.”

Present at the scene of an accident, a suicide, or homicide I represent God’s love and the human love that waits just beyond the horizon of a tragic hour, familiar arms outstretched. it is my privilege to serve as a proxy for the ones who love and don’t yet know, to be with the bereaved on behalf of those too far away to hold and console.

And I am there as an embodied promise: love not just was but is. “Soon, soon, your friends and family will arrive, bringing food to share with shared grief and then you will hear your lost beloved’s name, sounding as it sounds only when spoken by a mouth familiar with its shape. You will be with the ones who can remember him—literally, re-member, with their stories bringing the lost one back into membership among those who knew and loved him. All the strangers— game wardens, paramedics, volunteers, and the chaplain—will clear the scene, once you are with the two or three or more who, when gathered, really can provide the sense of Presence that you need.

At the scene of a tragedy, I am not enough and I know it. I depend very heavily upon grace.

And here was grace! WinterChaplain

On Tuesday evening, there were the mourners, the first moment of their grieving having flowed into a year, two years, three years. Somehow my presence at the scene of their loss was not just recalled, but had been translated into a wider sense of shared community; ah yes! Kate Braestrup! I know her. She was with me on that day.

How good it was to see these lovely souls again; upright, smiling and willing to seek out the chaplain who had been there as the hard bright line was drawn, and by their presence invite me to step across it with them so we could be together here and now.

My Boy’s Band on Tour!

Peter is drumming all over the east coast this summer with his band Five of the Eyes. Those of you who are younger and hipper than I am can check it out!

The following is what Peter sent me:

“Hi mother dear. I love you.
Here’s the link to our website:

here are all the concerts we have in the coming months.
6/14 Old Port Fest , DISPATCH stage 2PM.
6/19 Boston [ PA's Lounge (GEPH, Titans of Industry, Robot Knights)
9PM $5 - 21+ ]
6/20 NYC Newburgh Festival [ STAGE 3 - 4:15 setup - 4:30-5:15 show - must be in town by 3:15 LATEST ]
7/15 Boston – Middle East Upstairs – (The Shills, 2 TBA)
7/16 NYC – Map Room (The Vigilance Committee, ITPOW)
7/17 Philly – Bullshooter’s (In The Presence Of Wolves, TBA)
7/18 Baltimore – RatScape – Deaf Scene practice space (Deaf Scene looking around for us)
7/20 Greensboro NC – New York Pizza (BlackSquares/WhiteIslands, Bare the Traveler (maybe), JaggerMouth (maybe))
7/21 – DAY OFF – laundry day
7/22 Asheville NC – The One Stop
6PM : (The Dr. Van, The Lowdown). Need poster.
Second show at 9PM: (JaggerMouth, 5OTE, Squidlord)
7/23 Charlotte NC – Waiting for JaggerMouth to secure a venue.
7/24 Savannah GA – The Wormhole (Star Period Star, Broken Glow)
7/25 Atlanta GA – Masquerade – HELL STAGE (Blazers, The Organ Machines, Surrogates)
7/26 Murfreesboro, TN – House show in the works, looks good.
7/27 Covington,KY -not confirmed (Expeditions, TBA)
7/28 Buffalo – INFRINGEMENT FESTIVAL – Mohawk Place (Dollar Diplomacy)
7/29 Toronto – Johnny Jackson’s (The Quiet Things, Fat As Fuck) – People Put Out Productions
8/14 Boston – Cantab (GEPH, DENT, TBA) $8
8/21 Burlington VT – Monkey House (TBA)
8/22 Montreal
8/28 Empire (Deaf Scene)

Tongue of Fire

Kate Braestrup
This is the Sermon I offered for Pentecost, Sunday, May 24th, 2015 at the Lincolnville Church. The readings were the story of the Tower of Babel, and ACTS 2:1-11

If you knew you’d be cast away on a desert island and could only take four books with you, what four books would you take?

I think it was Mark Twain who said he would bring four blank books—-which was my answer, too, for a long while. Now, I think I’d take three blank books—-as thick as I could find—-and a Bible. Not because I’m pious, (though I guess I am) but because then I’d have a whole lot of people (long-dead prophets) to argue with…

But I’m cheating, really, because the Bible isn’t a book, it’s an anthology; a library, even. It it, we find poetry, hagiography, myths and history, instructions for building an ark, rules and laws and folktales.

There is a particular genre of folktale known as the Just-So story, after Rudyard Kipling’s famous series—- “How did the elephant get its trunk?” and “why is the rhinoceros’ skin so wrinkly?”

