Golden Wings for a Grieving Traveler

mothers-day

Mother’s Day is upon us. Like me, you might be missing your mom. There are also mothers experiencing the painfully unnatural grief of missing children. After all, we assume that someday we will bury our parents, but never anticipate having to grieve the death of a child.

Mother’s Day spent mourning a lost loved one can be an especially, treacherous emotional sea to navigate. Maybe though, your mother or child didn’t die, instead circumstances have somehow estranged you. Life can be complicated, but personally I believe in happy endings.

That’s why I’m a sap for sentimental movie plots like the traditional boy gets the girl or a stranded puppy finds their way home. The holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” always thrills me when a rather bumbling angel named Clarence finally gets his wings.

Although, I must admit I wasn’t thinking about the possibility of a happy ending on that awful afternoon almost eight years ago. I sat rigidly in my cramped seat on an airplane trying not to cry. As I gazed at the oblivious passengers, the business flyers looked weary, but other folks seemed animated traveling for pleasure and family excursions.

Family. That was my problem. My 78-year-old mother, Glenna Sprang, had died suddenly the day before. An accomplished organist, Mom played two church services on Sunday morning. Later that afternoon, pain from a kidney stone gone terribly wrong caused her to be rushed by ambulance to a Philadelphia hospital. By Wednesday afternoon, I stood helplessly at her bedside watching my mother breathe her last breath, just as she had been with me when I breathed my first.

Glenna Giesken Sprang

Glenna Giesken Sprang

I felt isolated by grief, as I traveled back to Ohio to be with family until her funeral. Being a Christian speaker by profession, my mother had left a written request that I “preach” her funeral, if I was able. I was honored by her last wish, but my heart was broken, and I had no idea how I was going to do it.

That’s when a forty-something flight attendant who I’ll call Dan, pulled his beverage cart next to my aisle seat. The seasoned steward shared the same reddish hair color that my four brothers and sister have. The color that caused them to be teased ruthlessly when we were kids.

At that very moment, an obnoxious traveler was mercilessly making fun of Dan’s hairstyle. I gave the flight attendant a sympathetic look, but the undaunted steward defiantly threw his head back while laughing profusely. For the first time in several days, I laughed, too. Suddenly, Dan looked deeply into my exhausted eyes and sounding concerned asked, “Are you going home?”

“My mom just died,” I blurted out. Instantly, I was embarrassed that I had burdened a stranger with my grief.

“It will get better,” Dan said encouragingly. He then shared the story of losing his own mother some years earlier promising me that time would ease my heartache.

It was a short flight, with the airline attendant being busy for the rest of the trip. Minutes before landing safely on the runway, Dan made his way back to my seat at the rear of the plane. Then he ceremoniously handed me a pin shaped like a pair of golden wings. “Now, you can say, you got your wings at the same time as your mother got hers,” he said with a boyish grin.

When I arrived home, I placed my “wings” on the vanity’s top in my bedroom. The following week, I fulfilled my mother’s last wish of preaching her funeral describing her courageous life with the Scripture, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” [2 Timothy 4:7]

Then I allowed myself to grieve. During those difficult months, every time I looked at the golden wings, I clung to Dan’s promise that time would lessen the pain and that someday my broken heart would begin to heal.

There’s another promise that also gave me great hope. It’s the one found in the thought-provoking movie released recently “I can only imagine.” Of course, I still miss Mom, but I’m no longer overwhelmed by earthly sadness, instead I’m excited about seeing her again someday in Heaven where she is now experiencing incomprehensible joy. Mom and me

If you are the one grieving inconsolably, hang on, time can be a great gift in healing grief. For me, it has gotten better, just as the flight attendant promised. In reality, I know that Dan was probably just a compassionate cabin steward, but to a brokenhearted traveler, he seemed like an angel in disguise.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy Award winning freelance journalist and Inspirational speaker. Her book, Seeds of Hope for Survivors, is available through her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com 

 

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An Obituary’s Message to Call your Mother

Mom, This one's for you!

Mom, This one’s for you!

