Reviving the wake: being present with those who mourn

CRW_0981On Saturday, Feb. 4, Charletta and I had just left a day-long church meeting when we got word from her father that their pastor, Mick Murray, had been killed in a car accident. Mick was pastor at the Kalona (Iowa) Mennonite Church where Charletta’s family has attended for 16 years.

Charletta and I decided to drive home to Iowa to be with her family that night. Not long after we arrived, Mick’s wife Julie died of her injuries. Charletta and her mother attended a tear-filled church service at Kalona Mennonite. Afterwards, we sat down to eat lunch with Gary and Sylvia. Afterwards we sat together in the living room for awhile. It wasn’t dramatic. It was just a space to be with one another. That evening, we drove back to Chicago.

CRW_0997This past Thursday, Feb. 9, I was sitting in my office at Christian Peacemaker Teams when my colleague walked up and told me that Claire Evans had passed away. Five weeks ago Claire was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Two weeks ago those of us in the CPT Chicago office gathered around her bed to say good bye as she moved to Lansing, Mich., to be with her sister and enter Hospice care. Now she is gone.

Claire and I worked on the same floor of our office in CPT Chicago where she coordinated all our delegations. When I came in in the morning, I’d walk past her desk. Claire was a fellow reader. She and I would compare notes on novels we’d read and make recommendations to each other. She also carried with her many stories of CPT’s journey over the last 13 years. She was also part of a small community that deeply shaped my practices around undoing racism through our weekly office meetings over nearly three and a half years. She was never afraid to offer a thoughtful challenge or noticing.

CRW_1004After we heard the news, those of us in the Chicago office gathered together in the CPT training center with a candle and Claire’s photo. We sang and prayed together. Others cried, but I found myself unable to. Somehow, my body resists even when I know I badly need to. This was only the latest of many such moments in the past few weeks as we sat with Claire. My struggle to cry left knotted and uneasy.

That evening I left for the weekend to be with my brother. He didn’t know Claire, so our time together only briefly touched on her death. Nonetheless, we spent nearly all our time together over the three days: walking, talking, running, cooking, eating, taking photos, gaming and playing with the dog. He and his housemates were a presence for me in the way Charletta and I tried to be for her parents. Without knowing it, they walked with me through my disquiet. And the knot has begun to unravel.

So perhaps we can learn something from the ancient tradition of the wake, in which mourners sit with one another long into the night to eat cake and tell stories and play games. More important than cards or flowers or even words, the greatest gift we can offer one another is simply our presence.


These photos are all from my walk last night at sunset with Jonathan, David and Tilde (the dog).

Comments (2)

  1. Sam

    you are in our thoughts and prayers. I honor your vulnerability and your time of loss.

    Your reflections on presence reminded me of this NY Times article on mourning in the digital age. It is good to gather in times of grief.

  2. Joseph P

    This post inspired me to look up an archive of a storytelling hour that I heard on NPR several months ago. I had been profoundly moved by the story of a Jewish lesbian comedienne (Judy Gold) about how the death of her father revived the purpose and meaning behind the rigid Jewish customs she had grown up with.

    I highly recommend listening to it if you can set aside 15 minutes. The link includes two other equally moving stories (one from Andrew Solomon and another from Al Sharpton). Judy Gold’s is in segment 2.

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