The Just-So story is an answer to an implicit question. Usually it’s a question about a very ordinary phenomenon, something you don’t really think all that much about until a little kid pipes up: “Mama, why is the sky blue?”

If you hear a just-so story, you’ll be able to come up with the question that inspired it. Here, for example, is a Danish Folk Tale:

There was once a little boy by the name of Hans. As his parents died while he was very young, his grandmother, his Farmor, took care of him. Farmor was good to Hans, and they always had plenty to eat.
One day, his Farmor said, “Hans, I am old. I may not live long. You have always been a good boy, and therefore you shall have my only treasure.” She brought forth an old, and rather battered coffee mill which was always kept at the bottom of the kitchen cupboard. “This coffee mill will grind coffee, but it will also grind anything you wish for. If you say to it, ‘Grind a house, little mill,’ it will work away, and there the house will stand! Then you must say, ‘Tak, Tak, thank you little mill,’ and it will cease to grind.”
“Tak, tak!” Thank you Farmor!” Hans said. His Farmor died soon afterword. After the funeral, Hans packed the coffee mill into his knapsack and went off to see the world.
When he had walked a long distance, and needed something to eat, he placed the coffee mill on the grass by the side of the road and said, “Grind some bread and butter, little mill.” Very soon Hans had all that he needed. “Tak, tak, little mill!” Hans said, and the mill stopped.
The next day Hans came to a large seaport, and when he saw the many ships, he thought: I shall sail away to foreign lands! He boarded one of the ships and offered his service to the sailors. As it just happened that the captain needed a cabin boy. As soon as the ship was out of port, however, the sailors began to be really mean to Hans. They made him work very hard, and didn’t give him anything to eat. He bore the harsh treatment as well as he could, and of course, the coffee mill ground all the food he could eat. The sailors wondered how their cabin boy was managing to stay so fat and happy. One day one of them peeped through a hole in his cabin door and saw Hans with his coffee mill. “Grind me a sandwich!” Hans said, and the coffee mill ground him a sandwich.
‘Wow!” said the sailor, and rushed off to tell the others.
Now the sailors offered a large sum of money to Hans if he would sell his treasure. Hans refused, however, because the mill had been a gift from his Farmor. So the sailors seized the coffee mill, and they set Hans adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean! You will be happy to hear that Hans eventually drifted ashore on the island of St. Croix, and lived happily ever after, even without his coffee mill.

But back on the boat, the sailors needed some salt. “Grind me some salt!” they said, and the mill began its work. Soon they had enough.
“Stop!” they said… but the mill didn’t stop. The sailor who had peeped through the hole into the boy’s cabin hadn’t waited long enough to hear Hans say “Tak, tak, little mill,” so they didn’t know the formula. They kept shouting more and more desperately at the mill, but it kept making more and more salt until at last the ship was full of salt and sank under its weight. The mill went down to the bottom of the sea, where it kept grinding salt. It is down there still, grinding away…

What’s the question this story is meant to answer?
Right: Why is the sea salty?

Once you get the formula, you can recognize stories in the Bible that may well have begun as Just-So stories.

Which story might have begun as the answer to: “Mummy, why is their a rainbow in the sky after it rains?”
How about: “Papa, why are there two sexes?”

The story of the Tower of Babel may have begun as a Just So story too. Ancient Israel, like modern Israel, was both blessed and cursed by its geography. Trade routes between Eqypt to the South, and Assyria and Babylonia to the North wound through Israel, avoiding the desert to the West and, to the East, the depths of the Mediterranean, so Israel’s essentially agrarian and pastoralist economy was supplemented by the ancient equivalent of a hospitality industry, providing meals and lodging to merchants, traders and the occasional military expedition. Foreigners, in other words, were a common feature of life in Israel—-Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, Mesopotamians and Egyptians, Cappadocians, Phrygians and Pamphylians, all of whom spoke in their own native tongues.

So we can imagine a little Israelite child, perhaps the daughter of an innkeeper listening to the hubbub in the coffee shop one morning and asking “Mummy, why are there so many different languages?”

“Well, once upon a time the whole earth was of one language, and all the people spoke it. One day, they said to each other, let’s build a city and a tower, whose top reaches all the way to heaven…”

Folk stories have a way of evolving according to the interests and priorities of the storyteller and her listeners. In the original version of the Danish folktale about little Hans, the cruel sailors throw Hans overboard where, presumably, he drowns. Since the charm of any story is diminished, for me, when a child gets murdered, I changed it.