Earlier this year, my local daily newspaper changed the placement of the obituaries moving them to page two. I’ve often wondered how many other newspaper readers are like me, keenly interested in the obituaries. I also question how my gradual transition from reading the comics as a teenager to devouring the death notices as a boomer occurred. Once, an elderly relative humorously confided that he read the obituaries right away to make sure he wasn’t among those listed. Of course, in case you miss one, you can simply go online and Google the person’s name and date of death. Often you can even post condolences to the family or send flowers if you like. Facebook can be another great way to be alerted to the passing of a friend or former co-worker when someone posts their obituary online. Living in a society that is in a constant state of flux geographically necessitates that we stay in touch electronically.

But what’s so important about an obituary anyway? In explanation, caring about people makes you realize what a vital part that death plays in the game of life. Commemorating those who have gone before us is an integral rite of passage, and being there for those left behind is of paramount importance. Yet, to be there, you have to be informed, thus the relevance of the obituary.

An obituary can tell you a lot about a deceased individual, even when you think you already know them. Then there are times, when you aren’t acquainted, but you are startled by the details of their death and human curiosity and compassion kick in. For instance, when someone young dies, even when they are a total stranger, most people probably lament this untimely passing in a deeper way. We sympathize, because the death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, and your heart aches for those suffering this loss.CassieCasket

There is death by suicide, too. An obituary doesn’t usually reveal this heartbreaking detail. However, sometimes you can read between the lines to decipher that for some reason an individual could no longer bear to be part of this world. Other tragic deaths include accidents caused by alcohol consumption or those drug-related, of which there are far too many lately. As with a violent murder, the facts are frequently disclosed in a related news story. Another heart grabber is when several members of a family die together.

No one is spared the pain of burying loved ones, that’s why it’s necessary to be there for those left behind. I learned this valuable lesson in my youth, when a teenage friend committed suicide, and I failed her dear mother who was like a second mother to me. In the midst of this crisis, I disappeared. I didn’t visit the funeral home or call, because I was terrified of dealing with death. It wasn’t death itself that frightened me, rather the fear of saying or doing something wrong, or of not being strong. My misconception was that I wouldn’t be missed, but I was.

Growing up through my own funeral home tour of duty I have come to realize that you remember the faces there, and you are acutely aware of the absence of those who don’t come. It’s a defining moment like serious illness, when you realize who your true friends are. After all, the Bible says we should, “…mourn with those who mourn.” When I do pay my last respects now, I no longer feel overwhelmed by the need to have eloquent words of comfort. I simply say how very sorry I am, and offer a hug, remembering how grateful I have been for those consoling embraces in days past.

I wish I could give Robert Downey Jr., my condolences and a big hug. Sadly, the famous actor lost his 80-year-old mother on Sept. 22, 2014. A few days later, he courageously posted a beautiful obituary that he had written about her on his official Facebook page. He candidly included that his mom’s broken career dreams were caused by alcoholism, something she successfully overcame. He even credits a 2004 phone call from her as the catalyst for his own sobriety today.

Obituaries like Downey Jr.s’ are a startling reminder to the living to appreciate our tragically flawed loved ones. He closes it with the poignant words, “If anyone out there has a mother, and she is not perfect, please call her and say you love her anyway…”

Oh, how I wish I could, but the only obituary I’ve ever written was my mother’s. Still, maybe it’s not too late for you to take the actor’s wise advice and call yours.

Robert Downey Jr.s Mom

 

Click on the photo of Robert Downey Jr.s’ mother, Elsie, to read his touching obituary.

 

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Advice for those Grieving this Christmas

Christmas Dining TableThe holidays are upon us and some folks don’t feel so merry. This is especially true for those who have lost a loved one recently. Grieving can make the glitter of the Christmas season grow particularly dim.

Admittedly, grief comes in stages. One milestone for me occurred late in the fall of 2011, when the remaining leaves on the trees were ablaze with breathtaking color. However, that Sunday afternoon the skies were dark and heavy with rain. The weather matched my downcast mood. When a rented moving truck pulled into my driveway, my heart sank. I inhaled deeply then waved to my stepsister, Cindy, and her husband, Mark. To me, it felt as if the Indianapolis couple were transporting the body of a loved one, instead of our parents’ old furniture.

