The Narcissism of our Times

Deb and I have a general distaste for pathology-based diagnoses, like narcissism, as well as almost all the other diagnoses that are so popular these days. We have watched as society has come to frequently identify with ADHD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, and various personality disorders. I hesitate to write this blog using this “N word” (narcissism) because it is so nasty. Narcissism suggests selfishness. But real narcissism is actually quite different from this simple understanding. There is a kind of selfishness that we see with narcissism, but to look deeper into what narcissism really means is important because it means much more than selfishness. In fact, it means the absence of self. Let me explain

Emotional development in early life

 Let’s start with how human life begins: in the womb. Think about it. When we were in utero, we didn’t have to breathe, much less do anything else. It must have been quite wonderful, if we say that in the general sense of the wonder. Then, during birth and for most of the first year we are hopefully properly cared for. Proper care for an infant is safety, comfort, and nurturance, about in that order. During this first year of life the only emotion that a human has is fear or the absence of fear. No joy, sorrow, or anger. Just fear. Why is that? To protect myself. I need to be afraid in order to be alive, and when I’m afraid as an infant, I do what infants do: cry. These cries are not for attention, at least for the most part. They are cries of felt danger. The “felt danger” could be that rumbling in the stomach (hunger), the dry sense in my mouth (thirst), or even simply being alone. I cry because I am scared.

The second year (perhaps later in the first year), things don’t change much although now I can walk and talk (a little). So, during this second year of life I feel the emotion of joy. Joy is the feeling of having something, whether that “something” is a doll, a blanket, or a hug from a parent. During this second year of life I learn to love things, like dolls and blankets and hugs, and this loving feels joyful. Then the big change occurs in childhood:

About age 2 or a bit later, I enter the “narcissistic time of life” or “natural narcissism.” This is a time where I love a whole lot more, lose a whole lot more, and don’t like it whatsoever. Think of it this way: during my first year of life I get mostly all of what I want because I don’t want much: just comfort, safety, and nurturance. Just a bottle, a hug, or a blanket. During the second year of life I want a few more things, but still I get most of what I want because I still don’t need much, I don’t want much and I get most of what I want and need. Not so when I turn about age two. Now, largely because I can walk, talk, run, and grab, my wants magnify by a magnitude of 100 or more. I simply want more. I want more ice cream. I want more toys. I want more hugs. I want, want, want. Fine. Wanting is fine. But what happens during the ages 2-5 is crucial: I don’t get most of what I want. Why is that? Because I want everything, certainly 100 times more than I wanted when I was an infant or a toddler. So, good parenting knows that the child who is 2-5 can’t have, and shouldn’t have all that he or she wants. So, good parenting says “no” 100 times to every “yes.” Consider how difficult this must be for the 3-year old. What’s wrong with the world? What’s wrong with my parents? I used to get pretty much everything I wanted and now I don’t get much of anything. It doesn’t occur to the young child that he or she wants so much more. So, the task of parenting of a 3-year old (or 2-5) is to limit, limit, limit. Not punish, punish, punish. Not give in, give in, give in. This no easy task for any parent because you hear things like I heard from Krissie when she was five having just come home from a store where she wanted everything and I bought her nothing: “I want a new Daddy.” This was her solution to not getting what she wanted. Seems reasonable if you consider that her previous daddy had given her most of what she wanted. Of course, that “previous daddy” was me. Must have been hard for Krissie.

This time of life 2-5 is the cause of adult narcissism. This same time of life is a time for “natural narcissism,” namely wanting everything and essentially being “selfish.” But we don’t use the term selfish for 3-year olds (hopefully) because 3-year olds should be selfish. They just shouldn’t get everything they want. In fact, they shouldn’t get most of what they want. This is where a lot of good loving parents go wrong: they do one of three things: give in too much, punish a child for wanting to much, or “explain why” the child can’t have everything s/he wants. Ideally, a parent simply allows the child to want, not get what s/he wants, puts up a fuss, still doesn’t get what s/he wants, and feel sad. To be angry at not getting everything you want is normal because anger is the central emotion that needs to be felt during these “natural narcissistic” years of 2-5. Anger is normal. But if a child is allowed to be angry…and not get what s/he wants…, that child will eventually become sad. Sadness is the most important emotion to learn, and it should be learned by the time the child reaches age five or six. The first year: fear; the second year: joy; the years 2-5: anger. Then for many years to follow, the school years, you learn to be sad. Most kids don’t reach sadness. They get stuck in fear, joy, or anger. What we then have is emotional immaturity.