The story of the tower of Babel may have been changed when its tellers thought to incorporate a Babylonian tower temple sited north of the Marduk temple, which in Babylonian was called Bab-ilu (“Gate of God”), Hebrew form Babel, or Bavel. The similarity in pronunciation of Babel and balal (“to confuse”) led to the play on words in Genesis 11:9: “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.”

If you are an atheist, you may be grimly gratified to hear that the story of the Tower of Babel is “just” a folk tale. If you are a fundamentalist, you will hotly insist that no, there was an actual building project undertaken by the descendants of Noah for the purposes and with the materials described, and on a specific day at a specific time God halted construction. With all due respect, I think either runs the risk of missing the point —-I believe the story is in scripture because language is a problem. And it is especially a problem for a religion that has been complex and paradoxical in its theology, and intentionally evangelistic in its ambitions right from the start—-language a problem, that is, for Christianity.

The story of the Pentecost is the story of the un-doing of Babel: a devout Jews from any nation under heaven was able to hear of the mighty acts of God in his or her own language. Like the descendants of Noah, they were “confused” by the power of God. It was a miracle but, like so many of the Bible’s miracles, a sadly temporary one. The early Christians like later Christians and like Christians today must struggle with the problem of language—-and not just whether we are speaking English to one another, but whether the words that mean one thing when they leave our mouths are subtly or outrageously distorted by the time they reach the ears of our listeners. Distorted, that is, by history, or culture, or the mood of the crowd.

Danes back in the day could tell each other a story about a coffee mill that created riches, and they were okay with the part where child is thrown overboard. Danes in the old days weren’t as squeamish as we are—-thank God—-today, but it is generally considered okay to alter a folktale on the fly. While you can’t really edit the Bible, still in deference to the same modern squeamishness, a Christian eagerly describing the birth of the Son of a loving God to a potential convert nowadays might delicately skip over the part in Matthew where Herod murdered all the little boy babies in Palestine so that the prophecy in Jeremiah 31 might be fulfilled.

—-“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”[a]

And that’s before we even get to the problem of how a Priest accompanying the Spanish Conquistadors could explain the concept of the Good Shepherd to native Americans who not only did not speak Spanish, but had never seen a sheep?

Swords were involved.

But the earliest Christians, lacking the power to convert at the point of a sword, and who spoke various actual and spiritual languages, nonetheless made converts—-a lot of them. How did they do it?

The earliest Christians in the Roman Empire were known not by their spiritual consistency—-there were a lot of versions of Christ’s meaning and message floating around back then—- and not for their swordsmanship, but for their charity, the kindness they showed to one another and to strangers as well. This was the language that impressed people.

A second century Roman was so surprised by the behavior of the Christians in his vicinity that he described it in a letter to a friend: Christians, he said, make meals and share them with everyone, but especially the poor. Christians marry just like everyone else, and they beget children, but they don’t throw out their unwanted babies with the garbage—-a common practice at the time. In fact, Christians will sometimes be seen at the dump picking up unwanted children and taking them home!

This, ultimately, is the universal spiritual language isn’t it? Charity, compassion, kindness?

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was imprisoned and you visited me.

Here is the powerful language—-the tongue of fire—-Jesus spoke so beautifully and worked so hard to teach to his disciples. In our polyglot world as in theirs, deeds of charity, kindness and practical compassion are the universal logos, the Word, the language that speaks powerfully and eloquently of the truth and power of God.


My mother’s show of sculpture was reviewed in this week’s Portland Press Herald…
With her usual, dry humor, my 74 year old Mom celebrated her first bona fide art review with: “Well, I always said it was a mistake to bloom too early…”

My son Zach—whose nom de plume is to be W.Zach Griffith—had had his first book accepted by Skyhorse Press. It’s a terrific piece of journalism/history about the exploits of a band of Maine National Guardsmen who were sent to Abu Ghraib to clean up the mess in 2004, and the working title is MORTAR CAFE. I’ll keep you posted as to the date of publication.

And my son Peter’s new band is pretty spiffy too:

New Events!

My new book, ANCHOR AND FLARES will be in bookstores JULY 14th, 2015

Stay tuned for book tour information…
My son, W.Zach Griffith’s first book has been accepted for publication by Skyhorse Press—this PROUD MOM will keep you posted on developments there!
In the meantime, I’ll be preaching at various Maine churches, and you are welcome to attend any of these Services, including more at the Lincolnville Center Christian Church (LCCC), located right in the heart of bustling downtown Lincolnville, Maine!