Losing my mother, Glenna Sprang, suddenly in 2010 was devastating. There had been no warning or preparation. She was a Philadelphia organist who played two church services on the morning of October 10th. That same afternoon, pain from a kidney stone gone terribly wrong sent her to a Pennsylvania hospital where she died three days later.Mom and me

Mom was 78. Even though she had been in excellent health, I should have realized she wouldn’t live forever. Five months later on March 5, 2011, Neal Sprang, my 80-year-old stepfather of 35 years died. Theirs had been an age-old love story. Two hearts so intrinsically intertwined, that one couldn’t keep beating for long without the other.

My stepsister and her husband had made the difficult trip to our parents’ home in Philadelphia to retrieve the furniture that we had inherited. For me, there was my grandfather’s writing desk, a birds-eye maple vanity, and a mahogany table with six chairs. Long ago, Mom and “Dad” had purchased the dining room set from a church rummage sale.

That old table has seen many wonderful memories of Christmases past. Every holiday, formal china and the good silverware would be set on the linen tablecloth, which would be laden with my mother’s steaming homemade dishes. The iridescent flames of the candles decorating the centerpiece would reflect in the crystal chandelier. For hours, my siblings and I would gather around the table sharing stories and laughing solicitously at my stepfather’s corny jokes.  

For awhile, there was an eerie silence that greeted me each time I gazed at that Duncan Phyfe table that ended up in my dining room in central Ohio. Its presence reminded me of the permanence of my parents’ passing.

Then last December, I met Rev. Philip Chilcote who gave me some great advice on how to deal with my parents’ loss. “In a particular family, you might have five children….who lose a parent and that’s five totally different griefs,” explained Rev. Chilcote who is the chaplain at Wilson Hospice in Sidney, Ohio. He is also the bereavement coordinator for the organization who assists the families of hospice patients with their own grief issues.

In addition, sixty-year-old Chilcote is the pastor of Sidney’s First Christian Church. In his role as a minister he has walked alongside countless families devastated by the loss of a loved one. “Grief is a re-adaptation process meaning we have to learn to live our lives without somebody who has always been there,” said the hospice professional. “We have to learn to adapt to a different world. Not only is the world different, but we are different,” he said.

For grieving individuals creating new traditions and rituals is important. Some folks try to ignore the loss, but Chilcote believes that you should, “include the one who is gone in what you do.” For example, if you normally hang Christmas stockings, the expert who has led grief support groups for two decades, suggests that you should hang a stocking for the individual who died.

If the deceased family member “always had the chair at the end of the table,” Rev. Chilcote says that you could leave the chair empty, or choose someone to sit in their place. As for giving, if it was your tradition to purchase a $50.00 gift certificate for the late family member,  you could make a donation to a charity or ministry in their honor, or give to a neighbor in need.  

“People can buy a special candle and at the place at the table where they sat you can light the candle…and go around the table and have each person say what they meant to you,” suggests the seasoned grief counselor. “Tell funny stories about them. Most people who die, wouldn’t want you to be sad,” he added.

My parents would definitely not want the joyous season to be filled with mourning. They were both church choir directors who believed that Christmas wasn’t about presents and mistletoe, but rather about a baby born in a Bethlehem manger whose love lives forever.

That’s why I took Rev. Chilcote’s advice last Christmas and kept my stepfather’s place at the table empty. I placed a candle where my stepdad always sat, and lit it to honor him and my mother. My mother was always too busy serving to sit much, but I made sure there was an empty china coffee cup, since she always enjoyed her pie with a cup of hot coffee.

This past year, I tried to create new family memories around my parents’ beautiful dining room table, realizing that was why it had been entrusted to me. Memories that would make my mother clap her hands in delight, and my stepfather comment, “Very good,” a saying he used when something pleased him. I no longer feel sad when I look at the table, but rather grateful that I was given such a gift.

Yet if you are reading this and you are too depressed to partake in holiday festivities, know that it really will get better. You never stop missing your loved ones, but when we know Jesus, we know that there will be a great reunion someday soon. For now, in the words that my mother always signed her Christmas cards, I wish you, “Peace, Love, and Joy,” this holiday season. 

 Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy award winning freelance journalist and  speaker who is the author of the book, Seeds of Hope for Survivors. Visit her Website at  www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in the Sidney Daily News.

 

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