Emotional immaturity

An interesting phenomenon that I often see in my office is what I have come to identify as “emotional immaturity.” Essentially, this means that an individual, whoever young or old, has not fully integrated the early emotions of fear, joy, and anger, and thus has not achieved the maturity of being able to be sad. Simply sad. This must sound rather odd: being sad is emotionally mature?  What? Is it good to be sad all the time? No, this is not what I am saying. Rather, I am suggesting quite clearly that sadness is the most mature of the four basic emotions. This does not mean that you are sad all the time, but it does mean that you are frequently sad. You are frequently sad because you have lost something, failed at something, or have been criticized in some way. These experiences happen every day to every person. Thus to be “emotionally mature” you have to be able to have something that you love, lose this something, feel sad about having lost this something, allow this sadness to run its course, finish feeling sad, and then love something else. This experience can take seconds or minutes. It rarely takes hours, but can take even longer for more significant losses. If I am disappointed because I spilled my coffee on myself, this disappointment, which is sadness, should last seconds, maybe a minute or more. If I lose a job opportunity that I was hoping for, the sadness associated with this loss may take minutes, or perhaps hours. If I lose a job that I have had for years, this sadness may take days or weeks. The death of my daughter has taken four months.

Emotionally immature people fail to move past the fear, joy, and anger that always occur during a loss. Thus, they fail to simply and profoundly feel sad about a loss. They remain afraid of dying (which is what an infant feels when s/he is hungry, wet, or alone); they remain joyful because they think they will have the something that they love forever; or they will remain angry because they have lost this something. It might make some sense that people can get stuck in fear and anger, but it must seem odd that people can get stuck in joy. Yes, this can happen. People get stuck in joy by pretending that they still have the something that they have lost. They pretend that everyone likes them, that they can do whatever they want, or that they can have whatever they want. People who are stuck in joy tend to live in a kind of a dream world often typified by imaginary dreams of being some kind of perfectly satisfied person in a perfect relationship, perfect job, or perfect place. Nothing wrong with imagining that one can have a satisfactory job in life, or even feeling the joy of such a thing. The difficulty is living that dream rather than the reality that there are true moments of joy and perfection in a moment but never forever. When people are stuck in the early life emotions of fear, joy, and anger, these emotions tend to dominate how they enter the world. They remain “narcissistic.”

Adult narcissism

Narcissism properly understood is not some kind of diagnosis. It is not something wrong. It is emotional immaturity. It is the failure to find sadness as the central ingredient in having a happy and satisfied life. Think of it this way: if I am expecting that I should have everything I want, I will experience fear (that I won’t have everything), joy (that I will have everything), or anger (that I didn’t get everything). This condition leaves the person in a constant state of fear, joy, or anger with one of these things dominating depending of where the individual got stuck in his/her early life. Thus, narcissism has three possible appearances depending on where people failed to integrate an emotion into their lives, or perhaps where they were indulged in emotional expression. If you look at yourself, you will find that you will be inclined to reside too much in fear, joy, or anger. We all do that in some way depending on how we were raised and what emotions were repressed or indulged. If I am raised in a family in which I feel danger, I will retain fear as the predominant emotion (instead of sadness), but I can also be raised in a family where fear was indulged, where everyone felt and talked about dangers all the time. Other families repress or indulge joy or anger. No one escapes these emotional traps because no one has a perfect infancy or childhood. There is no shame at being “emotionally immature” because we are all immature emotionally in some way. It is just good to know what your “go-to” emotion is so that you can work on moving beyond the early emotions into the mature emotion of sadness. In simple terms, the more you allow yourself to be sad, the less you will be angry or afraid. Yes, you will also be less joyful because you will give up living in a dream world where everything is perfect, but you will have great times of joy at really having something, not everything. The harder work for most people is to get beyond anger or fear that tend to dominate most people. This is what we have in our present culture: a dominance of fear and anger, but also a subtle dominance of imaginary joy.