(I love walking to the church in my cassock…very Father Brown-ish).

Sunday, February 15th LCCC—Sermon “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”9:15 a.m.

Sunday, March 22nd—United Church of Christ, Rangeley, Maine

Sunday, April 12th—First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Portland, Maine

Sunday, April 19th—LCCC 9:15 a.m.

Sunday, April 26th —Unitarian Universalist Churches in West Paris and Norway, Maine (back to back services)

Sunday, May 24th—LCCC 9:15 a.m.

Sunday, June 21st—LCCC 9:15 a.m.

May 30th, NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour is coming to Portland, Maine and I’ll be telling a story during the show (on stage, no notes, live audience—gulp!). I’ll try to post a link when tickets become available.

And check this out: My son Peter’s band has just released what I would’ve called a “record album…”

Upcoming Events

Worship Service: Sunday, October 12, 2014 May Memorial (Unitarian-Universalist) Church Dewitt, New York
Worship Service: Sunday, November 2nd, Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire

Minns Lecture Series, Boston, Mass. “Men, Women and Children: Loving One Another in a Complicated World”

Friday, Nov. 7, 7 pm
King’s Chapel, 58 Tremont Street, Boston

Saturday, November 8, 10 am
First Church, 66 Marlborough St. Boston

Saturday, November 9, 12:30 pm
First Church, 66 Marlborough St. Boston

Sunday, November 9 11 am
Concluding Sermon “Unkissing Judas”
Kings Chapel, 58 Tremont St. Boston

Free! more info and to register:

Friday, November 14 Samoset Resort APEMS Seminar “Beyond Death Notification” for first responders
Sermons in Lincolnville, Maine
At Lincolnville Center Christian Church
9:30 am

Six Sundays: September 28, October 26th, November 23rd, December 21, January 25, February 15

This is Hope and Faith

For those who didn’t know, Thursday the 25th of September was the national Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. When I told friends that I was slated to speak at the annual gathering sponsored by the Maine chapter of the group Parents of Murdered Children, the reaction was one of horrified sympathy. Surely this was going to be really, really depressing?

Actually, there is probably more hope and encouragement on offer for the average minister from this group than any I could imagine. This, after all, was a roomful of miracles: Fifty or sixty people of various ages, races and backgrounds who have been through (are still going through!) an unimaginable nightmare. And they somehow managed to get out of bed and, nicely dressed, went to a meeting where they smiled at one another, made friendly, supportive conversation and gave every evidence that they are somehow, in spite of everything, still upright, alive, and fulfilling the great commandment—”love one another.”

The chapter’s coordinator, survivor Arthur Jette, asked me to say a few things about memory, particularly the way in which the memory of how a loved one dies can intrude upon and obstruct happier memories.

For any mourner, memory is a tricky thing: Important…and intrusive. Excruciating…and sacred. I remember the day my husband died. I can give you a countdown of what he did and we did in the days, hours, moments before he died, because I go through it every year in April. Still, my children and I were lucky. Though too many American police officers are murdered every year, Drew wasn’t one of them. He died in an accident.

To most people, the announcement that I consider myself lucky because my husband was killed by a truck rather than a person sounds strange… but it makes perfect sense to the families of murder victims. They know: Murder is different. I could have discussed the difference in terms of trauma psychology, but I’m a minister.

It’s my job to study scripture, not only from the Christian tradition, but from others as well, and recently I compared the description of the death of the Buddha to that of the death of Jesus.

Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—lived a long time. He was an old guy, by the standards of his day, when one evening, at supper with his disciples, he ate a piece of pork that didn’t agree with him. He died of food poisoning, or at least, that was the diagnosis at the time. The whole story is about “yay-long,” like the shortest obituary in the local paper.

All four gospels in the New Testament, on the other hand, take pages and pages to describe Jesus’ death, giving a day-by-day, hour-by-hour and, at the end moment-by-moment account.

Why the difference? Jesus was murdered.

So if one who mourns a murdered family member or friend feels unable to “get past” the memory of how the loved one died, he or she is in good company. Jesus’ disciples couldn’t get past it either. Arguably, they created a whole religion incapable of getting past it, one that remains obsessively focused on the day and manner of the death. Given murder, this isn’t just natural, it’s good—up to a point. It is certainly human: We are driven by love to grieve a loss, and driven by murder to seek justice and find meaning, and to figure out what can be changed so that others won’t have to suffer what we have suffered. All these motives are present in the New Testament and in Christianity.

Still, there is a truth that bears repeating: Whether you’re Pontius Pilate, Heinrich Himmler or a perpetrator of domestic violence; if you commit a crime, you reveal much about yourself. If you murder, you reveal yourself to be a murderer. Being the victim of a crime, on the other hand, reveals nothing about you as a human being other than that you were, at that moment, vulnerable. The character and worth of the victim is not revealed (even a little!) by how he or she died, but only by how she lived.

This is why, I think, for all the attention paid in the Bible to the events of Jesus’ murder, Christians have traditionally set aside one day—just one, Good Friday—in which to remember his death. The rest of the time—364 days out of every year—we should remember his life: What he did and said, whom he fed, taught, comforted and healed throughout his mortal days, and remember all the ways he continues to live in love (his love, our love, God’s love) forever.

Jesus has been dead for 2,000 years. I hope it doesn’t have to be that long before each of the family members of beloved murder victims I met (and all the many more they represent) gets to have 364 days of good memories every year. This isn’t just a compassionate hope for them, by the way: It’s also a hope for myself. I am now the mother of a law enforcement officer, after all. Luck and only luck so far prevents me from being the Parent of a Murdered Child, and while I’m grateful for luck when it comes, I don’t trust it.

What I do trust is love. Being with the families of Maine’s murder victims let me hope and trust: If there is enough love to keep these folk alive, sane and still seeking justice and meaning, and still supporting each other every day, then there is more than enough love for any and all of us to see, know and remember that even those whose lives are cruelly taken from them are not defined by cruelty, not defined by murder. This is the good news: We are not defined by death but by lives lived in love—my love, your love, their love, our love, God’s love.

Speaking Dates and A New York Times Tbook

Sunday, June 29th
Waterford, Maine UCC Church Service
9:30 a.m.
After-Church talk
11:30 a.m.

Sunday, July 6th
St. George, Maine Summer Chapel Service
9:30 a.m.

Friday, July 11th
DownEast Spiritual Life Conference
Castine, Maine
9:30-11:30 a.m. “Hands to Work and Hearts to God”
“1:30-3:20 p.m. “Kicking and Screaming; How Tragedy and Grief Can Drag Us Closer to God”
(complete info:

Sunday, July 13th
N. Windham, Maine Union Church
10:00 a.m.

Moms and Dads: From the ‘Lives’ Columns of The New York Times Magazine

The New York Times has compiled a collection of essays on parenthood from the NYT Sunday Times Magazine’s “Lives” column, and it includes one I contributed after my son Zach joined the United States Marine Corps. The text is “bare bones” but the essays are funny, poignant and QUICK. Perfect for harried parents!

Featured TBook this month, available to Times subscribers:




And elsewhere. Here is are more presentable Times links:

Cancer and What I’m Hoping For

I am not—as far as I know anyway—a person with cancer. That could change—after all, I’m overdue for a colonoscopy, and who knows what it will reveal? But for now at least, I’m not a cancer patient.
And I’m not an oncologist or oncology nurse, nor a hospital chaplain. What I’m trying to say here is that I have no more experience with cancer than any average American: I’ve lost a few dear friends to the disease, and I fear it.
What I do have experience with is death.
I serve as the chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. It is my job to accompany game wardens when they respond to various calamities in Maine’s woods and waters, especially when these have resulted in death. I am on-scene to support the families during the search and recovery operation, to give notification when a fatality has been confirmed, and to help mourners through the initial rituals of bereavement, such as seeing, touching and saying farewell to the bodies of their loved ones.
These are mostly sudden, unexpected and relatively speedy deaths—accidents, drownings, suicides and homicides. However, they are not always experienced as sudden or swift by the survivors.
For instance, the initial call could be a request for wardens to find a missing person. Let’s say it’s a teen aged girl. We’ll call her Pepsi. Pepsi Cola. (Those of us who give instruction at the police academy have learned the hard way not to use real names!) Pepsi was last seen headed toward the river with her fishing rod, and nobody has seen her since.
When the game wardens arrive, they along with Pepsi’s parents will be hopeful.
Mr. and Ms. Cola will reasonably expect that their daughter is going to be found, well and uninjured and that they will all go back to normal life. They don’t even have to think of this as hoping for a miracle, since the statistics are with them: Most lost teenagers do get found.
But let’s say the night passes and Pepsi isn’t found. The Maine Warden Service chaplain—that’s me—is called. I arrive at the scene, hang out with the Colas, answer their questions. They tell me about their daughter’s interest in fishing, how she’s the co-captain of the soccer team, how she’s a happy, good kid… Maybe Pepsi fell and injured herself somehow? Mom and Dad are just hoping it’s not too serious, maybe a broken ankle or something that will heal before the play-offs…
Fast forward: Pepsi’s been missing for two days … The temperature has been below freezing…sleet and freezing rain fell during the night…When Pepsi was last seen, she was wearing jeans and a hoodie, not the kind of gear necessary for these conditions…her fishing rod is found, washed up downriver…the dive team is searching under water.