The narcissism of our present culture

The phenomenon of President Trump is a phenomenon of narcissism. Yes, President Trump is most certainly narcissistic, but it is not helpful to “diagnose” him as having a narcissistic personality disorder despite how accurate this diagnosis actually is. No one is some exact copy of the so-called narcissistic personality disorder. Everyone has some “narcissism” in him/her, but this narcissism should be seen as emotional immaturity, not some kind of disease or diagnosis. I certainly cannot speak with any authority of Mr. Trump because I have never met him, nor do I know much about his family background to see how he has failed to mature emotionally. What we see on the surface, however, is the phenomenon of being dominated by fear, joy, and anger with little or no ability to feel sad. Trump displays great joy when he has what he wants or when someone likes him. He has frequently said of someone that they liked him including dictators like North Korea’s Un, Russia’s Putin, or the current right wing leaders of Hungary and Brazil. Simply put, he really enjoys it when someone likes him and it doesn’t seem to matter who that person is. I imagine him as a little boy saying, “He likes me! He likes me!” when someone likes him. And then, perhaps minutes or hours later, he is angry because someone doesn’t like him, or disagrees with him. It seems clear to me that underlying all of Trumps joy and anger is a good bit of fear, but this is just a psychological conjecture not based on any real evidence.

What Trump has brought out in the country, as narcissistic (emotionally immature) dictators all over the world have done, is a commonality with people who, themselves, are just as narcissistic (emotionally immature) as Trump is. Think of it this way: Trump says that everyone can be a billionaire, which of course is nonsense, but it is attractive to people who are “stuck in the joy of thinking they can have everything they want.” Then, just as quickly, people can be angry at someone or something that is “wrong” because they don’t like it. Most importantly, the underlying fear that is always at the heart of narcissism is abated by this artificial joy and undue anger. Trump’s message is this: “You can have everything you want. You just have to hate the people who are keeping you from having it.” This is the 3-year old still thinking that s/he can have it all.

So what is really happening in narcissism, this phenomenon that displays such a sense of entitlement and selfishness? Self-less-ness

The self-less-ness of narcissism

Deb and I wrote a chapter a few years ago in a book where we discussed the heart of narcissism, namely that on the surface it seems selfish but under the surface it is really self-less. Self-less is not the same as the more positive selfless, as in when one is generous, kind, and self-giving. Self-less is the lack of “self.” What we see in narcissistic people (which, to some degree or another, we all are) is the lack of a true sense of self. If I have a good sense of “self,” i.e. having a central “core self”, I will be able to be generous and kind, but more importantly, I will know how I feel, value how I feel, express how I feel, and ultimately communicate how I feel as well as have times knowing what I feel but being able to properly govern any expression of how I feel. This knowing, valuing, expressing, communicating, and governing feelings is the essence of the book Deb and I are finishing. Few people truly know how they feel so that they can express or choose not to express their feelings depending on the environment. By the way, when I use the term “feelings,” I am using the larger term that includes emotion but is not limited to emotions. The task of becoming a mature person includes emotional maturity, but it includes much more, like knowing how you feel physically, being able to think clearly without emotional intrusion, and ultimately to be able to do something meaningful in life. Maturity is not singularly emotional maturity, but if I am not emotionally mature, I most certainly will not be able to be cognitively mature or actively mature. I will think but my thoughts will not be meaningful. I will do things but I won’t do anything meaningful. So what can be done? Maturing beyond childhood narcissism.