What should I, as Warden Service Chaplain, say to Pepsi’s parents?
“Oh, well, everyone is different so I can’t really say what Pepsi’s chances of survival are…”
“Miracles have been known to happen…”
Since I’m an ordained minister, I could invoke the power of prayer: ”With God, all things are possible…”
“The most important thing you can do is to keep hoping…”
I could quote Bernie Siegal: “Refusal to hope is nothing more than a decision to die.” (Bernie Siegel, M.D.)

I don’t do any of these things. Instead, the wardens and I tell Pepsi’s parents the truth: The situation is not good.
Mr. and Mrs. Cola do not give up hope… instead, they begin to change what they are hoping for. They begin to hope that Pepsi isn’t really such a good kid after all… maybe the State Police computer crimes unit will find evidence in Pepsi’s laptop of an on-line boyfriend she’s run away with, maybe she’s hitchhiking to Florida… they might even find themselves hoping that Pepsi has been kidnapped, if only because a kidnapper could be keeping her someplace, against her will but alive.
But the family also calls all the relatives and lets them know what’s going on. They call their church, and the pastor comes to the scene to comfort them.

Here’s the thing : If hope is such a good thing, why not stop searching? After all, if we don’t look, we can’t find. Without a body, Pepsi’s parents won’t have to plan a funeral, accept their neighbors’ offerings of casseroles and sympathy. They’ll be able to greet every morning for the next fifty years asking each other if this might just be the day their daughter walks through the door.

“Preparing for the worst doesn’t make the worst happen,” I say to Pepsi’s parents, just as I have said it to so many other spouses, friends and family members. If we’re wrong, or if a miracle happens, and Pepsi comes walking through that door warm, safe, undrowned and alive, great! Fabulous! But good stuff can be taken on the fly: It’s bad stuff that could use some preparation.
Another bitterly cold night goes by.
Pepsi’s parents don’t stop hoping at this point either. They begin to hope for an answer to the question: What happened? They hope that the search won’t drag on too long, that they won’t remain trapped in the unbearable twilight of uncompleted, half-imagined loss but will instead receive concrete evidence and permission to grieve.
Because Maine game wardens are kind as well as skilled, they will do their very best to find Pepsi’s body and return it to her family. Their best is nearly always good enough: Most of the time, the body is found and when it is, the families express not the anger and resentment of dashed hope, but fervent gratitude for the chance to love their child by burying and mourning her.

“Refusal to hope is nothing more than a decision to die.”
What I’ve just described gives you some idea of the perspective I bring to this talk. I’m going to see if I can draw some connections between what I know are two very different kinds of life crises: Sudden bereavement on the one hand, and being diagnosed with cancer on the other.
I do this with more confidence than I otherwise might, because I’ve had the opportunity to speak to groups of healthcare providers in various contexts—the Maine Medical Association, the University of Virginia medical school, meetings of hospital and hospice chaplains. The topic I am asked to speak about is “Giving Bad News.”
When the Maine College of Surgeons asked me to talk about this at their annual conference, I was taken aback. “Don’t surgeons know more about that than I do?” I asked.
Apparently, while every police officer in Maine is given at least some training in breaking bad news— it’s called “Death Notification,” and I teach the class at the warden school—most physicians are never given any formal preparation at all.
Even with training, telling people bad news is difficult. Human beings are empathetic: We feel pain when others feel pain. Nobody likes pain so it’s normal to try to avoid it. (The wardens are generally thrilled when I show up at a fatal, because it means they can get out of telling the family!)
Doctors, like cops, tend to feel responsible for outcomes, and death thus represents their own failure to rescue, heal or protect. Nobody likes to fail.