Maturing beyond natural narcissism

What does this mean? It means becoming aware of how I feel, including how I feel emotionally, valuing how I feel, and having a place for all basic emotions: fear (of infancy), joy (of toddlerhood), anger (of preschool years), and ultimately sadness of the rest of life. The central ingredient in emotional maturity is to recognize what you feel and allow it to be there. Thus, if anger is your go-to emotion, allow yourself to be angry. Then you will eventually see that you are angry at something you lost and have not yet grieved. If your go-to emotion is joy, realize that joy comes from having something but all “somethings” are eventually lost, and then come to the knowledge that this joy is real but temporary. If your go-to-emotion is fear, realize that you were originally in an unsafe environment and have retained that infantile fear. Then, you will be able to see that the world is no longer unsafe: just a world where you will have something and lose something.

Much of emotional maturity has to do with people, namely with what other people say and do, or what they might say or do, or what they have said or done. If I am caught in the joy of attending to what one person says or does, I will be enthralled for the moment, but that moment will end. If I am caught in being angry with what someone has said or done, I will be angry, but need to realize that he or she just doesn’t like something. If I am caught in fear, I will worry about what this person might say or do to me. I need to come back to reality: he may like me; he may not like me. If he likes me, it will be joyful; if he doesn’t like me, it will be sad.

Further Reading

Brock and Johnson (2011). Narcissism as evil. In Evil explained, Vol. 1: definitions and development. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2020 forthcoming). I need to tell you how I feel. Madison, WI: Midlands Psychological associates

Lowen, A. (1983). Narcissism: denial of the true self. New York: Macmillan.

West, M. (2016). Into the darkest places: early relational trauma and borderline states of mind. London: Karnac.

Angels Unaware

When I began to write this blog, I misspelled the title of this blog with “Angers” instead of “Angels,” which is what I intended to write. This mistake seemed to fit with the essence of what I have to say about “angels,” not “angers.” It makes me wonder if anger and angels are opposites that are sometimes mistaken for each other….

The quote comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews (13.2) in which the author suggests that gifts are to be given generously because the recipient of such a gift might be someone special. The exact quote is, “Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This verse follows the first verse in the chapter where the author suggests that we love the people we already know, now adding that it might be good to love people that we don’t know. It is interesting that the book of Hebrews is the only biblical written by an anonymous author.

Deb and I have not so much been the givers of hospitality to strangers, but having been the recipients of hospitality as strangers, perhaps to “angels unaware.” These “angels” are yet in our minds and hearts, perhaps forever, but certainly over the past three months, months that have been ones of grieving, sharing grief, recovering from grief, and certainly not entirely finishing grief over the loss of our daughter, Krissie who died on August 21st of this year. Allow me to tell you of some of these “angels.” I must admit I am unsure of the order of these appearances, but perhaps there is no “order” to such things that are heavenly sent.

Deb and I, “low boundary” (P people for those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs) as we are, took a trip “west” a few weeks ago. We told our friends that we were going “west,” which usually led to “where,” to which we usually responded in repetition, “West.” Again, some people found it necessary to ask, “West, where?” to which we responded again with “West.” Yes, we wanted to go “west” but had no idea of “where west” or how far west. We weren’t entirely sure we were going west, but had concluded that we would travel on one of our favorite roads, U.S. Highway 2 that runs just south of the Canada border crossing various states along the way. We had wanted to visit several spots, one or two in particular and started in northern Minnesota.

It was in this very special spot near Bemidji, MN where we had perhaps the richest “angel experience.” Just south of Bemidji you can visit a state park that includes the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This is quite fun because the Great River actually starts with a one foot waterfall that is about 20 feet across, so you can “walk across the Mississippi River” if you want to do so. Deb and I spent some delightful time at the headwaters, then headed back to park station to check for books and such and while heading out towards the car Deb said “I am not done, let’s go back and cross the waters”. So, we did, and again, it was great. We then decided to talk a short walk on one of the trails which, of course, in the autumn was rick in scent and color. As we neared the path to the waters. one of us, we don’t know which, said out loud what the other was obviously thinking and feeling – this would be a wonderful place to “let some of Krissie go”. It wasn’t even an agreement, it was more of a spontaneous spiritual discovery, and so I went back to the car to get some of Krissie’s cremains. As I came back to the headwaters, Deb greeted me and said she had found just the place. Whether due to our spontaneity or by God’s design for us, when we got to the headwaters with Krissie in hand, there was the angel unaware. We were unaware that she was an angel and I doubt she knew that she was an angel. Deb looked around briefly for someone who might be willing to take some picture and spotted a woman who was just standing near the pool and went up to her and inquired “might I ask a favor? Would you take a picture of us, our daughter died and…” before Deb could finish her explanation of intent, the woman put her hands to her heart, began crying and then fully embraced Deb with a lingering hug. Then with me beside her, she looked at both of us and exclaimed “I am so sorry for your great loss”. “Thank you for asking me, it is such a privilege to do this with you”. She took Deb’s phone and we waded into the waters holding hands.  We each let Krissie go and then still hand in hand, we both let some of her go simultaneously.  We cried and hugged in the water, in fact forgetting that an angel was there for us.  When we came back out of the water, this picture-taking, hug-giving, compassionate angel handed back our phone and again, said “thank for this honor to be a part of your daughter’s journey”. We were hugged again by this picture-taking, hug-giving, compassionate angel and departed having been the recipient of this angel unawares. We know not her name, her face, nor her station in life. Perhaps she has a heavenly station.

Deb and I had a somewhat similar encounter when we were hiking on a trail not far from our “up north” cabin, a  hike that we had many times  taken with Krissie and her children over the many years we had the pleasure of Krissie and her children at the  cabin. Again, we were scattering some of Krissie over a much larger waterfall, this time in northern Wisconsin. After we scattered Krissie, a young woman, observing our embraces inquired if it would be too much of an intrusion if she took our picture for us, commenting on our tenderness. Again, Deb engaged her with appreciation and began to explain “Yes, please, that would mean more than you can know, we just let some of our daughter’s ashes go…”  the words were barely out of her mouth before that young woman, Erica, immediately spoke to her friend about 15 feet away, “Ashely, come, we need to pray!” Ashley didn’t even blink an eye, came right up and followed Erica’s lead, forming a foursome of hand holding. These two women, probably close to Krissie’s age, prayed for us and for Krissie and all who loved and knew her. Again, we don’t know much about these two praying angels, but we know they ministered to us in ways unfathomable.  Ashely and Erica, along with the woman at the headwaters will forever be in our hearts.

I was walking out of my office a few weeks ago, walking a bit slower now, and was nearly at the door of the lobby that enters the stairway to the outside of the office building. As I walked by, a friendly older woman looked up at me, smiled, and wished me a good evening.” That small gesture somehow affected me emotionally as I started to walk downstairs, but then I found that I needed to return to the third floor and “finish” this encounter. So I did just that, walked upstairs, opened the lobby door and said to this unknown woman, “May I just say, ‘thank you’ for your kind gesture.’ My daughter recently died and…,” and just as before, this woman previously (and since then) unknown to me, stood up and asked if she could hug me, and said, as so many other angels have said, “I’m so sorry.” We looked at each other’s eyes, both of us misty, and said nothing else.” I wished her a good day.

There have been so many of these brief angel moments, most of them similar with the hand-to-heart, gasp of “I am so sorry” and the must-hug response. Deb had several of them in her favorite coffee haunts: Starbucks.  First, just days after Krissie died she was in line in a store not her usual, and the barista asked how her day was going. Deb, still so distraught but not wanting to explain just said “hard day”.  The barista paused, looked at her and asked, are you okay? Deb hesitantly began “my daughter died a few days ago….” Then somewhat to Deb’s surprise the lady was gone! It was but seconds before Deb realized she had walked around the counter and was putting her arms around her. In hindsight, Deb seems to think that the barista floated over the counter for it was so immediate.  Again, about a month ago Deb was in her favorite Starbucks close to our Monona office and saw one of the baristas she had not seen for a while and began chatting and learned that the barista had recently been appointed manager. As the short conversation ensured, Blaire, knowing Deb travels a bit, asked if she had been anywhere, or if anything special had been happening in her life.  Deb told her about Krissie having died a couple of months earlier and that was all it took. Blaire asked Deb if she could come around the counter and hug her. Yes indeed, you may, yes indeed.