On the other hand, it is not acceptable for either cops or doctors to make suffering people suffer more, just to avoid their own discomfort.
So this is what I tell doctors:
First, everybody is going to die. You, me, everybody. Death is the one thing human beings are guaranteed to experience eventually—it’s always been true, it will always be true. Which sucks.
On the other hand, since death is a universal and ubiquitous experience, we cab be confident that human beings not only know how to cope with it but, given half a chance, they’ll make something meaningful out of it. That’s the human gift: We can make reality meaningful. But we can only do this if we’re allowed to know what our reality actually is.

When giving death notification, the rule of thumb is to be kind but quick and clear: “Mr. and Mrs. Pepsi, we have found your daughter’s body. She is dead. I’m so sorry.” Euphemisms like “passed over” or “passed on,” should be avoided because people under profound stress are easily confused.
How are Pepsi’s parents likely to react? Shock generally precedes grief. Vocal responses will initially signal resistance or disbelief rather than sorrow: “What? No! You’re kidding!” If standing, the mourner is very likely to sink down to the floor. She may cry, curse, flail around… all of this is normal, and need not be interrupted unless safety is an issue. I usually just go down to the floor beside them, make comforting noises and wait. I won’t start explaining anything at this stage because it won’t be retained. My body language is unhurried, confident, calm, patient, attentive. I consciously keep my arms open (not crossed) and my hands “soft” I offer physical contact, but stay alert for signs that it isn’t wanted.
This initial phase doesn’t take long—maybe twenty minutes. Then Mrs. Cola will sit up, or at least look up, look me in the eye and ask a rational question for which I shall give a practical answer. (It’s usually “where is she,” meaning, where is Pepsi’s body.) And we go forward from there.
Mr. and Mrs. Cola love their daughter. Grief and mourning are the form love takes when it has slammed into loss. I have neither the right nor—ultimately—the power to take away their pain.
What the wardens and I can do—what we do to the best of our ability—is add love.

When Jesus came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the man’s leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.

Jesus’ patient is described as a leper, but the term was used to describe people who suffered from any number of diseases of the skin, from eczema to erysipelas to systemic scleroderma.
So there’s nothing wrong with putting someone like my friend—I’ll call him Moxie— into the story. Forty-six years old, healthy as a horse, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink much, got plenty of fresh air and exercise, lived a blameless life devoted to public service… Picture Moxie, approaching Jesus in Matthew’s story, kneeling before him and saying “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

In a parking lot on a nice spring day, Moxie rolled up his sleeve to show me the red rash that covered his arm and hand and, he said, his whole body. It looked just like an allergic reaction. Being a Mom, I asked him whether he’d recently changed laundry detergents?
That wasn’t it.
On television, the doctors “run some tests” and have the bad news ready for the patient before the next commercial interruption: For Moxie, at least, it took four months of uncertainty and fuss, during which all the statistically more-common illnesses were ruled out and doctors could reasonably begin testing for the weird, rare diseases. Moxie turned out to have T-cell Lymphoma.

Lots of people—Moxie, Moxie’s wife and son, his mother and brother, his friends and his chaplain—prayed for Moxie. We all asked that Moxie be healed, by which we meant exactly what the leper in the story meant. We weren’t asking for a metaphor, or a spiritual transformation in which the body’s ills are rendered irrelevant. No, we wanted what the guy in the story wanted, what the guy in the story got. We wanted Moxie’s cancer to go away.

Moxie’s doctors also wanted Moxie’s cancer to go away, and what’s more, they had treatments from chemo to stem cell therapy that might make this happen. Moxie wasn’t a huge believer in religious miracles, but he was ready to try for a medical miracle, and to do all he could to help the doctors help him.
If you are a cancer patient you may have been told that the most important thing you can do in order to conquer cancer is to maintain a good attitude, keep fighting, keep hoping. When my step-daughter was in nursing school, this was emphasized by her teachers in no uncertain terms: Do not take away the patient’s hope.

When Jesus healed the woman who had leukemia, he told her that it was her faith that had made her whole. Faith healers tell people that believing is healing. When my friend Jamien had breast cancer, her alternative Chinese medicine guy told her essentially the same thing: That her physical health depended entirely on her spiritual health. And when Moxie was in the hospital in Boston, enduring what the physicians referred to as the Napalm of chemotherapy, he was encouraged by his doctors to cling to the conviction that if he just kept fighting, kept stubbornly hoping for a miracle, it could happen. At the very least, the miracle was more likely to happen if he hoped for it… if he stopped hoping, stopped fighting, stopped agreeing to yet more heroic treatment, then he was sure to die. Hope was his only hope.
“Refusal to hope is nothing more than a decision to die.”
Moxie died. Not because he stopped fighting, not because he was spiritually unworthy of health, but because he had a kind of cancer we can’t yet cure, and it killed him.

I don’t really need to make a plan for not having cancer. If my challenge is to figure out how handle a long and perfectly healthy life, well, I’ll just muddle through.
But let’s say I develop weird symptoms like my friend Moxie, have a bunch of tests and these are reported to my doctor, Dr. Merrill, who then has to give me the bad news.
Here’s what I want Doctor Merrill to say to me: Kate, you are in the early stages of a rare form of cancer. There is no cure, and the disease is virtually always fatal. I’m sorry.
Kate: What do you mean by virtually always fatal?
Dr. Merrill: The five year survival rate for this cancer is less than 1 per cent.

“At which point, the patient will freak out,” a medical student protested, when I suggested this.
Sure. Okay. Why not? If by “freaking out” you mean that I, the patient, will say “omigod omigod” roll around on the floor, shriek, curse, scream obscenities, wet my pants and shake my fists at heaven—-Yup.
I’m fully expecting to do all of the above. After all, that pretty much describes what I did when I was told that my first husband had just died.
But I am not still shrieking and flailing about that, so presumably next time, too, I’ll eventually pull myself together. And then Dr. Merrill can give me a hug and tell me how much he’s always enjoyed my pap smear jokes…
….and then I’ll ask some practical, rational questions.
Like: How much time do I have?
Practical, rational questions deserve practical, rational, truthful answers. If you can’t give me a precise answer, then give me a range. And give me the worst case scenario, two months rather than four. (That way, if I live three months, I’ll be able to gloat.)
The earlier my doctor tells me that I haven’t got much time to live, the more time I’ll actually have to do the things I care most about. Tell me that I’m going to die when I’ve still got two years, not two days in which to extract the great and only gift a death has to offer— a richer awareness of our living and a deeper love of those we live beside.
Here’s the thing: Moxie’s doctors did not make it clear to him that his chances of surviving more than a few years were virtually nil until he was so sick that his chances of surviving more than a few weeks were virtually nil.
What might he have done with his few years if he’d known that a cure wasn’t actually possible? Would he have spent it puking in an isolation ward in Boston, or would he have opted to spend it in Maine, with his dogs and his garden and his apple trees? I don’t know.
I don’t even know for sure which I would choose—suffering treatments that offer even the remotest chance of life… or accepting death, and getting as much good life lived before it comes to claim me? I’m a coward and I hate hospitals and I’m not afraid of death… but I do want to see my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. I’ve got more books to write, and adventures with my game wardens to have, and I’ve really been looking forward to becoming a cranky, wrinkly, eccentric old coot. So I’ll fight, I promise…but not necessarily courageously or “all the way to the end.” I promise to hope, but I reserve the right to change what I’m hoping for.
A long life… or maybe just a nice, hospice bed set by my windows so I can watch the squirrels harass each other and raid the bird feeders. Hope that my husband and children will sit around and tell me stories and make me laugh. Hope that the Colonel of the Warden Service will bring over his guitar and sing me the Ballad of the Maine Warden one more time… My daughter Woolie says she’ll knit me a shroud. Doesn’t that sound good?
I read recently that a study released by the New England Journal of Medicine found that those who received palliative care lived, on average, almost two months longer than those who received standard care and reported a higher quality of life through the final course of their illness. More and better life—there’s something to hope for, right?

As long time readers may recall, my grandson Drew sustained catastrophic injuries during his birth. When the doctors told his father the baby’s condition was hopeless, Zach asked them an excellent question: “If we can’t give my son a good life, can we give him a good death?”
Jesus gave life—good life—to his patients. Modern medicine does, too—more often and more skillfully and more miraculously than our ancient forebears could possibly have imagined.
There’s plenty of reason for plenty of hope. But not hoping isn’t what makes us die. Life is what makes us die: Death is still inevitable, and it still stings. So here’s the question I want us all (doctors too) to get good at asking:
“When life is no longer an option… what would a good death look like for you?”

Spirits Up!

Friday, July 11, 2014 Downeast Spiritual Life Conference at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. Complete information at

Human hands and brains co-evolved, and their relationship is integral to what it means to be human. In this workshop, the Rev. Kate Braestrup will combine intervals of thought-provoking discussion with simple creativity, both individual and group.  Together, participants will learn ways to enhance spiritual practice through creative handwork.  Participants are encouraged to bring their own small projects with them (e.g., knitting crocheting, embroidery, hooking).