This very morning in church, I had two male friends come up to me, ask genuinely how I was, both hugging me, one kissing me on the cheek.” A Sunday morning three months ago, just after Krissie’s death, I happened to be in church on a day I was scheduled to preach but was replaced by the friend who kissed me today. He spoke that day that he was pleasantly surprised to see me in church. I felt moved, bowed my head, and without any preparation was surrounded by no less than six or seven men who put their hands on me as David said a few words in my behalf from the pulpit. Angels aware, I guess.

Other angels aware came in the form of emails, cards, letters, and texts, but even there, there might have some who were “unaware” as occasionally, Deb or I would say to the other, “Who is this Kenny who sends his condolences” when we opened a card together. We don’t know Kenny.  He obviously knows us, as all angels know us all.

Thanks to all, aware and unaware.

Sharing Grief

You might know that my daughter, Krissie, died just a few weeks ago. Understandably, this event has had a rather profound effect on me, as well as others who knew Krissie, both family and friends. The effect on me, and of course on others, has been one of grief. These past six weeks has been extraordinary as I have been grieving…and sharing grief with others.

The blog I published just yesterday was on the I-You-Me theory I have discovered over the recent years, namely how people of different natures have different ways of establishing and maintaining relationships. Simply put, I find that there are three predominant ways that people “relate” one another, namely with what I have called “I-first” people, “You-first” people, and “We-first” people. (There are also some subsets of these basic three kinds of relating discussed in the previous blog.) I-first people begin a relationship on what they feel, think, and do; and then they tend to make statements about themselves. You-first people begin a relationship with what the other person thinks, feels, or does; and then they tend to ask questions of the other person. We-first people tend to wait until something happens in the relationship, whether one of words or actions as they look the find what they call a “connection” with the other person. I have admitted that I am an I-first person.

Sadness and Grieving

You may be aware that Deb and I wrote a book entitled The Positive Power of Sadness not long ago, which is a rendering of what we have come to believe is the most important, and the most love-based emotion in the human experience, namely sadness. We have come to believe that this love-based emotion comes about singularly when there has been a loss, specifically a loss of something that the person has loved. As we note in our book this loss can be of person, property, or idea. While most people think that the loss of a person is the most profound loss, people can feel just as much sadness when they lose property or an idea does not work as they hoped that it would. Deb and I continue to assist every one of our patients with facing the losses that they have experienced in life, and in so doing avoid the tendency to fall into the emotions of fear and anger or the condition of depression. So we know quite a bit about sadness, and frankly speaking, are pretty good at feeling sadness instead of anger and fear. Anger, by the way is the emotion that occurs when I have lost something in the past, and fear is the emotion that occurs when I consider that I might lose something in the future.

Our ongoing journey of grief

This has been a remarkable journey indeed, and it has been particularly remarkable one for me because I am the I-first person noted above and in my previous blog. Recall that I-first people tend to establish and maintain relationships with statements, usually statements about what they think, feel, or do. So, during these past six weeks I have done just that and have found something quite remarkable, and seemingly quite memorable. The remarkable thing about these weeks of grieving is how I have felt the value of the relationships I have established, mostly built upon people’s kindness, generosity, and selflessness as they have shared my grief, and very often Deb’s and my shared grief. I think I have found what We-first people seek all the time, namely the connection that two (or more) people can have when one person shares something with another person. In the case of this past few weeks, the sharing has been of our grief, but we have also had times of sharing joys with many people. This “connection” that We-people seem to know so much about has found its way into my soul. I am a changed person as a result. Let me tell you of some of the encounters over these past weeks, almost all of them in regards to someone hearing, feeling, or listening to me (us) regarding our loss:

  • The person at the counter at Starbucks, which is Deb’s most preferred brief hangout when she seeks her caffeine addiction. Deb happened to mention that she was “coping” when the barista simply asked, “How are you?” This led to this woman coming around the counter, hugging Deb and crying with but what has become the most treasured words, “Oh, I am so sorry.” Just sorry. Nothing more.
  • Many more of these encounters. Like the time, now about 3 weeks ago in my Madison office, after my first day back at work. It was the end of the day and I just locked my door and was walking towards the stairs when a pleasant older woman sitting in the waiting room brimmed a most pleasant smile and wished me a good night. I walked hallway down the stairs and then found I was compelled to return to the third floor. I did so, and said to the woman that I particularly appreciated her smile and greeting because the recent days had been hard as my daughter had died. She immediately got out of her chair, and asked if she could hug me. “Certainly,” I said.
  • The first day back at church, actually on the Sunday after Krissie had died when I was supposed to preach. The person who filled in for me that day mentioned that he was a bit surprised to see me there and mentioned my loss. Immediately, several people (all men, I believe), gathered around me as I found myself in tears.
  • Deb and I traveled “west” not knowing where we might go beyond “west” but we knew that we wanted to get to the source of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. We did what all people do in this sacred place: walked across the Mississippi River. We went back to the car after an hour or so at these waters, but were somehow compelled to return once more to this spot where the great river begins. Deb asked a young lady if she would be so kind to take our picture, and then noted that Krissie had died and we were scattering some of Krissie’s ashes at the source of the Mississippi. She did what so many people of her nature do at such times: her hand went immediately to her chest, she begin crying, and then hugged us. After the pictures she took of us scattering, crying, and the like, she said it had “been a great honor” to be of service.
  • Another such chance encounter happened closer to our cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin. We were on a trek to a falls that Krissie and her kids had taken with us a couple of times. Deb again happened to encounter a woman who asked how we were only to hear of our loss. Without missing a second, she turned to her friend and said, “Ashley, come over here, we’re going to pray.” Then she proceeded to hug us, together with her friend Ashley, and pray for us. Don’t know if I will ever see her again, but she is now is “connected” forever.
  • Many more such encounters with “strangers no more” while their names are not in my vocabulary.
  • Many moments of sharing with Krissie’s friends, particularly at the celebration of life in Bloomington where she lives.
  • I think I have received no less than 100 unsolicited hugs over these past weeks, maybe another 100 emails and more cards and letters. Each of them has been meaningful and helpful.
  • Of course, Deb and I have been “connected” all the more with each of us taking turns crying and holding one another.
  • Among other things remarkable is the fact that I have hugged my sun-in-law, Lamont, perhaps 50 times over these weeks, about 49 times more than I have ever hugged him.

Sharing Grief

It has been enlightening to have had these many experiences of connection, most with strangers, some with friends, and of course some with family. I am a changed person. Yet grieving, yet recovering. I am indebted to these many people, none of them true strangers, for their kindness. The experience has taught me, as I seem to continually be taught by many experiences in life, that there is value in shared grief. I say so to people, like a friend this very morning as we were having a cup of coffee together and heard from him how he “couldn’t imagine how it would be to lose a child” as his eyes welled up. I told him, as I told everyone who shared my grief, that it was helpful to be loved by his sharing this grief with me. I’m not sure that many people truly understand how grief is meant to be shared and how profitable it is to the grieved as well as consoler. It seems that people who are able and willing to this simple task of love have a good sense of who they are and hence can care, if for a moment, more about me than they do about themselves. I look to be more gracious in such things.

Just one brief note regarding the sharing of grief: some people are unable to actually share grief with others. This is because they have not finished their own grief. So when someone with unfinished grief encounters someone grieving, there is a mixture of feelings including a desire to avoid grief altogether and a kind of jealousy that the other person is grieving if place of the person being asked to share the grief. There is no shame in this inability to share grief, but it is impossible for such a person to genuinely love someone else in the other person’s grief when their grief is yet so unresolved.

I Walk A Little Slower Now

I walk a little slower now

My gate not up to speed

I step and step, but then I bow

My back like bread to knead


I stumble on a step or two

But find I cannot bear

This burden but for just a few

Seconds as I stare


I stare, I stare, I stare once more

As if I could but see

My daughter on another shore

Somewhere ahead of me.


I stare, I look, I carefully inspect

That shore I think I see

I look, I think, I feel and yet respect

For what must certainly be


I stare, I look, I think, I feel

My hope for this last claim.

But it’s enough for me to steal

A glance from God’s domain

Ron Johnson